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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

A Story about a Forgotten Poem

A souvenir came to visit me, unexpectedly: a long forgotten poem learned sometime in the middle school. Had it been the fifth grade? The sixth? Impossible to remember. A poem about a bunch of classmates who meet after many years. Each one with a very solid profession, and their meeting brings them back, toward the school age.

As I was trying to remember the stanzas, I realized that this was not its first visit. No, it had come several times along the years, always unexpectedly, keeping me company for a while, trying to bring back the rhymes, always unsuccessfully, then going away, in an unknown direction.

And I realized that it was more than the forgotten poem. It was about that day, in the fifth or sixth grade, when I firstly encountered it in the schoolbook. I was together with my classmates, for each of us it was just a new lesson to be learned, nothing more, and none of us was thinking that one day our turn would also come, to miss those times, and to wonder what had happened with the others.

Well, this time I decided to leave apart nostalgia and to not let again the poem go away. That was fine, only there were some issues. Firstly I could not remember the title, neither the author. What I vaguely remembered were one or two lines, some place toward the middle of the poem. The poem was in Russian, one of the foreign languages that were studied by us in the middle and high school.

To find a poem in Russian without knowing the author, based only on one or two rhymes placed somewhere among many others meant to find the needle in the hay. For the beginning I needed to make some assumptions about the author. I tried to build a sketch: a Soviet poet, creative in the 1940's / 1950's, with books for children. I considered Marshak.

Samuil Marshak (1887-1964)
photo of 1934, during 1-st Congress of Soviet Writers
no copyright infringement intended

By the time I was in school I knew only a very tiny bit of Marshak's poetry, more of his fame as a children's writer - and with the passing of years this little knowledge faded completely. What I didn't know was that he also had translated sonnets from Shakespeare, poems by Blake and Burns, stories of Kipling - I learned this only recently, while looking for more data about him - and I must say I am fascinated by the paradoxical genius of Blake. Exactly, how would sound in Russian To Nobodaddy?

Okay, let's go back to the school poem. I thought I could find it by searching on Russian web pages for the name of Marshak and one of the lines I still remembered. That line is about the professions two schoolmates now have: one is in the aviation, the second an armor officer (Первый пилот, второй танкист). Thus, I started to look for Маршак Первый пилот, второй танкист. I found several pages full of Marshak's poems, and it took me a while to browse them - without success.

I didn't give up, and made the search criteria a bit more flexible, instead of  Первый пилот, второй танкист, I put only пилот and танкист, so I looked for Маршак пилот танкист. I browsed again the poems, again without success.

I decided then to look throughout the poems of Marshak only for  танкист and to see in what context I find it. No fit.

As I was browsing Marshak's poetry on a web site dedicated to Soviet children's literature, I suddenly realized that it was possible to be another author. I went on looking on that site for the occurrences of танкист in the works of other poets. And the unbelievable happened: here was the poem!


То было много лет назад.
Я тоже в первый раз
С толпою сверстников-ребят
Явился в школьный класс.

Мне тоже задали урок
И вызвали к доске,
И я решал его как мог,
Держа мелок в руке.

Умчались школьные года,
И не догонишь их.
Но я встречаю иногда
Товарищей своих.

Один — моряк, другой — танкист,
А третий — инженер,
Четвертый — цирковой артист,
А пятый — землемер,

Шестой — полярный капитан,
Седьмой — искусствовед,
Восьмой — наш диктор, Левитан,
Девятый — я, поэт.

И мы, встречаясь, всякий раз
О школе говорим...
— Ты помнишь, как учили нас
И как не знал я, где Кавказ,
А ты не знал, где Крым?

Как я старался подсказать,
Чтоб выручить дружка,
Что пятью восемь — сорок пять
И что Эльбрус — река?

Мы стали взрослыми теперь,
Нам детства не вернуть.
Нам школа в жизнь открыла дверь
И указала путь.

Но, провожая в школьный класс
Теперь своих детей,
Мы вспоминаем каждый раз
О юности своей,

О нашей школе над рекой,
О классе в два окна.
На свете не было такой
Хорошей, как она!

Instead of Первый пилот, второй танкист the line was Один — моряк, другой — танкист: beside the slightly different numerals, the first guy wasn't an aviator, rather a sailor! And the author was Sergey Mikhalkov! As they say, the devil is in the details (like in the old story with Ivan Ivanovich who had been gifted in the Red Square with a car: except that it hadn't been a car, rather a bicycle, and it had not been given to him, rather taken from).

Now, to say a few words about Sergey Mikhalkov,  he was the father of two great filmmakers (Nikita Mikhalkov and Andrei Konchalovsky) - which was fine, no question about - he also authored thrice the lyrics for the Soviet and then Russian anthem (once demanded by Stalin, second time by Brezhnev and third time by Putin) - which was not so fine, of course - at least one could say he proved to be kind of tenacious (maybe just a perfectionist, or maybe he proved to have good hand each time, whichever) - he also created a literary personage extremely prized by Russian children - Uncle Styopa, a friendly policeman always ready to rescue cats stuck up on trees, and to perform other helpful deeds - I'm quoting here his obituary published in Guardian.

And also, like his Uncle Styopa, Sergey Mikhalkov was extremely tall, so once when he entered a theater, the audience asked the poet to sit directly on the floor, as it would be the same for him (I'm quoting again Guardian).

I tried to translate his poem: it proved extremely hard as I am far from a poet, and I am not content at all with my rendering. At least you'll have an idea on what it was about.

That has been many years ago.
It was like yesterday:
A crowd of kids, for the first time,
We enter the classroom.

Again I’m asked about homework
And called to the blackboard,
Again I’m answering so-so,
In my hand with the chalk.

School years gone for ever are
And I’m not gonna get them.
But sometimes we all meet again,
The crowd from the old time.

One is a sailor, the other armor officer,
The third an engineer.
The fourth a circus entertainer,
The fifth is a surveyor,

The sixth is now a polar captain,
The seventh, art historian,
The eighth, broadcaster Levitan,
The ninth — that’s me, the poet.

And we all meet, from time to time,
Talking about those years.
— Do you remember us in class?
I didn’t know to place Caucas,
Neither did you, Crimea.

Or how I tried to help my friend,
And told him in a whisper,
That five times eight makes forty five
And Elbrus is a river.

We are complete grown-ups now,
Childhood is far away.
The school has opened us the door,
It showed us just the way.

But, when we see now our kids
As they sit in the classroom,
Each time it calls in our minds
The kids we used to be,

And our school over the river,
The classroom with two windows.
A tiny space, the light was scarce,
These were the happiest years!

(Жизнь в Kнигах)


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