In a story that could not be more timely in the wake of Vladimir Putin not recognizing Yuri Shevchuk, the New York Times reports:
Since the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, Russian poetry has begun to resemble American poetry in ways that are both fascinating and sad. What’s fascinating is how talented, and how different from one another, Russia’s young poets are. What’s sad is how little they are read, and how little they matter. Whatever reach contemporary poetry had in Russian society has vanished like wood smoke.
The death on Tuesday of Andrei Voznesensky, a stirring poet of the post-Stalin “thaw era” in the 1950s and early 1960s, caused many to recall a time when that reach was enormous. Voznesensky’s generation of poets, which included Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina, declaimed their work in sports stadiums to overflow crowds. A moment presented itself — the relative artistic freedom of the early Khrushchev era — and these poets pounced on the microphone. As Mr. Voznesensky put it, with a punk lip curl: “The times spat at me. I spit back at the times.”
The poets of the thaw era were liberating figures, and have frequently been likened to the West’s most word-drunk rockers and singer-songwriters: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. They were political, sexy, a bit louche and sometimes ridiculous. They squabbled. Mr. Yevtushenko seemed to be alluding to poets too, when he asked, “Why is it that right-wing bastards always stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, while liberals fall out among themselves?”
The attention paid to Mr. Voznesensky’s death is a reminder not just of that ecstatic thaw era, but of how important Russia’s poetry has been over three centuries, from Aleksandr Pushkin to Anna Akhmatova, to the country’s sense of itself. It is a vast and elusive country, one that poetry — that pointed words — helped to unite.
Pushkin (1799-1837) is the rebellious founder of modern Russian literature, and the country’s greatest early poet, its Shakespeare: all roads snake back to him. He had a cultivated voice that nonetheless caught the Russian vernacular, and he continues to be adored there. In her recent and lovely book “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them,” Elif Batuman describes Pushkin’s “cartoonish omnipresence” in Russian literary culture.
To illustrate her point, Ms. Batuman mischievously quotes a bit of a play called “Pushkin and Gogol,” by the early Soviet-era writer Daniil Kharms, in which Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol keep tripping over one another:
“GOGOL, getting up: This is mockery, through and through! (walks, trips on Pushkin and falls) Pushkin again!”
Ms. Batuman declares: “That’s how it is. Pushkin is everywhere.”
He is still widely taught there to schoolchildren. Among Pushkin’s qualities was a suspicion of power and corruption that would fortify his successors and help see them through the darkest hours. Here is Pushkin’s poem “Good for the Poet Who …,” a bitter satire of writers who would curry favor with rulers, in a translation by Yevgeny Bonver:
Good for the poet who applies
His art in royal chambers’ splendor.
Of tears and laughter crafty vendor
Adding some truth to many lies,
He tickles the sated taste of lords
For more greatness and awards.
And decorates all their feasts,
Receiving clever praise as fees …
But, by the doors, so tall and stout —
On sides of stables and backyards —
The people, haunted by the guards,
Hark to this poet in a crowd.
Now there’s a declaration of independence.
One of the best things about Mr. Voznesensky and his generation, during the 1950s and ’60s, was their veneration for, and deep knowledge of, the poets who had come before them and had been silenced (or executed) after the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Among these were the masters Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, whose work began to reappear in print after decades of circulating only in samizdat editions. Akhmatova’s work was attacked by Soviet authorities for its “bourgeois” preoccupation with love and God, and she would live to see her first husband, also a poet, shot without trial on a bogus charge and her son spend years in labor camps. Her banned cycle of poems, “Requiem,” written during the Stalin era and not published in full in Russia until 1987, is a devastating appraisal of the Stalinist terror and includes, in this translation by A. S. Kline, these bitter and ringing lines:
Seventeen months I’ve pleaded
for you to come home.
Flung myself at the hangman’s feet,
my terror, oh my son.
And I can’t understand,
now all’s eternal confusion,
who’s beast, and who’s man,
how long till execution.
Other poets of that era were even less fortunate. Sergei Yesenin had a mental breakdown and hanged himself in 1925, at the age of 30. (Jim Harrison’s small book of poems, “Letters to Yesenin,” published in 1973, is a tangled and elegiac tribute to him.)
Mr. Voznesensky reached back to other important Russian poets, including Boris Pasternak, whom he worked up the nerve to write when he was all of 14. Pasternak read the young man’s verse and wrote to him: “Your entrance into literature was swift and turbulent. I’m glad I’ve lived to see it.” Russians did not fall in love with their poets only because they attended to their country’s political realities, however. Far from it. As Vladimir Nabokov pointed out in his “Lectures on Russian Literature,” “Literature belongs not to the department of general ideas but to the department of specific words and images.” Delight and close observation can have a liberating moral force of their own.
Here is a taste of Tsvetaeva’s charming antilove love poem, “I like the fact that you’re not mad about me,” from 1915, translated by Andrey Kneller:
I like the fact that you’re not mad about me,
I like the fact that I’m not mad for you,
And that the globe of planet earth is grounded
And will not drift away beneath our shoes.
I like the fact that I can laugh here loudly,
Not play with words, feel unashamed and loose
And never flush with stifling waves above me
When we brush sleeves, and not need an excuse.
Russian poetry in 2010 has lost most of the awful things it once had to push and grind against — happily for its poets, perhaps, and perversely less happily for its verse. And surely the country’s poets are less read for some of the same reasons they are elsewhere, including the distractions of Yandex (the Russian rival to Google) and Odnoklassniki (the Russian answer to Facebook).
About Russian poetry, however, it won’t do to be a declinist. The next huge talents are surely out there, circling like baby sharks. (You can catch some of them in an engrossing book called “Contemporary Russian Poetry: An Anthology” published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2008 and edited by Evgeny Bunimovitch and J. Kates.) Most of them would probably agree with the Nobelist Joseph Brodsky, himself an exiled Russian-born poet. “Bad literature,” he declared, is its own “form of treason.