Youthful Yevtushenko

Recently I perused the poetry shelf of a bookstore, disappointed in the selection it offered.It was a large bookstore (Oxford Books), so it surprised me, but it was in India, so it didn’t, in that the usual names I expected to see weren’t there, and that at least in this bookstore, the theory seemed to be stock more copies of fewer books.

One book it did have, and I picked up, was Penguin’s Selected Poems of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, translated by Robert Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi. Not only had I never read his work, I never heard of him. With this thin collection of his early works, I was in for a sweet surprise.

Yevtushenko (I know next to nothing about the Russian language, but from what I can tell, it seems the Y is either silent or barely vocalized — let me know if you know better) was born in 1933 in Zima (accent on the second syllable), Siberia; he was a boy during WWII. Youth and war play a huge part in so much of his poetry.

“Zima Junction” is one of his most popular works, and for good reason. It is a long poem, and although it comes first in the collection, I saved it for last. Levi wrote

“The first quality of the poet as narrator is youth, and in ‘Zima Junction’ comes near to being the subject of the poem. The narrator looks at the external world with directness, at nature with fascination, and at social and industrial circumstances with curiosity, but at the same time his eyes are the introspective and analytical eyes of the young.”

This theme of youth is evident close to the beginning of the poem:

So there stood youth and childhood together,
trying to look into each others eyes
and each offending, but not equally.
Each wanted the other to start talking.
Childhood spoke first, ‘Hullo then.
It’s your fault I hardly recognized you.
Once when I often used to dream about you
I thought you’d be quite different from this.
I’ll tell you honestly, you worry me.
You’re still in very heavy debt to me.’
So youth asked if childhood would help,
and childhood smiled and promised it would help.

This passage borders on the didactic; however, put in the context of a long poem, it doesn’t seem out of place at all. Then, six pages later, our narrator encounters an old man, who has a thing or two to say about “today’s youth”.

The worse thing is — and you can contradict
if you want — you don’t think like young people
and people are the same age as their thoughts.
There are young people, laddie, but no youth.

Questions? Honest disagreements?
Oh, youth isn’t what it used to be.

One of the better poems in the collection is “The Companion”, a wonderful little poem about childhood innocence in wartime. The narrator begins the poem with him seeing a girl in shock after a tragic accident where they lost their respective grandmothers after an air raid.

She was sitting on the rough embankment,
her cape too big for her tied on slapdash
over an odd little hat with a bobble on it,
her eyes brimming with tears of hopelessness.

A few lines later he decides to do the responsible thing, and we quickly learn his view of girls.

I’d no idea what I could do about her,
but doubt quickly dissolved to certainty:
I’d have to take this thing under my wing;
– girls were in some sense of the word human,
a human being couldn’t just be left.

She accepts his offer of companionship, and they leave the train wreck and the sounds of war die down. As they start their difficult jouney, he continues his rant of the female sex. Of course, by this time we know the narrator is only a child himself. But then the table turns, and it is her turn: she puts him in his place.

She had galoshes on and felt boots,
I had a pair of second-hand boots.
We forded streams and tramped across the forest;
each of my feet at every step it took
taking a smaller step inside the boot.
The child was feeble, I was certain of it.
‘Boo-hoo, ’ she’d say. ‘I’m tired, ’ she’d say.
She’d tire in no time I was certain of it,
but as things turned out it was me who tired.
I growled I wasn’t going any further
and sat down suddenly beside the fence.
‘What’s the matter with you? ’ she said.
‘Don’t be so stupid! Put grass in your boots.
Do you want to eat something? Why won’t you talk?
Hold this tin, this is crab.
We’ll have refreshments. You small boys,
you’re always pretending to be brave.’

And so they travelled, in a silent understanding of themselves and their world.

So on and on
we walked without thinking of rest
passing craters, passing fire,
under the rocky sun of ’41
tottering crazy on its smoking columns.

Translations are funny things. This having been the only translation of Yevtushenko’s works, it’s hard to know which decisions were the translators and which were the poet’s. The only thing I wish the collection had is the original work to go along with the translation. I enjoy looking at the original, even if I don’t understand it. Originals provide clues. One thing I have noticed is he tends to write, at least through the eyes of the translator, really without stanza breaks. In a really short poem, there will be none. In a poem that’s more than a page but less than three, you might see one or two “stanza” breaks. I find this interesting in two ways.

  1. In my studies of writing poetry I have learned that the biggest reason to not use stanzas is if the poem is so fragile (in theme and/or topic), that to provide a stanza breaks will make the poem fall. While I can see this theory taking place here (youth in war is a fragile thing), upon reading it I do see where a stanza break could be inserted. And where there are stanza breaks, it seems a bit random, yet purposeful.
  2. I was skimming over another translation of another of his poems, and the lines were not left-justified like in all the other poems of this collection, but bounced all over the page. There are the occasional lines that start where the previous line left off. This is found in metered verse where a line is truncated and the next line finishes the metrical feet requirement. Just read Shakespeare for this. However, From the translation perspective, Yevtushenko’s poems are not metered. Nothing is mentioned about this in the introduction, but it seems that perhaps Levi was trying to convey Yevtushenko’s patterns without making it difficult to read. I don’t know and I can’t say.

One thing Milner-Gulland does say about the translation:

“[Levi’s] approach to translation was instinctive rather than theory-based…[Levi’s instincts] can be summed up in the words that the critic Hugh Kenner used for Ezra Pound: ‘Translation does not, for him, differ in essence from any other poetic job; as the poet begins by seeing, , so the translator by reading; but his reading must be a special kind of seeing.’ Out of the window went the idea of imitating thumping rhythms, brilliant half-rhymes or other formal features of the original, save where they could correspond with what Peter felt to be a poetic idiom true to his own talents and feelings…Other translators have subsequently taken different approaches, but I stand by what we did: at least we were not disposed to produce what Robert Lowell succinctly called ‘Stuffed Birds’, examples of taxidermy rather than poetry.”

Personally, I couldn’t agree more.

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