Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices
THE POET AND THE AGORA
by Andrey Voznesensky
Translated by Alec Vagapov
The agora! Your frost-bitten microphone touching the lips is so chilling,
your alarming open space, your black freedom cause such a sweet sensation
of languor in the knee, and it is so hard to keep balance standing on your
rostrums; the words are enveloped in little clouds of steam, the microphone
gets misted over, while you are down there, you, the agora of thousands,
anticipating, in a shroud of foggy exhalation vapor which flows like a
thin bluish film over the night heads; there is the impression that not
all words are audible but that does not matter, after all, for it is the
Word that the agora needs, not just words.
Standing over Mayakovsky Square is frightening. The wind is piercing.
We poets, there a few of us, stand close to one another on the wooden rostrums,
specially made for the occasion. Yevtushenko, thin, handsome as an actor,
wearing a colored scarf and a short sleeved "herring-bone" patterned
coat saws the autumn air with rhythmic gesticulation. His voice amplified
by loudspeakers, roars over the crowd of many thousands. The pale mask
of his face, reminding of a Goth, or even El Greco, shines, swaying, over
the huge stage platform. It is not by accident that later he chose this
picture for his new book.
To the eye of the onlookers viewing the plaza from an unidentified
flying object this overcrowded square with an illuminated figure in the
middle would appear as a ritual site with a wick that generates light.
Mayakovsky once cracked a joked, dreamily and globally:
- If I were a Vendome column
- I would marry La Place de la Concorde.
At different times different generations set up different relationship
categories: "Poet and Muse", "Poet and Czar", "Poet
and Word", "Poet and Spring", "Poet and Estate",
"Poet and Solitude". For the first time now a new type of relationship
became a reality: "The Poet and the Agora".
Yevtushenko is a poet and orator. His gift is tremendous. His Muse
is controversial journalism. He has the power of lyrical absorption of
the political nerve of the moment.
They know him in Madrid and Magnitogorsk. They looked forward to seeing
him. Many came with that end in view. In the true to life film "Moscow
Does Not Believe In Tears' the camera man, trying to reproduce Mayakovsky
Square of that time, for some reason showed a miserable little mob of jostling
puzzled listeners. In fact, Mayakovsky Square was overcrowded in those
days. No one was indifferent. Later it was pored out to the brim in Luzhniky
Bowl. Cars could not get through. Signalling would not help, so the drivers
and their companions would join the crowd of poetry lovers becoming its
part and parcel. Before that time the poetic word, though it called itself
"free as the wind" had actually been, an "armchair word'
and "a book-learning" word, locked up under the roofs of attics,
clubs and lecture rooms. Poets would read and write about heaven while
screening themselves off from the heaven by means of a roof. For the first
time now the poetic word had found the Square. It grew to the size of a
square and, beating against the corners of Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, it
drifted to the right, towards Pushkin.
(The poets of the '20s certainly addressed themselves to squares. But
only now microphones and loud speakers have enabled the whole of the square
to hear the Word. Besides, the contemporary listener differs from the listener
of the 20ties.)
On November 30th, 1962, for the first time in history, poetry
came out to Luzhniki Stadium. It was the birthday of stadium poetry. I
remember how difficult it was to win the audience of this hall, quite unadjusted
for poetry reading and with unadjusted microphones. Yevtushenko was not
there on that day.
He was in Cuba. But in my mind it was Yevtushenko whom I saw then on
the stage of Luzhniki Stadium.
Yevtushenko was born by the 60ties when Russian poetry broke out to
squares, concert halls and stadiums. We had an urge to shout at the top
of our voices. The 60ties found themselves in the synthesis of the word
and the stage, the poet and the actor. They are characterized by the hazy
"feminine rhyme" with consonants sounding indistinctly. Kirsanov
and Silvinsky and later Slutsky, Mezhirov, Lukonin and Akhmadulina used
that style of forming rhymes. They seemed to have a foreboding of a square
where a thousand-voiced echo blurs the end of the line. This became the
basis of Yevtushenko's style of lyrical writing.
This tradition goes further into folk songs where time and the immense
space of boundless fields blot out the consonants like watercolors flowing
"crudely", without distinct contours. For example, "coated-colleague",
"legend -leveled", "gentleman-general".
Yevtushenko made trite words and phrases sound thrilling again. Boldly
and sensitively put together in the style of impressionism, hurriedly,
with the risky freshness of a young man's gesture they preserved the outer
atmosphere of the reckless time. The atmosphere was gifted and impatient.
I opened the first volume of his collected words the other day and
again felt the chilling, avid, impatient ozone of hopes, the spiritual
impulse of the country, the drip of thawing snow in Sushchevka Street,
our nervousness before the audience in the Polytechnical Museum, the copper-
haired Bella Akhmadulina; I brought it back to memory and felt so sorry
about the common air we breathed, the common age, the parties "for
two" and my friendship with him; he was then a diffident young man
believing in his lucky star, with venturesome eyes, thin pale lips, the
bearing of a tribune and the unprotected neck of a teen-ager.
Without his enormous energy many of the poetical performances would
not have taken place. He fascinated not only the audience but administrators
as well. The heroines of his lyrical posters shiver in the wind like pussy-willow
branches in March. His genre categories were unlimited ranging from lyric
and epic to a political romance.
Thousands his acquaintances as well as those who did not know him well
call him by his first name. His blazing necktie flashes simultaneously
in dozens of editorial offices, clubs and exhibitions. He really feels
himself a factory that puts out happiness. If all the copies of his books
ever published were put together they would probably cover the whole of
His best poems, the most exciting and the most sincere ones are "People
Laughed Behind My Back", "Moscow Goods Station", "The
Ballad of the Lotus", "This Is What Is Happening To Me"
and many-many more, all of which have imbibed the breath of the time.
He read his poems with an open heart, people beamed on hearing them
and had a feeling as if they themselves had just written them.
We were brethren in the face of the audience.
Ilya Erenburg was asked at a party at Moscow University once what he
thought about Yevtushenko and me. The weary old writer and a fine taster
of world poetry, sneered bitterly: "What do they have in common?'
And he told the following story: "Once upon a time robbers captured.
two wanderers. First one then the other. And they bound them both to the
same tree with one rope. And that is what they have in common: the same
tree, the same rope and the same robbers".
Unfortunately, the robbers are still living.
It has become a fashion to speak with disdain about Yevtushenko now.
The scarce commodity hunters who confuse Severyanin with servarizing have
switched over to ABBA.
He has something to reproach for but it's not your privilege to do
it, after all. At times he gives the impression that he tries to outdo
everybody in writing poor poems. But his shortcomings stem from his virtues.
Let us remember the night Mayakovsky Square. The exciting air of the
thousand strong breathing crowds, the thin figure and the gesture catching
the air, - as if a man were drowning - let us remember the poet's face
distorted by torment and thrill and his moaning voice: "Listen to
me, my country fellows!".
The man is drowning. He is drowning on an agora.