The Composer as Acmeist
Acmeism: A Russian poetic circle formed in 1912 in reaction against mystical symbolism, the reigning movement of the prior decade. Founded by Nikolai Gumilev and Sergei Gorodetsky, the acmeist coterie included Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Vladimir Narbut, and Mikhail Zenkevich, all of whom produced poems of a widely divergent nature.
The Greek term akmē denotes not only “apex” but “point” and “edge,” evoking the group’s interest in precision and sharpness. Eschewing the symbolist notion of the poet as an inward-looking dreamer, the acmeists saw poetry as a craft and the poet as an artisan who carves out exact meanings of words with his “hammer.”
For this reason, they advocated architectural “equilibrium” rather than the musical “vagueness” of symbolism. The notion of equilibrium informed their entire program: the acmeists aimed for a balance between past and present, between the poet’s inner world and the external, tangible world. They proposed evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, positioning themselves against their radical contemporaries, the Russian futurists.
In contrast to the futurist rejection of the past, Mandelstam later defined acmeism as a “yearning for world culture.” While futurism discarded mimetic representation in favor of fragmentation and wordplay, and symbolism depicted objects as vehicles to a higher sphere, acmeism espoused a poetics of palpability and precision: the acmeist poet depicts the earthly object with heightened clarity, attempting to view it as if for the first time, like Adam. (This idea was underscored by acmeism’s alternate name, “Adamism.”)
Acmeism thus embodied a broader international phenomenon of the 1910s: a tempered modernism that forged a middle ground between poetic traditional and avant-garde radicalism. The strongest exemplars of this, Russian acmeism and Anglo-Am. *imagism, both sought inspiration in Chinese poetry, Gr. and Roman imagery, the *Parnassians, and the Fr. poet Théophile Gautier.
Both groups adopted the metaphor of “hardness” to imply their twin goals of restrained self-expression and rigorous technique. The movements’ leaders, the acmeist Gumilev and the imagist Ezra Pound, both modeled at least some of their principles on the spare, chiseled verse of their female companions: Anna Akhmatova and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).
The outbreak of World War I effectively put an end to acmeism, although attempts were later made to resurrect it. Its most significant members, Akhmatova and Mandelstam, never repudiated the movement, yet their late work differs greatly from their acmeist poems of the 1910s.