This summary of where Mandelstam places the poet versus the ‘man of letters’ on the time spectrum intrigues me.  Yes, there are poets who converse with readers waiting in the future: Homer and Keats come to mind.  But there are also poets who write for their own time, and non-poets who cast their writing into a farflung future, such as Thucydides.  When I read George Eliot’s Adam Bede, the way she addressed her reader, that is, me, made me feel she’d just walked into the room and confronted me with my own moral sloppiness.  I cannot believe such a clear message for someone 150 years later could have been written by somebody who only had her ‘whole being in the contemporary world’.

So, I can’t quite agree with Mandelstam’s neat division, but I liked it nevertheless, and it made me think.

My personal preference is to reach present and future readers, because it remains physically impossible to reach past readers. Imagine that, if Spenser or Sydney could suddenly get sight of Keats or Milton?  When I read Keats, and recall that he thought he would be appreciated long after his life, it gives me a reader’s Ariadne thread to wend back to him, and makes me wish I could follow that thread and meet him for tea.  At the same time, it makes me think forward and try to picture whether there will be anybody in a future age who will read anything I write.  Read and enjoy, I mean.

Thus he reiterated a distinction he had often made between literature and poetry. Mandelstam insisted that these two modes of verbal expression are utterly unlike because the man of letters addresses his contemporaries, while the poet converses with the unknown ideal reader waiting for him, providentially, in the distance. The man of letters has his whole being in the contemporary world; the poet exists in the timeless.

Source: Henry Gifford, introduction to Osip Mandelstam, Journey to Armenia (London: Notting Hill Editions, 2011), p. 8

Photo credit: Jon Flobrant,


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