Osip Mandelstam on the mystery of creation

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.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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