“Read Poetry: It Makes Men Better.” Pyotr Kropotkin
Leave it to revolutionaries to talk about art in such stark and serious terms. I love it. Peter Kropotkin wrote this advice, advice he himself received. He seemingly took it to heart. An amazing writer, scientist, revolutionary, and all around brilliant mind, Kropotkin was an early victim of the horrid backwards anti-revolution that was Bolshevism. But his brilliance was such that it outlived the failures of his age. Many great people do.
I’m working some interesting ideas about Kropotkin into my new poem. And it says a lot about myself that I’m having trouble finding a way to say a very simple thing. Below are several examples of one line that I’m struggling to include.
Kropotkin tended his gardens
Kropotkin tends gardens
Kropotkin has gardens in fallen Tsar’s shadow
Kropotkin tends his garden
Kropotkin, against mangled greenhouse glass, tending
Kropotkin and his gardens,
Kropotkin/ tends his gardens
In the spirit of my dear comrade and fantastic writer Hercules, let me analyze and compare! I don’t promise to be as thoughtful and contemplative as he is on his many wonderful blogs, but let’s have a look.
The general sense I’m trying to evoke here is this: Late in Kropotkin’s life, he returned to Russia in the midst of turmoil. The Revolution had come, manipulated and controlled by a small elite group. Kropotkin and his communal anarchists were variously ignored, subjugated, oppressed, or placated. Kropotkin was famous and influential enough that Lenin allowed him some small leeway. But he was defeated, his revolution was stalled or lost, and he knew it.
In particular, I’m thinking of a scene in Emma Goldman’s illuminating My Disillusionment in Russia, which details the pathetic state of the country and relates a meeting with the elderly Kropotkin in which he discussed his passions for botany, among other things. It struck me years ago, and even now I can easily recall that exact emotion- awe at a man so calm and focused, bittersweet regret that his dream died, admiration for a man still working and thinking when it felt so late in his life and his struggle.
With the line, which opens a section of my newest long poem Sophia, I’m going for all of this. This is the economy of poetry- and the curse. Sophia is about wisdom, all kinds and forms, striving for wisdom, reaching aspects, failing to achieve other aspects… It’s broad and conceptual and challenging. So the line, simple and direct, needs to be all of that.
(Sometimes I envy essayists. Or raconteurs. Lucky bastards!)
In the beginning I leaned towards the simple, “Kropotkin tended his gardens” It was concise, it said what needed said. Never, poet, say more than you need to say. You’re not a pundit. Yet I came back to the line because something was missing. Something was unsaid that needed said. So I tried to be more evocative, with “mangled glass” and “greenhouses.” I even invoked the Tsar! With a T!
But that was too much. It leaned towards biography, or that most immortal of poet sins, flower language. That would never do. So, Kropotkin and his gardens? “Kropotkin/ tends his gardens” has a nice flow and all, but it leads to confusing enjambment. Which, while an awesome band name, is bad for Sophia. So, what to do?
Like all good poets, I wrote and moved on. The line will stay for now as “Kropotkin tended his gardens” and it’ll do. I may come back to it. Strangely and wonderfully enough, in my mind the image of old Pyotr moving around his garden, sad but content, will come back to me time and time again. It seems only fair that the poem continue to return as well.