(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Writing “Prologue” at the very beginning of his poetic career, Yevtushenko felt the need to identify himself. This self-identification, present in many of his poems, voices some of his basic concerns: the need to be different; a realization that somehow he does not fit in; the restrictive nature of his surroundings; and the lack of total freedom to express himself as an artist. As he explains at the end of the poem, he likes to defy the enemy standing in the way of the joy of living. That he sees as the highest purpose of his life.

The difference of which Yevtushenko speaks refers not so much to himself as to each successive generation of poets. The old has ruled Russian poetry for almost four decades; the new, represented best by Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky, has come on the heels of the changes after Joseph Stalin’s death. The fact that he feels constrained in his efforts to express himself freely justifies his eagerness to see these changes made as quickly as possible. The best way to effect the change is by boldness and courage. Only then will he and others experience the full joy of life that he believes is their inalienable right.

The autobiographical nature of the poem is somewhat misleading, because, as stated, Yevtushenko does not plead the case for himself alone. In this sense, the poem has a universal meaning transcending the poet’s own predicament, and even that of his generation. It can apply to all generations replacing one another. Supporting this argument is the fact that Yevtushenko is somewhat coy in his allusions to the powers that be (perhaps in order to see his poem in print), despite his well-known boldness. Moreover, some of the attitudes described—a defiant statement of being different, the ebullience of youth, a thirst for life and the joy of living, contradictory forces within oneself—can indeed be applied universally.

Yevtushenko also refers to two poets, Sergei Yesenin, a leading Russian poet in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and Walt Whitman. All three poets are known for their closeness to nature, through which they express their yearning for freedom and determination to be free.

“Prologue” is a manifesto poem, setting a course for future sailings, to which Yevtushenko has remained remarkably faithful.