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On Voznesensky

In response to:

Voznesensky's Case from the August 16, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

I wish to take issue with Mr. Clive James’ recent review essay on the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky. While acknowledging that Mr. Voznesensky possesses a formidable creative imagination, Mr. James goes on to accuse him of turning his back on the great moral issues of Soviet society and confining himself instead to mere “ritual beefing.” “What ought to be Voznesensky’s main subject,” James charges, “is hardly there.”

Mr. James is not the first to assign subject matter to Russian poets and then to evaluate them according to the degree to which they fulfill, or overfulfill, their plan. Unfortunately, though, he is better at setting norms for others than at gauging their fulfillment. A substantial number of the poems in Voznesensky’s collection, Nostalgia for the Present, fully satisfy Mr. James’ exacting standards, among them “Pornography of the Mind,” “Table Matters,” “The Internment of Nikolai Vasilich Gogol,” and “The Russian Intelligentsia.” Voznesensky treats sensitive issues without flinching, but he does so through poetry, not pasquinade. Nor should he be blamed for the fact that it was possible for the poems in this collection to be published legally in the USSR, or to be read before thousands of persons in officially sponsored readings. For both Andrei Voznesensky and the world of Soviet letters of which he is a part are far more complex than Clive James would have us believe.

While Voznesensky is being excoriated from London for his supposed silence on the great issues of the day, he is being attacked in Moscow for precisely the opposite sin. On May 9, 1979, a letter bearing the fictitious signature “Vasilii Riazanov” was mailed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, to the Union of Writers of the USSR, and to some eighty prominent Soviet writers. The letter contained the following paragraph:

We in the USSR are not stingy with prizes for the troubadours of Zionism. A. Voznesensky recently received a State Prize—and immediately showed his gratitude by participating in Metropol. Is it really possible that Voznesensky’s political views were not evident to those who distribute the awards? They were already well known long ago, for Voznesensky does not hide them. From the tribune that our central television network obligingly provided, he even advertised Marc Chagall as a “great Russian artist.” Why, one might ask? Chagall’s entire oeuvre is shot through with Jewish national motifs, and he lived most of his life abroad. So what is Russian about him? Only that he was born in Russia? But Menachem Begin and Golda Meir were also Russian born.

Against the background of such anonymous denunciations as this, Mr. James’ charges of civic irresponsibility seem peculiarly out of place. To Voznesensky’s credit, he has not reacted publicly either to Riazanov or James. He has preferred, instead, to practice a kind of “quiet diplomacy” directed not only toward his friends abroad, but, more important, toward those members of the community of Soviet writers who work conscientiously to uphold the integrity of their art. It would be wrong to think that Voznesensky is the only Soviet writer engaged in this enterprise, or that such efforts go wholly without positive response from officialdom. But Voznesensky’s efforts are significant nonetheless for, as he writes:

It’s rare in our polluted skies
to hear the crane’s lonely cries,
while every bookstore’s lined with stacks
of monolithic published hacks

In his concern to air his charges against Andrei Voznesensky’s politics, Mr. James neglected to assess the poetry included in the recent volume. Since the collection includes many works of significance, and since they have been translated by such talented American poets as Richard Wilbur, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Bly, and William Jay Smith, is it too much to ask that they now be subjected to the careful review they deserve?

S. Frederick Starr
Kennan Institute
for Advanced Russian Studies
The Wilson Center
Washington, DC


To the Editors:

Clives James’ attack on Andrei Voznesensky is savage. The point that he makes at great length is that since Voznesensky cannot tell the direct political truth he cannot tell the truth about anything. He can operate only through hints and evasions. Because Voznesensky refuses to do any of the honorable things left for him to do—to die, to go into exile, or to keep quiet—he is finished as a poet. Although he may be treated as a star in his own country and abroad, he can still not attain any real stature. A sad case, indeed, according to Mr. James.

Faced with such a complete hatchet job, I was naturally curious about the wielder of the hatchet. What, I wondered, were Clive James’ qualifications as a critic of poetry, specifically Russian poetry, and as a political analyst capable of such oracular pronouncements? I discovered that as television reviewer of the Observer, Mr. James has written several mock epics. A few lines from one of these, The Fate of Felicity Fark in the Land of the Media, a moral poem in rhyming couplets, will give an idea of the moral and political tone of the works. Of his heroine he writes:

Her attitudes may not have looked strait-
laced,
But underneath it all, Flick Fark was
Chaste.
Our Heroine repressed all thoughts of
Sex
The way the Russian army crushed the
Czechs.

When similar lines appeared in a later volume of his verse letters called Fan Mail, Auberon Waugh was prompted to remark that Mr. James had almost no poetic talent and “as much idea of rhythm or metre as a one-legged kangaroo.” That may have been unfair since Clive James perhaps sounds better set to music; he is also, it seems, a pop lyricist with several RCA records to his credit. But is a pop lyricist, however successful, the proper person to comment on the musicality of a poet as subtle as Andrei Voznesensky? Judging by the awkward language of this review which is studded with such phrases as “beginners with Russian” and “lying on a bed with a young lady citizen of New York,” Mr. James is clearly more attune to what he terms “giftless academic English” than to the music of poetry in any language.

As a reader of Russian, Clive James is far from reliable; his misreadings of Voznesensky are too numerous to list. But they are to be expected from one who two years ago, after a package tour of a few days’ duration to Moscow and Leningrad, wrote in the Observer that it was good to know a few words of Russian before taking the trip, and that he had accomplished miracles with his pocket dictionary. I suppose that Mr. James now expects Voznesensky to applaud such miracles when he is told that some of his more epigrammatic verse is written “in the open, declamatory tradition pioneered by Mayakovsky.” That statement to anyone with the slightest feeling for Voznesensky’s poetry is utter nonsense. Mr. James may not know that Marina Tsvetaeva did not commit suicide in a concentration camp but in a small rented room in Yelabuga. And he may not know that I changed the title of the poem “Confession” to “The Eternal Question” at the explicit request of Andrei Voznesensky, whose grasp of English is considerably stronger than Mr. James’ of Russian.

To any careful reader in the Soviet Union or in the West Andrei Voznesensky speaks in this volume with a directness and courage that would be admirable anywhere under any circumstances. We may lament, as he has in the past, his poems that have been lost and unpublished because of censorship, but who can doubt that in “Old Song” in this volume he is writing eloquently of his revulsion at the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia?

The poetry of Voznesensky must in the end speak for itself, and it does so, even I trust in my translation, with force and clarity in the following quatrains, which were included in Metropol, the anthology of unpublished writings brought out by some members of the Soviet Writers Union after they had failed to gain official approval for its publication. Readers more perceptive and better informed than Clive James will appreciate their full metaphorical resonance. (The titles “Derzhavin” and “Yesenin” have been dropped at the poet’s request.)

1.

Over a dark and quiet empire
alone I fly—and envy you,
two-headed eagle who at least
have always yourself to talk to.

2.


To hang bare light bulbs from a ceiling
simple cord will always serve;
it’s only the poet who must hang
by his glaring white spinal nerve.

William Jay Smith
Hollins College, Virginia


To the Editors:

I cannot let Clive James’ silurian words [NYR, August 16] about that brave and gifted man, Andrei Voznesensky, pass without protest. Mr. James is free to like or dislike Mr. Voznesensky’s poetry (he seems from his words both to like and dislike it). But his aspersions on Mr. Voznesensky’s moral courage seem to hail straight from the murky pages of Literaturnaya Gazetta. On reading James I was reminded only of a jackal leaping on the back of an antlered stag already heavily engaged in combat with a pack of wolves. Brave work, Mr. James!

Harrison Salisbury
Taconic, Connecticut


To the Editors:

In his “Voznesensky’s Case” Clive James states, “Poetry is not just facts, but it can’t start without them.” Well, it might be good to get one’s facts right before writing a review. Khrushchev’s attack on “the young artists” took place not in 1963, as Clive James thinks. If what he refers to is the notorious Manege exhibition, it was in 1962. Marina Tsvetaeva committed suicide not in the “Elabuga concentration camp” but in the house she rented in Elabuga. In fact, Tsvetaeva had never been in a concentration camp at all.

These are fairly obvious facts that are familiar to anyone with but a modicum of knowledge about Russian cultural history. But the review written by Clive James is an example of how lack of elementary erudition can be combined with erroneous judgment. According to James, Soviet poets Yevtushenko and Voznesensky are no good as poets not because of the empty rhetoric and pseudoprofundity of their verse but because their poetry avoids “open discussion of the historical facts.” “If [Yevtushenko] had written a poem about, say, Kolyma,” writes James, “it would have been a real literary landmark.” James is wrong. It would not, not with Yevtushenko—as a matter of fact (the fact which is again unfamiliar to Clive James) Yevtushenko did write “a poem about Kolyma” which was part of his Bratskaya GES cycle, published in the Yunost magazine in Moscow. So what? It did not make Yevtushenko a better poet, to say nothing of becoming a literary landmark or something equally impressive.

I do not think that I shall convince Clive James that Yevtushenko and Voznesensky are bad poets not because Yevtushenko (in James’ opinion) fails to write about Kolyma and Voznesensky in his poem about Akhmatova does not state that Akhmatova’s books are censored by the Soviets. I also think that they are bad poets—but my reasons for thinking so are different from James’. I think that they are bad poets because they write bad poetry and not because their poetry is not about the right things, as James is inclined to believe. But this, after all, is a difference of taste and approach. As a Russian saying goes, “Some people like the priest’s wife, while others prefer his daughter.” But James is positively wrong when he states that there is no poetry in Russia except that produced by Yevtushenko, Voznesensky, and other “official writers.” Does James know anything about the so-called “unofficial poetry” which he condescendingly refers to as “a brave try…but not really a substitute [for what?!]”? I wonder if James ever heard of Brodsky, whose poems have been published, among other places, in the NYR. Brodsky is, perhaps, the best-known representative of the “unofficial poets”—but there are others whom James ought to have familiarized himself with before pronouncing his judgment on contemporary Russian poetry. James gives us to understand he knows Russian—has he read anything by Dmitry Bobyshev? by Henry Volokhonsky? by Elena Schvarts? by Oleg Okhapkin? by Viktor Krivulin? I could name many others, but obviously no name would ring a bell for James who, as it is plain from his review, has never heard about the collection Apollon-77 (Paris, 1977) or about any of the literary journals published in the West which regularly print “unofficial poetry” Kontinent, Vremia i My, 22, Ekho, Kovcheg.

Ilya Levin
Department of Slavic Languages
The University of Texas, Austin, Texas


Clive James replies:

In my review I cast no aspersions whatever on Voznesensky’s moral courage. It is as clear to me as it must be clear to him that he is risking his life even by talking evasively. That he is unable to talk directly even in his “unofficial” poetry, I several times suggested, is not his fault but the fault of the Soviet system of government. This point was so elementary that I blushed to make it. After three years of learning to read Russian I hope I have made some progress but it has undoubtedly been slow. I still feel like an amateur and was diffident about venturing an opinion in this matter. Having now seen the low level on which some of the professionals venture their opinions, I begin to feel more confident.

Harrison Salisbury need not be so astonished that I have managed to “like and dislike” Voznesensky’s poetry both at the same time. As I tried to make clear (as I did make clear, but Mr. Salisbury had trouble comprehending), it is possible to admire Voznesensky’s talent while lamenting that it has not yet been put to its full use. Once again I was careful to point out that the blame for Voznesensky’s gift not coming to complete fruition must be placed squarely at the door of the Soviet system of government.

S. Frederick Starr seems to share Mr. Salisbury’s difficulties in reading plain English. I did not charge Voznesensky with civic irresponsibility. I charged the Soviet Union with civic irresponsibility for doing the very sort of thing Mr. Starr talks about—i.e., intimidating poets whenever they say something which is open to the wrong interpretation. Mr. Starr’s understanding of Soviet society must be even more elementary than mine if he thinks that a Soviet artist can practice “quiet diplomacy” without feeling, at least to some degree, that he has been forced to gag himself. Russian writers are necessarily involved in a moral dilemma whatever they do. This is one of the constant themes of dissident literature, as Mr. Starr, during the course of his advanced studies, might perhaps have noted.

William Jay Smith must strive to be less self-important. The subject of my review was Voznesensky. Allusions to William Jay Smith were all in passing. But it is never nice, when we know as much about somebody’s work as Mr. Smith seems to know about mine, to find him being dismissive about our own efforts. To soothe Mr. Smith’s ruffled feathers, let me assure him that he does not write as badly as he reads. To his question “who can doubt that in ‘Old Song’…he is writing eloquently of his revulsion at the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia?” the answer is “anyone who does not ponder the possible implications of the appended date.” The poem is all about the depredations of Turkish janissaries and bears out my point exactly.

I published the article to which Mr. Smith refers in May 1977. Nowadays I still need a dictionary but it does not fit in my pocket. The article was attacked by Literaturnaya Gazetta across seven columns. My opinions, it was said, closely echoed those of Goebbels and the CIA. So I have had a fleeting taste of what it is like to have the heavies breathing threats at you. Even safe in London I felt daunted enough. If I had ever before doubted how much courage it takes for a Soviet writer to publish an unpalatable opinion, I have certainly never doubted it since. The suggestion that Auberon Waugh is a judge of poetry would be greeted with much merriment in his homeland.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Levin both have a point about Tsvetayeva. Having only just got round to reading her systematically, I took a few things on trust. On the matter of her death I followed Tamas Aczel and Lazslo Tikos of the University of Massachusetts. In their introduction to Poetry from the Russian Underground (1973) they refer to “Tsvetayeva’s suicide in a Soviet concentration camp” and “Yelabuga, the camp in which she committed suicide.” I now see that I made a mistake in taking these for accurate statements, and can only plead that when one comes late to a big subject like Russian literature one cannot hope to master all the details at once. But I think it is worth pushing on, if only to ask the innocent questions which more sophisticated students might have forgotten need answering.

Mr. Levin is out to score debating points, I think. He has the ghost of a point about Yevtushenko, although it can scarcely be said to offset the glaring fact that Yevtushenko’s biggest and most famous poem about atrocity is about a Nazi atrocity. “Dachau’s ashes burn my feet” is a typical opening line from Yevtushenko. Once again there is no point blaming the man when the system is at fault. I didn’t mean the Manege exhibition, I meant the second session of the Conference of Young Writers which was held in the Kremlin on March 7 and 8, 1963, the latter day being the one on which Khrushchev did his number.

Mr. Levin can stop wondering whether I have heard of Brodsky. It is news to me, though, that Brodsky is an “unofficial” poet in the generally accepted sense. I had the impression that Brodsky was now in Western exile, and pursuing a concentrated, fruitful, and above all free literary career of the kind which, it seems to me, has become impossibly difficult to further in the Soviet Union.

I am sorely aware that Voznesensky’s present position is not easy. Attacked from within his own country by the vile enforcers of official policy, he must feel that insult is being added to injury when he is attacked from without. But really I have not attacked him. I have paid him the compliment due to his abundant talent by pointing out what I think are the reasons why that talent has been held down. In the Soviet Union all the arts have been trivialized. Poetry is no exception. There is nothing surprising about this. It suits the State well that gifted poets should waste most of their time fighting for the right to speak. What we are witnessing, thankfully from afar, is a tragedy, not a romance.

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