“A poet’s autobiography is his poetry. Anything else is just a footnote.” Yevgeny Yevtushenko
I was looking for info and quotes about the astonishing significance of poets and poetry in Russia, and then I found this, on Wikipedia of all places.
Late in the 1960’s Yevtushenko read his poetry before a large audience in Washington, DC. His readings were translated to English and he received much applause. Following his delivery, the audience was invited to ask questions. One person asked him, “If Russia is so wonderful, as you say, why is it they must import wheat to feed their people?” His thoughtful response, delivered with more than a little twinkle in his eye, was, “Ah yes. But we do not have to import poets.” ¦source¦
The wiki (linked above) is worth reading for the biography and politics of Yevtushenko; another thing about Russia, at least up until its balkanisation, is that poetry and politics were inextricably linked. And in fact, his best known poem is still Babi Yar, about Nazi genocide against Kiev’s Jewish population (which is contested by some), anti semitism in Russia and the government’s distortion of facts about it. You can hear the poet recite Babi Yar here, don’t be put off by the Russian (I’m not talking to you, Synapse, it obviously won’t put you off at all), it segues into English pretty quickly. The poem inspired Shostakovich’s Symphony #13, you can hear it here and if you don’t like Gergiev, it’s available in numerous other flavours. Even without knowing Russian, a fast tour of YouTube videos showing Yevtushenko reciting poetry in Russian is a delight. He’s a sprightly and smiling old man and he is welcomed like a rock star.
The other poem he’s well known for is Zima Junction, which I think were probably the first two words I ever heard in relation to its author. The title refers to his birthplace in Siberia, the fact that I heard the title so soon refers to the usual cultural culprit, my mother. I was a precocious pain in the arse about Russian literature in general at a young age. Personally I don’t think it’s much different to being a pokemon protégé. Zima Junction will make sense to anyone who ever left their home town and later went back.
If you’re interested and have two hours to spare, you might enjoy this.
Now you know a little about professor Yevtushenko, a little about why I’m a fan and I think the only possible and logical thing to do now, is show you some poems. I included Psychotherapist because we are all familiar with them and Wounds because we’re well acquainted with those too. The last is Disbelief In Yourself Is Indispensable, which I think questions the pursuit of success and individualism as defined by some societies. If you’d like to read more of his poems, there are another 75 right here.
I almost forgot, he’s done films and novels too.
Pain gnaws into man,
lacerating with its claws.
It’s deposited like salt
somewhere between the vertebrae.
Shout something to the crowd?
That’s a lot of respect for cattle.
Confess to a priest?
Man doesn’t believe in God.
Confess to the wife?
A pain inscrutable for her.
Confess to the country?
That’s so immense it terrifies.
And the psychiatrist arrives
with a musketeer beard,
faintly smelling of vodka.
And though you tear your hair-
he will listen for two hours
to your woes and vexations,
and all for two bills.
Afterward he goes on foot
through grimy lanes,
and under his tongue lays
There’s a trick to attentiveness:
not the least merit in it,
and he himself longs for a fellow
psychiatrist-a friend for hire.
Translated by Albert C. Todd
I have been wounded so often and so painfully,
dragging my way home at the merest crawl,
impaled not only by malicious tongues-
one can be wounded even by a petal.
And I myself have wounded-quite unwittingly-
with casual tenderness while passing by,
and later someone felt the pain,
it was like walking barefoot over the ice.
So why do I step upon the ruins
of those most near and dear to me,
I, who can be so simply and so sharply wounded
and can wound others with such deadly ease?
Translated by Arthur Boyars and Simon Franklin
Disbelief In Yourself Is Indispensable
While you’re alive it’s shameful to worm your way into
the Calendar of Saints.
Disbelief in yourself is more saintly.
It takes real talent not to dread being terrified
by your own agonizing lack of talent.
Disbelief in yourself is indispensable.
Indispensable to us is the loneliness
of being gripped in the vise,
so that in the darkest night the sky will enter you
and skin your temples with the stars,
so that streetcars will crash into the room,
wheels cutting across your face,
so the dangling rope, terrible and alive,
will float into the room and dance invitingly in the air.
Indispensable is any mangy ghost
in tattered, overplayed stage rags,
and if even the ghosts are capricious,
I swear, they are no more capricious than those who are alive.
Indispensable amidst babbling boredom
are the deadly fear of uttering the right words
and the fear of shaving, because across your cheekbone
graveyard grass already grows.
It is indispensable to be sleeplessly delirious,
to fail, to leap into emptiness.
Probably, only in despair is it possible
to speak all the truth to this age.
It is indispensable, after throwing out dirty drafts,
to explode yourself and crawl before ridicule,
to reassemble your shattered hands
from fingers that rolled under the dresser.
Indispensable is the cowardice to be cruel
and the observation of the small mercies,
when a step toward falsely high goals
makes the trampled stars squeal out.
It’s indispensable, with a misfit’s hunger,
to gnaw a verb right down to the bone.
Only one who is by nature from the naked poor
is neither naked nor poor before fastidious eternity.
And if from out of the dirt,
you have become a prince,
but without principles,
unprince yourself and consider
how much less dirt there was before,
when you were in the real, pure dirt.
Our self-esteem is such baseness….
The Creator raises to the heights
only those who, even with tiny movements,
tremble with the fear of uncertainty.
Better to cut open your veins with a can opener,
to lie like a wino on a spit-spattered bench in the park,
than to come to that very comfortable belief
in your own special significance.
Blessed is the madcap artist,
who smashes his sculpture with relish-
hungry and cold-but free
from degrading belief in himself.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, Albert C. Todd, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko