By Heart Poetry: A Very Russian Obsession

By Heart Poetry: A Very Russian Obsession
07 August 2023

Picture the scene: I had been trawling through the basement of the university languages library, and had finally got my hands on a translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. At the issue desk, I handed over my spoils to the present librarian. “Ah, Pushkin,” she said smilingly with a faint Russian accent; “now let me see if this is a good translation.” She opened the poem to the first page and started to read. I could see the cogs working in her head. Then, after a few moments, she concluded “yes, it really captures the rhyme of the original.” I was baffled for a few moments as I worked out what had happened. Then I realised: the librarian knew the passage from Pushkin off by heart, and had offered her impromptu assessment by comparing the memorised Russian in her head to the English in the page. This was how I first encountered the Russian obsession with learning poetry, line-by-line.

Off by Heart Poetry Starts in School

During their school years, Russian pupils spend literature classes learning poetry off by heart. Indeed, even before this, nationally renowned children poets like Korney Chukovsky (Корней Иванович Чуковский) and Agniya Barto (Агния Львовна Барто) are taught to pre-schoolers during their first exposure to the Russian language. For example, here is the beloved first stanza of the poem ‘Телефон᾽ by the former­—even if you don’t understand the words, listen to the playful rhyming scheme.

 

У меня зазвонил телефон.
— Кто говорит?
— Слон.
— Откуда?
— От верблюда.
— Что вам надо?
— Шоколада.
— Для кого?
— Для сына моего.
— А много ли прислать?
— Да пудов этак пять
Или шесть:
Больше ему не съесть,
Он у меня еще маленький!

 

Poems off by Heart: What to Pick?

The answer is obvious for any Russian: Pushkin! He is a staple of every Russian literature curriculum and is often cited by adult Russians when asked to recall a poem. Common examples include Зимнее утро (Winter’s morning) and Зимний вечер (Winter’s evening), which feature beautiful natural descriptions in Pushkin’s inimitable style.

But there are more modern Russian writers, like Boris Ryzhy (Борис Борисович Рыжий), who have also caught the attention of a new generation of learners. These may not be drilled into pupils at school, but their huge popularity among the reading public is testament to their literary significance.

Learn Poems to Learn Russian

A large part of the theory behind the Russian poetry by heart culture is that by learning poems, children will learn new vocabulary. This applies to us Russian learners too! So next time you’re bored of vocab lists and flashcards, why not memorise something more interesting—even if its about a phone call from an elephant!

Luke is a history and languages student interning at Liden & Denz, Riga.

Image credit to Plato Terentev at Plexels.com.

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