Yevgeny Yevtushenko Yevtushenko, Yevgeny (Vol. 1) - Essay

Yevtushenko, Yevgeny (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yevtushenko, Yevgeny 1933–

Popular Russian poet, best known for Babi Yar.

How does [Yevtushenko's] poetry compare with that of his Soviet predecessors? Though fresh, it is not strikingly innovatory, and he owes a good deal to the past. It could tentatively be described as middlebrow poetry, and as such it lacks the obscurity associated with Khlebnikov and other early twentieth-century writers. Among modern poets his greatest admiration is for Blok, Mayakovsky, Yesenin, and Pasternak (whom he knew personally). He has most in common with Mayakovsky and Yesenin. Like Mayakovsky, he is by temperament a natural revolutionary, hating stagnation, bondage, hypocrisy—and with a fundamentally gentle nature, unpuritanical and libertarian, insistent that ends do not justify bad means. He owes much to Mayakovsky stylistically, above all the declamatory, powerful, colloquial aspects of his verse, whose impact often cannot be fully appreciated until it is heard aloud. Like Yesenin, he is a peasant boy who has come to the city—and for whom his remote birthplace continues to hold a deeply felt significance; vigorously sensual, often regarded by his elders as a destructive and degenerate influence (though in reality a passionate seeker after truth and moral justice). But Yevtushenko is an original poet, and cannot be fully characterized by his antecedents alone, any more than the numerous young poets now writing in the Soviet Union are to be characterized simply by reference to Yevtushenko (who nevertheless has blazed the trail for them). His work as a whole shows a fundamental feature which is typical of the best Russian poetry since early in the last century: an ability to move effortlessly from social to personal themes, from the publicistic to the lyrical, to combine them in a single poem. English writers could learn much from him in this….

The central stronghold of the poems is a rock-like absolute of integrity. In several of the shorter poems this tough moral quality is taken as pre-existent and inalienable, once or twice ruefully, but more often proudly. Perhaps it gets a context in ordinary life from the sort of people the poet admires: his uncles, Andrei and Volodya, in 'Zima Junction', for example, and the strongly stylized image of Hemingway in 'Encounter'. But in several passages of his longer poem 'On a Bicycle', this extreme of independence is treated with detachment and subjected, like other characteristics, to the prolonged self-analysis of youth….

His authority as a poet is indivisible. His voice is not stiff and his gestures are not wooden. The gentle ironies of 'Schoolmaster', the dash, the humour, and the exact light and shade of 'On a Bicycle', are as essentially connected as his gravest statements with the quality of hope, with his belief in the Russian future, his affirmation of the values of life.

Peter Levi, S.J. and Robin Milner-Gulland, in their "Introduction" (© 1962 by Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi, S.J.) to Yevtushenko: Selected Poems, translated by Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi, S.J., Penguin Books Ltd., 1962, pp. 7-18.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko is undoubtedly the biggest name in Soviet poetry today. There has not been such a matinee idol in Russian poetry since the days when Igor Severianin used to recite his Ego-Futuristic poems to audiences on the eve of World War I. Despite Yevtushenko's vehement denials, there is an unmistakable kinship: he shares Severianin's penchant for a pseudo-elegant foreign vocabulary and has on occasion the same sure-fire sentimentality and the same facile and bouncy optimism. He also possesses Severianin's theatrical flair. To hear Yevtushenko recite his versified editorials is a spellbinding experience. But deprived of the author's delivery and reduced to a printed page, his poems inevitably disappoint.

Simon Karlinsky, in Nation, November 21, 1966, p. 549.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko … is the best of the political activists writing editorials in verse form. Yevtushenko is as famous and handsome as Cassius Clay, and a better poet.

Andrew Field, in Book Week, February 26, 1967, p. 20.

Yevtushenko can best be understood from a record of his recitations, which are theatrical triumphs. All the organstops, growls, yells, groans, whispers, sneers are used with what used to be called "rabble-raising eloquence." Either the listener must allow himself to be enchanted, or he must fight the enchantment; the American poet Vachel Lindsay used much the same technique; so did Dylan Thomas the Welshman.

Robert Graves, "On Poetry," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring, 1967, p. 214.

Yevtushenko has never been 'radical' or 'revolutionary.' Unconsciously, perhaps, he has been an intermediary between the establishment and the radicals, veering erratically between rebellion and spells of relative conformity. He conveys radical opinions to the top, and now and then succeeds in softening minor injustices done to young writers.

Neal Ascherson, "Yevtushenko Keeps His Powder Dry," in The Observer, December 8, 1968.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko was twenty-three years old when he burst into public awareness with the magazine publication of a long autobiographical poem, "Zima Junction," dealing with his childhood in Siberia and his return there during the post-Stalin years. It was indeed a new voice telling of experiences shared and understood by many, in a vivid flexible verse, direct, sincere, affecting. After a long winter of discontent during the Stalinist period, when such personal expression was practically nonexistent, the work had an immediate impact. Other poems and books followed in quick succession, all displaying acrobatic verbal facility and great sense of urgency. If the verse was often imitative, it was so with open acknowledgment by Yevtushenko of his indebtedness to his masters, Pushkin, Blok, Mayakovsky, Pasternak; if it was at times immature and naïve, the poetry called with youthful ardor for sincerity and honesty, for faith in human decency, and—on the political front—for brotherhood among nations and aversion to war. Yevtushenko's "poetic" appearance, good voice, and ultra-theatrical delivery contributed to his success as a reader of his own work.

Elena Levin, in Saturday Review, November 13, 1971, p. 52.

Yevtushenko protests too much. Poets in Russia have always been regarded as keepers of the national soul, but none has ever explored his own purity at such length. Even "honest acts come into question" writes the pained author. He feels himself much maligned….

While pretending to meet the problem of his identity head-on in the introduction, the selection of poems itself [in Stolen Apples] is consciously apolitical. The social themes have, for the most part, been smothered with poetic foam. It is curious that just one poem should touch on the reality of life in the U.S.S.R. Yet socialist realism is still the order of the day….

What strikes old acquaintances in these new poems is that the exuberance has gone out of the golden boy. If Yevtushenko has become tamer, then his protest also has become subtler and more complex. The unashamed selfconfidence of his early years has eroded….

Frankly, the poems in this book are laborious readings: They lack meter, rhyme, rhythm, as well as the force of Yevtushenko's earthy Russian. There is little, if any, feeling for Yevtushenko's variety of expression. But then it may be an impossibility for American poets to swing à la Yevtushenko, from love to propaganda, then on to lyricism and back again to a social theme in the same poem.

Yorick Blumenfeld, in New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 6, 1972, pp. 30-1.