06 April 2017

A smart-aleck Siberian Francois Villon

"What do you know about Yevgeny Yevtushenko?", I asked our students.

"I heard my grandmother talking to someone about him on the phone," answered one of them.

There's nothing like the death of a famous person to collapse time. When I heard about Yevtushenko's death last Saturday, my thoughts immediately went back 45 years to a lecture hall at Carleton University, where he gave a poetry recital, with actor Barry Boys reading the translations. "Recital" and "reading" may not be the right words; the style in both languages was full-bore declamatory.

With our ears still ringing, we students and faculty members retreated to the Russian department for a reception, where I introduced myself to the poet as one of the American students at this Canadian school. He paraphrased Voltaire, probably not for the first time: "If you Americans didn't exist, we would have to invent you." As we said goodbye, he signed my diary.

Four years later, I received a copy of his love poems in English, From Desire to Desire, along with a request to review the book for one of Ottawa's daily newspapers. The resulting review earned me my very first payment as an author, 25 Canadian dollars. I vaguely remember one line from my review, something like this, concerning the poem "Masha": "Lawrence Ferlinghetti takes this full-bodied poem and transmutes it into his own wispy style."

Anyway, Yevtushenko is not especially known for his love poetry.

(Maybe "Stolen Apples" is an exception:
The odor of love is the scent
Not of bought but of stolen apples.
... although here maybe "love" is not exactly the right word, either.)

He made his mark with his civic voice, what he himself called his human-rights voice, defending conscience and the right to know what is actually going on, against the forces of dead conformism. He did not threaten the post-Stalin system itself, but played its factions against each other, always knowing how far he could push. He sprayed words, not like bullets that threatened revolution, but more like powerful jets that could, within the system, clear a space for civic argument.

Note the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty assessment of his poem, "The Heirs of Stalin," published in Pravda near the first anniversary of Stalin's removal from the Lenin Mausoleum, and at the near-peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 21, 1962:
The latest poem by Yevtushenko, which appeared in the 21 October issue of Pravda, supports the Khrushchev line on destalinization by condemning Stalinists who have been forcibly retired, but who "secretly believe this retirement is temporary", and Stalinists who are still in power. Concerning the latter, Yevtushenko refers specifically only to Enver Hoxha, but implicitly also condemns the Chinese communists by asking "where else is that (telephone) wire leading to from that (Stalin's) coffin?" Whether Yevtushenko means to depart from the official line to include East European Stalinists such as Ulbricht and Novotny among the "many Stalinist heirs on the globe" is open to interpretation by the poem's readers. In any case, Yevtushenko takes a strong position in favor of further action against Stalinists and Stalinism.
So, now please interpret for yourself:

The marble kept silent.
Silently the glass flickered.
Silently stood the guard,
becoming bronzed in the wind.
And the coffin slightly gave off smoke,
Breathing was flowing through cracks,
as it was being taken out through the doors of the Mausoleum.
The coffin slowly glided,
brushing bayonets with its edges.
He also used to be silent -
but menacingly silent.
Clenching sadly his embalmed fists,
in it a man pressed himself against its crack,
pretending to be dead.
He wanted to remember all those,
who were taking him out:
Young recruits from Ryazan and Kursk,
so that somehow later
he might gather strength to get out,
and rise from the earth,
and reach them, the foolish ones.
He has planned something.
He has taken a nap just to hare some rest.
And I appeal to our government with the request:
to double,
to treble
the guard at this tombstone,
So that Stalin may not rise,
and together with Stalin -
the past.
I am not making a speech about that valiant and heroic past,
where Turksib was,
and Magnitka,
and the flag over Berlin.
I mean by the past in this present case,
the ignoring of the good of the people,
the slander,
the arrests of the innocent.
We sowed honestly,
We honestly smelted the metal
and we honestly marched,
Forming ourselves in soldiers' lines.
But he was afraid of us.
He, believing in the great aim, did not consider,
that the means
should be worthy
of the greatness of the cause.

He was farsighted.
In the laws of struggle wise,
He left many an heir on the globe.
It seems to me,
as though a telephone has been installed in
his coffin:
To Enver Hoxha
Stalin gives his instructions.
Where else is that wire leading to from that coffin!
No, - Stalin has not given up.
Does he think that death -
can be corrected.
We moved him
out of the Mausoleum.
But how to remove Stalin
from Stalin's heirs!!
Some heirs cut roses in retirement,
but secretly believe,
that this retirement is temporary.
even criticize Stalin from the rostrum,
and at night
yearn for the old times.
It is apparently not without cause that
Stalin's heirs get heart attacks today.
They, who were previously pillars of support,
do not like the time,
when camps are empty,
and the halls, where people listen to verses -
are overcrowded.
The Party
has ordered me
not to be reassured.
Let someone repeat over and over again:
"Compose yourself!" - I shall never find rest.
As long as there are Stalin's heirs on earth,
it will always seem to me,
that Stalin is still in the Mausoleum.
Translated by: Katherine von Imhof
For me, two lines still ring out with appropriate contemporary urgency: "... how to remove Stalin / from Stalin's heirs!!"

And some Yevtushenko choreography: "The Party / has ordered me / not to be reassured."

For our mass-media class, our students read and summarized this obituary from the Associated Press, and talked about the poet's reflections on his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. We also read "Five reasons why Yevtushenko deserved a Nobel prize," which was a springboard to discuss Yevtushenko's contemporaries and 20th-century predecessors, and their various conceptions of the role of the poet in Russian society. "None of our leaders liked the poets," said one student. "Tsars and dictators, they all thought poetry was dangerous." (Compare her words with Yevtushenko's own self-assessment here.) Earlier this year we had discussed whether Dylan deserved the same prize.

Finally, we saw a few minutes of this reading at the University of Chicago, including the 1972 poem "I Would Like." That's the poem from which I drew the title of this blog post. When I played this video later at another setting, someone asked me to turn the volume down.

Two more of the many obituaries that appeared in the days immediately following Yevtushenko's death:

The New York Times.
The Guardian.

Speaking of Stalin's heirs, I'm continuing to follow the Jehovah's Witnesses liquidation case in the Russian Supreme Court. English-language updates are available on Paul Steeves' site.

Christians had the most births and deaths of any group in recent years -- according to the Pew Research Center's demographic models -- with a natural increase of 116 million. But among Europeans the reverse is true.

U.N. human rights investigators killed (and an appreciation of MJ Sharp on the Christian Peacemaker Teams site).

Why Scarlett Thomas was wrong about children's fiction.

In place of my usual blues dessert ... a blues for the season:

Ben Larson | Love Loses It All from Antioch Church on Vimeo.

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