Russian Language Blog

Real Poetry for Real Russians – Part II Posted by on Apr 14, 2010 in Culture, language

Remember the Real Poetry for Real Russians post? At the end of it I promised to tell you whether having to memorize, as children, lots and lots of poems helps Russians in practical daily life.

I was all fired up to write the Part II of this post when something quite unexpected happened – I bought a March/April issue of Russian Life magazine.  Ok, so nothing unexpected here; I do buy this magazine often enough that I really ought to subscribe to it. The unexpected part was that on page 27, there was an article titled A Country of Poets, by Mikhail Ivanov.

Loaded with excellent examples, the article’s main point is that

“Russians love rhymes, especially ones that demonstrate a knowledge of cultural touchstones.”

Remember the three little phrases I suggested you to memorize? Now I can go back and refer to them as cultural touchstones.

The article then goes on to explain that “[Russians] garnish day-to-day speech with what we call присловья or прибаутки – facetiously rhymed catch-phrases and expressions that spice up the language.”

Well, since Russian Life took care of my plans for Part II of the Real Poetry mini-series, then it’s time for Part III – «поздравительные стихи» [celebratory or special occasions poetry].

Let’s sum up what we already know :

1. Russians are exposed to A WHOLE LOT of poetry «с младых ногтей» [from the youngest age; lit. from tender fingernails].

2. Russians love to sprinkle their everyday conversations with «прибаутки» [rhyming catch-phrases], «рифмы» [rhymes] and famous poetic one-liners.

3. Russians are fond of celebrating special occasions of all sorts, but especially birthdays, anniversaries and various other «юбилеи» [jubilees], whether personal, organizational or those of the State.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that celebratory poetry takes a special place in Russian hearts. Actually, it takes on some epic proportions. A few days before major holidays, Russian social network «Одноклассники» [Classmates] gets clogged up with holiday best wishes in verse.

From something as simple as

«С праздником поздравляем, здоровья и счастья желаем!» [On this occasion we are congratulating; much health and happiness are a-waiting!]

to mid-range congrats, such as this Maslenitsa-themed one (notice pancakes, reference to Maslenitsa doll, and saying goodbye to winter)

«Желаю Вам за стол присесть, блинов с икорочкой поесть, сжечь бабу, зиму проводить, прошу меня за всё простить!» [Wishing you to sit at your table, eat some pancakes with caviar, burn Maslenitsa effigy, see winter off, and forgive me for everything! ]

To heavy-hitters such as this birthday wish:

Russian English
У тебя сегодня день рождения
Желаем счастья и добра
И вечной юности цветенья
Улыбок, солнца и тепла
Today is your birthday
We are wishing you happiness and goodness
The never-ending bloom of youth
Smile, sun and warmth…

(if you want to read the rest of this wish – 13 more lines – check it out here along with many other poetic birthday wishes)

If such an all-encompassing list of birthday wishes seems a bit too much, here’s something short and to the point (for men, by a man):

Russian English
Здоровья много, не болеть!
На юге летом загореть!
Зарплату получать побольше!
Катать семью на красном порше!
Be in good health, don’t get sick!
Get sun tan at the beach and quick!
Huge raise in your salary!
And a red Porsche for the family!

Of course, this is no high poetry, no A. Pushkin or A. Blok. Not even S. Marshak or A. Barto, those of cheesy children’s rhymes. Most Russians I know cringe when they are on the receiving end of this poetry or try to laugh it off. And yet… when special occasion looms ahead, we rise up to the challenge and pen our own celebratory «панегирики» [panegyrics ], with all the requisite flourishes of the genre.

It’s a русский народный [Russian people’s] Hallmark. The idea is to not take it too seriously. After all, these are celebratory poems, read in a company of friends and at a table heavily-laden with «закуски» [appetizers] and «выпивка» [alcohol]. As a good Russian «поговорка» [saying] goes, «главное не подарок, а внимание» [it’s the thought that counts; lit: it’s not the gift that’s important, but the attention]

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  1. Peter:

    Thank you for a fascinating article.

    I wonder if Russian children learn mnemonic rhymes in order to help them to learn their grammar? Such rhymes might be interesting and helpful to foreign students of the language too!

    For instance, earlier generations of English schoolchildren enjoyed learning:-
    “A, ab, absque, coram, de,
    palam, clam, cum, ex and e…..etc”
    to help them remember the prepositions which took the ablative case in Latin .

    • yelena:

      @Peter Peter, you are reading my mind! I’ve been meaning to write about Russian mnemonic rhymes in May. Stay tuned 🙂

  2. Minority:

    And I think almost every russian tried to write something for his/her beloved. One russian song told: “Пусть твердят, что пишет каждый в девятнадцать лет…” [You may say that everyone wrote poems when he was 19, I don’t care]. 🙂

    ps. I know the only one mnemonic rhyme from school, and I know that there’re plenty of them, so I think you could never seen this one (it consists of all неправильные глаголы 2 спряжения):
    Гнать, держать, смотреть и видеть,
    Дышать, слышать и обидеть,
    Не зависеть и вертеть,
    Ненавидеть и терпеть.

  3. philip:

    I’m from Russia and its cool to be in America