“All that matters now is poetry
In which the feeling is the thought.”
—from “Paysages Legendaires”
When writing about the poet Peter Russell, it is hard to know where to begin. First, there is the matter of his prolificness, and the sheer vastness of his oeuvre: Russell, who describes poetry as being “dangerously near the natural functions for me,” has published well over 30 volumes of verse and has written enough poems to fill scores of others. Then there is the extraordinary diversity of this poetry: from works that range in length from a handful of lines to hundreds of pages (his unpublished epic—ironically titled Ephemeron—is over 2,000 manuscript pages long), and vary in style from free verse to formalist, from the scabrous epigrams found in his book Malice Aforethought to the lush, sweeping lyrics that suffuse The Golden Chain and Theories. As Russell remarks in his poem “My Voices”:
How many voices tell in me,
I cannot say how many call
Night and day insistently,
Or distinguish them at all.
Uncommon such diversity may be; haphazard it is not—for Russell’s is a case where the work faithfully mirrors the man, who is at once romantic and contemptuous, serious and silly, simple and extraordinarily complex. The quality of this work, like Russell’s character, may not always be consistent; but the end result, in either ease, remains consistently engaging.
A British poet of Irish descent, Peter Russell was born in Bristol, England, in 1921, and by age three—”before I knew my alphabet”—had already decided that he wanted to be a poet “or nothing.” After serving in the Royal Artillery during World War II, Russell began publishing poetry, critical articles, and interviews in a number of American and English reviews, and in 1949 founded Nine, a small, London-based poetry magazine that attracted the attention of both T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Although the editor of a literary review for seven years, Russell never felt at home in the “professional establishment world” of academics and literati; nor did his steadfast belief in “ideas, not ideologies; original thought, not conformity,” do much to ingratiate him at a time when the Movement poets (like Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis) were beginning to take hold in England. Russell’s feelings of estrangement from the London poetry scene in the 1950’s were furthered by a move from the city to the countryside, the acquisition and management of an antiquarian bookstore and small poetry press, and the general demands accompanying family life. During this period of what he calls “practical concerns,” Russell worked long hours in an effort to make ends meet; in that time, he wrote virtually no poetry.
Russell ended up being no better a businessman than a conformist: by 1963 the bookstore had failed—along, unfortunately, with his marriage. Bereft of both emotional and financial ties to England, and with no love lost between him and the then-reigning cognoscenti, Russell moved to Berlin and devoted himself entirely to his poetry. After an intense year of writing, Russell felt that he “had at last become a real poet.” Continuing a time-honored tradition, he soon took up residence in Italy, the adopted home of Shelley, Keats, Byron, and numerous other English poets before him:
Elizabeth Barret, Arthur Hugh Clough, W.S. Landor
Lie in the English cemetery, ghosts of our own
In the warm turf tufted with cypresses: And
The trams clatter by—they are closing the shops
For the afternoon. Is this a silence or an unheard
Rumble of innumerable unseen encounters
In the world below? Not a sound disturbs
The utterly still air silent up here.
Insatiably curious about the world around him, Peter Russell is always learning something new, whether studying up on Sanskrit or feasting upon the music of Mozart and Monteverdi. Russell’s passion for knowledge and keen intellect permeate his poetry, which is peppered with references to science, art, history, linguistics, and literature—including rather obscure allusions to classical Greek, ancient Oriental, and medieval Islamic texts. “I like poetry that brings out in me as reader the maximum awareness of as much as the mind can comprehend,” explains Russell, who firmly believes that “a hidden vein of intellectuality (genuine) needs to be present even in a comparatively simple lyric.”
Given his intense interest in music, and natural affinity for the musical, it is not surprising that lyric poetry is Russell’s strength. Russell once wrote that “The finished result of a good poem should be, phrase by phrase, at lead as compelling as music”; and indeed, at its best his poetry is filled with verses that are richly melodic, verses that create, and are accompanied, by their own music. Such lyricism is manifest in Russell’s work regardless of the mood conveyed, be it gravely portentous:
One more tomorrow all our deaths will be
Annihilated where that fatal tree
Spreads in the sun. Blossoms will fall
For the last time on the desolate city.
Where the Spring rejoicings are left by all
As superfluous where the mushroom ball
Breaks the air—uncanny silence be
Where once blackbird and songthrush were.
—from “The Fear of War”
or playful and romantic:
How can one bear to be alive?
Five hundred thousand things to do!
solitary dreamer in a honey-hive.
I dream of you . . .
The problem is, of course,—to be,
In a dead world of waxen cells.
Not that there’s monotony
Even in insect hells.
Even his scathing epigrams have a sonorous quality about them. Take, for example, “Creeping Professors,” one of Russell’s many jabs at academia:
Man and the creeping beasts may seem diverse—
The reptiles are not really very bright;
Professors seem intelligent, all right—
Until they talk of poetry,—or verse.
The creeping beasts are higher in the scale
Of shining Justice when our faults are weighed:
Our Faculties a pallid cavalcade,—
But creeping bipeds are beyond the pale.
Or “Avant Garde,” his caustic commentary on popular artistic trends:
The avant garde keeps moving crab-like forward
Hard on the tail of commerce, films and ads;
It’s creeping slowly 1934-ward
On Disney’s lizard-tail, and other ‘thirties fads . . .
Like a true linguist, Russell’s preternatural sensitivity to the musicality of language is far from restricted to his native tongue, as is exhibited through his poetic translations. A competent speaker of a dozen different languages, Russell has translated works in everything from modern Russian (Russell was an early translator of Osip Mandelstam and Alexander Blok) to ancient Persian and Greek, from German, Spanish, French, and Italian to African and Slavonic dialects. As noted by the English poet and critic Kathleen Raine, Russell—much in the style of his mentor Ezra Pound—considers words “a living medium,” and he possesses a remarkable gift for overcoming the language limitations inherent in translation to capture skillfully the essence of a particular culture or period, however remote from our view.
One sees this most clearly in Russell’s translations of the 4th century Latin poet, Cittinus Aurelianus Quintilius, who, in recognition of the madness that beset him near the end of his life, was dubbed “Stultus” (“a fool”) by late antiquity. The bulk of poems now available to us were discovered accidentally by a Nicaraguan engineer who, while digging for potash near the site of the ancient Aphrodisiapolis, stumbled upon a massive papyrus containing dozens of the ancient poet’s elegies, as well as fragments of other works.
As sole translator of the poetry of Quintilius, Russell, who feels a certain kinship with this outspoken and somewhat ostracized Roman elegist, has put much labor and love into this endeavor; it is, in fact, his most comprehensive translation project to date, complete with detailed exegetical notes that offer the reader further insight into the sociocultural setting out of which Quintilius and his work emerged. Witnessing the operatic spectacle of an empire in decline, Quintilius became a sort of self-proclaimed prophet-commentator of the times, his poetry a medium for both apocalyptic vision and political satire:
The Lyceum’s become truly a Wolf Fold, a shut shop to scrying.
The Academy closed by idolatrous bigots, I see it coming . . .
Burn down the libraries, make off with the gold!
Ah well, I may be wrong, and Rome, as Claudian says,
Will last for ever, but seeing these fruits in our Universities
Serving the barbarians’ ends, personally I consider us doomed . . .
. . . Rome’s a bordello.
An Emperor’s sister who’s having it off with her steward
Is conspiring to topple Augustus her brother.
And found out, has sent for aid to the Huns.
Take it or leave it. The Angel has spoken.
Like Russell, Quintilius has many sides which suffuse his poetry. At one moment he can be offensive and off-color, quick in his condemnations of half-baked egalitarians, bureaucrats, upstart theologians, and weak-minded militarists; at another, his sentiments take on the tone of a Keatsian nature ode:
Me indeed, above all, may the sweet Muses welcome with gifts,
(Whose sacred emblems driven by absorbing love I bear);
To me, their servant, may they show the ways of Heaven and the stars.
Sun’s daily setting, and the Moon’s diverse phases;
The cause of earthquakes; and the force that makes Ocean heave
Breaking its barriers now, now sinking in its allotted basin;
Why it is that Winter’s suns hasten so to dip themselves
Beneath the sea; and what delay detains the tardy nights.
Thy countryside and all Thy running streams
Be my delight, sweet Goddesses; and let me love
Thy waters and secluded woods.
What is most intriguing about this obscure character from ancient history is that, although born in A.D. 390, he was not conceived until the late 1940’s—in Russell’s fecund imagination. Like John Shade in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Quintilius is a fictional poet, originally inspired by poet and philosopher George Santayana (also the inspiration for Wallace Stevens’ “Old Philosopher in Rome”). With Russell’s attention to scholarly detail—including a fabricated biographer—Quintilius is a brilliantly developed and executed artistic ruse; and for someone whose preferred models for poetry are Dante, Petrarch, and the ancient Greeks, he is the perfect poetic exercise as well.
Although Quintilius is an invention of Russell’s fancy, one cannot really say that Russell writes these poems: they are, rather, an unusual sort of creative translation, where Quintilius is the brash, uninhibited, pleasure-seeking poet of Russell’s id, as “translated” by Russell’s ego. Words flow “from the pen of Quintilius,” not from Russell himself—in fact, in the preface to The Elegies of Quintilius, we are told that “the translator has found it necessary to exscind several lines which are too raw even for these relaxed days.” It is difficult to imagine what these lines might contain, considering the extreme explicitness of some of the ones he has chosen to “leave in.” A bit of coarse language, however, should not affect one’s judgment of the quality of these poems, which are imaginative, intelligent, and created with good humor. At times, their creed is reminiscent of Pound’s Canto XIV, in which the true “perverters of language” are defined as those “who have set money-lust / Before the pleasures of the senses.” A crime, indeed, that neither Quintilius nor Russell could ever seriously be accused of.
In recent years, Peter Russell has faced more than his share of hardships. In March 1990, a fire damaged Russell’s Tuscan farmhouse, razing the poet’s vast personal archive of rare books, diaries, essays, and manuscripts, as well as holographs by Montale, Quasimodo, Ungaretti, Pound, and Eliot. Uninsured and impoverished, Russell moved to a converted turbine shed—lovingly referred to as “La Turbina”—with his teenage son, Peter George. In the fall of 1992, while Russell was attending a poetry seminar in Salzburg, torrential rains and mudslides flooded his new home, destroying the remains of his library, his manuscripts, and the copies of numerous early volumes of his work that he had reprinted earlier that year. In a recent interview with William Oxley, Russell took a surprisingly philosophical approach to his recurrent losses: “The Muses have done me the favour of abstracting, or burning, or flooding much of what I’ve written. They have permitted me to finish off a certain proportion of what I’ve done, and I’m thankful for that.”
For a few months, Russell and his mud-clogged typewriter found shelter in a small spare room in the home of the village priest, while Peter George was cared for by a local family. But the absence of his son, combined with a general sense of displacement, soon made such accommodations unbearable, and Russell returned with Peter George to La Turbina early in 1993, even though its rooms were still buried under several inches of mud.
It is from here that Russell writes his poems, as well as prepares and produces Marginalia, “an occasional review combining lyric and satiric poetry with acerbic observations on the anti-poetic scene.” Conceived in 1990, Marginalia’s circulation has grown from a few dozen to 2,000 copies, which Russell sends out to friends and admirers gratis (donations appreciated) even though he rarely has enough money to cover the cost of production and postage.
As paradoxical as Russell’s editorial generosity may seem given his shaky economic footing, it is actually more shrewd than irresponsible: Marginalia—which regularly includes a list of the poet’s books available for purchase—is Russell’s way of keeping in touch with the poetry scene, keeping his ideas and poems circulating, if only in a small way. For although Russell may be a respected, prize-winning poet in Italy, he and his work have, over the years, been unjustly neglected by the English-speaking world.
There is, however, an even stronger force motivating Russell: simply put, writing, especially writing poetry, is something that Russell not only loves, but needs to do. Says Russell, “Poetry is to do with breathing. Breathing is life, anima, pneuma.” He elaborates on this vital relationship in “Breaking Up?”:
It is the final end of living.
It is the only thing that counts;
It is the finest form of giving—
Give it your final ounce.
When broached by Russell’s alter ego, this passionate commitment to the art seems more of a burden than a blessing:
For me, I must ply the vowed toils of the dedicated poet,
Scholar and devotee of every Art and Science,
And at all time attendant to the visiting Muse,
—Knocked senseless and left hungry as I may be
By hostile Fates and the murderous hands of men.
It is hard to say which better typifies Russell’s point of view; doubtless, considering all he has endured over the years, both play a role. One can only hope that both man and the fates will eventually reverse their position and bestow upon Russell the recognition he deserves, while he is still able to enjoy it.
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