Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Russian poetry

After reading Polar Star, I was intrigued by the poetry quoted by two of the characters. It was a passionate interchange between lovers. The novel's text gave the impression the author was very famous and equally unapproved by the Soviet state. I looked, and - lo and behold! - it is a real author. The current view is that Anna Akhmatova is one of the greatest Russian poets in the 20th Century. While looking for her work at the library (which uses the Library of Congress system, ug!), I was forced to look through several other works of Russian literature. I checked out another author, Yevtushenko, published in the 60s. Given the front piece's claim "approved translation" and print date of 1966, I assumed this was going to be Soviet-filtered work and expected it to be an interesting comparison. So, here's a brief exerpt from both of their work:

Anna Akhmatova

Excerpt from White Flock, 1915

I don’t know if you’re alive or dead.
Can you on Earth be sought,
Or only when the sunsets fade
Be mourned serenely in my thought?

All is for you: the daily prayer,
The sleepless heat at night,
And of my verses, the white
Flock, and of my eyes the blue fire.

No one was more cherished, no one tortured
Me more, not
even the one who betrayed me to torture,
Not even the one who caressed me and forgot.

Excerpt from Poem without a Hero, a series written between '40 & '62

... the prince of Darkness, whoever
Would dare to bring him here?
Mask or skull or face, his
Expression of malice and ache I
Doubt even Goya could paint

The suavest and the sickest,
Compared with whom what sinner
is not incarnate grace? ...

Yvegney Yevtuschenko

A Russian Toy: Roly-Poly
[note, this is about a man creating a roly-poly toy - one of those things that, when knocked over rocks back up - for an invading Mongolian Khan]

For those peasants, buffoons
and simpletons at first seeming,
are like those dolls within a doll,
secrets within secrets concealing.
But Roly himself remained,
as the russian people remains,
and the spirit of Roly-Poly
every Russian sustains.

We’re the people of Roly Poly
By God we never been saved
But how many jackboots crushed us down,
flat on our backs like slaves?

But, putting their trust in Heaven,
they never knew our real worth,
neither the French nor the Germans,
nor any Prince or Czar on earth.

All they knew: we were Rolies.
And wanted us flat on our face.
But the fact we were Roly Polies
they forgot, and paid the price
who laughs undaunted, and rises
from the mud untrodden, mocking,
that simple peasant fellow,
to and fro slightly rocking

Vologodsky Province, 1962

None of Akhmatova's work (in the little volume I read) mentions peasants. In fact, one of the nicer 'romantic' ones is a young girl pining for the Czar who will come and make her empress (of course, he dies first - this is, after all, Russian poetry). Definitiely not supporting Socialist Realism. I find I really enjoy her work.

Not to be unfair, some of Yevtushenko's work is elegant. It's just liberally sprinkled with atheistic adoration of The Russian Peasant.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In general for Yevtushenko's poetry, if it was published by an English or American (or any publisher outside the USSR)publisher, it's the real, uncensored deal. I have tons of his poetry.

I also have Anna Ahkmatova's work. She was a good friend of Dmitri Shostakovich's when he lived in Leningrad before WW2. She stayed during the Siege, he was pulled out by the government and sent to join his family in safety. She survived the Siege and died in 1966. Shostakovich lived to 1975.

Yevtushenko collaborated with Shostakovich once, quite famously, for the 13th "Babi Yar" Symphony. Babi Yar is the site outside Kiev where the Nazis murdered all of that city's Jews, about 70,000 people during WW2 with few survivors. Yevtushenko's poem about it, used by Shostakovich, excoriates the Soviet government for continuing the Nazi policy of extermination of Jews, and famously is written to include the general Russian population (who still are anti-Semitic).

During the Soviet era, artists, writers, musicians all had to walk a very narrow tightrope in order to survive AND produce their art. Socialist Realism was often used as an excuse to silence them, when it's really just gobbledy-gook itself, like the beaucratic Soviet mind.....