April is Poetry Month – Let Slip the Dogs of Iambic Pentameter
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, one of the bold young poets of the 1960s, died this week at the age of 84.
When I returned from Viet-Nam I bought for 75 cents a new copy of the Penguin Modern European Poets edition of Yevtushenko: Selected Poems at the airport in San Francisco. I had read many short stories by Anton Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn’s “The Incident at the Krechetovka Station” (an English translation of The Gulag Archipelago was several years away), and was working through Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I had begun to understand that Tolstoy was a hairy-airy old proto-hippie, but I hadn’t enough history to understand Yevtushenko at the time. I had no idea what Babi Yar was, and of course poetry just can’t be translated.
Russian words can be rendered only approximately into English words – and the other way ‘round – by someone equally at home in both languages, but, still, the emphases, the rhythms, the subtleties of language will be lost. Imagine, for instance, trying to translate “Well, I’ve got friends in low places” into another language. What, exactly, does “well” mean? What kind of friends? Those few close ones among whom there are almost no secrets? Co-workers? The Saturday-morning coffee-shop pals? Are the friends mention in the poem / song airline pilots and navigators? Unemployed steelworkers? Two welders, a dentist, and a CPA who play country music on the weekends? What are “low places?” Is “low” rendered as altitude or attitude?
So I didn’t understand much of Yevtushenko. After a few years’ study, including my own indiscriminate reading, I did. Without some basic knowledge of Russian history one cannot understand what a bee-slap in the collective (so to speak) faces of Stalin and his successors some of Yevtushenko’s poems were.
Just why Yevtushenko wasn’t “disappeared” is a matter of speculation. Some of his peers accused him of being a government stooge, but his poetry was not obedient to the censors. The line “Don’t tells lies to the young” is a typical Yevtushenko rebuke to the Soviet government. Had Stalin lived beyond 1953, Yevtushenko would not have; he would be a footnote lost in an unmarked mass grave, like Osip Mandelstam, Lydia Chukovskaya, Nikolay Punin, and thousands of others.
That edition of Yevtushenko: Selected Poems is still available; Amazon.com.pretty.much.owns.the.planet.com lists it from several sources from $3 to $50.
The ragged copy I bought in the long-ago – ragged because I finally read it, and have re-read it many times - is beside me on my desk as I type this. The filler on the back cover reads “Yevgeny Yevtushenko is the fearless spokesman of his generation in Russia. In verse that is young, fresh, and outspoken he frets at restraint and injustice…”
Except for that forbidden “he” – one person is now “they” on the orders of our own soviet censors – that fifty-year-old blurb could be pretty much the advertising copy for any new book of scribbles.
But Yevtushenko was real. “Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord…”