Yevgeny Yevtushenko Yevtushenko, Yevgeny (Alexandrovich) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yevgeny (Alexandrovich) Yevtushenko 1933–

(Also transliterated as Evgeni or Evgeny Evtushenko) Russian poet.

Yevtushenko is perhaps the most publicized living Russian poet, known throughout the world for dramatic readings of his own work. A large part of his popularity is attributed to the youthful vitality and dynamic personality which flavor his writing as well as his public performances.

Yevtushenko's poems are loosely categorized into two types: declamatory poems, which express his political and social concerns, and personal poems, which focus on self-doubt and self-reflection. Although the latter sometimes border on narcissistic self-absorption, most critics believe that the energy and authenticity of these personal poems endow them with greater literary value than is usually found in his political poems.

Yevtushenko's political poems show affection for the United States and criticize contemporary Soviet society, but at the same time demonstrate Yevtushenko's essential loyalty to Russia. Babyi Yar and The Heirs of Stalin are perhaps his best-known political poems. Babyi Yar breaks a traditional silence in Russia by directly commenting on Soviet involvement in the horrors of anti-Semitism. The Heirs of Stalin unsparingly attacks the former Russian ruler and his followers. Although Yevtushenko generally remains within the limitations set by Soviet censors, he has occasionally provoked criticism from the authorities (as with the publication of Babyi Yar). In several instances he has been denied leave to travel and perform due to his political "indiscretions."

Recent years have shown an increase in speculation about Yevtushenko's literary talents. When D. M. Thomas looked beyond the poet's personality, he found the poems themselves to be constructed with a "stylistic crudity and spiritual hollowness." However, Yevtushenko remains widely read at home and abroad. Yevtushenko's recent collection, Invisible Threads, reveals his talents as a photographer and poet. In this work he focuses on the need for international unity. Alternately optimistic and pessimistic, this cry for world peace can be heard throughout most of his work.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 13 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Marc Slonim

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There was a stir, a feeling of discontent among [Russian youth in the 1960's], a critical attitude toward society, a growing interest in fresh ideas, an impatient rejection of boring formulas…. This explains the terrific response the poets of the "new wave" (mostly in their twenties) drew from their audiences. (p. 324)

This extraordinary popularity of the poets gave special significance to their work: from a literary phenomenon it grew into a social-political event. A case in hand was Evtushenko whose tempestuous career reflected the contradictions and aspirations of his generation…. He was 23 when he made a brilliant debut in 1956 with his long poem "Station Zima" (zima in Russian means winter). It was a "soul searching" lyrical confession with strong patriotic overtones—"glorious deeds, not weaknesses Russia expects from us"—but also possessing a spirit of daring, a drive for independence, and a consciousness that "the writer is not a ruler but a guardian of thoughts."

Within a few years he had become famous not only in Moscow, but also in Paris, London, and New York. He was permitted to travel extensively and was received everywhere as an unofficial delegate of post-Stalinist Russia. Foreign audiences in Europe, America, Asia, and Cuba were entranced by this tall, handsome, outgoing Siberian, an athletic, devil-may-care fellow, who personified youth and poetry. There was rebellion and hope, something exotic and yet something still highly familiar in this messenger from the Communist world…. Slightly intoxicated by his international success and his ever increasing influence at home, Evtushenko made the mistake of overestimating his possibilities as a free agent. In 1962, while in Paris, he published a French version … of his Precocious Autobiography in which he wrote daringly about himself and conditions in Russia. Summoned back to Moscow at a moment when Party...

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Vera S. Dunham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The sensational rise of Yevgeny Yevtushenko's fame in the West some five years ago and its decline, especially in the United States, in the last two years or so have been unrelated to the literary merit of his poetry. Yevtushenko's stance—that of a rebel and envoy, performing artist and civil libertarian—has perplexed readers on both sides of the border….

Two kinds of themes can be distinguished in Yevtushenko's poetry: the civic and the intensely personal. These two strands were refreshingly interlaced in the early poetry of the midfifties ("Weddings," for instance).

At about the time of his first flamboyant trips abroad, his poetry bifurcated. Some civic pieces became bombastic and his personal lyrics took on a somewhat whining tone. It is hard to deny that Yevtushenko lacks self-discipline. He writes too much and reveals himself too frantically.

Despite his hurried and at times heavy manner, there is ample evidence of the existence of substantial poetic resources….

["The Poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko 1953 to 1965"] includes the sensational "Babii Yar" and "The Heirs of Stalin," though a number of important poems are absent….

In Yevtushenko's lyrics, the theme of a dogged search of the self is couched in so much ambiguity that ambiguity itself emerges as a major theme, as in "Envy" and "Prologue."…

Yevtushenko is neither a modernist nor a strict adherent to tradition. When a somewhat hectic and not unattractive narcissistic self-examination is expressed through his favorite devices, he comes into his own. He is a narrative poet whether his pieces are long or short, and as a narrator and reciter he plays skillfully with language. Within conventional limits, he exploits frequent repetition, near rhymes, sustained and sonorous echoes.

Punning is an important device for him, as it is for most good young poets, and he revels in the game of verbal association which, until not so long ago, was almost illicit in Soviet poetry. Yevtushenko's dactylic rhymes do more than mark the ends of his lines. They bind and mirror associations.

Vera S. Dunham, "Public Poet." in The New York Times Book Review (© 1965 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 26, 1965, p. 17.

Margaret Dalton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The new young Mayakovsky of today," says Herbert Marshall of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. And there is indeed some parallel between the personalities and works of these two poets. If Mayakovsky was the poet of the Revolution, Yevtushenko occupies a similar position in the post-Stalin thaw. Something of Mayakovsky's personal dynamism and public appeal is present, though to a weaker degree, in Yevtushenko. In tone, language and form, Yevtushenko is at times very close to Mayakovsky. This is especially the case in his rhetorical poetry, declaimed "at the top of the voice" and addressed to the masses rather than to the "chosen few."…

Like Mayakovsky, Yevtushenko is primarily a "civic" poet (though not to the exclusion of personal, lyric poetry), involved in contemporary issues and committed to the ideology of the Communist regime. Yet the dissimilarities which become apparent at closer scrutiny—caused by different political and intellectual climates and by differing poetical personalities—may possibly be more fundamental and decisive than are the points of contact. The revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods in which Mayakovsky was active were characterized by material deprivation and cruelty, but also by creative freedom and enthusiasm. Mayakovsky and his "co-Futurists" fervently believed that they were creating new art for a new and better society…. None of this ebullient optimism was present in the fifties, the starting point for Yevtushenko's poetry. Despite the thaw, the memories of the terror of the thirties and the privations of one of the most devastating wars in Russian history were still vivid. Yevtushenko is representative of those young poets who were slowly groping their way toward more individual and less prescribed art; but they were hardly daring innovators: they looked back to poets like Mayakovsky, just as they looked back to the Revolution as a distant ideal which had been darkened and corrupted.

Compared to Mayakovsky, Yevtushenko is more restrained, more narrow in his emotional scale and, possibly, more lyrical. Although he will avoid the "lapses" and vulgarity of Mayakovsky, his tendency at overt moralizing strikes at times an unpleasantly pedantic note as compared to Mayakovsky's expansiveness. Despite the fact that Yevtushenko is still developing, it seems fairly certain that he will never approach the linguistic genius and emotional élan of Mayakovsky…. (p. 271)

Margaret Dalton, "At the Top of the Voice," in The Nation (copyright 1966 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 202, No. 10, March 7, 1966, pp. 271-72.∗

Rosemary Neiswender

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bratsk Station, which is as heroically ambitious as its subject, is a 5,000-line, 35-poem cycle commemorating the construction of a vast hydroelectric power complex in Siberia. The light-giving Bratsk station is seen as a symbol of faith and human progress, and is contrasted with an Egyptian pyramid, seen as the epitome of slave labor and lack of faith. Within this context, Yevtushenko employs a variety of verse forms, from classic poetic diction to a conversational, colloquial style…. [It is] a significant contribution by the most publicized living Soviet poet (and possibly the most talented)…. (pp. 86-7)

Rosemary Neiswender, in her review of "Bratsk Station and Other New Poems," in School Library Journal, an appendix to Library Journal (reprinted from the January, 1967 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co./A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1967), Vol. 13, No. 5, January, 1967, pp. 86-7.

Julian Symons

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is very easy for any book reader to see that parts of Yevtushenko's loose series of poems that make up a hymn of praise to The Bratsk Station (a new Siberian hydro-electric development) would sound magnificent at a public reading, particularly those with a strong repetitious thrust like The Execution of Stenka Razin and Envoys are Going to Lenin. Yet one feels with these poems … that there are verbally intoxicated writers who don't worry much about putting down the right words in the right order.

There are several important exceptions to this intoxication—a delicate poem of Yevtushenko's called The Far Cry [is an example] …—but it is impossible not to feel that [he has] sacrificed too much for the sake of immediate intelligibility…. I suppose if you are a public poet like Yevtushenko, consciously a Russian patriot, you are bound to produce extravagantly phrased poems on large themes, and one would like to feel that a comparison is possible with our own early anonymous ballads, or [Thomas] Percy's Reliques. The trouble is that Yevtushenko's poems often look much more like [Thomas] Macaulay.

Julian Symons, "Cooked and Raw," in New Statesman (© 1967 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 74, No. 1897, July 21, 1967, p. 87.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Is [Yevgeny Yevtushenko], as Anthony Burgess remarked recently …, "easy to do, but hardly worth doing" …? Reading George Reavey's fairly substantial collection of Yevtushenko translations [The Poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko] … together with the poet's own fat volume Idut belye snegi (a full retrospective of the best poems from earlier books, plus some recent work), one would be forced to a rather different view. He is only "easy to do" in the sense that the obvious interest of his subject-matter can be made to sponsor loose, publicistic translations which make no attempt to reproduce his often very pointed rhymes and sound-effects. And that he is "hardly worth doing" is surely a hasty judgment,...

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Alayne P. Reilly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yevtushenko has come close to being an ideal socialist-realist poet, lending his talents to the exposition of social and political themes as well as to the intimate lyrical expression of personal feelings. He is a gifted poet, but his dual dedication to Marx and Apollo has resulted in a somewhat uneven performance: his poems range from propagandist doggerel to truly expressive lyrics…. (p. 173)

Yevtushenko made his first trip to the United States … during the spring of 1961. The trip seems to have had a profound effect on him, for soon after it a subtle but very significant change began to manifest itself in his political poems. The first evidence of this change is found in the absence of...

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Andrei Sinyavsky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In 1965] Yevgeny Yevtushenko published a long poem ["Bratsk Hydroelectric Station"]—at once summary and programmatic for his own art, and intended to communicate the experience of the modern age and to connect this with the experience of the past, with the history of Russia. The poem unfolds a panorama of varied human destinies and ordeals, of work and struggle. As the author states in his Foreword, the unifying principle is the dispute between two themes: "the theme of unbelief," comprised in the monologues of an Egyptian pyramid, and the "theme of faith," expressed in the monologues of a hydroelectric station and by figures, episodes, and lyrical meditations connected with its construction. Before us arise the...

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Michael Schmidt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Translations of contemporary poetry are a kind of dust-sheet. Beneath it, the reader tries to distinguish the solid furniture. [Arthur Boyars and Simon Franklin, the] translators of Yevtushenko's new collection of more than 60 poems [The Face behind the Face], have chosen an idiomatic dust-sheet: plain English, the rhythms prosaic rather than spoken or sung. They have not attempted any approximation to Yevtushenko's forms or metres. It is his matter, his images, his ideas that we experience, without the prosodic tact that harmonises them and elevates the commonplace, the opinion, into memorable and occasionally self-transcending language. Before we look for the face behind the face, we have to locate the poem...

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Andrew Motion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like most of his modernist contemporaries, Eliot believed that 'The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality'. In recent years, few poets have disagreed more conspicuously than Yevgeny Yevtushenko. His reputation depends to a large extent on the inflation of personality—apparent radicalism, a charismatic background, and good looks have ensured him an enthusiastic public reception. Private reception is a different matter: what commands the stage at readings is vulnerable to charges of solipsism on the page. Yevtushenko obviously realises this, and defends himself at length in the introduction to The Face Behind The Face. He disapproves of masks because they are...

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Alan Brownjohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Might] not a volume with the title The Face Behind the Face contain some clues about the "real" man behind the public image?

On the surface, it doesn't. All the poems in this [collection of Yevgeny Yevtushenko's works] … are immensely readable. Most of them are engaging, and vital in their own way. Yet neither the Whitmanesque avocations of [Yevtushenko's] Introduction ("You have to look into the mirror and be able to see … a multiplicity of other faces, without which there is no you.") nor the argument of the title poem carry a lot of conviction…. The real interest here lies in the corners illuminated by shafts of self-doubt; and in the poet's zeal to prove that poets and poetry still...

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Emma Fisher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In his long poem Ivan the Terrible and Ivan the Fool], Yevtushenko puts his money on the workers, on the blue-eyed, ill-used, unstoppable Ivan the Fool, against Ivan the Terrible, the disastrous but not entirely guilty autocrat. The second Ivan takes many forms, and a panorama of Russian history sweeps by, growing from the central incident of the founding in 1905 of one of the earliest soviets at a calico factory in Ivanovo-Voznesensk…. [We] are denied the musical resources that contained the thoughts, and have to follow only the thoughts themselves, uncomfortable in an English unused to conscious rhetoric. Like a black and white photo of a coloured picture, the translation shows the shapes and subjects, not...

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Francis B. Randall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Some twenty years ago, a young Russian poet named Yevgeny Yevtushenko went to one of the terrible places of the world, a ravine near Kiev called Babi Yar, where the Nazis, in September 1941, had massacred at least 34,000 Ukrainian Jews in two days, and according to some over 100,000. He was shocked to find that in a land brimming with memorials to the millions of victims of Nazi terror, the Communists, his fellow Russians, had done nothing to mark this major site of Nazi terror against Jews. He wrote a memorable poem with a memorable line: There is no monument at Babi Yar.

He excoriated the complicitous indifference to the mass murder of Jews and the continuing antisemitism of the Communists...

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Edwin Morgan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is very clear from the prefatory poems, from the introduction and from the dedication to Edward Steichen, that [Yevgeny Yevtushenko's Invisible Threads] is a book with a purpose. In the introduction, Yevtushenko says what a revelation he found Steichen's The Family of Man photographs at the American Exhibition in Moscow in 1957. They were "like a gigantic poem by [Walt] Whitman, written not in words but with a camera. Through Steichen's photography, the invisible threads binding one nation to another had been made visible." The impact of Steichen's images of real people from different countries seemed to shatter the abstract clichés of the Cold War.

When he saw that his own poetry...

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Martin Booth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Not since "Zima Junction" has Yevtushenko written such an astounding poem [as "A Dove in Santiago"]. His skill at the long, narrative form comes from a vast tradition in Russian verse, going back to [Alexander] Pushkin, but Yevtushenko has given it new vitality and range and a contemporary relevance.

Sub-titled "a novella in verse", the book is a 52-page poem in blank and free verse about an art student, Enrique, living in Chile during the Presidency of Allende…. The reality is a poignant story, but reconstructed by the poet it is a major literary document of life and death….

Yevtushenko is uncompromisingly blunt in his poem, writing with pathos and understanding yet in a...

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Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Set in the Chile of the Pinochet coup, [Yevgeny Yevtushenko's "A Dove in Santiago"] is the tragic story of 21-year-old Enrique. As an artist, Enrique is torn between the opposing views of his two teachers. As a lover, he divides his affections between an older woman and a younger, his secrecy towards each a deep betrayal. The young man's soul is divided, too, between politics and art, and even between his parents—an ailing mother and father who abandoned him. Enrique's situation and those around him drive him to despair and eventual suicide. Although he never intended harm to anyone, his death brings much suffering. And in a cruel twist of fate, his body plummeting to earth crushes a dove, marking another death that...

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