Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932-2017)

Just over a month ago, on April 1, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the last of the major Soviet poets, passed away in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had been living for two decades. In 1964 he famously declared that in Russia a poet is more than a poet; his own life bore out the truth of those words. A handsome, charismatic man with a stentorian voice, he came to embody the spirit of “The Thaw,” a period of relative liberalization in Soviet cultural policy after Stalin’s death. His poems “Babi Yar,” on the massacre of Jews outside Kyiv during the Second World War, and “Stalin’s Heirs,” on the General Secretary’s lingering legacy, tested the limits of that liberalization.

He became a celebrity at home, reciting his verse to stadiums packed with adoring fans, and was sent abroad as an ambassador of the new USSR. Like any star, he had his detractors. In the eyes of some unofficial Soviet-era poets and dissidents — Joseph Brodsky among them — Yevtushenko’s semi-official status was evidence of a Faustian bargain with an evil regime. And those whose tastes run to the sophisticated often dismissed his verse for its accessibility and popularity. I myself find “Babi Yar” and his poems on civic themes unappealing. But Yevtushenko was, undeniably, a poet of great gifts. And just as importantly, in the words of Irina Mashinski, “he cared more about poetry than about himself in poetry.”

Yevtushenko’s anthology of 20th-century Russian verse, Stanzas of the Era (Strofy veka, 1995), published in English as Silver and Steel, features the work of 875 poets. It was attacked by critics and competitors both for its size and its arbitrariness, but a student of Russian poetry would be hard-pressed to find a more useful resource. Every time I think I’ve discovered a completely forgotten poet — Anna Prismanova, Aleksandr Tinyakov, Yuri Kazarnovsky — there he or she is, in Yevtushenko’s pages. His Stanzas is the fruit of a lifetime in the service of poetry.

And that lifetime of service also produced strikingly beautiful poems. On the day of Yevtushenko’s death, Jennifer Croft — a writer and translator who had been a student of his at the University of Oklahoma — sent me one such poem, “Людей неинтересных в мире нет” (“There are no boring people in this world,” 1961). This lyric, which sits at the heart of Jennifer’s brilliant novel Homesick, is a moving affirmation of Yevtushenko’s deep-rooted humanism, of his genuine interest in the experience of others. I couldn’t help translating it — or part of it.

Today The Guardian published my translation, which condenses the original’s fifth and sixth stanzas into one, ending the poem with the quietly devastating line, “it isn’t people but whole worlds that perish.” The publication functions as an epitaph, and I felt that this line — solemn and cosmic — struck the right concluding note.

But the Russian poem does go on, rising to a half-stifled cry of agony, which Jennifer captured, better than I ever could, in her translation of the final stanza. Below is our joint translation.

There are no boring people in this world.
Each fate is like the history of a planet.
And no two planets are alike at all.
Each is distinct — you simply can’t compare it.

If someone lived without attracting notice
and made a friend of their obscurity —
then their uniqueness was precisely this.
Their very plainness made them interesting.

Each person has a world that’s all their own.
Each of those worlds must have its finest moment
and each must have its hour of bitter torment —
and yet, to us, both hours remain unknown.

When people die, they do not die alone.
They die along with their first kiss, first combat.
They take away their first day in the snow…
All gone, all gone — there’s just no way to stop it.

There may be much that’s fated to remain,
but something — something leaves us all the same.
The rules are cruel, the game nightmarish —
it isn’t people but whole worlds that perish.

People die. Their deaths can’t be reversed.
Their secret worlds won’t be traversed
again. And all that’s ever left for me to do
is cry, How can we lose you, too?

1961

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