Building Blocks of Art: Anna Akhmatova and Robert Bringhurst


Anna Akhmatova

by Debbie Vance

So Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style finally arrives, and as I’m flipping through it, what catches my eye but poetry.

The photograph to the left shows an excerpt from Anna Akhmatova’s, “In 1940,” showing both the original Russian and the translated English.

Anna Akhmatova is of the poetic school of Acmeism, which came about in the early 1900s as an attempt to break free of the predominant Symbolism movement–which affected not just poetry but the very structure of cultural thought. “The Symbolists believed that the visible here-and-now was illusory and that everything was in any case fated to shatter or decompose–a prospect that filled them with fearful presentiment or longing,” according Max Hayward’s introduction to his and Stanley Kunitz’s translation of Akhmatova’s poems. This was an essentially romantic impulse, and one that led to poetry that prophesied insight from the “beyond,” using words as mere symbols, since nothing was what it seemed. And became the catalyst that spurred both the Futurists and the Acmeists. (For the sake of brevity, we’ll focus on Acmeism only, as it is the school pertaining to Akhmatova and, as you will see, Bringhurst.)

At the very heart of Acmeism was a “revulsion against the hectic romanticism of the Symbolists, their ‘ideological’ preoccupations and high-priestly pretensions. Most of them believed that language possessed a logic and structure of its own that must not be arbitrarily tampered with…but treated with the respect a craftsman accords his materials.” Poets of this movement–led by Akhmatova, Nikolay Gumilev, and Osip Mandelstam–wrote in a straightforward, narrative manner, using language on its own, pre-prescribed terms.

But theirs was a movement beyond mere linguistic limits–Acmeism taught that poetry could not illuminate the reality humans were confined to, nor could it provide a means of escape. What it could do, however, was encompass all of life’s experiences–both great and small–in the vast realm of poetry.

“The poets and artists who rejected Symbolism do not look down to ordinary, everyday life–on the contrary, it is a source of beauty for them whether they are poets or painters…To Mandelstam, as a self-styled Acmeist, three-dimensional space and life on earth were essential because he wanted to do his duty by his ‘host’–he felt he was here to build, which can only be done in three dimensions. This explains his attitude towards the world of things. In his view, the world was not hostile to the poet or–as he put it–the builder, because things are there to be built from,” writes Nadezhda Mandelstam, in her memoir on her husband, Hope Against Hope.

The information goes on and on (and I encourage you to read the brilliant introduction mentioned above, available for purchase here), but the point I find so beautifully appropriate is that Akhmatova, the poet who believed, like Mandelstam, that art could be built from even the smallest, most insignificant building blocks within our tangible reality, was used as an example in a book about typography. I wonder if Bringhurst–whose point was, “when alphabets are mixed, they should be very closely balanced both in color and in contrast”–realized the complexity of his chosen example, and how well it supports the idea of typography as a basic building block for the art of the written word.


For those of you who want it, here is Akhmatova’s “In 1940” in its complete form, translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward

At the burial of an epoch
no psalm is heard at the tomb.
Soon nettles and thistles
will decorate the spot.
The only busy hands are those
of the gravediggers. Faster! Faster!
And it’s quiet, Lord, so quiet
you can hear time passing.

Some day it will surface again
like a corpse in a spring river;
but no mother’s son will claim her,
and grandsons, sick at heart,
will turn away.
Sorrowing heads…
the moon swinging like a pendulum…

And now, over death-struck Paris,
such silence falls.


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