A Soviet Whitman

FOR about 30 years now, Yevgeny Yevtushenko has lit up the international scene with his unique fireworks, a blend of chutzpah, charm, and sheer gall. His most recent coup - a teaching stint at the University of Pennsylvania - brings the career of this Soviet poet to a pinnacle of success. Now the publication of his complete poems in English will provide opportunities for a long look at the basis of his career, a large body of poems of diverse kinds that is at once accessible and beguilingly obscure. Yevtushenko was 20 when Stalin died. He rode the anti-Stalin wave to prominence, reading in front of thousands and selling tens of thousands of his books of poetry. Even when the inevitable swerve came and Khrushchev attacked modern art, Yevtushenko kept baiting dogmatic bureaucrats and those he would call ``comradwhatifers'' in a poem. He also spoke in solidarity with Jews. In 1963, the great hammer fell. Yevtushenko was forced to confess his irreparable error. While others, like Solzhenitsyn, chose s ilence, Yevtushenko got a second wind and was praised by party organs for his civic-mindedness.

This patriot, who has achieved extraordinary freedom of movement, uses the word ``international'' as a term of highest praise. In one of his earliest and most publicized poems, ``Babii Yar,'' he addresses his audience: ``O my Russian people! / I know / you / are international to the core.'' While this cannot be taken literally, it does confirm usage elsewhere. For Yevtushenko, patriotism and internationalism do not conflict.

Yet the springs of Yevtushenko's art appear to well up from the same source that fed the great Russian novelists of the 19th century. In his introduction to The Collected Poems, 1952-1990 (Henry Holt, 659 pp. $29.95), Albert C. Todd says, ``Confession, grappling with self-understanding, is the impetus behind most of the poems that are mistakenly understood to be merely social or political. His sharpest attacks on moral cowardice begin with a struggle within his own conscience.''

Yevtushenko wrote in 1965: ``The first presentiment of a poem / in a true poet / is the feeling of sin / committed somewhere, sometime.'' His experience in the '60s gave him many opportunities for his brand of poetry. In 1964 he published the big patriotic poem ``Bratsk Hydroelectric Station.'' Although he's silent about the cruel slave labor used to erect the station, in a section entitled ``Monologue of the Egyptian Pyramid,'' he does mention the whip under which the Egyptian slaves labored. The compa rison seems obvious and intentional.

Yevtushenko often uses the monologue to speak indirectly about himself. In ``Monologue of an Actress,'' he speaks as an actress from Broadway who can't find a suitable role. ``Without some sort of role, life / is simply slow rot,'' she says.

This throws light on the public nature of Yevtushenko's calling as a poet, as well as on his passivity toward events. Despite the confessional nature of much of his poetry, he needs public events - including his own feelings, which he makes public - to become inspired.

In ``Monologue of a Loser'' (1978), he voices the moral ambiguity of one who has played the game of moral dice, the game into which every poet in a closed society must buy if he wishes a big public. ``My modest loss was this: / dozens of tons of verses, / the whole globe, / my country, / my friends, / my wife, / I myself - / but on that account, however, / I'm not very upset. / Such trifles / as honor / I forgot to consider.''

Other poems put his difficulties more objectively.

In ``My Handwriting,'' he symbolizes the Soviet ship of state as a ``pugnacious coastal freighter.'' The lurch and list of the freighter makes it difficult for the poet to write neatly. Besides that, it's very cold. ``Here - / fingers simply grew numb. / Here - / the swell slyly tormented. / Here - / the pen jerked with uncertainty / away from some mean shoal.'' Nevertheless, sometimes ``an idea breaks through the way a freighter on the Lena / breaks through to the arctic shore - '' Most poets wouldn' t shift the metaphor this way, using it first as a narrative idea, then using it to point to a specific experience.

TODD suggests in the introduction that ``ultimately Yevtushenko will be judged as a poet, a popular people's poet in the tradition of Walt Whitman.'' But Yevtushenko himself uses the uncompromising standards of art to illuminate his moral life. In ``Verbosity,'' he confesses, ``I am verbose both in my daily life / and in my verse - that's your bad luck - / but I am cunning: I realize / that there's no lack of will / behind this endless drivel, / rather my strong ill will!'' In the end, though, he admit s that ``Eternal verities rest on the precise; / precision, though, consists in sacrifice. / Not for nothing does the bard get scared - / the price of brevity is blood. / Like fear of prophecies contained in dreams, / the fear of writing down eternal words / is the real reason for verbosity.'' Writing this clearly about the moral intersection of poetry and precision is no mean achievement.

It helps to read Yevtushenko literally. Doubtless Yevtushenko felt he was speaking for thousands like him. In ``The Art of Ingratiating,'' he seems to speak for the whole country. ``Who among us has not become a stutterer, / when, like someone dying of hunger / begging from ladies on the porch steps, / we mealymouth: / `I want to call long-distance ...' / How petty authorities / propagate themselves! / How they embody / the supreme insolence!'' Then he reports a prophetic dream: ``By breeding / bulldogs / from mutts, / we ourselves / have fostered / our own boors. / I have a nightmare / that in the Volga / our groveling / has begotten / a crocodile.'' The well-wisher who now contemplates the self-destruction of perestroika may well hear in Yevtushenko's words the feelings of Gorbachev himself. Bulldogs and crocodiles indeed!

ON the other hand, it's tempting to simply say of Yevtushenko's collected poems, ``how they embody the supreme insolence!'' For all his clarity, Yevtushenko does not seem to anticipate certain cruel ironies. He writes ``To Incomprehensible Poets,'' and confesses, ``My guilt is in my simplicity. / My crime is my clarity. / I am the most comprehensible of worms,'' he may not hear his audiences silently agreeing. When he says to the incomprehensible poets (he has in mind some of the main lines of modern Ru ssian poetry), ``No restraint frightens you. / No one has bridled you with clear ideas.'' But he may not realize that the kinds of ``restraint'' he accepts as a public poet are child's play compared with the restraints accepted by Pasternak and Joseph Brodsky, restraints that originate in the subtlety of their analysis and the purity of their taste. Finally, when he says, ``All the same it is frightening / to be understood like me / in the the wrong way, / all of my life / to write comprehensibly / and depa rt / so hopelessly uncomprehended,'' one cannot be too sympathetic.

Long ago he stuck up for the Jews and recited his poem ``Babii Yar'' one too many times. Khrushchev exploded at him. This was the turning point of his career and his life. He knew what mattered most to him. He wanted a role in society; he wanted to be accepted as a poet.

In his own eyes, on his own terms, Yevtushenko has been highly successful. If he does not go down as a great Russian poet, it's because choosing to be what he has become meant he could not travel the higher road of art.

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