So, last session I was reading aloud some of (Percy Bysshe) Shelley as precursor to the heroic and expansive breath that we’ll try to follow for twentieth-century poetry. And there are a few other poets of the nineteenth-century that are worth noting. There’s a lot of them actually but I’m zeroing in on he ones that had a big impact on my own nervous system, which is what it boils down to.
There’s a line of Antonin Artaud, the French Surrealist poet, who said that there are certain human sounds, certain sounds of music, or human cries, which, entering your nervous system permanently alter the molecular structure of your body. And he himself specialized in certain high-pitched screams of agony which were supposed to have that effect on his hearers. He’s celebrated for that, and there are people who still remember it, including Carl Solomon who once heard him scream and wound up in the bughouse (and Carl insists it was on account of the effect on his nervous system of Antonin Artaud screaming in Paris in 1944).
When I was in high school I began reading Russian literature and came across (Alexander) Pushkin, and I hadn’t ever read much more Pushkin beyond what I read then. But there were four or five standard lyrics, translated by Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinski, dating from (the) 1820’s. And they’re prophetic poems that Russian poets still rely on, as a reference point for Russian poets – partly the philosophical statement of transitoriness and gloom and time and death, and partly for the poetic prophetic statement – the trumpet-call that Pushkin blew.
So I’ll read a couple of them – 1823 – “The Coach of Life” – Pushkin was born in 1799, was part black, actually, part Afric, was killed in a dual in 1827, 1837. So he died at thirty-eight. And he’s still considered by most Russians to be the great mouth and mind (and also the great contender-with-empire – the contender against the Czar – the great protestor against the bureaucracy and the police.
This one’s just a philosophic shot called “The Coach of Life” [“Telega zhizni”] (and the translations are relatively fustian and archaic and old-fashioned lyric, its not modern poetry, at least in translation, except for the sentiments) – [Allen reads Pushkin’s “The Coach of Life” – “Though often somewhat heavy-freighted,/The coach rolls at an easy pace;/And Time, the coachman, grizzly-pated,/But smart, alert, is in his place./ We board it lightly in the morning/And on our way at once proceed/Repose and slothful comfort scorning/We shout “Hey there! Get on! Full speed!”/ Noon finds us done with reckless daring,/And shaken-up, now care’s the rule/Down hills, through gulleys roughly faring/ We sulk and cry :Hey, easy, fool!”/ The coach rolls on, no pitfalls dodging, /at dusk to pains more wonted grown/ We drowse, while on the night;s dark lodging/Old coachman Time drives on, drives on” – Well, anyway.. it’s not great – not in English, but it’s basic. It’s your basic lyric poem. That is to say, quatrains that have to do with life and death and find an excellent little image to portray it.
But what was really interesting in Pushkin (are) some visions of evil in politics and prophecy. There’s one, “The Prophet”, which is a standard nineteenth-century prophetic portrait of what a poet should be like, which is actually what is expected of all of you in the class. It’s called “The Prophet” – [Allen reads Pushkin’s “The Prophet” – “I dragged my flesh through desert gloom/Tormented by the spirit’s yearning,/And saw a six-winged Seraph loom/Upon the footpath’s barren turning”..”My wizard eyes grew wild and wary;/an eagle’s startled from her eyrie/He touched my ears and lo! a sea/Of storming voices burst on me/ I heard the whirling heavens’ tremor/The angels’ flight and soaring sweep/The sea-snakes coiling in the deep…”..”Upon the wastes, a lifeless clod/I lay and heard the voice of God:/”Arise, o prophet, watch and hearken,/And with my Will thy soul engird,/Through lands that dim and seas that darken,/ Burn thou men’s hearts with this my word’] –
Well, every Russian poet after that has got to live up to that. And they do, actually, in a sense. The ones we’ll get on to in the twentieth-century all had a living burning coal pressed into their hearts [“And in my stricken bosom pressed/Instead a coal of living fire”] , whether by suicide, or concentration camp, or starvation, or arrest.
Student: Was that translated by Yarmolinski?
AG: Well that’s Babette Deutsch, actually. I think my note had Babette Deutsch, but there is an interesting book you probably can get in the Norlin Library [at the University of Colorado, Boulder], a sort of dated book, published in the (19)30’s, [1921, actually] translations from modern Russian poetry, by Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinski – D-E-U-T-S-C-H – They also did the Complete Poems and Prose (sic) of Pushkin, which is in the Modern Library, which this is from, if you ever want to check out Pushkin.“Eugene Onegin”, his long, great poem.
But, when I was looking at the twentieth-century, the sufferings of the twentieth-century poets – and thought, “Gee, that’s all Stalin(ist)”, I came across this little poem, translated in the (19)20’s by Max Eastman, called “Message to Siberia” (so it’s, actually, the same scene, the same Czarist, or the same terrorist.. Secretary of Terror, same King of Terror, running things). This is Pushkin, 1827, “Message to Siberia”, so it’s the same situation as it was in the (19)20’s in this century, except repeated then. I don’t know if you ever.. In other words, this is Pushkin’s politics of 1827 in Russia – [Allen reads Pushkin’s “Message to Siberia” – “Deep in the Siberian mine/Keep your patience proud/The bitter toil shall not be lost/The rebel thought unbowed”…”The heavy-handed chains will fall,/ The walls will crumble at a word/ And Freedom greet you in the light/And brothers give you back the sword” – Well, that’s pretty hopeful. (But) It didn’t really happen. At least not in the twentieth-century.
I was in Moscow in 1965 and got drunk in the Writers Union with (Yvgeny) Yevtushenko (who was a poet in good repute then), with a group of other poets.. all drunk, and (it was) really a bad drunk, so I blacked out and woke up the next day, not knowing how the evening had ended – pickled mushrooms and vodka! And Yevtushenko said, “Under Stalin, between 1935 and 1953, twenty million people were taken to Siberia, and fifteen million didn’t come back”. Then a few days later, I saw an underground poet, Alexi Esenin Volpine, the bastard son of the poet (Sergei) Esenin, who was an outcast from the Writers Union, and I asked him if that figure was correct, and he said, “Give or take a million, that seems the figure around Moscow”. And that was the first I’d heard of that, actually (well, I’d read it in the Hearst newspapers, but I thought it was Capitalist lies about Communism). So my conclusion that year was – that all of the Communist lies about Capitalism were true, and (that) all of the Capitalist lies about Communism were true!
The other poem – 1828 – “The Upas Tree” – Let’s see if I have it right. Yeah. Also a political parable. The upas tree is a poison tree – [Allen begins reading Pushkin’s “The Upas Tree” – “Within the desert like a scar/ On wastes the heat has desolated./Like a dread sentry, an antiar/ From all the world stands isolated” – (The) “antiar” must be the tree, I guess – [Allen continues with the remaining eight stanzas] – “Nature, who made the thirsting plains/Upon a day of anger bore it/And root and branch and inmost veins/With foulest poison did she store it”…”And in the pitch the mighty Czar/His arrows soaked without contrition,/And to his neighbors near and far/ He sped the couriers of perdition” – So this was an attack on the Czar with the most violent imagery possible. A poison tree, from which the Czar puts his arrows, a kind of interesting intense moment in nineteenth-century prophetic mind.
[Audio for the above may be heard here, for the first approximately thirteen-and-a-half minutes (it begins, for the first forty-five seconds, with Allen shuffling through his papers)]