Can Poetry Heal? From Akhmatova’s “Requiem”


Is poetry therapy?  John Lundberg explores this question in his recent post at Huffington.  His summary, the links he provides, and the readers’ comments are interesting.   I confess that I share some of Lundberg’s tongue-in-cheek misgivings: if poetry is a cure, all too often it seems indistinguishable from the affliction.

In any event, Lundberg’s “Can Poetry Heal?” brought to mind the famous preface (“Instead of a Preface”) to Anna Akhmatova’s masterpiece Requiem.  The passage is often cited for the poet’s staggeringly simple answer to the question put to her.  But the question itself is amazing, given its context, especially in a culture which assigns poets a kind of social responsibility.  Here is the passage in its entirety, as translated by Kunitz and Hayward:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad.  One day somebody in the crowd identified me.  Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before.  Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

“Can you describe this?”

And I said: “I can.”

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.


Image: untitled photo of Akhmatova monument opposite Kresty Prison by Incandenzafied


~ by matt on 2 December 2008.

2 Responses to “Can Poetry Heal? From Akhmatova’s “Requiem””

  1. A friend sent this comment offline (hyperlinks added):

    The NYT Book Review has a little remembrance of Phyllis McGinley, occasioned by the movie version of Revolutionary Road.

    And I got to thinking how I miss light verse, the Ogden Nash and Phyllis McGinley and so on that I used to read as a child. It’s interesting that light verse has almost completely vanished from the poetry landscape.

    I blame the poetry-as-therapy movement.

    What do you think?

  2. If only more than 67 people could hear about this!

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Natalie E. Illum...

is a poet, performer and disability activist. Bring her stumbling to your city.

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