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Yevtushenko: Lightweight in a Heavyweight's Garden

The Largest Poetry Reading In America,(I)

By Richard Dey

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"


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.


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.

From that sad reverie of love. Yevtushenko moved into his surprise for the evening--a surprise courteously announced in the New York Times earlier in the day--a poem he had just composed on the bombing of the office of the cultural impresario Sol Hurok, noted for bringing Soviet talent to the USA for many years. Barry Boys said outright that this was not poetic journalism, but that of course is precisely what it was. Yevtushenko stood smiling and looking very pleased as Boys began the poem. He stood in the glory of his art the news is just what our cosmopoet needs. His poems are often the products of news just as he himself is a product of the international media. Yevtushenko had said as he has said over and over again in poems prefaces and interviews, "I must write this poem to heal a terrible wound." The poem ran along the lines of "bombs for balalaikas" and "hatchets for ballerina's feet." and toward the end included the rather dubious but in his case consistent line: "Applause is the right response to art." And so, lo, there came Big Applause.

WHEN YEVTUSHENKO read the poem it seemed to be what we could expect from him what he expects from himself--or at least, what the bosses of the Union of Soviet Writers back across the Berlin Wall (which in another poem, pierces through him) apparently expect of their chief literary export item, who came into world prominence during the post-Stalin thaw. Yevtushenko recited his poems by memory, but this poem, being but a few hours off his poem pad, he read. There was about it the quality of improvisation, complete with jazzy tone changes: bombs to balalaikas. Here was Yevtusheno the opportunist at work. At least one can say he is open about it. "My feat of not expressing myself on some topic," he says in his preface to Stolen Apples, "makes me express myself at times too superficially." That's honest enough, but what kind of poetic premise is total topical expression? A journalist's? A traveller's?

As he finished the poem, his right hand arched upwards into the smoky spotlight air in a mighty gesture of evangelism. Yet the cosmopoet was always stagebound, always in his political poems, judging the audience's response. A nervous sense of commercialism shackled his ascent. The sublime, that mostly mystical state of imaginative transport, eluded him and certainly his audience. And certainly one can not expect to find his highest excellence of art in the nuts and bolts of topical evanescence in the bump and bulk of rush-hour urgency.


FIRST Barry Boys and then Yevtushenko read his well-known, early poem. "The City of Yes and the City of No," a poem heavy with dramatic contrasts between the intensities of anger and passivity. For the authoritarian "City of No", the piano grand slammed assorted dissonant chords; for the permissive "City of Yes" it bubbled in a kind of water music when it was not sneaking, like a villainous lover, up the winding stairs to the tower bedroom. The music and poetry were well co-ordinated. Yevtushenko almost broke into a rasping song. Teasing the audience who knew the poem well, he was at his stagey best. His showmanship gave the poem a fine sense of ironic melodrama. Obviously pleased. Yevtushenko bowed out snapping his fingers. An amused audience applauded. If the role of the poet along with that of the intellectual is to raise and not stoop to the public's standards. Yevtushenko came closest to that responsibility with this poem. Samuel Johnson thought poetry should teach by delighting its audience, not that these two values of poetry--the instructive and the entertaining--should be separate or conjunctive. Most often Yevtushenko's performance attempted to do one or the other, and frequently it struck wholly unresponsive chords as it submarined below the audience's general level of sophistication. The poet's power to awaken was more often used simply to recount; his power to unify was more often used to jam.

Barry Boys emerged out of his sleezy 19th Century elegance again to pitch and roll, oddly enough, with a poem called "Pitching and Rolling." (That's the 20th Century, folks.) With an unstirring, hovering voice, Barry Boys squeezed out the main word of the poem, "reeeeeeling!" He was so absolutely incongruous that he seemed to be a sailor chantyman riding shotgun on a stagecoach.

A group of 15 students called the Bijou Singers from Rider College in New Jersey had been sitting attentively on an elevated platform at the back of the stage, behind the piano. As Yevtushenko bellowed the unballasted "Pitching and Rolling," the angelic choir, clad in bell bottoms, backed him up with seastorm voices. They took to hooting and whistling while Yevtushenko writhed in the fog of 20th Century pain, a favorite theme of his. Then the chorus began to chant "push-and-shout, push-and-shout, zig-zag, zig-zag" and they howled an assortment of animal groans. This was done in a kind of dialogue with Yevtushenko and Barry Boys who at some point began to alternate verses. I don't recall if the poem ended on a zig or a zag, but end it did.


AND THEN, amidst all this panoramic pandemonium, Stanley Kunitz appeared like a revelation. Revelation? Perhaps his coming was more like the salvation of the American poetic sensibility. He, like some of the other American poets who followed him, had translated Yevtushenko's poems in Stolen Apples. Since most of the translators do not read Russian, they were evidently given literal translations to adapt, according to their own styles, into English. "The result--these English adaptations--" writes Anthony Kahn in his translator's preface to the book, "are interchanges between one poet and another." Accordingly, I suppose, Kunitz and the other American poets were asked to appear with Yevtushenko in a gesture of appreciation and international brotherhood. And certainly someone realized that they might give the reading a little dignity and that, at such a major event, it would be generally healthy to have a few American poets in the wings. How else to explain their appearances I don't know. No one, including Yevtushenko, according to the New York Times, received any money for their reading. It is possible that their egos and desire to be part of the Big Event led them to do it, but somehow I don't think that's plausible.

Stanley Kunitz, one of the finest lyric poets of our time, introduced himself quietly as if to establish not only his own identity but his separateness. First he read one of his own poems. "The Illumination," and immediately I was aware of the music of poetry, a music not heard all evening. Kunitz appeared very relaxed as he switched microphones to read one of his "translation adaptations" of Yevtushenko, "An Attempt at Blasphemy." The poem, he explained before reading it, "has more of a witty, metaphysical turn than most of Yevtushenko's poems." The angelic choir crooned in with race car engine voices that somehow worked. The act had a subtle humor to it.

NEXT, out of nowhere--he had not been billed as one of the evening's bards--came Allen Ginsberg. He actually wore his clothes, faded jeans and workshirt, and a string of beads hung from his neck. Without any oms or antics, and without even introducing himself he read with his very cultivated, jazzy flat beat voice "On the Question of Freedom," a poem of Yevtushenko's translated by his croonie Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ginsberg is normally considered, and not necessarily in a bad way, to be slightly looney; but in comparison to Yevtushenko and Barry Boys, he struck one as being beautifully urbane and sophisticated.

As Yevtushenko read the same poem, the speakers overhead seemed to transform the one-ring Felt Forum into a rally hall of what kind I was not sure. The doubt was not clarified when Eugene McCarthy strode professionally up on the stage. McCarthy wore a dark three piece suit. A ragged book of some kind was shoved in his left pocket. He looked and evidently felt a little out of place. It was hard to see him in place anywhere, but this forum of poetry and politics seemed as good a place as any, a place both beneath and above him. He read a war poem of his own making in which he nicely contrasts images of the American war machine such as corrugated steel against the natural beauty of South Vietnam. A reading of a poem by a Vietnamese poet followed. The most applause of the evening went out to him as he slipped off stage, never to be seen again.

Jazzy piano music picked up the tempo. Yevtushenko and Barry Boys returned to alternate verses of another journalistic, but not bad poem. "Freedom to kill." It operates out of shame, and contains these lines:

Lincoln basks in his marble chair,


The stars

In your flag,


Are bullet holes...

Oh, Statue of Liberty, raise up

Your green, drowned woman's face

Against this death of freedom.

THIS IS one example of Yevtushenko's social realism that comes off. But nowhere, of course, do we read about life in Russia or for instance, about the invasion into Czechoslovakia. That is the price he pays for his freedom. The delivery of this, purposefully perhaps, was abrasive, softened somewhat by the chorus repeating selected lines. Then they burst into a Hair-like version of the poem. Heard were strains of rock, gospel and jazz--all thrown in for whatever measure the audience might think good. With a solid round of booing and scattered applause, intermission arrived.

Tomorrow, Richard Dey brings his experience as a writer for the U.S. Army to bear on the kind of poetry produced under the literary constraints of the Soviet Union

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