Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Poet From Zima Junction

On Saturday night the writer who probably should have been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, died in the United States at the age of 84. That was also the night that Bob Dylan, the man who got the prize instead, was in Stockholm to collect his medal and the cheque worth about $900,000. Nice work if you can get it. Perhaps the protean Dylan, whose latest recording is a triple album of American songbook classics, should add George Gershwin's Nice Work if You Can Get it song to his sad old crooner's repertoire.

Yevtushenko's poetry made him world famous long before Bob Zimmerman from Minnesota changed his name in New York City. I read somewhere that the Russian, born in 1934 in the Siberian district of Zima, on the Trans-Siberian railway, near the Oka river, was nominated for the Nobel poetry prize in 1963 when he was just 19. By that time he had been to America and had recited his poems at the Oxford Union. W H Auden also recited by heart, or rather chanted in that trans-Atalantic twang that he had, but without Yevtushenko's fist-clenching, finger-pointing charisma.

I've Googled him up and heard him recite in both Russian and English. In his native tongue he accentuated consonants, grinding them together like techtonic plates in the way that Ted Hughes used to do in the Sixties. Maybe Russians naturally roll their 'r's'. I've also heard the late Andrei Voznesensky recite and he was much the same, relishing the hard consonants and the softer vowels. 

Poetasters in this country can only look back in envy. To be acknowledged as a poet in the former Soviet Union, during the period after Nikita Krushchev's denounciation of Stalin and Test Ban Treaty preceding the Cuba Missile Crisis of 1962, meant that the public had high expectations of you. This is part of a biographical note on the end-papers of Yevtushenko's 1963 book A Precocious Autobiography, a work of prose which should have been written as poetry:-

In the moral crisis which followed the revelation of Stalin's crimes, Yevtushenko,an ardent believer in the ideals of of the early Revolution and the need to 'restore their purity', found his public role as the poet of the young people, whose response was overwhelming. His editions of 100,000 sold out instantly, crowds of 14,000 flocked to hear him read at the Moscow Stadium. His controversial poem against anti-semitism, Babiy Yar (set to music by Shostakovich) brought him 40,000 letters from all corners of the country...

That 61-line poem is among the selection of his work published in this country in 1963 in the Penguin Modern European Poets series (it cost two shillings and sixpence for me to buy, just over 12p in today's decimated coinage). Babiy Yar was the site of a massacre of about 30,000 Jews by the Nazis in World War II. The young Yevtushenko used the past to make a jabbing point about the present in his country, brashly identifying himself with the persecuted:-

Today I am as old as the Jewish race.
I seem to myself a Jew at theis moment.
I, wandering in Egypt.
I, crucified. I perishing.
Even today the mark of ther nails.
I think also of Dreyfus. I am he.
The Philistine my judge and accuser...

The person who irritatedly annotated in red pen the copy of A Precocious Autobiography that I bought for £2.50 in Oxford in 1984 migh have thought those lines pretentious and self-conscious. I didn't uinderstand the true import of Yevtushenko until I remembered the Russsian man I saw striding along either the King's Road or Fulham Road in Chelsea. He was bare-chested, wore a folksy cap perched on his head and was bellowing out what I took to be opera. I can imagine Ernest Hemingway doing that. I can't imagine Alan Bennett doing that. Russians, I concluded, must be like Americans: larger-than-life. Not the average English writer's cup of tea.

The slim Penguin volume is largely taken up with a poem of greater length and stature, I think, than Babiy Yar. The autobiographical Zima Junction, 32-pages long, chronicles a long visit home to his family and friends at a time when the young Yevtushenko had come under fire from Communist Party hacks. It is reflective, lyrical and observant. It's as remarkable as some of the young Bob Dylan's songs of the 1960s: Don't Think Twice, It's Alrigh; One Too Many Mornings; Chimes of Freedom; My Back Pages; It Ain't Me Babe; Bob Dylan's Dream. The precocious Dylan too wrote autobiographically about escaping from expectations and definitions laid on him by others.

Unafraid of sounding sententious, Yevtushenko described how Zima Junction the place had spoken to him and told him not to be afraid of his emotions:-

Don't worry. Yours is no unique condition,
your type of search and conflict and construction,
don't worry if you have no answer ready
to the lasting question.
Hold out, meditate, listen.
Explore. Explore. Travel the world over.
Count happiness connatural to the mind
more than truth is, and yet
no happiness to exist without it.
Walk with a cold pride
utterly ahead
wild attentive eyes
head flicked by the rain-wet,
green needles of the pine,
eyelashes that shine 
with tears and with thunders.
Love people.
Love entertains its own discrimination.
Have me in mind, I shall be watching.
You can return to me.
Now go.

That poem is immediately followed by one that opens:-

Telling lies to the young is wrong.
Proving to them that lies are true is wrong.
Telling them that God is in his heaven
and all's well with the world is wrong.
The young know what you mean. The young are people.
Tell them the difficulties can't be counted
and let them see not only what will be
but see with clarity these present times....
To hell with it. Who never knew
the price of happiness will not be happy...

I'll take that any day instead of the infantile nonsense, the prattle, that comes at me from radios and loud-speakers in shops, offices, the gym, everywhere I go in fact.

I would prefer to believe that Yevtushenko's Russian nationality had nothing to do with the Nobel Prize committee's decision to give the big one to Bob Dylan, after all his antecedents were Russian Jews. The old Yevtushenko might have swanked a bit, but what would he have been without that swagger of self-confidence? 

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