By Lawrence “Mack in Texas” Hall (Rated G)
Only in Russia is poetry respected –
it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else
where poetry is so common a motive for murder?
-attributed to Osip Mandelstam
Recently I finished a book only half-remembered from my youth, Yevtushenko’s A Precocious Autobiography.
I had no idea that a poet I had long admired was such a phony. He claims to have been a championship table-tennis player, that he could have been a professional soccer player, that he mastered ju-jitsu and could beat anyone up and that he was afraid of nothing, that everyone failed to understand his brilliance as a poet while simultaneously admiring him for his brilliance, that the Soviets picked on him even while flying him all over the world to represent the Soviet Union and proudly assert his Communism, and that he who would later earn lots of money and own at least two homes airily disapproved of money like a good comrade.
A photograph in the book is labeled “Yevtushenko and Galya at the home of the former Luftwaffe General Huebner” but an admittedly quick search through the InterGossip does not indicate that there was any such person.
The famous and contradictory first line of his autobiography is “A poet’s autobiography is his poetry.”
Yevtushenko accuses Arthur Rimbaud of having been a slave trader when in fact there is no evidence for it (Rimbaud was certainly bad enough in other ways, including being an arms dealer). Yevtushenko also claims to be a sophisticated art critic and patronizes other cultures and peoples in unfortunate and sometimes offensive language. He faults Western nations for their failings (and fair enough) but ignores the seventy years of horror and mass executions and mass incarcerations and the genocidal mania of the Communist Revolution. Oh, and Lenin was a good fellow; Communism would have worked had not Stalin betrayed the Revolution.
And so it goes, for 124 self-serving pages.
Perhaps Yevtushenko’s most famous poem is “Babiy Yar” (there are variant spellings in English even by Yevtushenko himself), admitting the Russian / Ukrainian silencing of the Nazi massacre of some 34,000 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev in two days in 1941, with thousands of more Jews as well as Roma, prisoners of war, Russians accused of partisan activity, the mentally ill, and others. Possibly some 100,000 people were murdered there in the Nazi time, and there may have been Russian / Ukrainian compliance. After the war the Communists downplayed the Jewish focus. Yevtushenko is praised for his courage in bringing up the matter, but the reality is that he could not have published that poem without the permission of the Communist government, and perhaps on their orders.
In this short poem Yevtushenko refers to himself in first-person pronouns at least 27 times, making Babi Yar about himself.
Given all this, I recommend the book highly. Yes, it really is interesting, but as with the most gaseous old man in the corner down at the diner you can’t rely upon his veracity.
Beyond that, Yevtushenko’s poetry is fascinating. I have no Russian, and while the standard for Russian poetry is rhyming iambic tetrameter, I don’t know how he structured it, but the content is brilliant.
Also brilliant is his anthology, 20th Century Russian Poetry (he doesn’t neglect to give himself lots of space in it).
Yevtushenko admires himself, but, yes, there is much to admire.
Peace to you, Yevgeny, you old rascal; you’ll always be one of my favorites.