We have forgottten how to offer alms,
And meet the dawn, and breathe the sea’s salt heavens,
And go in shops, and count out from our palms
Our copper trash against the gold of lemons.
The ships that visit us, chance brings them all.
The rails bear freight because they’ve always done so.
And count our people. As each name is called
You’ll see how many dead will stand to answer.
We’ll solemnly ignore the whale parade.
The knife won’t serve for work when once it’s broken,
But even with this blackened, broken blade
Immortal pages can be still cut open.
by Николай Семёнович Тихонов
(Nikolai Semenovich Tikhonov)
translated by Michael Frayn
Мы разучились нищим подавать
Мы разучились нищим подавать,
Дышать над морем высотой солёной,
Встречать зарю и в лавках покупать
За медный мусор – золото лимонов.
Случайно к нам заходят корабли,
И рельсы груз проносят по привычке;
Пересчитай людей моей земли –
И сколько мёртвых встанет в перекличке.
Но всем торжественно пренебрежём.
Нож сломанный в работе не годится,
Но этим чёрным, сломанным ножом
Разрезаны бессмертные страницы.
Additional information: Никола́й Семёнович Ти́хонов (Nikolai Semenovich Tikhonov) (4 December [O.S. 22 November] 1896 – 8 February 1979) was a Soviet writer and member of the Serapion Brothers literary group. He volunteered for the Imperial Russian Army at the outbreak of World War I and served in a hussar regiment; he entered the Red Army in 1918, fought in the Russian Civil War, and was demobilized in 1922. He served on the Finnish front in the Winter War and was in Leningrad for the Siege. In 1944 he became chair of the Union of Soviet Writers, but was dismissed by Joseph Stalin in 1946 for being too tolerant of Zoshchenko and Akhmatova. However, he remained an important figure in Soviet literary circles, and he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1957. Tikhonov was the first chairman of the Soviet Peace Committee, serving from 1949 to 1979.
Tikhonov, the son of a barber, graduated in 1911 from the St Petersburg School of Trade. He participated in World War I as a Hussar and then fought in the Civil War in the Red Army. During his army service he began to write poetry and made his entrance into the Russian literary scene firmly and forever with his long narrative poem “Sami” (1920), about an Indian porter or carrier, and his two collections, Orda (Horde) and Braga (Home-Brewed Beer) (both 1922). Also in the early 1920s he joined the group known as the Serapion Brothers, the followers of Yevgeny Zamyatin, united mostly by their desire for greater freedom and variety in literature.Biographical information about Tikhonov, p.326-327, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. (transcribed as found in the original text).
Tikhonov’s poems, especially his ballards, are perhaps more reminiscent of Kipling’s poetry than anything else, though Kipling was not at that time widely translated into Russian and it is not known whether Tikhonov read him in English. Tikhonov’s Russian antecedent was undoubtedly Nikolai Gumilyov. Tikhonov’s particularly spectacular poetic feats include his collection Stikhi of Kakhetii (Poems about Kakhetiya) and his translations of Georgian poets.
After 1934, when he was elected to the presidium of the Writers Union, he committed himself to organisational work as a literary functionary. He was the chairman of the Writers Union during World War II and offered help to many young poets. After the war Tikhonov’s most interesting poetic ventures were in poems about Yugoslavia. However, some of his postwar poetry shows haste; much of his time was taken up by his extensive public commitments. Under pressure from Stalin in 1948 he signed a letter against his Yugoslav friends, betraying not only them but himself too.
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