“Poetry is the only hope”: Voznesensky remembered

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Voznesensky, with an attitude

Andrei Voznesensky died on Tuesday, June 1, at the age of 77.  The New York Times obituary is here.

Voznesensky’s heyday was in the 1960s, when he was, with Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the “officially left-wing” poet, allowed to tweak the Soviet masters, but only to a point.  They were intended to be proof that the Soviet powers allowed “freedom of speech” — but again, only to a point.  The two were famous for their theatrical readings to the masses, who filled sports stadiums to hear them.

The real star power, at that time, was meanwhile, shovelling manure in the far north — Archangelsk, near the Arctic Circle, where he was serving time after a show trial that described him a parasite on the state.  Joseph Brodsky went on to get a Nobel prize.  Of course, Voznesensky had the wisdom not to haul off and sock KGB agents, as Brodsky had … but still…

Brodsky’s umbrage against the dynamic duo of Voznesensky and Yevtushenko wavered in intensity over the years.  As with all mentors who shape one’s tastes and sensibilities, I’ve inherited his prejudices along with his predilections.  Death, as always, provides an opportunity to review both.  Easy to judge others’ reactions to a totalitarian regime when one is sitting on one’s bed with a computer on one’s lap, the California sunshine streaming in through a window.  Frankly, I don’t think I have Brodsky’s guts.  Voznesensky knew how to negotiate his survival.  It doesn’t always command respect, but it certainly commands my sympathy.

In Solomon Volkov’s questionable memoir, Conversations with Joseph Brodsky, Volkov draws out Brodsky’s opinions (Brodsky offhandedly says he had memorized 200-300 lines of poetry from each, despite his distaste; his memory was phenomenal), and gets this comment:

These boys were throwing stones in the officially sanctioned direction, knowing they’d land half a step ahead of the ordinary guy, who went nuts over it! That’s their entire historical role.  All this is very simple, banal even! Yevtushenko and Voznesensky had friends in the Central Committee of the Party all along the way — second, or third, or sixteenth secretaries — so they were always more or less in the know about which way the wind would blow tomorrow.

In Brodsky: A Personal Memoir (I reviewed it in the Kenyon Review here), Ludmila Shtern defends her friend Voznesensky against her other friend, Brodsky. She recalls  Voznesensky insisting on meeting her in Italy, although “Soviet émigrés were considered ‘untouchable’ by the Soviet government and any contact between them and Soviet citizens while on business trips could destroy a citizen’s career … When people were getting their permissions to go abroad, they were always warned by the KGB about avoiding émigrés in no uncertain terms, and they took these warnings seriously.”  Visits involved a great deal of risk and subterfuge:

Despite all these troubles he spent the evening with us, read his poetry, and even offered to take some letters and clothing back to our friends in Moscow.  We went to the flea market and bought enough used clothes to fill a whole suitcase.  To each piece I attached a note saying who was supposed to get what.  The suitcase came with a broken zipper, and when Andrei took it from a luggage claim in Moscow, it opened and all these dresses, blouses and shirts fell on the floor.  Andrei was crawling on the floor picking it up under the malignant cameras of journalists and reporters.  The next day one of the Moscow papers ran a big picture of this scene with the following caption: ‘The poor famous Soviet poet bought half of Italy.’

The Stanford University Libraries, by the way have Voznesensky’s papers; they were acquired six years ago.  They already have Yevtushenko’s papers — and Hoover has the papers Boris Pasternak, Abram Tertz (Sinyavsky), and others (I recently wrote about the extraordinary Pasternak collection here.)

Perhaps it’s the post-heyday years that say the most about the man.  From the New York Times:

In 1986 he published “The Ditch: A Spiritual Trial,” a work of prose and poems that centered on a German massacre of Russians in the Crimea in 1941 and the plundering in the 1980s of their mass graves by Soviet citizens. Mr. Voznesensky, tackling a subject long suppressed by the authorities, made clear that most of the 12,000 victims were Jews and implied that the looting of their bodies was tolerated for that reason.

At a poetry reading two years later, he took written questions from the audience. “All of you are Jews or sold out to Jews,” one note said. Another said, simply, “We will kill you.” Mr. Voznesensky read the unsigned notes aloud and demanded that the authors identify themselves. His challenge was met with silence.

In the 1990s Mr. Voznesensky disclosed a reluctance to go abroad. “I cannot leave the country,” he said in an interview with The International Herald Tribune in 1996. “I belong to the people. Now that they are in terrible trouble, they need me.”

“Poetry is the only hope,” he added. “Even if you do not believe it, you have to do it.”

POSTSCRIPT:  Tim Rutten writes the Los Angeles Times obituary here.  Bestest quote:  “We are born not to survive but to put our foot on the accelerator!”


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9 Responses to ““Poetry is the only hope”: Voznesensky remembered”

  1. Elena Says:

    I always thought it was wonderful that these poets could attract such a huge a following of readers, even given a few compromises. They made language itself their religion. Very sorry about AV’s death.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Hard to imagine in the U.S., under any circumstances. Someone said …. was it Ellendea Proffer maybe? … that the poetry of that time played the additional role of journalism, given the lack of a free press. Hence its stadium-style popularity. Would you agree?

    “If there’s any deity to me, it’s language.” — J.B.

  3. Sam Gwynn Says:

    I have to judge them solely on the translations. What I’ve read of V. in translation (only a handful of poems) seems interesting; B. in translation is also good (as long as the translations are by Hecht or Wilbur). B.’s original English poetry struck me as pretty bad, though. Y. seems to be the kind of poet who could survive translation, but he still seems pretty bad to me–rhetorical preaching to the crowd–with official sanction. He seems to be the one who’s had the most impact on English readers because Babi Yar was published over 40 years ago. But it’s very hard to judge anyone by his or her translations. I’m still waiting for the English translation that will convince me that Akhmatova was more than just a competent lyricist. Any suggestions?

  4. Sam Gwynn Says:

    I liked V. in translation, as I did B. (when done by Hecht or Wilbur. I always thought Y. was the most easily translatable because of his rhetoric, but who can tell in translation?

  5. Elena Says:

    Love the quote from J.B.!

  6. Elena Says:

    Actually, to me Russian poetry seems to come alive when it is declaimed. Hearing AA read her own work is illuminating. AV and Y were poet/actors and knew how to connect with an audience. Y gave a reading a few years back at the Jewish Community Center, and he could really perform. Also Brodsky’s verses written in English didn’t work for me until I heard him reciting out loud with his inimitable accent making the words rhyme.

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Sam, Did you see the “Nativity Poems” translations of Brodsky? Some of them — besides Hecht and Wilbur — were rather good. I think in particular of Glyn Maxwell’s. Many have written about JB’s “original English poetry” and self-translations, which torpedoed his reputation in the West — I have yet to track down Craig Raine’s “A Reputation Subject to Inflation,” but Robert Hass was damning enough: “like an eighteenth-century hack rewriting Shakespeare,” one of those “clever young Englishmen of indeterminate age down from the university and set to make a splash,” decrying his “fatal miscalculations of tone.”

    My “Kenyon Review” piece (linked above) also discusses Weisbort’s “From Russian with Love,” the best attempt to date to come to grips with Brodsky-in-English.

    I’d like to see Auden’s translations of Voznesensky. I probably have them somewhere in his “Collected,” I’ll have to check. JB had trouble getting his head around the idea that Auden had translated Voznesensky, I think.

    As for Akhmatova, I can’t see any translations I’ve been terribly pleased with — have you, Elena? I haven’t kept up with the more recent ones, so it’s entirely possible I’m missing something. Jane Kenyon translated A.A. into free-verse lines, which defeats the point. Have to agree with Brodsky that if you aren’t translating the form of the poem, you aren’t translating the meaning, either.

    But certainly “Requiem” goes beyond competent lyricism. This supports the argument that poetry doubled as journalism in Stalin’s Russia — but it can be a stunning and unforgettable combination, nonetheless.

  8. Alex Cigale Says:

    Dear Cynthia and Sam:

    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 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 any 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 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, was the only intermediary between the two separate worlds. You may be interested in my recent retranslations, and another is forthcoming in the next, Transitions issue of Modern Poetry in Translation. A tribute, with 12 poems are here: http://www.bigbridge.org/BB16/poetry/poetavoznesensky.htm.

  9. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, Alex. You’re right – new translations are an excellent move. And I’ll look at your website.

    (Pardon the delay in posting – you got enmeshed in a spam filter.)

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