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The Beat Voznesensky

Selected Poems of Andrei Voznesensky . Translated by Anselm Hollo. New York: Grove Press, 1964.

It is difficult to read Voznesensky's work apart from the various uses to which it has been put, and is to some extent still serving in this present collection. Immediately there is the fact of his being Russian, and young, and—most insistently—an evidence of the political thaw which reached a peak in the winter of 1962. There is, further, his relation with Pasternak (emphasized in Anselm Hollo's introduction) and the implications of that fact. And, finally, his public association with Evgeny Evtushenko has emphasized the social aspects of his activity. The jacket notes say that his latest collection, The Three-Cornered Pear (all of which is included in this volume), had advance orders of more than 100,000 copies prior to publication. Response of that order in itself defines a use of poetry rarely experienced in this country.

It is necessary, then, to make some qualification of the situation which he has shared with Evtushenko. Edward Dorn, writing of the latter in Kulchur 8 , makes a useful (if wry) definition:

 . . . For instance there is Yevtushenko. He is feeble-minded . . . in the way reserved for a modern intellectual, i.e., he doesn't say anything. He is precious about borders! He would campaign for a cheap international right-of-way. He likes it in the country. My My. He likes Ernest. A most exact indicator of a facetious taste. He desires the reign of the simple-minded middle class worker in enthusiasm and

The Nation , November 9, 1964.


sensitivity and his excuse is assured him because he is Russian without the wild Russian mind, in other words he is a member of the first of the world fraternities (used in the college sense): U.S.-Russia. . . .

If Dorn quickly summarizes what may well be a more complex instance of literary populism , I believe him accurate nonetheless. Evtushenko's poems—such as have been translated in the Penguin collection, for one—are very bland generalities.

Elements of this generality are also evident in Voznesensky's work. Here, for example, one finds an idiom derived from a loose reading of "beat" poetry, masked as "public" value:

 . . . Up into the mountains and into the beards
into the sea the rivers run dry the fish are dying. . . .
Rolls-Royces are fucking our women,
radiatoractivity. . . .
("Beatnik's Monologue")

But it proves a content equally vague in any idiom, and it appears in the earlier poems as "The artists take leave, / Bareheaded, enter / The humming fields and forests / Of birch and oak, like a church . . ."

Such writing seems a most tired sense of what we are literally involved with, as a political entity (the "people" notwithstanding), or as an individual entity—quite distinct from such apostrophe as "O you who had plenty soul"—which is the line directly following on what I have quoted from "Beatnik's Monologue."

There is no need that I can value to read a poetry imitative merely of terms the American has so much more sharply known , and insofar as Voznesensky writes "like" a beatnik (in Hollo's translations, at all events), he is dull indeed. He is not in any sense an Allen Ginsberg (who is not, be it emphasized, a beatnik ) nor is he possessed of like force. But there is a third point from which to measure, in the work of Lorca.

Lorca is a poet close to Voznesensky's attention—one, in fact, he particularly honors:

 . . . I love Lorca. I love his name, hovering lightly like a boat, humming like a gallery in a theater, vibrating with the sensitivity of the moon-disk of a radio relay station; smelling as bitter and intense as orange rind. . . .

("Lover of Lorca")

In this prose poem he speaks most clearly of his own sense of poetry, and the intensity with which he wants to invest his metaphors


takes as its example Lorca's—"Those wildly sprouting metaphors of Lorca!"

Comparisons are deceptive, but Lorca's use of America does make clear what Voznesensky's tends to make bland. In "Ode to Walt Whitman," for example, a language specific to the literal feeling occurs, and the revulsion felt by Lorca, in the pain of his experience, is explicit: "Agony, agony, dream, ferment and dream. / Such is the world, my friend, agony, agony. / Corpses are decomposing under the clocks of cities; / war passes with a million grey rats weeping, / the rich give to their mistresses / small illuminated moribunds, / and life is not noble, nor good, nor sacred. . . ." Against this, Voznesensky's response reads weakly:

 . . . Under the firehose spouting out endless driveways
my ears were turning like windmills
O godless gasoline poisonous America
Coca-Cola and tolling bells . . .
("Another Beginning")

When metaphor becomes a recognition of something more than echoed banality, when feeling gains the active transformation of literal things in relation, another Voznesensky comes into focus, and he is not the generalized intelligence of good intentions:

 . . . My cries have been torn onto miles of magnetic tape
an endless red tongue, snaked round a big spool
I have been taken apart dismantled and dragged to
    interrogations. . . .
There I am, crucified and transparent, riddled with photo
their fingernails, rusty, are trying to scratch at my heart
"Does it hurt Mr. Voznesensky?" . . .
("An Extorted Divagation")

It becomes a protest against all distortion, but most of all his own. Here as well it is possible to feel him one who, without sentimentality, fights for the preservation of an individual sensibility. It is from this paradoxically quieter sense of himself—the place I feel him finally to be—that he writes:

 . . . I have tried
                            in the shooting-galleries
for 100 points with 10 bullets
but thank you for not letting me make it,


for lighting up my small transparent guns
illuminating them like a red fist
appearing in a rubber glove;

"Andrei Voznesensky"—enough,
no word, no little doggie to be left behind . . .
("Autumn in Sigulda")


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