AN ARROW IN THE WALL
Selected Poetry and Prose
By Andrei Voznesensky
Edited by William Jay Smith and F.D. Reeve
Henry Holt. 344 pp. $22.95
ALMOST AT THE END
By Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Translated from the Russian
By Antonina W. Bouis, Albert C. Todd
And Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Henry Holt. 146 pp. $15.95
YEARS AGO Alexander Tvardovsky, editor of the prestigious Moscow journal Novyi Mir, told a young Yevgeny Yevtushenko "You are able to seize enemy territory but you can't consolidate your position there." It was a stunning insight, true both for the poet and for Yevtushenko's generation as a whole.
The post-Stalin "thaw" was a youth movement. Seeking to renew a sense of freshness in life, it idolized its chief poets. Yevtushenko and his gifted contemporary, Andrei Voznesensky. The generation of the 1950s that resonated to these voices included impressive talents, men and women like the economist Tatiana Zaslavskaya, journalist Fedor Burlatsky, Party official Alexander Bovin, or the young lawyer-turned-local-bureaucrat Mikhail Gorbachev. As the poets thundered against decades of Stalinist cant many young Soviets thought their country had changed forever. But it had not. True, the rising generation had gained a beachhead, but Stalinists still ruled the land. By the mid-1980s it was clear that the new people were stranded in alien territory. They resigned themselves to waiting.
The simultaneous appearance of newly translated collections by both Voznesensky and Yevtushenko causes one to ponder their complex fate and that of their generation in the U.S.S.R. Large sections of the Voznesensky volume, notably the collections Antiworlds and Nostalgia for the Present, have appeared earlier. These are balanced by newly translated works from the unofficial 1979 anthology Metropol', by a number of new poems that have yet to be published in the U.S.S.R., and by Voznesensky's charming autobiographical essay, "I am Fourteen," heretofore issued only in a truncated Moscow edition. The Yevtushenko volume consists entirely of freshly translated works.
The late English critic Max Hayward characterized both men as "civic" poets. In their willingness to confront the great issues of the day they stand in the great tradition that links such apparent opposities as the populist Nekrasov and the futurist Mayakovsky. Like Nekrasov, they have often stood in opposition to official policies, but like Mayakovsky they rebelled not so much in the name of some new ideology as of the free personality as such. With great e'lan they reclaimed an authentic "I" from the grips of a leaden and brutal "we." Yevtushenko's poetic tools include a rich, even facile, gift for improvisation. Voznesensky relies on a virtuoso's sense of sound, alliteration, and metaphor. By sharply different means, they both put forward the subversive notion that the solo individual could be the measure of all things Soviet. In the process, they achieved a degree of visibility and notoriety known in the West only to rock stars.
This offended many Western writers and more than a few Russians. A testy English critic argued that anyone who traveled as freely as Voznesensky was ipso facto suspect. The banal nationalism of several Yevtushenko poems of the 1970s diminished his stature in the eyes of his earlier admirers. What had once seemed revolutionary in Moscow now appeared as mere opportunism and narcissism. Not without cause, Tvardovsky criticizes Yevtushenko for chasing the spotlight that had shifted away from him. Both poets were accused of being social lion hunters in the West (a charge to which their list of influential friends lent credence) and of abandoning their own muse.
THE POEMS in these collections tell a different story. They reveal two aging poets who rue their earlier extavagances. Voznesensky, in "Dialogue," speaks of himself as
You rhyming pigeon tight in your jeans, you sing by
stepping on the throat of your life . . .
As he declares in that same poem, a colloquy between himself and Saint Peter, his earlier fame was all "a cheap celebrity, the, the rest of the payment to follow." Yevtushenko is even tougher on himself, characterizing his former persona as a "gigantic stage prop." "I grew too proud, too cocky for my own good," he writes in his recent "Fuku," "I became . . . impossibly vain." True, even this confession has some of the old narcisssism that Yevtushenko borrowed so easily from his charismatic preodecessor, Mayakovsky. But when he speaks of "coming late to my own self," when he prays in "My Universities" to "help me to be my real self," it semms genuine. "I know you'll say -- where's the wholeness?" he tells his readers. In the best of these new poems the wholeness is there.
The fact is, now these singers of youth are no longer young, and know it. Yevtushenko asks
Who is it? Age coming for you.
Come later. Too busy. Thing to do.
He is consumed by thoughts of death. At times, as in his vain and lugubrious "Come to My Merry Grave" this concern seems to be yet another grab for attention, a pose. But when, in his moving lyric "When the Clover Field Stirs," he speaks of "no feeling of life without a feeling of death" one senses a Yevtushenko made more wise by a sense of his own limits.
The theme of death has preoccupied Voznesensky for years. His moving poems in memory of the late actor/singer Vysotsky and of film director Vasili Shukshin, helped a nation mourn. His lines on the grave of his translator and friend, Robert Lowell, are among his most beautiful and fragile, as are two longer poems about Antonina Vozesenskaya, his late mother. Whether he writes of a murdered waitress in "Provincial Scene" or of the interment of novelist Nikolai Gogol, the progenitor for all that is surreal in Russian letters, Voznesensky shows death as leaving the survivors with an unfulfillable debt to those whose suffering they took for granted.
Such are the somber thoughts on the minds of two poets who have a genius for articulating the deepest feelings of their generation. This generation is now approaching retirement. Its most prominent member, Mikhail Gorbachev, is himself a grandfather and the Zaslavskayas, Burlatskys, and Bovins are, as they say, not as young as they used to be. Their campaign for openness and candor has been 30 years in the making, for it deals with the unfinished business of their youth.
Voznesensky, whose close boyhood tie with the aging Pasternak is touchingly recounted in "I Am Fourteen," has led the campaign for Pasternak's complete rehabilitation. In the same spirit, he has thundered against the desecration of Jewish graves in the U.S.S.R. and against the demolition by arrogant planners of the human-scale buildings from an older Moscow. "Start the confession, even slowly, bit by bit," thunders Yevtushenko. "Only in the revolt of shame against shamelessness," he writes in "A Small Dish," "will we escape the Day of Judgment -- honestly, more or less." For all their differences, both poets demand greater humility of themselves and call on the regime likewise to be more modest in its claim to reshape society and nature from above.
Everyone has his critics, and neither Voznesensky nor Yevtushenko is an exception. Voznesensky's recent call for a free cooperative press run by writers galls bureaucrats and thought controllers, while Yevtushenko's astonishing frontal attack on the structure of official atheism infuriates Party purists. Moreover, the cosmpolitan and specifically Western aura that both exude is a direct challenge to the Great Russian chauvinism that teems just under the surface of Soviet life. We forget that along with the reform-minded "dissidents" of the 1970s were others who longed for the good old days of Stalinism. Today, a milder Russophilia is evident in the elevation to national prominence of the Siberian novelist Valentin Rasputin and the literary scholar Dmitri Likhachev. When Voznesensky fills his poems with familiar references to the American cultural avant-garde, when Yevtushenko writes of "The Iron Curtain, unhappily squeeking her rusty brains," it can only provoke Moscow's neo-isolationists.
However tempting, it is pointless to prowl about in the works of poets for keys to the evolution of their society as a whole. The U.S.S.R. is far too complex for such simplistic tricks. What is worth noting, however, is that these two Soviet poets, whose early works were narrowly proscribed by time, place, and circumstances, are now preoccupied with universal themes. Granting the vast differences between the art and temperament of this pair of gifted sojourners, their common evolution is cause for hope. An American audience guffaws upon hearing Voznesensky's declaim in his delightful "Do Not Forget" or falls into silent sadness at his "First Frost." Whenever a young Russian journeys the world and his own national past by reading Yevtushenko's rambling but hard-hitting soliloquy "Fuku," we are all reminded that these large-scale Russian artists have bridged gulfs that even our best negotiators still scan with trepidation. :: S. Frederick Starr, president of Oberlin College, is the author of "Red and Hot: The Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union" and other books.