In prose-poesy, Nabokov is sui generis
, part of the movement to reinvent the language of the novel along with other modernist stylists: Joyce, Woolf, Proust. He is remembered as one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, and rightfully so for his creative re-conceptualizing of the novel's form and intent in his books Lolita
, Pale Fire
et. al. But for all his poetic prose, he is not remembered for his poetry. This isn't especially surprising, though maybe a bit undeserved. Poetry is a realm wherein meaning is sovereign; Nabokov is resistant to meaning.
In Nabokov's Selected Poems
, we find not the brimming emotion of Plath, nor the surfeit meaning of Eliot or Stevens, nor the lofty Romanticism of Keats, Byron, Shelly; Nabokov is a painter of images, sequences, in words, and that is what is striking in this collection. Indubitably, the novel is Nabokov's most amenable medium, and it is one which he mastered, and in mastering it he largely gave up poetry, but in his poetry, especially in the English poems, there are the sprouts of genius which lubricated the authors mind when composing his novels.
Perhaps Nabokov is as famous for his exile as he is for his work, and throughout this collection, which is composed of both his Russian and his English poems, there is a tension between the world that he gave up and the world he has adopted. I think especially of the poem "Lines Written in Oregon, which begins:
Esmeralda! Now we rest
Here, in the bewitched and blest
Mountain forests of the West
and goes on to claim (Europe, nonetheless, is over.) in a Nabokovian aside. There is a longing for the world which has been lost, but a reassurance that his new home, America, has a similar hidden beauty, and that his muse, Esmeralda, has come with him, making art possible though he is far from the beloved home which he recalls in Speak, Memory
. Nabokov's poetry is a call for the imagination, a plea to view the world for, not necessarily its actual natural beauty, but the beauty which is made possible through your perception of it, though a childlike infinitude of the imagination. "Huddle roadsigns softly speak / Of Lake Merlin, Castle Creek
" - the world is open to play, filled with an unreal beauty which Nabokov captures both in his poetry and in his novels. His novels, like his poetry, do not have the steely coldness of reality, but have a strangely warm veneer of almost fairy-tale quality, and that effervescence is the heart of his poetry in particular, the distillation of that whimsy into the meaty metrical skeleton of verse.
Nabokov's poems, unlike his novels, paint small ephemeral images rather than complete portraits of the psyche. He is a master of language, and this mastery is the seal of genius which is kissed upon his poems, though they lack the emotional fervor of other poets. They are lyrical, and metered, rhyming and ordered: like his novels, form and structure are supreme, and he greatly distances himself from the modernist free-verse poets, like Eliot. Also like his novels, the poems are peppered with puns and humor:
The room a dying poet took
at nightfall in a dead hotel
had both directories - the Book
of Heaven and the Book of Bell.
Though professionally he was an author, his passion for lepidoptery is a common thread throughout all of his fiction, this poetry collection included. And despite the fame which he garnered for Lolita
his poetry shows a skepticism in the endurance of art:
Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
poems that take a thousand years to die
but ape the immortality of this
red label on a little butterfly.
Though there are things in life which we find so important: literary fame, power, art, it is the small advancements in our understanding of the world which become immortalized: only knowledge is a power which endures time, which "transcends its dust."