Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1170
The American poet W. H. Auden remarked that Andrei Voznesensky is a writer who understands that “a poem is a verbal artifact which must be as skillfully and solidly constructed as a table or a motorcycle.” Voznesensky was well known for his technical virtuosity and structural innovation. His metric and rhyme schemes varied, often determined by the aural and visual aspects of the work. He paid close attention to surface patterning and sound play—assonance, alliteration, shaped text, stepped lines, palindromes—and often startled the reader with shifts in perspective, incongruous juxtaposition of images, and unexpected rhyme created by inserting slang or colloquial language into a line. He confronted the reader with a staggering array of metaphor, historical reference, and cultural allusion. Evidence of his early training in painting and architecture abounds in his work, which has been described as cubist, Surrealist, and Futurist. Voznesensky acknowledged, “As a poet I have been more profitably influenced by ancient Russian churches and by the works of Le Corbusier than by other poets.”
Voznesensky’s concern with technique and experimentation related directly to the content of his writing and his central concern with human destiny, which he viewed as dependent on interconnectedness. For him, without a sense of connection to one another, to culture and tradition, and to the planet, humanity might fall into a destructive spiral. In a mechanized, technological world, the potential for fragmentation and alienation is great. The responsibility of the artist is to expose relationships, to “peel the skin from the planet.”
Voznesensky sought to achieve his goal by breaking away from habitualized methods of seeing, from routines that limit and fragment vision. His wordplay, his seemingly bizarre selections of imagery, his multiple perspectives, and his blurring of genres were all designed to defamiliarize the world, allowing the reader to discover the spiritual ecosystem of existence. While Voznesensky’s themes are universal, his innovativeness, particularly his sound play, makes his work difficult to translate. Effective English versions of his work are the Haywood/Blake 1967 edition Antiworlds and the Fifth Ace and the award-winning collection An Arrow in the Wall, edited by Smith and Reeve.
“I Am Goya”
One of the earliest and best-known of his poems, “I Am Goya” (1959), exemplifies Voznesensky’s skill in creating new forms to examine broad themes. He framed the poem by opening and closing with the same line, “I am Goya.” In identifying with Goya, a nineteenth century Spanish painter known for his harsh depictions of war, Voznesensky established an immediate link across time, space, and artistic genres. He reinforced these links in each of the four stanzas with an eclectic range of images and allusions and by the repetition of the first line. The horrors of war belong to all ages, and the artist’s role is to transcend the immediate and speak to the universal, “hammer[ing] stars into the unforgetting sky—like nails.”
Voznesensky composed “I Am Goya” aloud rather than writing it on paper in order to develop fully the aural qualities of the verse. He described it as “picking the words, so that they would ring out” like the bells of an ancient monastery playing “the music of grief.” To this end, Voznesensky combined repetition of sounds with an uninterrupted beat that tolls throughout the poem. The rhythms of the poem anticipate the powerful image “of a woman hanged whose body like a bell/ tolled over a blank square,” then embed it in a synesthetic format.
Voznesensky considered “Parabolic Ballad” (1960) one of his best poems. Citing the career of the French painter Paul Gauguin as a model, Voznesensky justifies the ambiguity and experimental nature of his own work and reasserts his aesthetics. Like Gauguin, who “To reach the royal Louvre,/ Set his course/ On a detour via Java and Sumatra,” the poet must not take the direct route, choose the ready-made symbol, or speak in clichés. Rather, the artist must follow the trajectory of a rocket, a parabola, to escape “the earth’s force of gravitation” and explore the far side of the universe.
Written in 1964, a year after Voznesensky was denounced for formalism and obscurity, “Oza” was a bold response to his critics. This complex narrative poem contemplates the fate of humanity in a technological society and continues the poet’s experiments with poetic structure. Sections of prose alternate with poetry, themes intersect, and point of view shifts. The work is rich in literary and historical allusion. One section parodies Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven”; another satirizes former Soviet dictator Stalin.
Introduced as a diary found in a hotel in Dubna, the site of a Soviet nuclear research facility, “Oza” describes a world rearranged by technology. The protagonist, Zoia, is a well-meaning scientist transformed through her own arrogance and complacency into an automaton named Oza. Zoia means “life” in Russian, but in the rearrangement of letters of her name, the “I” has been lost, suggesting the loss of self in a rigidly mechanized culture. Like Zoia/Oza, the poet risks losing his identity. In a scene described sometimes comically from the perspective of a ceiling mirror, the poet is invisible, immune to the inversion of the reflecting surface, and alienated from his fellow beings. Although unseen, he makes himself heard, proclaiming “I am Andrei; not just anyone/ All progress is regression/ If the progress breaks man down.”
This long narrative poem explores human greed. The actual ditch is the site of a massacre near Simferopol, a city on the Crimean Peninsula, where in 1941, twelve thousand Jews were executed by Nazis. In the 1980’s, grave robbing occurred at the site. Although several men were convicted and received prison sentences in 1985—and it is to this event that the “trial” of the subtitle alludes—the looting continued. On a visit to the site two years after the trial, Voznesensky observed skulls that had been excavated and smashed for the bits of gold in the teeth.
As in earlier works, Voznesensky employed contrasting imagery, shifts in perspective, and inversions. A prose “afterword” introduces the work, suggesting an inversion of values. The mixture of voices and genres and the range of references take the subject beyond the specific crime into an examination of human nature.
Gadanie po knige
Inspired by traditional Russian fortune-telling, Gadanie po knige (telling by the book) examines the interconnectedness of chance and design. In this collection, Voznesensky took his wordplay to a new level, creating complex, multilingual meanings. Like a fortune-teller, he shuffled language and laid it out in patterns: circles, palindromes, anagrams. At times, he mixed English words with Russian ones, switching between the Cyrillic and Roman alphabets as well; he fragmented words from both languages and rearranged the syllables. What may initially appear random, pointless, or merely amusing surprisingly yields meaning, as when he exploited phonetically MMM, the name of a financial institution involved in a costly scandal. He connected MMM with the English word “money,” the Russian word for “mania,” and finally, the Russian slang for “nothing.”
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