AG: First thing we ought to do is get to some of his (Sergei Esenin‘s) texts, some of the poetry, before we get onto the gossip (which is kind of poetically interesting (too), I think)
– “Letter To His Mother”
He’d abandoned not only the village, he’d gone out to Moscow, and (Nikolay) Klyuev got really mad because he was wandering around now in delicate shoes and top hats and evening clothes, and looking like a dandy, and collecting clothes. Then he married Isadora Duncan and collected vast wardrobes in Paris and Berlin and the United States and brought them all back to Moscow, and wabdered around like a dandy. (He) drank a great deal, smashed mirrors in hotels, destroyed hotel rooms from Berlin through Paris, through New York City, beat up Isadora Duncan, gave her black eyes, screamed at her, was surly, resented being her side-kick (because she was more famous than he on their trip around America), wanted to go back to his peasant village in Russia (but he didn’t want to go back there either) , came back after several nervous breakdowns and winding up in jails and hospitals all over Europe, taken care of by all sorts of pretty little Russian girls who were very intelligent and very literary (knowing he was doomed, but trying to keep him going for a while), wrote a little lettter to his mother, a poem called “Letter To My Mother”, which is, like, a sober, nostalgic, moment.
Are you stilll alive old lady?/ I, too am alive. Greetings, greetings to you./ May that ineffable evening light/ flow over your little house./ They write to tell me that though you hide your anxiety,/ you’re pining for me ever so much/ and that you often come out onto the road/ in your worn old-fashioned coat/ And that in the blue darkness of evening/ you often imagine the same thing,/ someone you fancy has stuck a knife/ into me beneath the heart during a tavern brawl./ It’s nothing, my dearest, calm yourself./ There’s only a harassing play of fancy./ I’m not such a confirmed drunkard/ that I should die without seeing you first./ I’m just as loving as before. /My own dream is to escape from my restless misery/ and return to our little house. /I’ll return when our white garden/ spreads its branches in Springtime. /But you mustn’t wake me at dawn/ as you did eight years ago./ Don’t awake the dreams that have vanished./ Don’t disturb that which didn’t come true./ Too early in life it fell my life to suffer/ weariness, bereavement./ And don’t try to teach me to pray, don’t do that./ There’s no returning to the past/. You alone are my help and comfort,/ my ineffable light./ So forget your anxiety. /Don’t pine for me so much./ Don’t come out on the road so often/ in your worn old-fashioned coat”.
Ты жива еще, моя старушка?/Жив и я. Привет тебе, привет!/Пусть струится над твоей избушкой/ Тот вечерний несказанный свет./ Пишут мне, что ты, тая тревогу,/Загрустила шибко обо мне,/Что ты часто ходишь на дорогу/ >В старомодном ветхом шушуне./ И тебе в вечернем синем мраке/ Часто видится одно и то ж:/Будто кто-то мне в кабацкой драке/ Саданул под сердце финский нож./ Ничего, родная! Успокойся./ Это только тягостная бредь./Не такой уж горький я пропойца,/ Чтоб, тебя не видя, умереть./Я по-прежнему такой же нежный/ И мечтаю только лишь о том,/>Чтоб скорее от тоски мятежной/Воротиться в низенький наш дом./ Я вернусь, когда раскинет ветви/ По-весеннему наш белый сад./ Только ты меня уж на рассвете/ Не буди, как восемь лет назад./Не буди того, что отмечталось,/Не волнуй того, что не сбылось,—/ Слишком раннюю утрату и усталость/ Испытать мне в жизни привелось./ И молиться не учи меня. Не надо!/ К старому возврата больше нет./Ты одна мне помощь и отрада,/ Ты одна мне несказанный свет./Так забудь же про свою тревогу,/Не грусти так шибко обо мне./Не ходи так часто на дорогу/ В старомодном ветхом шушуне.”]
Actually he felt it, and it’s pretty direct, simple (simpler than most of the Russian poets, and emotionally more direct).
And so, actually, he was the best-loved poet of all the peasant girls and workers in the factories (espite the fact of his being an enormous beautiful drunkard and being totally out-of-step with thr commissars of literature. Madame Mandelstam (Nadezhda Mandelstam), in her memoirs, recalls that, when she was working in a factory, way off in the sticks in Russia, the one poet that all her working girlfriends would talk about at lunch-time, the one they knew by heart, was Esenin There are some great poems of his about taverns, I think. Let’s see.. Well, the one that was most popular is about a little lady dog or “A Song About a Bitch”.
“In the morning, in a barn for storing rye,/ where bast mats gleam golden in a row,/ a bitch gave birth to/ seven red-brown puppies./ She fondled them until the evening/, licking them smooth with her tongue/ while the melting snow flowed/ beneath her warm belly./ But in the evening when the hens/ bespatter their perch with their droppings,/ the grim-faced master came out/ and bundled all seven into a sack./ She raced over snowdrifts,/ keeping pace with him,/ and for a long, long time shudders ran across/ the smooth surface of the unfrozen water./ But when she dragged herself wearily back,/ licking the sweat from her sides,/ she thought the moon above the cottage was/ one of her puppies. /She gazed up into the dark blue sky/ whining loudly./ But the slender moon slid on/ and disappeared in the fields behind the hill./ And softly, as though/ someone had thrown a stone in jest,/ tears rolled from the bitch’s eyes,/ like golden stars into the snow.”
[“Утром в ржаном закуте,/Где златятся рогожи в ряд,/Семерых ощенила сука,/ Рыжих семерых щенят./ До вечера она их ласкала,/ Причесывая языком,/ И струился снежок подталый/ Под теплым ее животом./ А вечером, когда куры/ Обсиживают шесток,/Вышел хозяин хмурый,/Семерых всех поклал в мешок./ По сугробам она бежала,/ Поспевая за ним бежать…/ И так долго, долго дрожала/ Воды незамерзшей гладь/ .А когда чуть плелась обратно,/Слизывая пот с боков,/Показался ей месяц над хатой/Одним из ее щенков./ В синюю высь звонко/Глядела она, скуля,/ А месяц скользил тонкий/ И скрылся за холм в полях./ И глухо, как от подачки,/ Когда бросят ей камень в смех,/Покатились глаза собачьи/ Золотыми звездами в снег.”]
Really pretty. ..That’s (the) sort of shop-girl poetry in a way, but everybody in Russia liked that one. You could hear the straightforward… Another one.. There’s another version of it. I’ll read another translation.
This is an interesting book, [Allen points to the book he has with him – Modern Russian Poetry, An Anthology, (edited) by (Vladimir) Markov and Merrill Sparks, (Bobbs Merrill, (19)66-) (19)67, England)]
Student: That poem is in a form of Russian so-called skazka [Сказка] folk stories.
AG: Folk. Folk ballad(s). Yeah..
AG: Yeah, he used a lot, because, coming from that ideological tradition, then he also made use of old peasant ballad forms. Somewhat, in a way, as (Bob) Dylan returned to old ballad forms and got American poetry back in that same line of popular ballad. [to Student] Do you know any more? What is it called in Russian – Skufska?
AG: Skazka. And what’s the form? Four lines?
Student; Oh, I don’t know exactly, but the essence.. is that… (like it is) here
AG: Here (in Markov and Sparks), it’s a rhymed version.
“In the morning and in the rye bin where the rows of gold mats were spread,/ a dog littered seven puppies brownish-red./ She fondled them until evening and combed them smooth with her tongue,/while the light snow melted beneath her where her warm belly hung,/ But when night came and the chickens were speckling their roosting rack,/ out came her grim-faced owner who put all seven in a sack./ She went out running over the snowdrifts trying to match his pace…” -(It’s the same story as the pony with the train, actually) – She went out running over the snowdrifts trying to match his pace, /and for a long, long time shudders shook the unfrozen water’s smooth face./ When she wearily dragged her feet, licking the wet from her side,/ she thought the moon over the cottage was one of her pups that had died/ and, gazing high, whining loudly, she stared at the blue sky until/ the thin moon slid on and vanished in the fields behind the hill./And softly, as if someone while jesting had thrown her a stone,/ even so, tears rolled down from her dog eyes like golden stars in the snow.” – [It (has) really beautiful little touches – like “golden stars”, tears, “like golden stars in the snow.”, or like “now you can buy a railroad train. It costs me hundreds of horses’ skins and meat for one railroad train” – real sharp images, but totally direct, (and a) popular subject.
“I have no regrets, retreats, or weepings./ Smoke from white apple trees, all will go./ Gripped as I am by the gold, autumnal gold of withering. /I won’t be young again, I know./ Heart of mine, touched by the chill already,/ you will not be beating any more. The calico birch trees/ will never coax me to walk barefoot as before./ Less and less the spirit of a gypsy/ stirs my lips into some flaming fire./ Oh, all gone, my lost-forever freshness. /Wild eyes, floods of feelings and desires. /Now I grow more tame in my ambitions./ Life, will you dream and no other thing?/, where I galloped by on a pink stallion/ through the echo-filled mornings of Spring./ We are transitory in this world./ Copper leaves from maple trees drift by./ So let all of us be blessed forever,/ all things that come here to gloom and die.”
A more direct translation of that is:
“Little by little we are now departing to the land where there’s peace and happiness./ Perhaps for me too it will be time to pack my perishable belongings for the journey./ Dear birch woods, you earth, and you sands of the plains/, I can’t hide my anguish at this crowd of departing fellow men./ In this world I have loved too much everything that closed the soul of flesh./ Peace be to the aspens which have spread their branches and are gazing into the pink waters./ I cherished many thoughts in silence. I composed many songs in my mind. /I’m happy to have breathed and lived upon this gloomy earth”. – (It’s very Russian!) – “I’m happy at the thought that I’ve kissed women,/ crumpled flowers, lain around on the grass, and never struck animals, our lesser bretheren, on the head./ I know that thickets don’t flower there, nor do the rye stalks jingle their swan-like necks./ That’s why I always tremble at the crowd of departing fellow men.” – (This was written, incidentally, after the death of a provincial poet, who he thought was a great young poet) – “I know that in that land there will not be those cornfields, gleaming golden in the haze./ It is because they live with me upon the earth that men are dear to me.”
“Не жалею, не зову, не плачу,/Все пройдет, как с белых яблонь дым,/Увяданья золотом охваченный,/Я не буду больше молодым./Ты теперь не так уж будешь биться,/Сердце, тронутое холодком,/И страна березового ситца/>Не заманит шляться босиком./ Дух бродяжий, ты все реже, реже/Расшевеливаешь пламень уст./О моя утраченная свежесть,/Буйство глаз и половодье чувств!/ Я теперь скупее стал в желаньях,/Жизнь моя? иль ты приснилась мне?/Словно я весенней гулкой ранью/Проскакал на розовом коне./ Все мы, все мы в этом мире тленны,/Тихо льется с кленов листьев медь…/Будь же ты вовек благословенно,/Что пришло процвесть и умереть.”
Then, another, lamenting the passing of the golden groves of the villages, the groves of trees, the autumn:
“The golden grove has ceased to speak/in the gay language of birches,/ and the cranes sadly flying past/ no longer regret anyone./ Who is there to regret? Isn’t every man in the world a wanderer?/ He passes by, pays a visit, again leaves the house./ The hemp field together with the broad moon over the pale blue pond/ dreams of those who have gone away. /I’m standing alone in a bare plain/ while cranes are carried far away by the wind. /Full of thoughts about my gay youth/ but I regret nothing of my past./ I don’t regret the years I squandered in vain./ I don’t regret the lilac blossom of the soul./ The fire of rowan tree branches is burning in the garden,/ But it can’t warm anyone./ The clusters of rowan berries will not be scorched,/ the grass will not grow yellow and perish./ As a tree gently lets fall its leaves,/ So I let fall sad words./ And if time, after scattering them in the wind,/ shall rake them all into one useless heap, just say that the golden grove/ has ceased to speak the language I love.”
[Отговорила роща золотая/ Березовым, веселым языком,/И журавли, печально пролетая,/Уж не жалеют больше ни о ком./ Кого жалеть? Ведь каждый в мире странник —/Пройдет, зайдет и вновь оставит дом./О всех ушедших грезит коноплянник Сшироким месяцем над голубым прудом./Стою один среди равнины голой,/А журавлей относит ветер в даль,/Я полон дум о юности веселой,/Но ничего в прошедшем мне не жаль./ Не жаль мне лет, растраченных напрасно,/Не жаль души сиреневую цветь./В саду горит костер рябины красной,/Но никого не может он согреть/Не обгорят рябиновые кисти,/ От желтизны не пропадет трава./Как дерево роняет тихо листья,/Так я роняю грустные слова./И если время, ветром разметая,/Сгребет их все в один ненужный ком…/Скажите так… что роща золотая/ Отговорила милым языком.”]
There’s another translation of that, actually. That’s one of his most famous – the conception “the golden grove has ceased to talk to me” or “ceased to speak”. Let’s see.. No, I don’t have that.. There’s a similar one, though.Well, maybe I can find it. Let’s see… No..
“I’ve decided now to abandon my home fields which I no more shall see/. And the poplars will no longer rustle their winged foliage over me./ The low house will crouch lower without me. My old dog has been long-gone by now./ It seems God has me destined to perish on the cold, crooked, streets of Moscow./ I like this calligraphed, knitted, city, be it run-down or flimsy on sight./ Asia, all golden and dozing, lies asleep on the cupola’s height,/ And wherever the moon shines at night-time when it shines, goddam, what a moon! /With head drooped I’ll go into the alley of the friendly, familiar, saloon./ There’s a hubbub in this hellish tavern, but I stay there as night staggers on,/ Reading prostitutes parts of my poems, guzzling vodka with bandits till the dawn/, And my heart beats still faster and faster and I already ramble and roar./ I am a lost one, like you. I’m a lost one and I can’t go home any more./ The low couch will crouch lower without me. My old dog has been long gone by now./ It seems God has destined me to perish on the cold, crooked streets of Moscow.
Then, there’s a lot of poems that were considered shocking. (For example,) in the middle of the Revolution he was saying:
“Play, accordion, play, or boredom, boredom./ Fingers ripple like the waves of the street./ Drink with me, you lousy wench of a woman./ Come on and drink with me./ You’re worn out from their love and their slobbers./ No patience, not a trace,/ and why are your blue eyes winking at me?/ You want a fist in your face? /You belong in a vegetable garden, a good scarecrow/. You’ve tormented me clear to my liver/ and you won’t let go./ Play, accordion, play, my live one,/ and drink, fish, drink and sing. /I like that one there, the big titties,/ the stupid ding-a-ling./ You weren’t the first one of my women./ Ah, there were many more,/ but this is the first time, believe me,/ I’ve ever been with such a whore./ Bravo! The more painful, the louder,/ If here or there, so what?/ I’m not going to hang myself tonight. /Go to the devils, slut./ It’s time to cold-shoulder your whole dog picketer/. I’m crying, forgive me, forgive me dear.”
Well, this really was the most popular poetry in Russia. Everybody was following him at this time. What was going to happen to poor Esenin? Because he was the most beautiful poet, and the strongest, and, as you could hear, with the most powerful voice. And he’d get up, invited formally to give speeches or poetry-readings, and get completely drunk and slobber and (be) absolutely horrible, insulting everybody.
AG: Well, if you listen to the two voices, compare, as they come through, with all the machinery, after all (these) decades, come through on this little cassette machine, you can still hear that great hollow reverberation of Esenin’s voice. And Mayakovsky’s voice is not so strong on the tape. We can play that next, actually, because we should… How many were here to hear Mayakovsky’s voice (when we played it) last (semester)? So, okay, we’ll get to Mayakovsky’s sound actually, but, in every case, up till the very last one or two readings, where he actually broke down crying, reading, because his poems were identical with his complete despair, and his last readings were, literally, saying farewell, that he was going to commit suicide, (that) he couldn’t stand the pain of existence any more, up to those days, every reading ended in some kind of triumph, because once, sober or drunk, he got onto his texts, and began reciting his texts, the voice boomed, he was completely steady, and it was overwhelmingly true and tearful (and also, weirdly, was taken to express the actual proletarian working people’s feelings. All other pro-Soviet writing, and all the official writing was just official and it was fake, whereas the actual suffering and the actual pain and claustrophobia and drunkenness and everyday boredom and tavern intoxication and whorishness and arguing with the wives and drowning puppies, that was all the real life that people were actually leading (particularly, even, the alcoholism theme, because, as you may know, alcoholism is a major theme in Russian private life. It’s an enormous problem. I’m told it’s more debilitating to the Russian Army.. than…
Student: Oh yeah
AG: …than the whole junk amphetamine heroin plague is here in America (and everyone knows, here in the big cities what a plague the junkie and amphetamine syndrome is) But, apparently, the alcoholism is a more debilitating, deeper, universal, problem. And so he was a poet of that particular pain, and expressed it, and expressed his own degeneration, falling apart, absolutely accurately and brilliantly. So it’s this amazing paradox. Everybody loved him and, at the same time, nobody could be near him.
So there’s this mixture of nostalgia for childhood, actually, as his main theme – nostalgia for innocence and childhood, and, in a sense, pre-Revolutionary peasant, or village, stability (and) fantastic experience out in the world with the wildest of the prima donnas of the stages of Europe, Isadora Duncan – with Sol Hurok. You know Sol Hurok? Anybody ever heard of him? Sol Hurok, in the (19)20’s, (19)30’s, (19)40’s, (19)50’s (up to the ‘Sixties maybe? – is he still alive?) was the great impresario of ballets – (Sergei) Rachmaninoffs, (Vaslav) Nijinsky‘s – he had the Russian Ballet over. He was the one person, apparently, who could do some inter-cultural impresario work. So he was the figure of the impresario who would bring the opera here – the Moscow Ballet, or the opera, or the tumbling dancers, or the great French ballets, or giant symphony orchestras, over (to) the Metropolitan Opera or Carnegie Hall. So, the recollections of Mayakovsky (sic) by Hurok (who was a businessman, but was totally heartbrokenly impressed by Esenin, and horrified by the way he and his old lady, Isadora Duncan, were getting along – temper-tantrums in the Ritz Hotel, in the Crillon, that brought all the waiters screaming, with all the police).
His (Esenin’s) most famous poem is his declaration about being a hooligan. He even went back on the idea – in disillusionment finally, after seeing what was going on with Communism, going back home and realizing that you can’t go home again to the peasant village (he even began abandoning that image, though he clung to it nostalgically, and declared war on the big cities, actually, also – the iron doom of the big cities, the iron belly).
In November 1920, he published a poem. “Confessions of a Bully [ИСПОВЕДЬ ХУЛИГАНА]- or “Hooligan-y”, I guess – “The Hooligan’s Confession”, or “Confessions of a Bum”, which is his most famous poem. He called himself a hooligan, a robber, a boor, but also the only singer of vintage Russia – [to Peter Orlovsky] So, Peter, can you read “The Hooligan’s Confession”
Peter Orlovsky: Yeah. You sure you don’t want to read it?
AG: Nope. You’re good at that.
Peter Orlovsky proceeds to read (in English translation) Sergei Esenin’s ИСПОВЕДЬ
ХУЛИГАНА “The Hooligan’s Confession” (“The Tramp’s Confession“) (“Not everyone can sing…”…”Good old harassed Pegasus/who needs your easy jog?”…”I want to be the yellow sail/spread between the land/that we set sail for.”) – What is that? Peg-ass-sus?
eter Orlovsky: Pegasus
Peter Orlovsky: “(W)ho needs your easy jog”?
AG: Pegasus is the horse of poetry that flies through the air and it was the Pegasus Cafe where they were hanging around.
Peter Orlovsky: “(W)ho needs your easy jog”?
AG: Well, it’s too slow for him. “Jog”. Who needs your slow walk?, so “jog” – jogging, jogging.
Peter Orlovsky: Then he says here, “the languor and mist of April evenings haunt my dreams”
AG: Yes, or death and the declining of the year.. Is that the end?
Peter Orlovsky: Yeah. Translated by Cid Corman
“Не каждый умеет петь,/Не каждому дано яблоком/Падать к чужим ногам./ Сие есть самая великая исповедь,/Которой исповедуется хулиган./ Я нарочно иду нечесаным,/С головой, как керосиновая лампа, на плечах./Ваших душ безлиственную осень/Мне нравится в потемках освещать./Мне нравится, когда каменья брани/Летят в меня, как град рыгающей грозы,/Я только крепче жму тогда руками/Моих волос качнувшийся пузырь./ Так хорошо тогда мне вспоминать<
Заросший пруд и хриплый звон ольхи,/ Что где-то у меня живут отец и мать,/ Которым наплевать на все мои стихи,/Которым дорог я, как поле и как плоть,/Как дождик, что весной взрыхляет зеленя./Они бы вилами пришли вас заколоть/ За каждый крик ваш, брошенный в меня./ Бедные, бедные крестьяне!/ Вы, наверно, стали некрасивыми,/Так же боитесь бога и болотных недр./ О, если б вы понимали,/Что сын ваш в России/Самый лучший поэт!
Вы ль за жизнь его сердцем не индевели,/Когда босые ноги он в лужах осенних макал?/А теперь он ходит в цилиндре/ И лакированных башмаках./ Но живёт в нём задор прежней вправки/Деревенского озорника./ Каждой корове с вывески мясной лавки/ Он кланяется издалека./И, встречаясь с извозчиками на площади,/Вспоминая запах навоза с родных полей,/Он готов нести хвост каждой лошади,/Как венчального платья шлейф./ Я люблю родину./Я очень люблю родину!/ Хоть есть в ней грусти ивовая ржавь./Приятны мне свиней испачканные морды/ И в тишине ночной звенящий голос жаб./Я нежно болен вспоминаньем детства,/Апрельских вечеров мне снится хмарь и сырь./Как будто бы на корточки погреться/ Присел наш клен перед костром зари./ О, сколько я на нем яиц из гнезд вороньих,/ Карабкаясь по сучьям, воровал!/ Все тот же ль он теперь, с верхушкою зеленой?/ По-прежнему ль крепка его кора?/ А ты, любимый,/Верный пегий пес?!/От старости ты стал визглив и слеп/ И бродишь по двору, влача обвисший хвост,/Забыв чутьем, где двери и где хлев./О, как мне дороги все те проказы,/ Когда, у матери стянув краюху хлеба,/ Кусали мы с тобой ее по разу,/Ни капельки друг другом не погребав./ Я все такой же./Сердцем я все такой же./Как васильки во ржи, цветут в лице глаза./Стеля стихов злаченые рогожи,/Мне хочется вам нежное сказать/ Спокойной ночи!/Всем вам спокойной ночи!/ Отзвенела по траве сумерек зари коса…/Мне сегодня хочется очень/ Из окошка луну…………/ Синий свет, свет такой синий!/В эту синь даже умереть не жаль./Ну так что ж, что кажусь я циником,/ Прицепившим к заднице фонарь!/Старый, добрый, заезженный Пегас,/ Мне ль нужна твоя мягкая рысь?/Я пришел, как суровый мастер,/Воспеть и прославить крыс./Башка моя, словно август,/Льется бурливых волос вином./ Я хочу быть желтым парусом/В ту страну, куда мы плывём”<
AG: There’s a lot more material to cover, but there’s only one last poem I’d like to read, which is his suicide note. He was in the Hotel Angleterre, in (St.) Petersburg I think that is, Angleterre, oddly enough called the Hotel Angleterre, the international hotel, and he couldn’t find any ink, and he got absolutely outraged, and he was drunk, so he slashed his arm and got some blood out and wrote a poem
“Goodbye, my friend, goodbye,/ My dear you’re in my heart/, Predestined separation/ Promises a future meeting./ Goodbye, my friend, without handshake and words./ Don’t grieve and sadden your brow./ In this life there’s nothing new in dying,/ nor, of course, is living any newer.”
Goodbye , friend, goodbye,/ Dear friend, you’re in my heart/, Our predestined parting/ holds a promise of a future meeting. /Goodbye my friend, no handclap, no words spoken./ Don’t be sad. Don’t knit your brows in sorrow/. In this life to die is nothing new./ But, of course, there is as little novelty in living.”
До свиданья, друг мой, до свиданья.
Милый мой, ты у меня в груди.
Обещает встречу впереди.
До свиданья, друг мой, без руки, без слова,
Не грусти и не печаль бровей,—
В этой жизни умирать не ново,
Но и жить, конечно, не новей.
Peter Orlovsky: Who was his “dear friend”?
AG: Well, it’s not known. Some people… Ilya Ehrenberg guessed that it was (a) traditional saying goodbye in general. There was a note given to a friend who was married who was nearby and was taking care of him near the hotel. But the guy put it in his pocket and didn’t read it until after he was dead, a day later. Or it might have been to a girlfriend of his that was taking care of him, too. Nobody knows.
[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately thirty-five minutes in and continuing until the end of the tape]