April 3, 2005
In the Sounds of Poems, Some Sense

What is it about poetry? Why at the most extreme moments of our lives do we reach out to it? I think, for example, of a reading I did just two days after the attack on the World Trade Center. I wondered if anyone would come out. They did, in surprisingly large numbers. There was a crowd, fragile and subdued, instinctively searching for a comfort they sensed poetry could offer.

Why does poetry have the power to lift us, enlighten us and, yes, comfort us? I mulled over this question with Katia Kapovich and Philip Nikolayev. Poets originally from the former Soviet Union, they now live in Cambridge and, together, edit Fulcrum, a journal of English language poetry from around the world. Their most recent poetry collections are Nikolayev’s Monkey Time and Kapovich’s Gogol in Rome.

To Kapovich, poetry’s power to offer inspiration or solace lies in our actual need for it. She sees poetry as physically necessary to human life, deserving of its own tier on the nutritional pyramid.

"We need a refined version of what we call speech," she says. "Our brains are in need of some kind of verbalized music. It is something physical like serotonin. We are supposed to have it and sometimes we are not able to produce it for ourselves."

Well, yes, poetry does feel like an organic need with its roots in spoken, rather than written, language. I picture generations of people sitting around fires, telling each other stories not in everyday speech, but in a form with a particular sound and way of meaning. And what burns itself into our brains is not only the words, but the spaces between them.

Says Kapovich, “It’s like medicine. Our sick spirits are cured by the divine power of poetry. It needs to be a very high quality of poetry. It only helps when it is very good--like something approved by the FDA. Poets can tell good poetry from bad. They know it immediately. With poetry I don’t like, it makes me silent. When it’s good, I’m ready to scream, to be passionate. Critics need time and distance to tell. Poets know it viscerally.”

Nikolayev differs. “No, not viscerally. They know it from a lifetime of reading poetry, practicing.”

Maybe it’s the atmosphere of Kapovich’s and Nikolayev’s book-crammed apartment, maybe it’s the influence of being witness to their intense discussion, or maybe it’s just the pleasure of being in a place where poetry matters so much. Whatever the reason, I am nudged by a sense that poetry is closer to the core of one’s life for Russians than for most Americans. Kapovich and Nikolayev agree that Russians and Americans approach poetry differently. To begin with, Russian poets simply tend to write fewer poems than American poets. And their subjects differ.

“American poetry is more self-referential, Nikolayev says. “Russian poetry is more dramatic, about love and death.”

“The American poet’s goal is different, to sing the beauty in the trivial, to make it accessible,” says Kapovich. “American poets write more about life. The Russian poet wants to write the one magic poem where all your experience, all the music you carry in your heart is compressed like a spring ready to jump out. A totalitarian regime helps compress the spring by repression of every human thought. Freedom can be like a prison. It paralyzes poets. We need the opposition.”

Nikolayev nods. “Totalitarianism does wonders for poetry,” he says drily, adding “The Russian poets feel that to write a great poem is more important than to live another day.”

Which brings us back to poetry’s physical hold on us.

“At the last minute of your life, Kapovich says, “to write this kind of divine thing, this orphic poem, with rats following the flute silently, obediently.”

What we’re reading now: Katia Kapovich is reading Glyn Maxwell’s poetry collections Time’s Fool and The Nerve. “Maxwell is a fantastic poet, very dramatic, but he always spices it with irony.” Philip Nikolayev is reading "The Big Bumper Book of Troy," the latest collection of the Scottish poet W. N. Herbert, and loving it. I feel Herbert is completely distinct and one of the very finest poets writing in English today.” I am reading The Midnight Disease, a beautifully written book about writers writing and not writing. The author, Alice W. Flaherty, is a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and has received a fellowship to study the biology of creativity.

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at citytype@globe.com.

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by Katia Kapovich

On a cold winter night in 78
he drank two liters of Russian tea,
went to the Red Square before light
and wrote on snow: “Brezhnev is an idiot!”

He was my god, my hero, my model world.
I imagined him struggling with his fly
when, busted by police, he had managed
to end the sentence with an exclamation mark.

Imagine doing something like this nowadays.
Imagine a hero dressed in a short sheepskin coat
standing in the piercing wind, his pants pulled down.
“Gross!” you’ll say and will be wrong.

Sometimes truth necessitates madness, and beauty is hidden
behind obscure details. To tell you the truth,
I’m still jealous of him who shed his urine
in the imperial garden of snow and laughed in the face

of the guards. Nothing beats in my eyes
a jester, his smile full of broken teeth.
When times in the yard are full of lies,
why sing like a nightingale in the emperor’s cage?

by Philip Nikolayev

I know two homeless men, they both believe
that evil forces have messed with their lives.
Always, every time something good seemed about to happen,
something really bad happened,
and so it keeps going on
for ever and ever more—
like a bad spell, a curse.
Evil forces will do anything,
repeatedly steal your eyeglasses to keep you from reading,
put you in trouble with the law,
cut the strings of your guitar, plagiarize your songs,
gun down your mother in a Chicago supermarket
during a late night shift (this a long time ago),
make you sleep God knows where, God knows how, alone.
Whenever there's the littlest chance
of a romance with a woman,
nasty stuff happens and ruins it to bits.
One believes in an afterlife and in numerology,
the other is an atheist but sings in a church.
If you carry a guitar the cops don't harass you as much.
If you panhandle and get donations from college students,
cops will suspect you're pushing dime bags.
They both hate the distant, indifferent rich
and both respect me just because I'm a poet.
How locked are we all into our respective fates.
The rich can't help being rich, the poor poor,
the invisible hand loads invisible cash,
wants its streets clean of trash.

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