Around 1930, when Vladimir Nabokov was living in Berlin, he wrote several letters to his brother, Krill, in which he evaluated his younger sibling’s poetry. The elder Nabokov was a recognised poet in the Russian expatriate community and Krill took what nuggets of wisdom he could get. “Here is what it boils down to,” one letter runs, “are you writing poetry as a sideline, because everyone does it, or are you really drawn to it irresistibly, does it surge from your soul, do images and sensations naturally don the dress of poetry, crowding to emerge?”
He goes on to add that if the latter, “one must first of all realise what a difficult, responsible job it is, a job one must train with a passion, with a certain reverence and chastity”. Nabokov himself had been training for years, beginning in earnest in 1914, keeping it up as an undergraduate at Cambridge from 1919 to 1922, and continuing sporadically during his career as an established novelist. This collection from Knopf gathers the best of his verse, most of which was published in the likes of The New Yorker. What makes it special, however, is that it also includes those gems that were originally written for Russian émigré journals and which now appear in English for the first time.
The poems are arranged in four sections, and run within those sections in chronological order. The first segment deserves mention for comprising of poems newly translated from the original Russian by Nabokov’s son, Dmitri. We begin with something of a scoop, a poem entitled Music (dated 1914), notable not so much for its artistry than for the fact it is the earliest work by Nabokov now available. Breezily youthful, it is nevertheless marred by some hackneyed imagery: a fountain gives off “silvery spray”; around it “dragonflies hover, like diamonds sparkle their wings”. In another letter to Krill, Nabokov had warned of “platitudes” in verse and cites “love’s flame” and “tempestuous storm” as examples. If only he had heeded his own advice.
To be fair though, Nabokov purged his poetry of cliché remarkably quickly and his richly inventive compositions from the 1920s, in particular, evince a marked confidence with lyrical expression plus an aptitude for not only taking risks but pulling them off: here is consolidated mastery, a poet who has honed his craft. Shakespeare from 1924, reads as a panegyric to that “god of iambic thunder”, and comes filigreed with authentic Bard-speak (“silv’ry satin”, “theatre’s alarums”, “rumour’s unashamed brand”). Tolstoy is another ode of sorts to another literary titan, dealing first with the author’s life, then his talent (a propensity “to make gossip into epic and to transmute the muteness into music”) before turning into a paean to Russia, the homeland that inspired Tolstoy, the “meticulous creator”, but which Nabokov has left behind. Pushkin is acknowledged as the real daddy of Russian poetry, whose shadow Tolstoy lives in. Nabokov confesses his own subservience to him in a poem called On Translating “Eugene Onegin”:
I travelled down to your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learnt
Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose –
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.
The extended, sustained imagery is effective, a technique employed throughout the later poems. An Evening of Russian Poetry, first published in 1945, is similarly nature-infused and once again takes us back to the motherland as the narrator attempts to explain to the uninitiated Russian verse’s singular rhythms and melodies.
Just as Russia crops up again and again in these poems, sometimes affectionately, sometimes shrouded in “nostalgic equivocations”, so too do we glimpse other biographical shards. There are poems about butterflies, sport and his wife Véra; poems on America and France. In The Paris Poem we are told of the city he would call home in the late 1930s: “Wondrous at night is gaunt Paris” (“gaunt” also being used to describe his birthplace of St Petersburg in Speak, Memory). Easter is subtitled For his father’s death and culminates in renewed hope through a Christ-like resurrection. (James Joyce, like Nabokov, a poet first, preferred finality in Ecce Puer, his poem on the same theme: “An old man is gone.”) One standout poem is the novella-length The University Poem, a magisterial reworking of Nabokov’s Cambridge years, again presented for the first time in English. The nostalgia here – tea with the vicar, languid waterways, college life, first love – is in a sense less ambiguous than the kind conveyed in those Russian postcards, though when he writes “such was the world where I from Russian clouds was hurled”, we realise his culture shock was akin to a crash landing. In 63 stanzas of random rhyme and evocative images he settles down, studies, revels and develops his poetic sensibilities. In his “antique chamber” a love of Keats eclipses that of Byron (the former’s “marble roses” having more charm than the latter’s “stagey storms”). After the last ball he leaves Cambridge “a liberated idler”, perhaps all the more equipped to embark on a literary career.
In that career, Nabokov was every time the consummate stylist. His calling card, that prodigious wordplay, was either wonderfully exuberant or wilfully baroque, depending on one’s take on it. It sublimates or sullies his prose. Needless to say, it suffuses his poetry as well. In Easter he listens to “breathing shade, light’s stillicide”. The Skater has a “scribble-scrabbled rink”. In Fortune-telling chopped wood isn’t silver but “argentated”. In Revolution a prostrate man is “incarnadine” rather than blood-red (and later, At Sunset features an “incarnadine river”). At times he strips away the veneer and leaves us with an undercoat that is lucid, unforced and all the more effective for being so. In Peter in Holland “the clock distinctly ticked”. This idea is rendered more playful, more Joycean, in For Happiness the Lover Cannot Sleep: “the clock ticktacks”. He reserves the wholesale poetic splurge for the novels, and in King, Queen, Knave we hear a “clock clucking” – alliteration that neither convinces nor impresses.
Certain poems are interesting for the way they inform or complement the novels. The University Poem anticipates his Cambridge novel, Glory. The casually obscene Lilith (“And with a wild lunge of my loins I penetrated into an unforgotten child”) is consciously or otherwise a close cousin to Lolita, despite Nabokov’s protestation to the contrary. Elsewhere we encounter some that scan like literal snapshots (Dandelions) and others that are surreally comic (A Literary Dinner in which the guest eats the host); we veer from the muscular dexterity of Fame to the pithy buoyancy of To the Grapefruit.
This collection will do nothing to alter Nabokov’s reputation as novelist first and foremost. “Like pallid dawn, my poetry sounds gently: my fleeting cadences soon die away,” he writes sadly in The Glasses of St Joseph, as if aware of his own poetic shortcomings. That said, the stronger poems here are robust enough to not die away. In any case, his poetic voice is always audible in his fiction. It is interesting that Pale Fire, arguably the height of his literary achievement, is a novel about a poet and his poems – and is thus, in essence, prose and poetry combined. He is at his best as a poet when unbound by rigid prosodic rules. As with the wayward digressive riffs in his novels, the results can be dazzling and dithyrambic. “Another thing we are not supposed to do is explain the inexplicable” we are told in Transparent Things, and Nabokov’s poems are also a treat because he approaches his subject matter – be it love, Russia or grapefruits – from an original angle, swathes it in his own unique language and invites no easy interpretation of the finished form. Complex, beguiling and at times just straightforward fun, these poems reveal a fascinating new facet of one of the 20th century’s finest writers.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.