Osip Mandelstam was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century and he was heroic in his recognition that he could not write unless he expressed his horror of Stalin’s regime. After his poem The Kremlin Mountaineer, also known as the Stalin Ode, became known to Stalin, Mandelstam’s death was certain, although the tragedy took some years to play out. One of his poems, Octets consists of eleven eight line verses many of which are concerned with the mystery of creation. His widow Nadezhda records that, in her opinion, it shows the philosophical poet he might have become, had his life not been ruined by Stalin’s cruel game of cat and mouse leading to Mandelstam’s death in 1938 at the age of 47. Here is one stanza, which refers to his habit of remembering new compositions without writing them down. There is a geometric image, a cupola against the sky, figure and ground as in Gestalt psychology. The figure is finite, the ground/universe endless, and the two are incommensurate.
When, having torn up the draft you hold steadily in mind a sentence free of weighty footnotes, single in the inner darkness - and from its own nature it takes shape and coheres - there's a relationship to paper like a cupola's to cloudless sky.