Yevtushenko, reconciling the conflicting tongues of Russian poetry

November 21, 1993|By Stephen Margulies

Warren Beatty was a spy for poetry (that alone might justify his existence). So was a French movie star: In the 1970s, they helped smuggle the contents of Yevgeny Yevtushenko's anthology -- "20th Century Russian Poetry, Silver and Steel" -- into the West.

It is appropriate that poetry be smuggled, since it contains sweet secrets more explosive than any nuclear bomb. And Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko is as much an international celebrity and "diplomat" as he is a poet.

Movie stars do his bidding. Stadiums in the Soviet Union used to fill up to hear him chant his verses. When he visited college campuses in the United States, Mr. Yevtushenko was feted at fraternity parties, perhaps the supreme accolade for a lusty bard.

Far more secure in his career than great early 20th-century Russian poets such as Pasternak and Akhmatova, Mr. Yevtushenko inherited their extraordinary tradition of turning the heart into a public, almost an official organ.

In the Soviet Union, poetry was the source of unmurderous power and gorgeous poverty -- of soul-laden responsibility that could result in the execution of the poet. Poetry was not for wimps! Poetry was for the brave. (And poetry is always for the brave, even in the United States, where school kids who love to read and write are persecuted by their peers.)

In the physical and spiritual killing fields of a tyranny, poetry almost alone could keep the poor sore heart alive. Poetry alone was freedom, health and wealth in a land where many died from premature heart attacks. Thus, poetry was cherished by multitudes, as we cherish what we can hardly give a name to.

Twentieth-century Russian poetry is the astonishing creation of a briefly gaudy, lastingly apocalyptic period. Mr. Yevtushenko's immense selection comes to a Western audience at yet another ambivalent moment of crisis. In the introduction to this book, he expresses pride that he witnessed the failure of the August 1991 coup to overthrow democracy in Russia.

He is both proud and appalled that a young poet died for freedom: "The most appropriate place for poets that day was at the barricades. . . . I have never seen so many beautiful faces gathered together. . . ." He quotes the martyred young poet Ilya Krichevsky, who appears at the end of the anthology: "To live is what we want, we want to live!"

But how does one live? "To live is not like crossing a field," as Pasternak says. In Russia, the desire for freedom and life results in more and more pain. Yevtushenko mentions that in ancient Russia the tongues of rebellious poets were cut out and buried. Yevtushenko quotes himself: "A time will come when the harvest of severed tongues will reach the clouds."

He claims that this is a prediction of glasnost. In putting together an anthology (253 poets) that mimics the Russian land in vastness, Mr. Yevtushenko wanted to show that the real Russia is not political but spiritual and literary.

He wanted to reconcile all the conflicting tongues of Russian poetry: communist and czarist, aesthetes and grungy realists, emigres and stay-at-homes. One way to save Russia is to try to save all Russians -- Christian and Jewish and Muslim, Marxist and nationalist, patriot and expatriate.

Mr. Yevtushenko insists that there is only one criterion for inclusion in his huge book: "The primary principle of selection in this anthology is the degree of pain." Pain is what all Russians share, though pain is what causes them to hate one another. Poetry should therefore be all-forgiving and all-inclusive, unlike official history. Poetry is mercy made beautiful.

Mr. Yevtushenko really tries to be tolerant, rescuing many half-forgotten and persecuted people from oblivion, as well as including invigoratingly hefty chunks of Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva, Boris Pasternak and other radiantly necessary giants. How many silver voices there were in that grim night! We need all, though Mr. Yevtushenko ruefully points out that very often Russian poets have been at civil war with one another.

He is thus far more tolerant than many Russian poet-critics and anthologists. Using the most lucid and musical modern translations, he has spirited out of Russia her most valuable top secrets. He is a new kind of double agent, authentically on the side of all antagonists.

But even Mr. Yevtushenko can be unjust; and although he is an anti-chauvinist, he is more of a nationalist than most Western writers. Thus, he raises up the boring and discredited accusation that Vladimir Nabokov is a cold, clinical writer and that he became cold and clinical because he left Russia.

Thus, all emigres are partly discredited, as if a jewel that you lose and someone else finds ceases to be a jewel. Misleadingly, Mr. Yevtushenko tells us what the poet Bella Akhmadulina said about her visit to a dying Nabokov -- that Nabokov thought he would have been a better and juicier writer if he had taken his chances in revolutionary Russia.

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