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Rifkin leads readings of classic Russian poetry

By Kelsey Leiter

Amid Eickhoff cookies and fresh beverages, students and faculty alike took some time out of their day on Thursday, April 9, to celebrate a piece of European literature — Russian poetry.

Benjamin Rifkin, dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, along with Benjamin Jens and Colleen Lucey, instructors of Russian at the College, helped bring to life the words of famed Russian poets in honor of National Poetry Month.

The College’s very own proponents of Russian poetry selected nearly a dozen poems — half from the 19th century and half from the 20th century, Rifkin explained — to convey moods ranging from silly to serious. 

Both Jens and Rifkin earned their doctoral degrees in Russian literature, while Lucey is currently creating her own dissertation on Russian literature.

“It is no surprise that the three of us were excited to share our love of Russian poetry with the campus,” Rifkin said.

The professors took turns going line by line through each poem, with translations featured at the front of the room for students to follow along in order to read and recognize the “emotional charge of each line.”

Poems by Pushkin, Lermontov, Fet, Tiutchev, Balmont, Blok, Akhmatova, Tsevetaeva, Pasternak and Brodsky were all recited in the original Russian, because the professors believe that though the authors are relatively well-known throughout the world, there is a something extremely important about keeping the text in its original language.

“Russian poets don’t have the same recognition, and it’s a shame because Russian poetry is so beautiful,” Rifkin said when describing the event.

Between readings of each poem, students had the opportunity to discuss what they thought of the verses and learn more about each particular poem’s historical and cultural context.

Rifkin believes students were most moved by two poems of very different emotional dialects. The first of which, Balmont’s “Skiff of Langour,” can be considered a dark sound poem.

The second, “Incantation of Laughter” by Khlebnikov, is a funny piece that uses gibberish words all derived from the root of the word “laughter” in Russian. The poem begins, “We laugh with our laughter, loke laffer un loafer, sloaf lafker int leffer, lopp lapter und loofer, loopse lapper ung lasler…”

“Russian poetry is amazing. Before the 19th century, no Russian writers entered the world literary canon,” Rifkin said. “But since the beginning of the 19th century, no study of European literature, music or art is complete without the inclusion of Russian writers, composers and artists.”

The purpose of the event was to develop a better appreciation of Russian poetry on campus, and it’s evident that students left the reading with a different appreciation of the genre.


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