Monday, September 2, 2013
Bylini, Bely & Brodsky
I can't read or speak the Russian language. I'm going to write something about it anyway. Because that's the kind of thing I like to do -- intuit my way toward uncertain regions.
Epic poem-songs of Russia -- bylini -- were based on historical characters but raised to a pitch of magic and lore through dramatic exaggeration. The word itself can be very roughly translated as "how something was." And how things were then were surely more than met the eye. Those heroic characters and their deeds -- fighting battles, rescuing princesses, defeating dragons -- took place in the context of a feminine creation myth. The greatest heroes were considered actual sons of the deity Mother Russia. In some cases, these sons themselves can be inferred as personifications of natural forces.The recitatives of bylini were charged with symbolism and sentimental dynamics. Bylini are a cultural treasury of the Russian people.
Andrei Bely (1880 - 1934) was a Russian novelist, poet, and literary theorist, famous for his novel Petersburg. Bely's essay "Rhythm as Dialectic in the Bronze Horseman" is an examination of Russian iambic tetrameter as discovered in Pushkin's poem. Nabokov followed Bely's ideas with his own survey -- "Notes on Prosody" -- of how syllabic accents are distributed through Russian verse. In English, many nouns, verbs, and adjectives are monosyllabic, which gives rise to an organic, variable flow of accents across a line's natural underlying pulse. Whereas Russian, with its many di- or polysyllabic nouns, verbs, and adjectives, moves with a different "music" extruded from the rhythm. According to Bely/Nabokov, many Russian words are characterized as being "scudded," owing to their di- or polysyllabic formation -- a word's syllables flow with few or no accents.
What do bylini and Bely have to do with one another, and what do both have to do with the poet Joseph Brodsky? I will intuit my way toward possible connections.
Bylini recitative expression takes place, of course, in the Russian language. My surmise is that the language itself is informed -- syllabic patterns structured -- by thematic and psychological characteristics of those old tales. Exaggeration in the tales -- raising the pitch of wonder and myth -- requires words made of complex cultural substance. Words encode meaning. Words are made of syllables. And syllables are fragments or pieces of encoded meaning and cultural memory.
The Russian language, owing to qualities of its bylini heritage, grew its words large enough to fold in layers of dramatic significance. To convey the mass of symbol and sentiment, nouns, verbs, and adjectives naturally expanded, becoming di- or polysyllabic.
What is the aural effect of this bylini conditioning, this syllabic expansion? The syllables of spoken words create rhythm -- form patterns of accent across a line's or a sentence's underlying metered pulse. In a formal setting -- story or poem -- the expression would, I think, have a quality I will call "droning chant." As words move across sentences or lines -- words scudded because of syllabic quantity -- an additive and cumulative power glows in those sentences and lines. An analog to mythic bylini embellishment occurs as an extended acoustic, an extravagant intonation.
In everyday conversation, I suggest, this aural extravagance is a muted and implied aspect of the Russian language. But certain poets, especially, are exemplars -- subconscious bardic curators, if you will -- of the oracular acoustic. With them, Russian words -- spectra of deep syllabic information -- leave the tongue on a mission of "how something was," as a droning chant of life as rich as fable. Time is distended as this ceremonial cadence itself becomes an encoding of cultural information and significance. Russian poets are, therefore, natural metaphysicians, their poems written in a language still mystically imbued, written in a language spiritually syllabic, written in a language aurally metaphorical.
Listen to Joseph Brodsky reciting one of his poems:
There is something of the magical incantation in this. A heightened energy and a deepened suspense in the atmosphere of speaking. In contrast to most English poems, in which a descriptive litany occurs, here Brodsky seems to be chanting a vision into presence. He is telling us a deep tale about life, a modern bylini. And Mother Russia is heroically implicit in the mythic prosody.