In 1948 W.H. Auden wrote that “The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman.” If the connection between statesmen and poets seems far-fetched, consider our own American poet-leaders, which include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter and even current President Barack Obama. Fortunately, our poet-presidents — perhaps more accurately hyphenated as president-poets — seem to excel first as statesmen; their poetic imagination is often underdeveloped or neglected, the object of youthful aspiration or the articulation of political sentiment, as in Abraham Lincoln’s last published poem, from 1863, when he was president, in response to the North’s victory in the Battle of Gettysburg. In that short poem he awkwardly abbreviates Philadelphia “Phil-del” to achieve his rhyme scheme, managing a folksy quality characteristic of his earlier satirical verses. The Library of Congress’ Peter Armenti has compiled an impressive survey of poetry written by American presidents for the library’s Virtual Programs website.
Other statesman-poets include Mao Zedong, perhaps the most poetically gifted of contemporary major leaders, whose work has been revitalized by Willis Barnstone’s recent re-translation; former prize winner Radovan Karadžić, the “Butcher of Bosnia,” currently in the custody of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; and East Timor’s Xanana Gusmão, who currently serves as his nation’s prime minister. Stalin, like all of these leaders, began writing poetry in his youth, first publishing poems in local Georgian daily Iveria at age 16, under the pen name “Soselo.” Though he’s only known to have written a handful of poems, some of his poems are still included in contemporary Georgian elementary school text books, albeit anonymously, like “To the Moon”:
Sail on, as tirelessly as ever,
Above an earth obscured by clouds,
And with your shining glow of silver
Dispel the fog that now abounds.
With languor, bend your lovely neck,
Lean down to earth with tender smile.
Sing lullabies to Mount Kazbek,
Whose glaciers reach for you on high.
But know for certain, he who had
Once been oppressed and cast below,
Can scale the heights of Mount Mtatsminda,
Exalted by undying hope.
Shine on, up in the darkened sky,
Frolic and play with pallid rays,
And, as before, with even light,
Illuminate my fatherland.
I’ll bare my breast to you, extend
My arm in joyous greeting, too.
My spirit trembling, once again
I’ll glimpse before me the bright moon.
Iveria, No. 123 (1895)
Translator Vlad Osso has recently finished translating Stalin’s poetry from Georgian in its first ever literary translation. That translation is now available as a free ebook, Drain the Cup Dry, from Molossus and the Volna Collective, a literature, performance art, and foosball supper club in Odessa, Ukraine. Osso says he was inspired to translate the poems during a dry spell in the writing of his own poetry, which he claims further suffered because of the task at hand. His translations attempt to replicate “some of the music of the original Georgian, as well as the saccharine flavor of the Russian translations prepared for Stalin by sycophants during his lifetime.”
Osso’s e-book includes a never-before-translated poem from late in Stalin’s life, found in Russian — presumably in his own rendition and handwriting — among his papers and dated 1949. In that poem, “Novices,” Stalin assumes a degree of responsibility for some of his actions, which include the execution of a hundreds of thousands of Russians during the Great Purge of 1937-38, though ultimately absconding full responsibility by claiming his hand was forced by both supernatural and situational forces: “Yes, I am justly blamed in many ways! / But someone, too, had ruled my destiny.”
Stalin’s connection to poetry goes deeper than his youthful dabbling — his poetic imagination extends even to his name. In an email interview, translator Osso explained,
According to the historian Vilyam Pokhlebkin, the young Jughashvili devised his pseudonym, Stalin, by abbreviating the surname of journalist Evgeny Stalinsky, who had translated and annotated a handsome five-language edition of Stalin’s beloved Georgian epic, Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in a Panther Skin, in 1889.
Osso has also rendered several poems about Stalin into English, by two poets the leader later put to death. In Mandelstam’s “Stalin Epigram” the poet sealed his fate by describing, among other things, Stalin’s “cockroach mustachio,” depicted above by illustrator Laura Peters. Stalin also maintained several notable literary correspondences, with letters from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s lover Lilia Brik and Boris Pasternak appearing in Drain the Cup Dry. The collection ends with Stalin’s letter to the Children’s Literature Division of the State Publishing House, in which he vehemently opposes the publication of Tales of Stalin’s Childhood:
The book teems with a mass of factual inaccuracies, distortions, ex- aggerations, and undue praise. The author was led astray by hunters of fairy tales, fibbers (though perhaps “conscientious” fibbers), and bootlickers. I pity the author, but facts are facts…. I advise you to burn the book.
By that point in his career — the letter was written in 1938 — Stalin’s poetic imagination had been emphatically proven, and it seems the State Publishing House readily accepted his advice.