Poetry and Catharsis
An artist and romantic nicknamed the “tragic queen,” 20th century poet Anna Akhmatova wove passion and pain into words, capturing conflicts of the heart and mind on notebook pages. In this dialogue we explore Akhmatova's words in connection with her reality.
As the winter rolls in, the chill of the air inspires indoor seclusion, and the warmth of pensiveness. It is in these conditions that poetry, being a reflection on life’s many feelings and experiences, might find its most firm footing. Of the many poets who have captured the warm romance of language to fight the cold of the everyday, Ukrainian-born poet Anna Akhmatova stands apart as a passionate, nostalgic artist with the unique ability to capture the conflicts of the heart and mind.
Born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko in 1889 in Bol’shoi Fontan, the poet would later find her penname using the name of her supposed ancestor Khan Akhmat, the last Tatar chieftain to accept tribute from the Russian empire. This kind of eccentricity and show of wild imagination would be a marker of Akhmatova’s poetry as well as a possible coping mechanism for a life of turmoil.
While still in her teens – and at the same time that she first began to write - Akhmatova would meet her future husband and fellow poet Nikolai Stepanovich Gumilev. Though he was immediately attracted to Akhmatova, the feeling was not reciprocated with equal intensity, and it was not until after several attempts at suicide on Gumilev’s part that Akhmatova accepted one of his many marriage proposals. Akhmatova would go on to state publicly in interviews that her husband’s attraction to her cooled rapidly after their marriage, only to be compacted with the beginning of the First World War.
From this point, Akhmatova’s life would be marred by chaos. She and Gumilev would divorce, the October Revolution would erupt, the Tsardom would fall, and royals and civilians alike – including some of Akhmatova’s intellectual contemporaries - would be murdered by order of the Soviet regime.
However, these tragedies would set the stage for the poet’s exceptional ability to capture beauty in the twilight of life. In one of her most famous poems, “Lot’s Wife,” Akhmatova uses a biblical reference to the story of Lot’s wife (who goes unnamed in the Bible), a woman given the chance to escape her home as it is destroyed by God, but who makes a fatal sacrifice to look back at her city one, final time.
“[…] It’s not too late, you can still look back
at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed
A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.
Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.”
Despite her pain or perhaps because of it, Akhmatova developed an intense aura that fascinated, most notably beguiling Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, who would go on to paint dozens of portraits and nudes of Akhmatova.
Her work would go on to earn a Nobel Prize nomination in 1965, and to this day she is regarded as one of the greatest Russian-speaking poets, gathering pre-revolutionary Russian culture into words; a protector from the suffocating radicalism and ultra-utilitarian Soviet propaganda of her time. Feminine, subtle and emotional, her prose captures the tragic, ephemeral nature of life’s joys, its tragedies, and the feeling of both savoring and losing one’s home.