Another thing that struck me in My Half-Century was the way that Akhmatova and her circle valued oral recitation of poetry. She speaks, for example, of Mandelstam reading his verse to her and of her committing it to memory, and then is able to reproduce it in her writing decades later.
In a chapter on Modigliani, which can be found here, she describes the days she passed with him in the jardin du Luxembourg:
‘We in two voices recited from Verlaine, whom we knew well by heart, and we rejoiced that we both remembered the same work of his. […] Most of all we used to talk about poetry. We both knew a great many French verses: by Verlaine, Laforgue, Mallarmé, Baudelaire. […] He never read Dante to me, possibly because at that time I didn’t yet know Italian.
I was surprised and then amused at the ease with which she says all this. I think of all the poetry I read and for all the passages and fragments that stay with me or that I copy out, there are very few that I could recite beginning to end from memory the way that she often speaks of. If I do know any Russian verse this way, it’s usually coincidental – that I learnt them as songs first, for example – rather than because of an active effort on my part.
Hearing Akhmatova talk of poetry this way, most of all, makes me want to do better. We could all listen to Dante if we wanted to, after all, and we could all learn Italian. It’s not beyond us to sit down and learn Mandelstam or Verlaine – but it’s certainly something to be worked at, something that takes time. Perhaps because of this we’re used to thinking of the learning of poetry as a chore, as something serious or for schoolchildren (for the poems I can recite best, I’m ashamed to say, are The Lion and Albert and Matilda Who Told Lies, and was Burned to Death), rather than something enjoyable that might bring us closer together with others. But – for me at least – I think putting that time in, the effort on top of everything else (and with exams so close I do have plenty else that I should be doing!), would be worth it.