Vladimir Nabokov's Poetry in Russian Emigre Criticism: A Partial Survey

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Vladimir Nabokov began his illustrious literary career as a Russian poet. This simple comment bears stating if for no other reason than to draw attention to an aspect of Nabokov's writing which is often neglected. The author of many unpublished poems and a considerable number of published ones in several volumes which span his career, Nabokov retained a life-long interest in poetry. Indeed, Nabokov's oeuvre is symmetrically and suggestively contained within the matching bookends of two volumes of poetry-his first publication of 1916 and his final, posthumously published work of 1979-both entitled simply Stikhi. Despite the prominent presence of poetry in his oeuvre, criticism has accorded Nabokov's poetry far less attention than his prose. Possible reasons for this relative neglect are close at hand. Foremost amongst these must be Nabokov's brilliance as a writer of prose. Whatever the relative merits of his poetry-and as we shall see below, judging the aesthetic quality of his poetry is not an unproblematic undertaking-the startling quality of his prose contributes to the diminishing of his achievements in other artistic realms. Relatedly, Nabokov's poetry suffers obscurity in part as a result of historical and linguistic circumstance. Published in Russian and often in emigre journals with limited circulation, much of Nabokov's poetry bore the same undeserved fate which afflicted much of emigre Russia's astounding artistic output between the wars. In transferring the bulk of his artistic activities to English and prose, Nabokov began the process of winning a larger audience for his art. In making this move, however, he seemed to leave behind the language and genre which helped to form his art and which introduced him to his first extended readership. It is to this art form and audience that I would like to return in the following paper. With this study, I intend to make a limited contribution to the larger topic of a much needed critical assessment of the place of poetry in Nabokov's oeuvre. Here I wish to undertake a partial examination of the response to Nabokov the poet in emigre criticism from the early 1920s, when Nabokov first began to appear as a regularly published poet, until 1956 and the appearance of Gleb Struve's Russkaia literatura v izgnanii (Russian Literature in Exile).2 My reasons for concluding this survey in 1956 are essentially twofold. By 1956, Nabokov was a well established English language prose writer, who no longer sought an extended audience for the occasional Russian poems he continued to write. Secondly, Struve's seminal account of emigre Russian literature offers a synthesising interpretation of this particular cultural phenomenon which, in its very conclusiveness, seems to suggest a historical point of closure. With regard to an appraisal of Nabokov's role and value as a poet, Stuve's sensitive assessment also had something of a finalising, and in this sense restricting, function. In the final analysis, Struve's influential interpretation judged Nabokov to be a prose writer who wrote poetry until he switched to the medium better suited to his skills. Rather than placing Nabokov's efforts in prose and poetry on a continuum of related abilities, the two realms were conceived of as separate and even conflicting in his art. Already in 1956, Struve looked back on Nabokov's poetic production as if on a closed chapter in Nabokov's writing. Since then, critical reception of Nabokov's poetry has been effectively entombed in the perception of it as the immature expression of his artistic ability, cut off by language and artistic mode from the remainder of his oeuvre. As much by accident as design, this interpretation, while undoubtedly not intended to be restrictive, has remained the dominant approach to Nabokov the poet and has yet to be systematically examined. As the totality of his oeuvre makes clear, however, Nabokov retained a life-long interest in poetry. His numerous fictional and non-fictional works continually return, in the most diverse ways, to poetry. …