Poet's Choice

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By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, April 29, 2007

Sometimes poetry makes things happen. In a large, resonant example, a poem by Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) about Stalin caused the poet's imprisonment in 1934. In the translation of Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin, "The Stalin Epigram" and its story have had great importance for many people:

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.

At ten paces you can't hear our words.

But whenever there's a snatch of talk

it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,

his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,

the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses

he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meouws, a third snivels.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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