A Review of Vladimir Nabokov’s
Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 2012
Edited by Thomas Karshan
A novelist, short-story writer, memoirist, critic, playwright, translator, biographer, correspondent, and poet, Vladimir Nabokov was one of the twentieth century’s most wholly accomplished writers. His contributions to nearly all of his chosen forms were both far reaching and profound, and almost no genre that he touched remained unchanged by his brilliant hand. Lolita and Pale Fire forever altered what could be done with the novel; Speak, Memory stands as the consummate literary autobiography; his literal translation of and notes to Alexander Pushkin’s verse-novel, Eugene Onegin, are a towering monument of scholarship and a singular (if controversial) contribution to the art of translation; his interviews and essays and lectures present one of literature’s most penetrating minds and voices; and his collected correspondence with critic Edmund Wilson forms one of the most moving and heartbreaking portraits of friendship ever documented. In nearly every genre, Nabokov was sui generis.
As with his great contemporary (and perhaps only peer), Jorge Luis Borges, Nabokov’s first love was poetry, and as was the case with Borges, it was in this one elemental genre that Nabokov succeeded the least. Edited and annotated by Thomas Karshan, Nabokov’s new Selected Poems collects his most interesting and representative specimens—less than one hundred out of literally thousands of poems—and presents them to the curious reader like a special drawer of Nabokov’s pinned and labeled butterflies. Or, perhaps, like a patient etherized upon a table.
Encompassing Nabokov’s 1970 collection Poems and Problems (minus the chess problems, regrettably), Selected Poems also collects several dozen previously untranslated Russian poems from as early as 1914, when Nabokov was fifteen, as well as nine previously uncollected English poems from as early as 1922, when Nabokov was at Cambridge. Nabokov’s son Dmitri translates the Russian poems that weren’t already translated by Nabokov himself, and Karshan provides an extremely well informed and mostly lucid introduction to the volume, along with just-shy-of-authoritative bibliographical and compositional notes for each poem, generously including Nabokov’s own notes and comments and letter-excerpts whenever available.
The collection begins with the 1914 poem “Music,” which describes a fountain surrounded by the attentive presence of hovering dragonflies and evokes the renewal of souls in a shimmering image of artistic purity. Perhaps recalling the soul-encircled fountain at the end of the Divine Comedy, this early piece is in many ways as good as Nabokov’s poetry gets, creating a delicately balanced image of diaphanous clarity that builds to a kind of epiphany about the nature of artistic creation:
With its delicate plashing the fountain
has dissolved the sinister shade—
the dragonflies’ counterpoint mounting
were sparse echoes now-sparkling souls made.
Many of Nabokov’s poems feature an artist such as himself reflecting upon the creative process, and so the poems end up not as an unconnected series of singular inventions (the way most of his novels do), but as interior snapshots of the artist’s thoughts and feelings and experiences. Occasionally the artist-figure in the poems is an altered or ironic or “impersonal” version of their creator, but as a whole we’re meant to feel Nabokov’s own reflections upon whatever image or memory or narrative he conjures up for us in each poem. This surprisingly naive approach places Nabokov’s poetic mode firmly in the Romanticism of the previous century, with many poems reading like nostalgic evocations of Wordsworth or Coleridge or Keats.
The Gift, for a detailed view of his poetic ideas and tastes among his Russian contemporaries) and only grudgingly admired the talent (but not the innovation) of Pasternak. Likewise in English, he was an admirer of the Georgian Poets, whose forms and modes were a starkly conservative contrast to the newly emerging inventions of Eliot and Pound, both of whom Nabokov despised and ceaselessly derided throughout his life. Fascinatingly, the magic High Modernist year of 1922 produced both Ulysses, which Nabokov revered as perhaps the greatest of all English-language novels, and The Waste Land, which Nabokov thought ludicrous, and this divergence in taste tellingly marks Nabokov’s own artistic destiny. Within a few years, he largely set aside poetry and focused his main efforts on novel-writing, which he would pursue with a mind-bending boldness and a curiosity that was entirely lacking in his poetry.
His poems thus stand as tiny windows into the mind of a great artist in creative or personal or historical reflection, and even though few of them are terrifically remarkable in and of themselves, they offer delicious glimpses of a man whose persona is often as rich a presence to his readers as are his works themselves. To the devoted Nabokovian, these glimpses add vivid texture to the life and inner self found in his memoir, letters, interviews, and lectures. One of the more significant early poems, “The University Poem,” is a thirty-five page verse novella inspired in form and content by Eugene Onegin, and in it Nabokov narrates a languid and melancholy first-person account of a young Russian exile’s experiences at Cambridge. Not exactly the dilettante/dandy of Eugene Onegin (and not exactly Nabokov, either), the narrator is a listless rememberer whose fatalism colors a necessarily short-lived love affair, with the poem subtly reflecting on the narrator’s and author’s temporary sense of life disconnected from their original country and language.
Intensifying this old-fashioned reflections-of-the-poet approach, Dmitri Nabokov’s translations employ all manner of archaisms and even impose forced rhymes in order to mimic the originals (a technique at complete odds with his father’s iron-fisted rules for translation). The poems translated by Nabokov himself, as well as those originally written in English, are far more vigorously fashioned and interesting, even if their conservative style is even less formally compelling than his fervent Russian poetry. While most of the poems that he wrote in English were New Yorker-style light verse, they’re funny and lively and occasionally mysterious and moving, especially “The Ballad of Longwood Glen,” which details a family man’s apotheotic disappearance into the sky and perhaps prefigures the willed self-erasure found in Nabokov’s final, uncompleted novel, The Original of Laura.
Selected Poems is essentially a curio that barely fills 150 pages. Rather than deprecate his staid poetic practices, however, consider how Nabokov’s early mastery of prosody led him to write some of the most poetic prose in our language, as well as in his own. Employing all the subtleties of poetry in his novels, he innovated and heightened the novel form in a way that’s perhaps only comparable to James Joyce, who wasn’t even a good poet. Indeed, in a post-Ulysses world, the novel has taken the place of the epic poem, and Nabokov’s genius contributed to that sea-change profoundly. If his poetry merely ended up serving as practice for his prose, we can read this selection from Nabokov’s thousands of practice poems as a dress rehearsal for the masterpieces that endure.