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 …
On Voznesensky November 8, 1979