Andrei Voznesensky can't sit still with an idea.
Rehearsing on the small stage at Ford's Theatre Monday afternoon for his reading that night, the Soviet poet was transfixed by an echo resounding above the empty seats. Technical director Tom Berra assured him that once the theater was filled, the echo would disappear. "Fantastic! Fantastic!" Voznesensky exclaimed, sensing the beginnings of a metaphor.
Then, his face lined with fatigue from jet lag, the man many call Russia's greatest living poet sat for a few agitated minutes fielding questions, his bright, blue eyes darting around the theater.
"Really, I'm dying to write new poem," he said finally, begging off to dash to his hotel. "Because I have idea to write poem about this theater."
Four hours later, his left hand on his hip, his right gesturing as if to pull the words from his throat, he stood before an audience of diplomats and scholars, and recited his afternoon's work:
I have come to use this microphone with an actress
An empty theater, a simple light
It's here where they killed Lincoln.
What spirits are lurking here?
By what echo is this place pierced?
It's not the operator's fault, I'm sure
It's Lincoln's spirit
It sounds Lincoyln in Russian
I would call him Mr. Bell Tower for his height and sound.
I'm the first Russian who stepped on this stage
With my lyrics to recite with hoarse throat my poems
For Whitman and Lincoln
Art is a church built on blood
Only then is it real
We don't need these flowers
Leave them to Lincoln.
Voznesensky began his poetic career at 14 when he sent some of his poems to Boris Pasternak. Pasternak liked his work and invited him to visit, beginning a long association for both. "I was very close to him," Voznesensky said. "He was my great master, my idol, my hero. He was the greatest Russian poet of the 20th century, and I was very lucky to meet him."
Now 52, Voznesensky emerged in the 1960s with Yevgeny Yevtushenko as a spokesman for the new generation of Russian poets following Pasternak. But unlike Yevtushenko, who is widely regarded today as little more than a government propagandist, or dissident poets published only underground, Voznesensky has managed to walk a precarious tightrope between art and political acceptability.
He is a member of the Writers Union, the official organ of Soviet writers, travels abroad frequently, which few Russians are permitted to do, and last year had a three-volume collection of his work published. But while some believe he, too, sold out to government pressures long ago, he has continued to write poetry that at times discomfits his country's rulers. Monday's reading, the first stop on his present U.S. tour, included one poem about book shortages in the Soviet Union and another about the omnipresent lines.
Former senator Eugene J. McCarthy, who introduced him at the reading, said Voznesensky had been "under some pressure in Russia off and on . . . But they don't seem to know what to do about him because what he writes is the ultimate kind of propaganda -- the truth."
Fame, however, stalks poets in Russia as few Americans can imagine. "You can't be alone," Voznesensky said the morning after the reading. "Here okay, but in Russia because of TV they know your face. Even if they don't come to ask you something, they look at you. When people are watching for you, it stops your writing. I don't know, if I am honest, maybe I am very poisoned by this attention -- maybe I would be very unhappy if it would stop. Now I want to really, if it is possible, be invisible. The greatest enjoyment in life is to write."
Voznesensky began his reading with his older poems such as "Goya," with its word play on the Russian sounds of "ya" and "go" throughout, describing the horror of World War II through the eyes of the artist Goya. The poem "Ghetto in the Lake" told of a lake built on the graves of those who had perished under the Nazis.
Not all of the poems were somber. "Don't Forget" portrayed a man who gets dressed by putting on his pants, his coat, his automobile, his apartment courtyard, then his wife, and on and on until he "dons the black cosmos buttoning himself up to the stars" and "slinging the Milky Way on his shoulder," only to realize that he has forgotten to put on his watch and must take off the cosmos, the seas, the oceans until he is naked, standing on his balcony warning passers-by not to forget their watches.
"Darling, I think it is impossible to translate poetry at all," he said of the universal international burden of poets. "But it is possible to give something of what it is about." Often his poetry is translated by Russian language specialists who are not good poets, he said, but he praised the translation of several of his poems by poets such as Stanley Kunitz and W.H. Auden. "They made this poetry," he said.
Voznesensky said has no single favorite among his own poems but that he likes the more recent ones better. "The recent poems you love more because they are alive like a new love," he said. "You remember your old mistress or old lovers. But new is the best."