Yevtushenko: Lightweight in a Heavyweight's Garden

The Largest Poetry Reading In America,(I)

What follows is the first section of a two-part essay-review on the January poetry reading by Yevgeny Yevtushenko--an attempt to revive large-scale readings in the United States.

Richard Dey '73 is poetry editor of The Advocate.

Stage, you gave me the light in which to scintillate but took away the soft shadow and the subtle gleam...I was painting great placards, rationalizing slyly that a watercolor can hardly be seen in a large hall...I began to cherish not quietness-- but thunder, and when you do this it is easy to go wrong. --Yevgeny Yevtushenko, from "The Stage"

I

THE SECOND SHOW began sometime around 10:30 p.m. Outside New York's Madison Square Garden on a windy and cold January 28th, some four thousand people waited to press into the Felt Forum as some five thousand piled out. The big yellow neon board billed "Yevtushenko" and, under his name, "Camper and Trailer Show." This was the second performance of the largest poetry reading anyone had ever attempted to stage in America.

Inside the half-moon of the Garden's 5000 seat capacity Felt Forum better described, perhaps, as a one ring circus, hip and not so hip students and New Yorkers hustled to their seats. Remarked one girl completely lost, "Are you kidding?-- I feel like I'm in a gymnasium." A subdued audience embodying the air of tranquil expectancy and guarded reverence typical of poetry readings this was not.

The house lights faded. Some hysterical flunkie welcomed everyone to the Big Event--concluding, "And the poet..., the poet..., the poet(!) is YEVTUSHENKO!" The lanky frame of 38-year-old Yevgeny Yevtushenko filled the spotlight. He wore his usual uniform of a gray turtleneck sweater and slacks. In his broken English, the Soviet poet indicated that between performances he had been upstairs in the main sports arena. "I promise to return and fill the main stage," he said. "Who says America doesn't like poetry?" Whether or rather how America likes poetry is not the immediate question; the question is, can Yevtushenko fill Madison Square Garden as, say, Muhammed Ali has. The answer is no. Yevtushenko, whatever he is, is no matinee idol, no charismatic force and, by the way, he is not even a good poet. Yevtushenko: the name is more than the man.

I DONT KNOW if that's bad or lucky for future poetry readings in America, or bad or lucky for Yevtushenko's ego and soul but I do know, given the same personalities and talents, that he and his promoters probably couldn't even hope for a repeat performance in five or ten years. These two, one-night-only performances were, at Yevtushenko's request, presented by Doubleday & Company who published his latest book, Stolen Apples. Yevtushenko had asked for the main arena but Doubleday wisely chose the Felt Forum. Even with maximum advance publicity, Russia's cosmopoet failed to draw a full 10,000 people.

II

HIS PROMISE made, Yevtushenko bowed himself aside. Out of the wings and into the light stepped an actor by the name of Barry Boys who read the first poem of the evening. "The Stage," in English. Barry Boys looked like a mock, effeminate Paladin, if you can imagine such a creature, in his black slacks and black dueling shirt; every time a dramatic gesture was forthcoming, he took a gun fighter's stance. His delivery was like that of a turbid Shakespearian actor, Edwin Booth, perhaps, at the Ford Theater. Barnum and Bailey could have found a better barker. Who sold this guy to Yevtushenko, I don't know and why Yevtushenko not only let him butcher the lyrics but also appeared to approve of the fallen, uneven slices is beyond poetic sensibility. Nonetheless, Barry Boys was the specialite de la maison. After he had finished his reading. Yevtushenko read the poem in Russian a pattern loosely adhered to all night.

Yevtushenko looked tired like a boxer in the ninth round as he launched himself in the passion of his second performance. His voice appealed to the heart and hove with boyhood sincerity. It reached, honestly I thought, for Mayakovsky, the great father of the Russian declamatory style who is evoked in the poem. But, unlike the Voice of Mayakovsky, Yevtushenko's carried no spiritual impact. In any performing career there is this danger: that the poet will come not to live for his own struggle and the larger implied struggle of mankind, but for the struggle's applause. The struggle must begin and continue to be within. To take an essentially solitary art and make it public without negating the art is the risk any poet-performer takes. Only the rarest of men succeeds, and Yevtushenko's lack of that ineffable spiritual dimension of genius seemed right off the bat to ground out to that stubborn truth.

A BLOND, long haired actress named Blythe Danner took hold of one of the six or seven microphones positioned around the stage, and recited a childhood reminiscence poem of Yevtushenko's called "Secret Mysteries." A piano tripping over the light fantastic backed her up with notes to catch the images of snow (falling) and balloons (bewitched) in an effectively sentimental presentation of music and poetry.

The temper of the evening changed as, moving to another mike, Danner assumed the voice of an angry, broken down actress for a poem called "Monologue of a Broadway Actress." "Where are the great writers! Where?" the poem asks, and Danner looked over at Yevtushenko who was sitting, smoking as he most often did when not reciting, in the shadows of the stage near the piano.

Let's Not...", a poem about the end of an affair with a young girl came next, read first by Barry Boys and then recited by Yevtushenko. It came across better in Russian, as Yevtushenko brought to it the intensity of his experience. His delivery was perfectly timed and controlled. His arms waved through the air like a swimmer like a discus thrower in slow motion. The words "let's not," fairer sounding in Russian than in English, are repeated throughout the poem. Writing poems for the public arena necessarily affects the poet's style. He will employ the devices and genres that best lend themselves to lyricism and incantation. The formal qualities of poetry become subject to dramatic techniques. Yevtushenko's art, such as it is, is shaped by these factors. The sound of "let's not" gave me the auditory vision of a flake of snow swaying downward against a winter landscape. Nothing wrong with that.

THIS brand of poetry, consciously I should guess becomes something to move people. It becomes a tool of persuasion in addition to feeling especially if the poetry deals with social and political realities. Not only does the performer poet create life in the solitude of his art, he goes through the process all over again on stage: each reading becomes, at best a writing. Life becomes lived at the heightened level of art, just as art is given the breath of life. During his reading of a poem, the poet performer becomes the poem itself. The interaction between the poet and his audience depends on the degree to which the poet is able to become the poem and transmit its being. Paradoxically, it is when the poet is able to forget the audience that this interaction is most likely to occur, for then he is able to escape time. Yevtushenko in personal poems such as "Let's not..." seemed capable of this transformation.