Our Notes & References
First edition of the first book by one of Russia’s greatest 20th-century poets.
The thin book is in itself a symbol of the pre-revolutionary Russia, with poetry lines printed in the pre-revolutionary alphabet, with ѣ, i, and ъ (letters that would be abolished by the Bolsheviks), seemingly traditional, yet brewing with premonition of something cosmic and tragic. Commenting on the centenary of ‘Kamen’ in 2013, the famous Russian poet and critic Mikhail Aizenberg described the collection as ‘poetry of the future’ – the future that keeps moving further away from us as the time rolls on. Mandelshtam was not a futurist poet, like Kruchenyh or Burlyuk: he cherished traditional beauty of words and syntax, referring in ‘Kamen’ to gods of classical myths (Orpheus, Aphrodite). However, the sense of the unknown, mysterious future is important to him, as it gives a certain poignancy to the fleeting, disappearing present.
Two of the poems in ‘Kamen’ – ‘Dyhaniye’, or ‘Breathing’, and ‘Nevyrazimaya pechal’, or ‘Inexpressible Sorrow’ – Mandelshtam wrote in 1909, when he was 18. They contain early examples of Mandelshtam’s love for tangible imagery – the feature that united him with other Acmeist poets. Acmeism, or the Guild of Poets, was a poetic school established in 1912 in Russia by Nikolai Gumilev and Sergei Gorodetsky. The Acmeists, who also included Akhmatova and Ivanov, used language to help the reader feel the texture, the painful beauty of everyday objects: in ‘Kamen’, crystal becomes liquid, the autumn twilight cuts ‘like a piece of rusty iron’, stone is transformed into lace and webs. Someone has taken bells out of the bell tower covered in mist (‘s kolokol’ni otumanennoi kto-to snyal kolokola’) – Mandelstam’s book seems to be prophesying the approaching spiritual tragedy of the nation.
Presenting a copy of ‘Kamen’ to Akhmatova, Mandelshtam wrote a humble definition of his own poems: ‘flashes of perception from the days of unconsciousness’ (‘vspyshki soznaniya v bespamyatstve dnei’). His contemporaries and later critics gave the poet his due: ‘glorified author of “Kamen”‘, famous now across all Russia’ (Irina Odoevtseva); ‘brilliant’ (Georgii Adamovich); ‘blinding’ and ‘passionate’ (Akhmatova); ‘a complex, refracted, highly self-conscious portrait of the artist in search of a self, a language, and a society that will facilitate his plans for an encompassing world culture’ (Clare Cavanagh, Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition, Princeton University Press, 1994). ‘Kamen’ was the first step in the heroic road that led Mandelshtam to his famous satire on Stalin, the daring poem that resulted in his arrest and death in 1938.
“Mandelshtam was one of those rare poets who needed no apprenticeship. The few poems left from his teenage years are all superb. His first book of verse, Stone, reveals a mature poet.” (Terras) The book was published when he was 22.