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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dead poet's society

May Day, the ancient holiday that was for seventy years commandeered as a celebration of the Soviet state, is tomorrow. Nothing better symbolised the swagger of that regime than the arrogant statues that populate the streets and parks of the C.I.S. Overbearing and cold, they were idealism cast in stone; morality tales personified and petrified. They stood among the people as reproachful examples, like scarecrows in a field. Yet not everyone was intimidated, and chief among these were the poets. Theirs is the most portable form of subversion. It can be carried in the head and the heart, contraband of the mind that no regime can impound. The people who erected these statues killed, exiled or persecuted poets. They are dead, their momuments are fallen or crumbling, yet the poets' words live on. We hope this selection will introduce Russian poetry to the kind of people who think that verse is something best contained within the schoolroom or the inside of greetings cards. The poems here are taken from "Twentieth Century Russian Poetry," a new anthology which is the most comprehensive in the English language. In the introduction to this book, Yevgeny Yevtushenko writes, "Everyone who is getting ready to have something to do with Russia, whether in business, politics, or academia, must not forget that the key to understanding the soul of Russia is an understanding of Russian poetry." The works here are what might be called public poems, comments on politics or society. If Russians celebrate anything on May Day, it ought to be the spirit that produced such writing, and which still survives. Natalya Krandievskaya (1888-1963) "In 200-300 years life will be inexpressibly beautiful." Anton Chekhov Honest with oneself The General conquers Russia, Impetuous, desperate, severe. The gold imperial is resurrected. Repair of the railroads begins. A scaffold is reared on the square To avenge the many years of shame. Then a revolution will take place In regard to some sort of nonsense. Then a cavalry-guards regiment will come To pacify Russia once and for all, And the populace will become soft as silk, Begin to plow, go to church, and build. They will chase after bread and primers. Gild the future with radiance. Some new untalented talent Will initiate a nationwide repentence. Aesthetes will propagate like puppies. Everyone will thirst for life's delights. In the newspapers will be a complete muddle And daily soup about the motherland. Well, okay. Decades will go by And death will come and quietly say: that'll do. But those who aren't yet in the world, Who will live, say, a hundred fifty years, Will wake up a captivating garden Amidst sacred and unbearable lights, Day and night in sweet delirium To recite again and again The engraved hexameters of poets And feel the pounding of hearts, Which will betray no sadness, And repeat: "O my brother, at last! Our ancestors didn't suffer in vain!" Wel-yes-er. What to say... I strain my ears, But for ages I don't make out these words, And here burdock begins to grow out of me, I know. And who is the guarantee, that the ideal is true, That freedom will come to mankind? Where is the measure of what is real!? Come, General! For ten years! For both me and you -- enough! Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) In re conferences As soon as the night turns into dawn each day I see: someone going to the CENTGEN, someone to the GENCOM someone to the COMPOLIT someone to the POLITCENT, they all disappear into offices. There's a rainstorm of paper shuffling, as soon as you get into the building: half a hundred of-- the most important!-- employees disappear into conferences. Then I show up and ask: "Can't they see me? Been here since forever." "The Comrades Ivans Ivaniches have left for a conference with the People's Commissar of Teetotal Wine." You climb a hundred stairs. Not a nice world. Again: "Asks you to come back in an hour or so. In conference:-- re the purchase of inks for the GOVCENTCOOP." After an hour: not a clerk, not a secretary appears-- bare! Everyone up to 22 years is at KOMSOMOL conference. I climb up again, watching the night fall, to the top floor of the seven-story house. "Has Comrade Ivan Ivanich come in?" "Still in conference with the A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-Com." Enraged, I burst into the conference, like an avalanche spewing out savage oaths on the way. And see: people sitting there in halves. What the hell's going on! Where've their other halves gone? "Slaughtered! Murdered!" Shouting wildly, I run berserk. Go out of my mind at such a picture. Then I hear the calmest of clerks point out: "They're in two conferences at the very same time. Twenty conferences we have to sit through every day -- and more. So we're forced to split ourselves in two! Up to the waist is here, and the rest-- over there." Can't sleep for the suspense. Meet the dawn with frenzied longing. "Oh for just one more conference regarding the eradication of all conferences!" Osip Mandelstam (1881-1938) This poem led to Mandelstam's arrest and subsequent death in prison. In the first version, which fell into the hands of the secret police, the last two lines referred to "the Kremlin mountain man, the murderer and peasant-slayer." We live, not feeling ...1 We live, not feeling the country beneath us, Our speech inaudible ten steps away, But where they're up to half a conversation-- They'll speak of the Kremlin mountain main. His thick fingers are fat like worms, And his words certain as pound weights. His cockroach whiskers laugh, And the tops of his boots glisten. And all around his rabble of thick-skinned leaders, He plays through services of half-people. Some whistle, some meow, some snivel, He alone merely caterwauls and prods. Like horseshoes he forges decree after decree-- Some get it in the forehead, some in the brow, some in the groin, and some in the eye. Whatever the execution -- it's a raspberry to him And his Georgian chest is broad. Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) Slander And slander everywhere attended me. Reptilelike it shuffled through my sleep And through the dead town, under a murderous sky, At random seeking food and shelter. Each man's eye Flickered with the light of slander, Now signifying treachery, now innocent fear. I'm not afraid of it. To each new challenge My answer is severe, sufficient. But Already I foresee, a day will come-- At first light friends will troop into my room, Their sobbing will disrupt a dream, the sweetest Ever dreamt -- they'll lay an icon on my breast. Unrecognized, then it will enter too-- Slander -- its unslaked mouth tirelessly through My blood voicing imaginary grievances, Its own voice into the fabric of their requiem weaving. And all will heed its shameful talk, So that neighbor dare not lift his eye to look At neighbor, and my body in a terrible vacuum Remain, my spirit burning one last time In terrestrial impotence, in dawn mist aloft, And with despair and pity for the earth that it has left. Akhmatova wrote this poem about the times when she tried to visit her son, imprisoned during the 1938 Terror. Epilogue I have learned how faces fall to bone, how under the eyelids terror lurks, how suffering inscribes on cheeks the hard lines of it cuneiform texts, how glossy black or ash-fair locks turn overnight to tarnished silver, how smiles fade on submissive lips, and fear quavers in a dry titter. And I pray not for myself alone... for all who stood outside the jail, in bitter cold or summer's blaze, with me under that blind red wall. Marina Tsvetayeva (1892-1941) Praise to the rich And so, making clear in advance I know there are miles between us; And I reckon myself with the tramps, which Is a place of honor in this world: Under the wheels of luxury, at Table with cripples and hunchbacks... From the top of the bell tower roof, I proclaim it: I love the rich. For their rotten, unsteady root For the damage done in their cradle For the absentminded way their hands Go in and out of their pockets; For the way their softest word is Obeyed like a shouted order; because They will not be let into heaven; and Because they don't look in your eyes; And because they send secrets by courier! And their passions by errand boy! In the nights that are thrust upon them they Kiss and drink under compulsion. And because in all their accountings In boredom, in gilding, in wadding, They can't buy me, I'm too brazen: I confirm it, I love the rich! And in spite of their shaven fatness, Their fine drink (I wink -- and spend), Some sudden defeatedness, And a look that is like a dog's Doubting... --not the core Of their balance? But are the weights true? I say that among all outcast There are no such orphans on earth. There is also a nasty fable About camels getting through needles. ...For that look, surprised to death, Apologizing for sickness, as If they were suddenly bankrupt: "I would have been Glad to lend, but" and their silence. "I counted in carats once and then I was one of them." For all these things, I swear it: I love the rich. ...And nothing now will be reborn Under the eagle or the sickle.1 Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-) Loss Russia has lost Russia in Russia. Russia searches for itself like a cut finger in snow, a needle in a haystack, like an old blind woman madly stretching her hand in fog, searching with hopeless incantation for her lost milk cow. We buried our icons. We didn't believe in our own great books. We fight only with alien grievances. Is it true that we didn't survive under our own yoke, becoming for ourselves worse than foreign enemies? Is it true that we are doomed to live only in the silk nightgown of dreams, eaten by moths?-- Or in numbered prison robes? Is it true that epilepsy is our national character? Or convulsions of pride? Or convulsions of self-humiliation? Ancient rebellions against new copper kopecks, against such foreign fruits as potatoes are now only a harmless dream. Today's rebellion swamps the entire Kremlin like a mortal tide-- Is it true that we Russians have only one unhappy choice? The ghost of Tsar Ivan the Terrible? Or the Ghost of Tsar Chaos? So many imposters. Such "imposterity." Everyone is a leader, but no one leads.We are confused as to which banners and slogans to carry. And such a fog in our heads that everyone is wrong and everyone is guilty in everything. We already have walked enough in such fog, in blood up to our knees. Lord, you've already punished us enough. Forgive us, pity us. Is it true that we no longer exist? Or are we not yet born? We are birthing now, But it's so painful to be born again. Georgy Ivanov (1894-1958) They'll not exterminate you now... They'll not exterminate you now, As that mad leader dreamt they might. Fate or God may lend a hand, But the Russian man is tired... Tired of suffering, of vainglory-- It's time to enjoy oblivion. Tired of rushing blindly forward-- It's time, perhaps, for demolition... Vladimir Kirillov (1890-1943) We We uncountable dread legions of Labor, We conquered the expanses of seas, oceans, and land, We set fire to cities with the light of artificial suns, Our proud souls are aflame with the fire of insurrections. We are in the power of mutinous, passionate intoxication: Let them shout at us: "You are the executioners of beauty," In the name of our Tomorrow -- we will burn Raphael, Demolish museums, stomp on flowers of art. We have thrown off the heavy weight of oppressive heritage, We have rejected chimeras of wisdom drained of its blood; Girls in the radiant kingdom of the future Will be more beautiful than the Venus of Milo. Tears have been drained from our eyes, tenderness killed. We have forgotten the smell of grass and spring flowers. We have fallen in love with the might of steam and the power of dynamite, The ringing of sirens and the motion of shafts and wheels. O, poets-aesthetes, curse the Great Vulgarian, Kiss the fragments of the past beneath our heels, Wash with tears the ruins of the smashed temple-- We are free, we are bold, we breathe a different beauty. The muscles of our arms thirst for gargantuan labor, Our collective breast burns with creative torment, We shall fill the combs to the brim with marvelous honey. We will find a new dazzling course for our planet. We love life, its intoxicating furious rapture. Our spirit was tempered by stormy struggle, by suffering. We are everybody. We are in everything. We are the flame and the conquering light. We are our own Deity and Judge and Law. Kirillov died in a Siberian prison camp.