Friday, July 15, 2011

When Poetry Mattered: Notes on Andrei Voznesensky

Although it's been over a year since the death of Andrei Voznesensky, I've only just heard the news.  Voznesensky was one of the best-loved Russian poets of a generation called "the children of the 60s."  These were poets who came of age in the late 50s and early 1960s, the most famous of whom was Yevgeny Yevtushenko.  Both Voznesenksy and Yevtushenko were born in 1933, a good year for a Russian poet to be born.  Not only were they too young to be sent to the horrible slaughter that was the Second World War in Russia, they began to come into their own as poets just in time for the Khrushchev Thaw, a relaxing of repression following the death of Stalin and the removal of much of the apparatus of the Stalinist police state.  The period is also known as the False Spring, since it came to an abrupt end in 1963 and 1964, as Krushchev was replaced by that icon of dreary stagnation, Leonid Brezhnev.

During the brief thaw, though, it was good to be a poet in Russia, at least if you were the kind of poet who wanted attention.  Readings in stadiums were commonplace, in a way they never have been in the United States.  T.S. Eliot may once have delivered a lecture in a mid-sized university basketball arena, but these were actual poetry readings, in for-real stadiums: by 1962 Voznesensky was drawing crowds of 14,000 or more, and more than half a million people signed up to buy copies of his collection An Achilles Heart before it was published.  Other poets saw high levels of interest, too, and Yevtushenko was even more popular than Voznesensky.

What accounted for this enormous interest, even mania, for poetry?  I'm reminded of one of my critical touchstones, a passage from Declan Kiberd's Inventing Ireland where he speaks of the relative popularity of poetry in conditions of colonization and repression: when the national institutions don't represent the broadly-held values of a people, the people often turn to poetry as a vehicle for the articulation of those values. One can see why: if the theaters and newspapers and educational institutions are in the grip of oppressors, one can still take up a pen and write poems that say things unpalatable to the powers that be. And for a brief time in the Krushchev Thaw, poetry and other arts were liberated from the kinds of restrictions that still bound cultural institutions like museums and universities.  You could go to a poetry reading—as so many did—and hear a version of things that rang truer than the official accounts.  As my father, who studied Russian literature before becoming an artist, put it, "those readings in stadiums were the only place a Russian could go and not feel he was being bullshitted."

And what was it that Voznesensky had to say that didn't sound like bullshit to those crowds?  Well, a lot of it was an affirmation of the individual conscience.  In the 1959 poem "Who Are We?" for example, Voznesensky answers the title question by saying :

Under the cold stars, I wander alive
With you Vera, Vega, I am myself
Among the avalanches, like the Abominable
Snowman, absolutely elusive.

Against all the big, overwhelming forces, the little self remains, free and authentic to itself: there's a kind of individualistic sublime at work here.  The poem wouldn't be a Big Statement in the United States of the 1950s, even though Senator McCarthy's reign of terror over the intellectuals had come to an end only two years earlier: the level of repression just wasn't comparable to what Russians had seen, and Cold War America always defined itself against Russia by emphasizing the ideology of individualism.  But in Russia, where collectivism was an official ideology and individualism had been actively, and violently, discouraged, people heard in words like these a message of liberation.  

It's no wonder that Voznesensky wrote the kind of individualistic poems for which people were thirsting: as a young man he was a disciple of Pasternak, having moved out to Peredelkino to be near the grand old man in his last days.  Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, the great testament of the individual conscience against Czar and Commissar, was a kind of sacred text for Voznesensky. 

I sometimes wonder whether Voznesensky's individualism was made more palatable to the authorities by virtue of its being tempered with doses of nationalism.  Voznesensky's most famous poem, "I am Goya," with which he used to begin all of his readings, is many things: a harrowing picture of Russia during the Nazi invasion, a great piece of anaphoristic verse, a veiled remembrance of his father going off to war with a book of Goya reproductions in his backpack, an ekphrastic poem dealing with Goya's paintings of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, and a testament to the achievement of the Russian people in throwing back the better-armed, better-fed, better-organized forces of Hitler's Germany.  It ends like this:

I am the gullet
of a woman hanged whose body like a bell
tolled over a blank square
I am Goya

O grapes of wrath!
I have hurled westward
          the ashes of the uninvited guest!
and hammered stars into the unforgetting sky—like nails
I am Goya

That last bit, about sending the Germans packing, or scattering their dead ashes on a wind that will take them back to whence they came: that's some hard-core Russian patriotism that no General or Commissar could condemn, and no Russian of the war years could hear without a deep, heart-felt response.  And the victory is portrayed as being as great, and as unlikely, as the hammering of stars into the sky.  Great stuff!

Even his patriotism couldn't really save Voznesensky when the False Spring came to an end.  He was subjected to the fate of so many Russian liberals, from the Decemberists on, and sent into a kind of internal exile, wandering in the remoter provinces of the Soviet Union.  His poems from this era take on a slightly different tone, emphasizing hope in the form of a kind of small, saving remnant of Russian society.  Here's one I particularly like, "To B. Akhmadulina."  It gives us a small group, on the move:

We are many.  Four, perhaps, altogether,
spinning along in our car devil-may-care.
The girl at the wheel flaunts her orange hair,
the sleeves of her jacket yanked up to the elbow.

Ah, Bela, though your driving leaves me limp,
you look angelic, out of this world;
your marvelous porcelain profile
glows like a white lamp...

In hell they bang their frying pans
and send scouts up to the gate to watch,
when you, as the speedometer runs wild,
lift both hands off the wheel to strike a match.

How I love it, when stepping on the gas
in your transparent tones you say,
"What a mess!
they've taken my license away...

"I swear they've got me wrong!
     You'd think I was a reckless driver!
            Why! I was just poking along..."

Forget it, Bela.  To argue with a cop,
you know, is a losing proposition.
He can't appreciate your lyric speed—
it's past the power of his transmission.

A poet owes it to himself
not to be trapped in miles-per-hour;
let him resound at the speed of light
like angels choiring in the stratosphere.

No matter, taking light-years as our measure,
if we should vanish like a radiant star,
with not a creature left behind to earn the prize.
We were the first to crack the sound-barrier.

Step on it, Bela, heavenly friend!
Who cares if we're smashed to bits in the end?
Long live the speed of poetry,
the most lethal of all speeds!

What if the maps ahead are enigmatical?
We are only a few.  Four, perhaps, altogether;
hurtling along—and you are a Goddess!
That makes a majority, after all.

We've got the exile's self-affirmation (no one will ever give us any recognition for breaking the sound barrier, but we recognize ourselves), and we've got a nice turn on the old trope of describing a woman as a goddess: here, her divinity makes the small group more than equal to any forces that oppose it.  This would be mere sentimentality if it weren't balanced against the earlier assertion that there's no use arguing with a cop.  Voznesensky is well aware that, in the realm of real power, he and his friends are no match for the authorities.  But in the realm of art, they maintain a kind of freedom, where the police can't match their speed.

There are a lot of things to admire in Voznesensky, including his revival of the Mayakovsky era breeziness and confidence that fell out of Russian poetry in the 30s and 40s.  One of my favorite moments of this kind comes at the end of "Fire in the Architectural Institute."  The poem is based on one of Voznesensky's experiences: he'd been an architecture student, and just before he was to defend his thesis the institute burned down, destroying all of his work.  But like Mayakovsky, he's got a seemingly unlimited, irrepressible buoyancy: "Everything's gone up in smoke/and there's no end of people sighing," he writes, "It's the end?/It's only the beginning./Let's go to the movies!"

But whatever his fine qualities as a poet may be, the reason Voznesensky mattered to most of his readers was that he spoke back to them their own values when those values weren't affirmed anywhere else.  I think about this when I hear people say, of one or another contemporary American poet, "he deserves more readers," or "she deserves an audience."  I think about it, too, when I hear suggestions about how to get more people interested in poetry (by adding music to readings, by putting little placards with stanzas on them in the subway, etc.)  These are supply-side solutions to a demand-side problem.  They try to make something available, in hopes that this availability will create demand.  But if we really want giant audiences, stadium-filling audiences, we'd need social conditions that drive people to need what is on offer in poetry, and conditions that prevent it from being offered in other venues.  History has been a bit too kind to us for that.


  1. Well said, Mister Professor.

    Have you read the speech by Lowell? I excerpted it here

    Can't find my copy of the Lowell just now.

    You haven't mentioned translation. I know you have pretty broad language skills, reading in German and French. Can you read Russian, too? I wondered, because I have a collected edition of Mayakowsky on the shelf that I couldn't read once I compared one of his signature poems with the Russian original. Who translated Voznesensky into English?

  2. Thanks! Sadly, I don't read Russian. Reading Russian is one of those goals I have, like getting into reasonably good physical shape, where the desire is not met by the necessary effort.

    A lot of poets have translated Voznesensky. W.H. Auden did some, so did Stanley Kunitz. I like both of them as translators, but they both had help from people who actually spoke Russian: Max Hayward worked with both of them, and Kunitz also worked with Vera Dunham. Richard Wilbur, Stanley Moss, William Jay Smith, and Jean Garrigue also translated Voznesensky in collaboration with Max Hayward.

    There's a very slick en-face bilingual book that's a kind of selection from Voznesensky's early work, plus a then-new sequence, from Encounter in 1963, then reissued (I think expanded) by Basic Books in 1966. I don't know for sure, but I bet there was some Cold War funding from American sources, since Encounter used to get C.I.A. money, and since it looks like the translations were commissioned (everybody in it worked with Hayward, and Auden was getting serious coin for his translations by then). I imagine it was someone's idea that the book would show that there was an individualist critique of the USSR from within, and that it was worth a few grand to put the nicely produced book out. But I'm just guessing on this.

    I remember Lowell made some large claims for Voznesensky, but I neer read the speech -- thanks for posting the link to it.



  3. I forgot to mention the name of the book: "Antiworlds and the Fifth Ace."

  4. Reading Lowell on other poems is always pretty darn awesome. I love him on Hopkins, too. Thanks for the edition. Will check it out.

  5. three points:

    not only could you "go to a poetry reading—-as so many did—-and hear a version of things that rang truer than the official accounts" of totalitarianism, you could also go just to have a reading experience that exercised a bit of your interpretive faculties. The USSR under Khrushchev & post-Cultural Revolution PRC were by no means the same, but when the "Obscure" [a/k/a "Misty"] poets first showed up in China, I think a lot of their audience existed just for the sake of being an audience to something interesting, something where "the version of things" was not a force-fed given.

    also, I expect you're being somewhat ironic about "History has been a bit too kind to [North American] us for that," right? As in, I bet a lot of the ways that the entertainment-industrial complex exists in North America (and not only North America... look at China again!) are to get people away from using the interpretive faculties that a lot of poetry asks us to develop.

    Finally, I still don't think you told us who translated the Voznesensky you quoted.


  6. Hi Lucas (Lucas Klein? Good to hear from you!)

    That's a very interesting point about the similarities and differences of PRC and USSR readings. I imagine there were some moments like the Chinese ones you describe at Russian readings in the False Spring, but Yevtushenko and Voznesensky, the biggest names at the time, are only intermittently misty.

    I don't mean to be ironic about history having been kinder to the US than to the USSR in the postwar period. I mentioned McCarthy as a gesture toward political repression in the US, and I'm with you, Adorno, Brecht, and others on the often-nefarious nature of the American culture industry. But, to me, it would be an insult to the sufferings of the people in the gulags, and to the writers imprisoned (or worse) by Stalin before the Khrushev thaw to see these things as roughly equivalent. Inside the US, artists were sometimes ignored or reviled or harrassed, but the scale of repression was different. Acts committed against writers abroad by various regimes supported by the US were, of course, often terrible: in Latin America, in parts of Asia, etc. And I don't mean that history has been perfect in America, but the repression of the arts under Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy (or under Disney and Time-Life) -- well, what I meant was that it was nothing like the repression of the arts under Stalin. I'll stand by that without irony.

    "To B. Akhmadulina" was translated by Stanley Kunitz, with the assistance of Vera Dunham.

    I'd like to know more about the "Misty" phenomenon. Could you steer me to a good source in English?

    All best,


  7. Hi, Rob--


    And I certainly didn't mean to disparage the memory of people who suffered under Stalin (or anyone) by trivializing their pain via comparison with ours for our lack of popular poetry. Rather, I just meant that the "kindness" of our history isn't really that kind after all (in other words, you weren't being sarcastic, you were pointing out what I take to be an irony), if one of the things that it's doing is denying people the desire for poetry. I get that that's a verging-on-conspiracy-theory thing to say (someone's denying me desire? really?), and it's not like I'd waver if given a choice between "dictatorship where poets and other writers are censored and often imprisoned, exiled, or killed" and a "culture industry-run world where poetry is at least an option, albeit one for misfits." Still, point is, I can imagine an even kinder history.

    As for Obscure poetry (the word in Chinese is 'menglong,' which can mean both 'misty / cloudy' and 'obscure,' so in describing a poetic style I prefer to translate it with the latter), the best place to start is Maghiel van Crevel's *Language Shattered: Contemporary Chinese Poetry and Duoduo* (Leiden: CNWS, 1996). Hope your library's good enough!


  8. Ah! I see what you mean. And next time I'm down at Northwestern or the U of Chicago I'll check out the van Crevel -- thanks!


  9. I actually think your analogy using supply-side vs. demand-side is dead accurate. it accounts for the constant "why isn't poetry more popular?" issue so many poets groan about.

    As a poet (not an economist) and musician, etc., I make the art I make, and in this current climate of over-supply, I don't really expect to see a lot of demand to see it. I think the supply-side efforts to re-popularize poetry are going to be pretty much useless, forever, since the demand isn't there.

    I'm not certain I totally agree about the demand being more heightened under totalitarian (or other information-controlled) political systems. Not that that isn't true, but it isn't the only instance in which the demand for poetry is high. One need only look at the popularity of verse in the Victorian 19th C.; granted, there was social repression under the Victorians, but it wasn't nearly totalitarian. So maybe the crux is "whatever form of social repression" is what creates the climate of artistic dissent, via reaction against the dominant paradigm. If one looks at poetry as rebelling against repression, one might look for example at the huge blooming of gay poetry in the late 60s and early 70s, right after Stonewall, when the early gay rights movement was still energized and focused. That indeed was a rebellion against repression, and in my experience did create some poetry situations not on the stadium level, but with that level of excitement happening.

  10. I know exactly what you mean about the Victorians. That was an interesting time for poetry -- I think a lot of the popularity had to do with the relative smallness of the book-reading/book-buying public, and of the way the poets who were popular came from the same kind of background as that public. As a Communications professor friend of mine once told me, "public intellectuals don't tell you what they think -- they tell you what you already think." So the shared assumptions helped wit popularity. Ezra Pound was trying to get people very different from himself to believe him; Tennyson was part of the choir he was preaching to. Also, poetry had yet to be downgraded as a guide to knowledge: it was really important to Tennyson to get his scientific facts right, since part of what poetry did was to deliver information. It's all quite fascinating...


  11. You got me thinking. So I posted something on my blog, and linked to your comments here. . .

    Thanks! :)

  12. Interesting stuff! But please don't call me "Mr Archambeau" -- it makes me feel about 1,000,000 years old, and I've already got a receding hairline that does that for me! (I kid, I kid).

  13. As a poet, I appreciate your father's comment.

    And with the current economic crash, our history has become a little less kind. Some of us are writing in response.

  14. Dear Robert:

    I regret joining the conversation so late, but on the off chance you might see this, I mainly wish to add a few words about literary reputation, and on the availability, if not just now the quality, of translation. My understanding is that, for example, the Brodsky estate is beginning to very selectively grant rights to re-translate his work, something I’ve argued is needed, and necessary, to keep a poet’s memory and reputation alive. Voznesensky is similarly due for a re-appraisal, having been oddly neglected in translation four decades now, his reputation in English established with several Selected in the 60s (I’m not sure whether his 80s US tours yielded any re-translations.) I would only add that his was the only presence of an “official” poet at the Writer’s Union conference during the mid-90s which, in co-operation with American translators, produced the 2000 anthology of unofficial poetry, “Crossing Centuries,” and though it was not unanimously welcome, he was practically the only intermediary between the two separate worlds. You may be interested in my recent re-translations. A tribute by Dana Golin, with 12 poems translated by us are here: Another one is in the Transitions issue of Modern Poetry in Translation. Another, in this Centennial of Russian Futurism feature, in

    1. Thanks, Alex -- best wishes for the translations!