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.