Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1861
The beginnings of Yevtushenko’s literary activities passed in the spirit of youthful rebelliousness and of the Russian poetic tradition. That tradition, however, was not so much the classical one of Alexander Pushkin, Aleksandr Blok, or even Boris Pasternak, with their heavily rhymed and regulated poetry; it was, rather, the tradition of modern, free-verse poetry, which was, by and large, absent from Russian poetry until the middle of the twentieth century. The notable exception was Vladimir Mayakovsky, with whom Yevtushenko has much in common, including the powerful, dramatic way of publicly reading one’s poetry.
From the very beginning, Yevtushenko believed that he was bringing something new to Russian poetry. It was not so much the dissatisfaction with the existing state and the ensuing rebelliousness as it was his belief that the torch had been passed and that the new generation should be taking its rightful place. Imbued with the age-old conviction that poets hold a special position in Russian society, he asserted himself forcefully even in his very first poems. In one of his earliest, “Prolog” (“Prologue”), for example, he declares in the very first verse, “I am different,” speaking not only for himself but for the entire generation. His early poems also express his love and respect for nature, faith in his people and love for his land, a strong belief in himself, and a confirmation of his faith in the original aims of the revolution, which have been corrupted and are in need of reconstitution. A strong lyrical bent and a desire to experiment with poetic devices, including rhyme, complete the picture of the young Yevtushenko.
As he matured in the course of only a few years during the changes in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death, Yevtushenko turned to wider themes and concerns. His political activism became more prominent, as evidenced in poems such as “Stantsiya Zima” (“Zima Junction”), “Babii Yar,” “Stalin’s Heirs,” and “Conversations with an American Writer.” He displayed a willingness to state his position openly and courageously and to fight for his beliefs. By becoming a fighter for his ideals, he identified with one of the oldest traditions of Russian poets—to speak out as the conscience of the people in the absence of other democratic institutions. This attitude, however, had its price: Yevtushenko has often been labeled a topical poet lending his talent to social causes that came to his attention, as illustrated by a poem that he wrote on the spot upon visiting the bombed office of political activists in New York. It is difficult, therefore, to ignore the fact that his political activism and opposition to Soviet authorities contributed heavily to his popularity at home and abroad. His critics, however, accused him of flirting with the authorities and defending the revolution.
Yevtushenko has expressed his resentment over being labeled primarily a political or topical poet. He has frequently pointed out his faith in poetry as a noble endeavor and in the integrity of poets, who should be interested in social issues but should also express high emotions and pursue lofty aesthetic goals. Indeed, in a great number of his poems, he pursues exactly such goals. He conducts a running dialogue with Russian and foreign poets about the mission of poetry. He registers his poetic reactions to sights and sounds on his numerous world travels. He writes poems about everyday life, such as about women burdened with life’s miseries, as in “Ne ponimaiu” (“I Don’t Understand”) and “A Tie Salesgirl”; his mother’s contribution in shaping his character, as in “Ia pozdravliaiu vas, mamma” (“I Congratulate You, Momma”); the vagaries of love, as in “Zrelost liubvi!” (“Love’s Maturity?”); the simple joys of life, in “Berry-Picking”; or an absentminded old professor whose wife has left him, in “Okno vykhodit v belye derevia” (“Schoolmaster”). His variety of themes is one of Yevtushenko’s most appealing characteristics. As he states in “Prologue,” “I want art to be/ as diverse as myself.”
In another poem (“Poetry”), he says of poets, “They slander him from left/ and right,/ but he looks down on the liars with contempt.” His courage has stood him in good stead throughout his career.
First published: “Prolog,” 1957 (collected in The Poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko 1953-1965, 1965)
Type of work: Poem
“Prologue” can be seen as an explanation of Yevtushenko’s approach to life and literature and is an introduction to his entire poetic career.
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.
First published: “Babiy Yar,” 1961 (collected in The Poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko 1953-1965, 1965)
Type of work: Poem
This poem is a powerful castigation of the latent anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, which allowed Nazi crimes against the Jews in the Ukraine to be ignored.
“Babii Yar” is Yevtushenko’s best-known poem. The poem is about a ravine in the Ukraine where thousands of Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis, yet there is no monument to honor the dead. It is a poem with a thesis, the thesis being that anti-Semitism still exists in the Soviet Union as it has for centuries. What intensifies this accusation is the professed internationalism of the Soviets that was supposed to eliminate all injustices, including racial persecution. “Babii Yar” is also one of the most political of Yevtushenko’s poems and one of the most enduring, requiring and receiving no retraction.
In a series of metaphors, the poet establishes his references. After stating in the first line that there is no monument at Babii Yar, the poet immediately identifies with Jewish people, going back to ancient Egypt and to the agony of crucifixion on the cross, subtly reminding the reader of the common origin of Christ and the Jews. He refers to Alfred Dreyfus, a celebrated victim of persecution in France; to a boy in the Byelorussian town of Belostok as an illustration of pogroms; and finally to Anne Frank, the ultimate symbol of the suffering of the young and innocent as a result of racial injustice. When he returns to the victims of Babii Yar, Yevtushenko declares his solidarity with them exactly because he is a Russian, who as he says, are “international to the core.” His final statement is that of a defiance and lack of fear that he will be hated by anti-Semites.
“Babii Yar” is more than a political statement. It is an outcry against all the injustices of the world and a warning that it may not be limited to the Soviet Union, thus lending the poem a universal appeal. The skillful use of metaphors and symbols adds to the overall beauty of the poem, making it one of the most eloquent combinations of message and poetic execution.
“’Yes’ and ’No’”
First published: “’Da’ i ’Net,’” 1965 (collected in The New Russian Poets, 1953-1968, 1968)
Type of work: Poem
In this work, the poet is shuttling between the cities of “Yes” and “No,” symbolizing the basic dichotomy in which he is forced to live.
Like many of Yevtushenko’s poems, “’Yes’ and ’No’” is in the form of a dramatic monologue. It represents his dilemma in having to shuttle like a train between two cities, “Yes” and “No,” causing his nerves to be strained like telegraph wires. The city of No is loveless and without help, inhabited by ghosts and scowling objects. In contrast, the city of Yes is like a bird’s song; there are no walls, and even the stars are begging to be friends, the lips offer themselves to be kissed, and the cows provide free milk. At the end, however, the poet tires of this land of plenty, unable to appreciate things given to him gratis. He would rather continue to shuttle between the two cities.
“’Yes’ and ’No’” is a simple poem on the surface, but it harbors some allegories. The poem is subtitled “From the Verses About Love,” and this subtitle offers a possible explanation of the allegory of unrequited love in the city of No and the allure of fulfilled love in the city of Yes. The poet uses apt images to characterize the difference between the two emotional states. The decision not to opt for the logical choice of happiness and bliss and to travel between the two instead corresponds to a choice that is made by the heart and not by reason. Another possible allegory is of a political nature, the city of No representing the bleak state of affairs in the poet’s country and the city of Yes the promise of a better life elsewhere. In this connection, the inability to travel abroad is of particular relevance.
The fact that Yevtushenko remained a man of politics, as well as a man of letters, supports this basic dichotomy, allowing for various interpretations of his works. What should not be ignored, however, is that his first love and avocation was always literature and that his poems are, first, works of art.