Zinaida Gippius (1897) and Marianne Moore (1948, Carl Van Vechten)
Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, and I exchange letters about translation, poetry, and life on a daily basis — sometimes a dozen a day. Our correspondence is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Last week Robert sent us a quatrain by Marianne Moore titled “I May, I Might, I Must,” and described it as “perfect, in its quiet way”:
If you will tell me why the fen
appears impassable, I then
will tell you why I think that I
can get across it if I try.
I responded by saying, “this is perfect,” and continued: “I especially admire the ‘that’ in the penultimate line, which throws a mountain of emphasis on ‘I’ at the line break. That is the key word, the small yet lofty standard borne by the individual. But then, each of the monosyllables in the quatrain (there are so many!) is a stand-in for the individual, and together they march like an army across the long ‘impassable,’ overwhelming it.”
The poem dates back to 1909, and Moore republished it in 1959. In Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority (1995), Christian Miller writes that it “declare[s] an ability and a stretching after power that have great resonance for a poet who has, throughout her professional life, surmounted the barriers of tokenism and condescension.” The poem itself, and this description of it, brought to mind the equally defiant Zinaida Gippius, whose work I’ve featured here twice before. One Gippius poem in particular seemed to resonate especially well with Moore’s quatrain. Here is her “Difficulties,” in my translation:
Why go back to simplicity?
All right, let’s say I know…
Yet some cannot go back. Like me,
they’ve just one way to go.
I struggle through the thorny bush —
a harsh and wounding track…
I may well crash before I glimpse
the new simplicity —
but there’s no turning back.
(I should note that this translation traveled its own thorny path of revisions, with Robert’s indispensable assistance!) Discussing Gippius’s search for this “new simplicity” — which she calls “second simplicity” (“вторая простота”) in the original — the scholar Aleksandr Lavrov writes: “The simplicity that Gippius sought was not primordial, elemental simplicity, but rather the overcoming of difficulty, the result of passing through difficulty.” Many poets have fought their way through to this “second simplicity” late in their careers; I think of Auden in English and Pasternak in Russian, but also of the French poet Yves Bonnefoy, whose 2011 English-language collection — selected, translated, and introduced by Hoyt Rogers — is titled Second Simplicity: New Poetry and Prose, 1991-2011.
К простоте возвращаться — зачем?
Зачем — я знаю, положим.
Но дано возвращаться не всем.
Такие, как я, не можем.
Сквозь колючий кустарник иду,
Он цепок, мне не пробиться…
Но пускай упаду,
До второй простоты не дойду,
Назад — нельзя возвратиться.