Book Review: Selected Poems (Nabokov)

Selected Poems, by Vladimir Nabokov

Having long been interested in the writing of Vladimir Nabokov [1], I was quite pleased to see a reasonably sized book that showed a side of Nabokov that I was unfamiliar with, his life as a poet.  Obviously, then, as someone who reads pretty widely when it comes to poems [2], I was intrigued and decided to read the book for myself.  So, is this a book worth reading?  I have to say yes, although it is by no means a complete volume of Nabokov’s history.  This book reveals that Nabokov was a very serious poet and that he was skilled and accomplished in painting pictures with words and in turning his complex and sometimes disturbing mind to the poetic form in both Russian (provided here in translation) and English.  Some of these poems definitely deserve to be remembered and well-regarded alongside his famous novels, and a few of these poems even give some insight into his novels and into the way in which he transmuted his life into literature as well as the way that he engaged in various thought experiments and speculations into people that were not particularly like him.

This particular book of about 200 pages (including some absolutely essential endnotes that explain the context of the writing of the poems, their textual variants in published editions, and Nabokov’s own thoughts about them) is divided into four sections.  The first section is made up of poems translated by Dmitri Nabokov from the author’s early writings.  After this there is a section of Russian poems from Poems and Problems translated into English.  After this there are the English language poems from Poems and Problems and then there are English-language poems not previously published in that same edition.  As one might imagine, Nabokov is a poet who writes about issues of politics, memory, love, exile, Russian literature, and creation.  He also shows a surprising interest in religion, with poems about angels and demons as well as the Last Supper, Easter, and his travels in Oregon.  While his poems in Russian tend to have a very strict rhyme scheme, his poems in English and the poems in English translation are less strict, although they are strict enough to demonstrate that Nabokov was certainly highly conservative in his poetic forms and his strong preference for rhyme and meter over more contemporary free verse trends.

Yet in reading this poetry one gets a sense of the difficulties that Nabokov faced as an author.  For one, he was very aware of the Russian culture that he had left behind in facing exile, and a great many of his poems reflect on his alienation in profound ways.  Whether he is looking at Peter the Great’s time in the Netherlands during that czar’s own travels, or reflecting on life as a teacher of Russian to American and European young people, trying to encourage them to understand something of the soul of the language, or whether he is writing poetry that dances along or crosses the line over what is acceptable in various emigre literary journals, Nabokov shows himself as a writer who is hard to define and hard to characterize.  Quite daringly, he makes some complex literary puns with the names of Stalin and Churchill to show his criticism at bumptious political leaders, showing that he was willing to stick his neck out to make a point.  All in all, the poems show Nabokov to be a man with a strong sense of rhyme and meter, a very sharp eye to situations and an ability to write some very technically challenging as well as strongly evocative poetry.  If you like Russian poetry in translation there is a great deal to enjoy and appreciate here.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to Book Review: Selected Poems (Nabokov)

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Pnin | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Splitting An Order | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Selected Poems (Tennyson) | Edge Induced Cohesion

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