Nostalgia for the Present
Twelve years ago Antiworlds and the Fifth Ace, a bilingual volume to which several distinguished poets contributed translations under the editorship of Max Hayward and Patricia Blake, left nobody in doubt of Andrei Voznesensky’s invigorating talent. This new volume, in whose editing the admirable Mr. Hayward, who recently died, again had a hand, provides further evidence of Voznesensky’s high gifts. He is blessed with such a way of putting things that he can vault the language barrier as if it were a low fence. In a poem called “Winter at the Track” he talks of a frozen bird hanging in the air like an ornament, and a dead horse on its back with its soul sticking up out of its mouth like a cork-screw from a penknife. All he means is that the temperature is forty-five below zero centigrade, but somehow the simplest statement comes out like a burst of colored lights. Going overboard about Voznesensky seems, at first reading, the only decent thing to do.
But after intoxication comes the hangover. Viewed soberly, Voznesensky’s poetry has the same limitations as most other Soviet literature which has ever been officially published, except that in his case the limitations are even more glaring. Lesser talents might profit from not being allowed to speak out directly: they can palm off evasiveness as ambiguity. But Voznesensky is transparently a case of the poet who, in Mayakovsky’s famous phrase, stands on the throat of his own song.
With good reason, Voznesensky is a hero to all those in the Soviet Union who want their poets to tell them the truth. But at the risk of his career, freedom, and perhaps even his life, he has never been able to do much more than drop hints. Reading his work through from the beginning, you can see that what ought to be his main subject matter is hardly there. When the subject is the history of his own country, everything he has to say is tangential. And eventually, because he is unable to state the plain truth about his own time and place, he is unable to state the plain truth about any other time and place. The result is a kind of false complexity, a string of profundities that do not add up to much.
Voznesensky emerged in the early Sixties, supposedly a new heyday for Russian poetry. Anatoly Gladilin—then a participant, now in exile—tells something of the story in his little book The Making and Unmaking of a Soviet Writer. Yevtushenko, Voznesensky, Rozhdestvensky, Okudzhava, and Bella Akhmadulina were the five young poets whose names were always mentioned together. Poetry meetings were mass rallies of the best and the brightest. The poets were treated like rock stars. At the wheel of a car full of lusty bards, the beautiful Akhmadulina glamorously collected tickets for speeding. Undoubtedly the whole upsurge of lyrical afflatus had great symbolic importance for performers and spectators alike. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, etc. All concerned had some justification for feeling that they were at long last talking about the reality of Soviet life, and not the illusion.
But in fact not much got said. In “Babi Yar” Yevtushenko condemned a Nazi crime, not a Soviet one. The poem lent itself to interpretation as an attack on the anti-Semitic prejudices of some of the Soviet authorities. No doubt it took courage on Yevtushenko’s part even to go that far. But at no point could he allow himself to suggest that the history of the Soviet Union has been largely composed of similar atrocities. If he had written a poem about, say, Kolyma, it would have been a real literary landmark, since that would have been a case, like One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, of Soviet literature facing up to Soviet reality. But all “Babi Yar” does is face up to Nazi reality. In other words, it shells the ruins. One doesn’t necessarily condemn Yevtushenko by saying that he has a sure instinct for what he can get away with: if we were in his position, we would probably like to have that instinct ourselves. But it needs to be remembered that he has always had more than his own innate silliness to help make him banal. Censorship breeds platitudes as surely as salt water brings rust.
Voznesensky started off with a creative imagination that left Yevtushenko’s in the shade, but if you take a hard look at Antiworlds and the Fifth Ace you will not find much light being cast on Soviet life except by reflection. “Master Craftsmen,” dated 1959, presents a seemingly bold manifesto:
For an artist true-born
revolt is second nature:
he is both tribune
The word which Max Hayward translates as “troublemaker,” bunt, actually has connotations of rebellion and mutiny, but perhaps it was right to tone the idea down. Even in his earliest, brashest poems, Voznesensky’s defiance of Soviet authority is very generalized. “Shame on fat-bellied bureaucrats!” he storms. But most of these criticisms fall well within the limits of the ritual beefing which Soviet citizens have always been allowed to indulge in during periods when the regime feels itself safe. It is often possible to get away with bitching about shortages, rapacious builders, bad service, or shoes that leak. It is rarely possible to comment in any open way about organized repression, even when it occurred in the past. Voznesensky’s early poems are no exception to this rule. He says nothing explicit about the excesses of the Soviet government, even when the excesses were Stalin’s. He says nothing because the opportunity to tackle such subjects was not on offer—a subject in itself, which could not be tackled either.
So the truly subversive moments in Antiworlds are all indirect. Instead of condemning Stalin he comes out with a no-holds-barred, knock-down-and-drag-out assault on Peter the Great. Peter the Great is portrayed as a monster engaged in butchering his erstwhile favorite, Anna Mons. In real life Anna Mons died a natural death. But here she is being bloodily executed while the crowd abuses her as an “Anglo-Swedish-German-Greek spy.” Stanley Kunitz translates this last term as “dirty foreigner,” but perhaps it would have been better to have employed some such stock phrase as “running dog of Imperialism,” since Voznesensky, with judicious choice of official language, is partly alluding to the Great Terror of the late 1930s. So, at any rate, the critic V. Nazarenko assumed when he accused Voznesensky of trying to “express certain ideas of universal application.” It is hard to see why V. Nazarenko should have got his highly orthodox knickers in such a twist. If Voznesensky had to libel Peter the Great in order to get in a fleeting reference to the most important single fact of Soviet history, then there was little danger of certain ideas of universal application being expressed in a way noticeable to anybody not equipped with V. Nazarenko’s ideological mine-detector.
In 1963 Khrushchev cracked down on the young artists. On March 8 of that year he abused Voznesensky in public. The scene is recorded by Gladilin with suitable emphasis on Khrushchev’s porcine features, which apparently exuded lard at the critical moment. But in Voznesensky’s case, as in everybody else’s, the boom was being lowered on nothing more dangerous than an outburst of youthful self-consciousness. “The Call of the Lake,” a typical Voznesensky poem of 1965, would probably not have been any more searching if he had written it in 1962. Dedicated “to the memory of the victims of fascism,” it is about Jews murdered by the SS—i.e., it is “Babi Yar” all over again. Which is not to say that the subject is trivial: only that Voznesensky, like Yevtushenko, inevitably treats it that way, through being unable to speak the truth about events closer to home.
I am afraid that Nostalgia for the Present has all the disappointing aspects of Antiworlds plus a few new ones. But first we should remind ourselves that Voznesensky remains a talent of the first class. His books are important, whatever use he might be making of his gifts. Vera Dunham and Max Hayward have risen to the occasion. The notes are comprehensive and the list of translators is mainly just as distinguished as in Antiworlds, although the odd aging beatnik seems to have joined the party. Voznesensky’s verbal facility still seems unimpaired.
Beginners with Russian should beware of falling for what sounds like musicality: they could be making the same mistake as all those Frenchmen who thought that Poe wrote subtle verse. But even the fledgling can tell that Voznesensky’s tricks with alliteration are something better than mere echolalia. He has an effortless mimetic knack. The humbler translators have done their best to transmit some of this, but even when they despair of the attempt there is still a lot of straightforward imagery which would be fascinating in any language. Those without any Russian will find plenty to enjoy. All they will need is a receptive heart for the poet’s unbounded charm. In “From a Diary” we find him lying on a bed with a young lady citizen of New York.
Who in his right mind would have thought
That here in New York we’d lie upon
This pillow one day, opened out
Like a Russian-English lexicon?
No wonder the girls go crazy about him. There is more of the same in “Christmas Beaches,” where yet another young lady is to be found prostrated on a bed beside the poet, with the shadow of the shutters lying on her “like a striped sailor’s shirt.” Not even the combined efforts of Robert Bly and Lawrence Ferlinghetti can destroy the economy of an idea like that, although elsewhere in the same poem they manage to make Voznesensky sound like somebody who used to hang out with Jack Kerouac.
Hundreds of times they’ve buried us with their so wise plaster castigations!
Wise men, our happiness bugs you.
Which is not quite it. But other translators do better. Richard Wilbur has the formal skill to find technical equivalents for Voznesensky’s symmetrical compression. In his version of “Phone Booth” he maintains the high standards set by himself and Auden in Antiworlds. In an ideal world, Wilbur would be first choice to translate all of Voznesensky’s overtly formal poetry. When William Jay Smith attempts to mimic the precisely balanced stanzas of Ispovyed,” for example, the results can only be described as blah. Instead of taking the easy way out and translating the title as “Confession,” he calls the poem “The Eternal Question” and drags every line out to twice its desirable length.
Looseness of construction does not matter so much on those numerous occasions when Voznesensky himself is writing in the open, declamatory tradition pioneered by Mayakovsky. But even in those instances it is necessary to say that William Jay Smith introduces a quite unwarranted element of flatness. When Voznesensky says that gulls’ footprints look like mermaids’ triangles, Mr. Smith starts talking about “the print of their sex,” which sounds like Anais Nin working to a tight deadline. Mr. Smith’s industry is to be admired but one can be forgiven for wishing that he did not translate so many of Voznesensky’s poems. One sometimes recalls the deadly example of Professor Singh, who by unflagging effort has almost succeeded in convincing us that Eugenio Montale writes the Italian equivalent of giftless academic English.
Yet the preponderance in Nostalgia for the Present of Mr. Smith’s worthily unexciting contributions is a subsidiary matter. The whole book is rich with fine conceits. By now Voznesensky has been hailed as a cultural hero all over the world. He hails the world right back. He loves Paris in the springtime, he loves San Francisco in the fall.
But again he has not very much specific to say about the Soviet Union. Sloth, bribery, and regimentation all get it in the neck. He mocks the thousands of geniuses who make up the Writers’ Union. There is a deserved hymn, with no sensitive names mentioned, to the Russian intelligentsia as the collective guardian of human values. But that’s about it. All other criticisms are indirect at best. More often they are just vague.
Arthur Miller, in his introductory note, gets it exactly wrong when he talks about poems that “cut close to the bone on sensitive public issues.” The sensitive public issues remain safe when knives are as blunt as these. In “On the Death of Shukshin” Voznesensky mourns the famous writer/actor as “the conscience of the nation.” But Shukshin died of natural causes and his quarrel with authority was about the pollution of Lake Baikal. There is a poem called “Requiem” but the title is the only thing it has in common with Akhmatova’s majestic poem of the same name. Akhmatova’s poem has never been published in the Soviet Union. There is no reason why Voznesensky’s could not be put up in bronze beside the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. It is just a lament for dead servicemen. Again, it is necessary to say that there is nothing trivial about this subject but that Voznesensky makes it so, by being unable to lament all those civilians who died for no good reason.
“Ice Block” is a poem about “man’s guilt before nature.” It appears that man should feel particularly guilty about—Dachau. Of Vorkuta or Karaganda, no mention. The inevitable effect is to deprive Dachau of some of its context and therefore of much of its meaning. In “Darkmotherscream” Marina Tsvetaeva gets in very obliquely, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is possible to mention her only because she killed herself, and was not, on the face of it anyway, killed by somebody else. (Tsvetaeva committed suicide in Yelabuga concentration camp in 1941. Several of Voznesensky’s contemporaries, most notably Akhmadulina, have written poems about her, but always without going into much detail about what brought her to such a pass.)
The nearest thing to a straight statement is “Book Boom,” which honors Akhmatova. It is pointed out that Akhmatova, once persecuted, is now published.
Those who once attacked her—
as if to atone for their curse—
stand, a reverent honor guard,
for a single volume of her verse.
But speaking as one who owns a copy of the “black, agate-colored tome” he refers to, I can only feel sorry that he is unable to mention the salient fact about it, which is that it is expurgated, like every other edition of Akhmatova’s poems that has come out in the Soviet Union. “Those who once attacked her” still attack her now. That is the point, and Voznesensky knows it is the point. But he is not allowed to say so in public. Still, at least there is a vague hint that some form of repression might just possibly have occurred once upon a time.
All these hints and evasions are unsatisfactory but you can’t ask the man to put his head on the block. The culprit is the Soviet Union, not Voznesensky. Alas, there are other sad aspects of the book in which the culprit is Voznesensky and not the Soviet Union. The star status which Voznesensky has enjoyed on his trips to the West might not have swelled his head, but it has certainly inflated his rhetoric. In numerous poems about his junkets abroad he almost achieves the difficult feat of sounding as fatuous as Yevtushenko. In an awful poem called “Lines to Robert Lowell” he apostrophizes History (“You, history, are the moan/of crucified prophets”), congratulates the Poet for his propensity to suffer (“The poet thrusts his body/like a tolling bell/ against the dome of insults”), and holds a meaningful dialogue with his means of transport (“And you, my plane, where are you flying/in this darkness?”). The original has “my poor plane” but the translators, Louis Simpson and Vera Dunham, knew where to call a halt.
There is worse to come. Aping Lowell’s portentousness, Voznesensky is at least in no danger of slumming. Unfortunately he is equally thrilled by the profundities of Allen Ginsberg, as in “American Buttons.”
I love Greenwich Village
with its sarcastic buttons.
Who’s the shaggy one who showed up
cock & balls in dark glasses?
It’s Allen, Allen, Allen!
Leap over Death’s carnival,
Allen, in your underwear!
The same poem instructs us that it is “Better to stick your fingers in your mouth and whistle/than to be silent booboisie.” The translation is by Ferlinghetti, but really this stuff is not up to even his level. It might as well be Yoko Ono talking. It is not because of jet-lag, hash, or willing American maidens that Voznesensky can so readily pick a side in such an inane debate. Nor, I think, is it a result of the parochialism from which even the most astute artists in a closed society are bound to suffer. He ends up making empty remarks about the US because he started making empty remarks about the USSR. The more he travels, the less he has to say. There is no mystery about the reason. Had he tried to say anything definite, the Soviet authorities would have arranged a different form of travel for him, within the borders of his own country.
There is something terrible about hearing a poet of Voznesensky’s ability say vaporous things about world merchants of death, etc. Nobody ever expected Yevtushenko to become a mature artist. But of Voznesensky it was the least we could expect. Yet on this showing he has not done so. The fact is sad but not surprising. For a poet, to be denied one word means that all the others are not enough. Voznesensky has been denied the most fundamental truths about the country in which he grew up. Unable to be frank about those, he is unable to be frank about anything else either. Without the possibility of frankness there can be no true ambiguity, obliqueness, subtlety, or depth. There can only be obfuscation.
People should give up talking as if in the case of the Soviet Union the second law of thermodynamics has been suspended. The notion that poetry benefits from repression is essentially vulgar: it is a version of the equally vulgar idea that politics are not real unless they are extreme. The mass audience for poetry in the Soviet Union exists only because of the fleeting possibility that in poems some elementary truth might be mentioned, or at least alluded to, or anyway not denied outright. Poetry which exhausts most of its energy hinting at some forbidden topic is inevitably trivial. It is balderdash to suggest that the Soviet authorities repress poetry because they take it seriously. All they take seriously is what poetry might bring with it—open discussion of the historical facts.
Officially approved Soviet literature has cretinized itself. It couldn’t have happened any other way. Voznesensky is a talent in the great modern tradition of Blok, Gumilev, Pasternak, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova. But he does not look like becoming an artist in that tradition. The evidence suggests that the necessary qualification for attaining poetic maturity after the Revolution is to have been born and raised before it happened—by now an unlikely possibility The conditions for nurturing a lyrical gift no longer exist. Unofficial poetry, though it produces a good deal to be admired, is not really a substitute. In the 1973 Harper & Row bilingual anthology Poetry from the Russian Underground (when I was in New York in March the Strand bookshop still had a few copies marked down from $10 to $3.95) Voznesensky and all his friends are represented. Along with Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” an anonymous song about Kolyma stands out for its directness. Half the other poems in the book are busy condemning American policy in South East Asia, defending the Decembrists, or pointing out that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a bad thing. Even those poems which attempt to deal directly with the Great Terror seem predicated on the assumption that no coherent political analysis is possible. It all happens in a dream.
For the moment Voznesensky has had most of his privileges suspended by the Soviet authorities. While he has made brief trips abroad, he has been denied permission to give readings at home—for a Soviet poet, no light punishment. The immediate cause of all this disfavor was Voznesensky’s temerity in publishing a cluster of unofficial poems in the samizdat magazine Metropol. It could be that I am missing some hidden meanings, but as far as I can see these unofficial poems are not very different from his official ones. The most subversive poem of the bunch seems to be the one addressed to Derzhavin, the favored court poet in Catherine the Great’s time. Voznesensky puns on his name (which is like one of the words for “power”), compares the old boy to a double-headed eagle (the imperial symbol), and congratulates him on at least being able to talk to himself.
The implication is that a poet of the present day can’t be frank even when alone. What we have to imagine is a country where to write such a poem is correctly regarded as an act of daring not just by the authorities, but by the poet himself. Grote ended his History of Greece at the point where—he took the idea from Homer—even those who thought they were free were really slaves.
Unofficial poetry is a brave try. But most of it is written by official poets leading double lives, with the implication that their official lives are fake. Worse circumstances for the production of poetry would be hard to imagine. Poetry is not just facts, but it can’t start without them. It is no use saying that Voznesensky might simply be an apolitical poet. If he can’t choose to be apolitical, we can never tell. In a long and scrappy poem called “Story Under Full Sail,” printed near the end of Nostalgia for the Present, Voznesensky gives the game away.
It’s shameful to spot a lie and not to name it,
shameful to name it and then to shut your eyes,
shameful to call a funeral a wedding
and play the fool at funerals besides.
The speaker is the nineteenth-century buccaneering court chamberlain Rezanov, but it might as well be the poet himself. Stanley Kunitz has been unwarrantedly coy in translating nye iskorenyat as “to shut your eyes.” It means “not to root it out.” With typical obliqueness, but this time with real point, Voznesensky is saying that the Soviet Union must face the truth about its past. Until that happens, every aspect of Soviet life will go on being distorted, the arts not least. When the alternatives are death, exile, or silence, we should be glad that Voznesensky has settled for stardom. But he could have had stature, if only things had been different.
On Voznesensky November 8, 1979