For me, getting to know a little something about Pushkin has turned out to be a voyage of late-in-life learning. The quest began in San Francisco on a Monday afternoon in the North Beach District (Little Italy) in a tiny tea shop named “Serendipi Tea.” My college philosophy professor Doctor Green and I were drinking tea in this little shop because the professor liked its euphonious name. Doctor Green informed me that the tea we were sipping; from flowered ceramic demi-tasse cups, was Alexander Pushkin’s own personal blend of chai. It was that bit of information that caused my secret disappointment that we were not sipping our tea from Russian style tea glasses.
It was also Professor Green’s vocalizing the name Pushkin that sparked my interested curiosity. I had been marginally curious and interested in Pushkin since my high school literature classes and maybe before. Yet it seems that, in the West, Pushkin remains somewhat on the margins of translated verse. However native tongue speakers write and talk effusively of his originality, his depth and his broad appeal. And, since high school I have come to think of him as a Russian blend of Shakespeare and Elizabeth Bishop, bizarre as that may seem. The Russians so often compare him to Mozart, and this is perhaps the nearest we can come to a simple comparison. I believe that this contrast between the Pushkin legacy at home and the lesser profile abroad is unique in world literature; if we take a moment to consider the particularity that Cervantes, Goethe, Dante, Victor Hugo, et alia are all the national poets of their homeland and also famous abroad.
It seems to me that to many Americans, Pushkin is just another Russian enigma. And even at the university level, he turns up only in specialized Russian poetry courses, narrow Slavic curricula and, because of his African ancestry, in the U.S. black media. And even now he has rarely been included in general poetry seminars where other Russians—Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Lermontov, Brodsky—are part of the canon of world verse.
So . . . since that day of tea sipping at the Serendipi Tea shop, I’ve dug deeper into the mysteries of Pushkin’s odd place in the Western scene, the battleground of translation. It seems that it’s the consensus of western literary Pooh-Bah’s that Pushkin, in English translation, does not travel well. As Nabokov put it in a poem of his own (originally published in The New Yorker) this excerpt seemingly expresses the conundrum:
“What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head;
A parrot’s screech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.”
I believe that magic is real, and that any person who can speak, write, paint or fashion words so as to convey an idea, or a feeling, is a sorcerer. I see a supernatural power in any art for its ability to effect profound emotional and psychological changes in a person without bodily contact. I consider language to be the most powerful and mystical form of magic. A poem by Pushkin creates the impression that what he says could never be said otherwise, that each word fits perfectly, and that no other words could ever assume a similar function. To discover Pushkin is to discover the treasured jewels of wordplay. In poetry, no one else even comes close to Alexander Pushkin.