Sunday, June 06, 2010

Andrei Voznesensky (1933-2010)

Voznesensky reading at a book fair in Miami, 1990
Russian version of this article is here

Andrei Voznesensky, the great Russian poet, died in Moscow on 1 June 2010, aged 78.

For Russians, Voznesensky is most closely associated with the incredible revival of poetry in the late 1950s and 1960s, the period often referred to as the Thaw. Huge halls, city squares and stadiums were filled with thousands of people eager to listen to poetry readings. Poets were producing what is often called 'citizen lyrics' - poems highly charged with social and political content. And everybody wanted to listen to what they had to say, not to the party leaders.

The Russia of Voznesensky is never in confrontation with the West, she is standing with the West as an equal among equals. Apart from his poetry, this may be his most important legacy.
I was introduced to Voznesensky's poetry at school and immediately loved it. ('Goya' and 'Oza'). Then, much later, when I was at Izvestia newspaper in the 80s and 90s, I met him on many occasions. He was friendly with the editor, Igor Golembiovsky, and we sometimes took foreign visitors to his dacha at Peredelkino, the writers' village just outside Moscow. Voznesensky himself often dropped in at the offices of Izvestia in Pushkin Square bringing poems which we published long after poetry had stopped being printed in the mainstream national press.  Sometimes he would appear in the editorial room in the middle of us putting together the issue and would just hover around waiting for the editor, looking at proofs, occasionally suggesting a change in the layout or wording in a headline.

He had an unassuming attitude, a warm smile, a kind of hush puppy appeal that instantly made one predisposed to like him.

His verse is wonderful. Few mastered the assonance like him. Robert Lowell referred to him once as "one of the greatest living poets in any language." W.H.Auden, who translated Voznesensky - and read his poetry on stage alongside the author himself had this to say about Voznesensky: 
'In the case of Mr. Voznesensky, at least I know that he is greatly admired by many of his fellow countrymen, and, after reading literal prose translations of his poems, studying metrical models, and listening to tape-recordings of him reading his own work, I am convinced that his admirers are right.
As a fellow maker, I am struck first and foremost by his craftsmanship. Here, at least, is a poet who knows that, whatever else it may be, a poem is a verbal artifact which must be as skillfully and solidly constructed as a table or a motor-bicycle. Whatever effects can be secured in Russian by rhythm, rhyme, assonance, and contrasts of diction, he clearly knows all about. For example:
Vcherá moi dóktor proiznyós: (a)
“Talánt v vas, mózhet, i vozmózhen, (b)
no vásh payál’nik obmorózhen, (b)
nye suítyes’ iz-domu v moróz”. (a)
O nós…(a)
(Yesterday my doctor declared:/ “Talent in you, perhaps there may be/ but your blow torch is frozen,/ don’t go out of the house in the cold”./ Oh nose…)
Toí priródye, molchál’no chúdnoi,
róshcha, ózero li, brevnó— (b)
im pozvóleno slúshat, chúvstvovat’, (assonance)
tól’ko gólosa im nye danó. (b)
(Nature, silent and wonderful/ forest and lakes/ is only permitted to listen and fell./ It has not been granted a voice)
Voznesensky was lucky in having had good English translators. A thoughtful commentator on the problems of literary translation John Bayley, the husband of Iris Murdoch and himself a student of Russian literature ('Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary') provides this little anecdote:
'When Mr. Voznesensky showed one of Auden's translations of his poems to the Russian poet and novelist Kornei Chukovsky, who was himself an excellent translator, the latter remarked admiringly: ''One madman has understood another.'' Something of the same element of understanding was implied in a remark of Mr. Voznesensky that Auden himself might have made: ''The poet is two people. One is an insignificant person, leading an insignificant life, but behind him, like an echo, is the other who writes the poetry.'' We have the impression, oddly enough, that it is the two ''insignificant'' persons who met when Auden translated a Voznesensky poem, as if the two poets could afford to cancel each other out, and become a single human being.'

Voznesensky had a wonderful performing voice and a mesmerising chanting manner on stage. Bayley who heard Voznesensky at Oxford, wrote: 'A slight young man, compact and relaxed rather than intense, he seemed to fly upward on the wings of the Russian vowels, putting his whole being into them, so that the separate sound of each survived in the hall as a permanent humming resonance.' The composer Rodion Schedrin in the late 60s wrote a complex experimental musical piece called 'Poetoria' which included full symphony orchestra, Voznesensky reading poems from his 1966 collection 'Achilles's Heart' and the singer Lyudmila Zykina, who is often referred to as having had the ultimate Russian voice, performing ancient Russian chants, that were deciphered and reconstructed by Schedrin from medieval manuscripts. I went to a performance of 'Poetoria' in the early 1970s and I can say: the effect was absolutely otherworldly, if not in the music, but certainly in the way the poet's and the singer's voices blended.

Complex and avante-garde as it is, his poetry is perfectly singable, often hummable, sometimes practically like a football chant. 'A Million Scarlet Roses' ("Миллион алых роз"), a poem retelling the story of a romantic love of the Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani for a French actress, was made into a song and became a hit. Performed originally by Alla Pugacheva in 1980s it is still very popular (nearly 3 million views on YouTube!)

Another of Voznesensky's never-fading hits is 'Juno and Perhaps' ("Юнона и Авось" - 'Yunona i Avos'), the first Russian rock-opera staged in 1980 at the Moscow Lenkom theatre by director Mark Zakharov to the music by Alexei Rybnikov. Zakharov already had bits of Rybnikov's music when he went to see Voznesensky with the idea of making a stage version of The Tale of Igor's Campaign, the 12th century epic that is seen as the oldest Russian literary work. Zakharov was taken aback when Voznesensky rejected his proposal as a 'slavophile project' and offered instead a poetic version of the real story of how the commander of a Russian navy expedition to the Pacific, when the tsar still owned Alaska and a few outposts on the Eastern coast of America, fell in love with a Californian girl Conchita.

Think, this is 1980. The Soviet Union has just invaded Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter is boycotting the Moscow Olympics, Brezhnev is still in the Kremlin - and we're singing about the love affair between a Russian officer and an American heiress? We did - and today, thirty years on, still do. 'Juno and Perhaps' is still performed to full house.

Voznesensky was never quite a dissident and was never quite repressed by Soviet authorities even though he was famously and publicly thrashed by Nikita Khrushev at a meeting in 1963 and took part in the 1979 almanac Metropol.  He is a curious, I would even say unique figure in Russian literature.

He was patriotic, but never in the 'rusky', slavophile fashion. 'Of course, you may be clean shaven and have an infallible taste. But for your Motherland have you, have you been laid to waste?' he wrote in the poem 'Neizvestny, Requiem in Two Steps, With an Epilogue'. (The word 'neizvestny' means 'unknown', but the dedication is to the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, a second world war veteran who was criticised by Khrushev, but later made the moving monument for the former Soviet leader's grave.)

He was never quite a dissident, he wrote several poems about Lenin not to recant, but because he was of the generation who were, perhaps, the last believers in the socialist dream, the 'Soviet project' as they call it today.

He was never quite a dissident, he was just a free spirit as true poets are and should be.

He was patriotic, but never xenophobic. Few other Russian poets wrote so much so sympathetically about foreign lands and foreign cultures. 'Antiworlds' ("Антимиры"), a poem about America in the 60-s, is more of an introduction to her social and cultural debate, than an ideologically motivated attack. One of his earliest poetic hits, 'Goya', is all based on rhyming the name of the Spanish artist with Russian words. Another famous poem, 'The Monologue of Marilyn Monroe', is a hymn to artistic individuality: 'Unbearable it is to have no talent. With talent it is unbearable still more'.

He travelled a lot and he struck friendships easily with prominent Western writers and public figures, Arthur Miller, Allen Ginsberg, Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre among many others. In this he was probably one of the most important linking personalities in Russian culture, presenting her attractive face to the world in which Russians were often portrayed - and seen - as dangerous, aggressive and uncivilised. (This blog post  has a nice selection of photos of Voznesensky with famous personalities, including Bobby Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.)

The Russia of Voznesensky is never in confrontation with the West, she is standing with the West as an equal among equals. Apart from his poetry, this may be his most important legacy.

This Gramophone page  mentions a vinyl record of Voznesensky performing his poetry alongside WH Auden and several other of his translators. Please let me know if you'd seen it on the internet.
Below is a video of Voznesensky, Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina reading poetry at the Polytechnical Museum in Moscow. The lecture hall there was the hub of poetic life in the late 50-s and early 60-s.

And this is Alla Pugacheva singing 'A Million Scarlet Roses':

This is from 'Juno and Perhaps', the aria 'I Will Never Forget You' ("Я тебя никогда не забуду"):

The quatrain from 'Neizvestny' translated by A.Anichkin.
Photo of W.H.Auden by Carl Van Vechten, 1939

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...