Ringing the Button

An Arrow in the Wall: Selected Poetry and Prose

by Andrei Voznesensky, edited by William Jay Smith and F.D. Reeve
Holt, 344 pp., $22.95

When Yevtushenko and Voznesensky began to tour the world in the 1960s, they entered the Western imagination as more than celebrities. Perhaps only Allen Ginsberg came close to achieving a comparable effect, and saying as much suggests one reason for a certain unease in present-day assessments of these writers. The preference for poetry that lives in words on the page, without the benefit of voice and presence, has once again reasserted itself. There are other reasons for one’s unease, however. The most important of these, suspicion of Russian poets who are not seen to oppose the regime, was given expression in this journal by Clive James some years ago,1 and continues to be widely felt; hence no doubt the stress the editors of this volume lay upon poems such as “The Driver,” in which the Caesar hailed in Soviet Georgia is clearly Stalin. Other responses are to do with our perception of what is acceptable poetry in translation.

It is hard to live anywhere close to the centers of privilege with clean hands, and while the threats and temptations of Soviet society are incomparably greater, the charges Leonid Borodin makes against the Moscow intelligentsia in his novel Partings are not so easily repudiated in the West: “The intellectual’s constitution…permits only one object of worship—himself.” It is at this level of self-examination that Andrei Voznesensky’s finest lyrics ask to be considered. Voznesensky, with Bella Akhmadulina, was among the most centrally placed of Glavlit, or union, writers to take part in the publication of the short-lived literary paper Metropol. A Lenin Prize winner, with an enormous popular following, he was attracted to the idea of helping good writers not accepted by official unions to publish alongside established literary figures. He was also a friend of Aksyonov, Yevgenia Ginsburg’s son, who was one of Metropol’s leading spirits. Of the twenty-three contributors, fourteen were members of Party unions in good standing; of these fourteen, predictably, the least celebrated writers suffered most when Metropol was banned. Voznesensky and Akhmadulina continued to enjoy a very high reputation, and it was Aksyonov who went into exile. The most significant idea in the lyrics of Voznesensky to be included in Metropol, an ironic questioning of the desirability of taking man as the measure of all things, runs throughout his Selected Poetry.

A bitterness in this questioning makes him an altogether less ebulliently personal writer than Yevtushenko. “We’ve lived shamefully. Pettily,” he writes in “A Conversation in Rome.” Perhaps for this reason, it is language rather than thought or feeling that has dominated his responses. Throughout the extremely varied poems in his Selected Poetry, we are always conscious of the literature of the past. We can hear echoes of Paul Eluard and García Lorca alongside early Mayakovsky, and unmistakable notes of Whitman:

I exalt what is common.
I discover, wheezing,
In America—America.
Me—in myself.2

Perhaps it is in the freshness of his impressions of America that we are most conscious of…

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