Perestroika Redefines the Poet's Role

Yevgeny Yevtushenko says the context of his work has changed now that the need for poetry's `subtle nuances' has lifted

YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO is a man at a crossroads. Still one of the Soviet Union's best-known poets, he treats each conversation almost like a performance - arms flying to emphasize his points, metaphors abounding in a rush of language, political opinions jostling with personal probings. To talk with him is to see poetry being made while you watch. But in the past few years, something odd has been happening. The traditional elements of his brand of Russian poetry - the high oratory, detailed allegory, vivid metaphor, and direct syntax of verse forms meant to be heard as much as read - are still there. What has changed is the context. Under Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, the political oppression and literary censorship that made Soviet poetry such a furtive, powerful, and necessary part of the mental landscape has begun to d rain away.

``I just finished writing a long article, `Censorship as the Best Reader,''' he says during an hour-long interview in Washington. ``It's a bitter irony. I am talking how I am longing for censorship - because nobody better than censors understood all the subtle nuances of poetry. Nobody appreciated us so highly.''

These days, he notes, the censors have all but disappeared - and with them the need for those ``subtle nuances of poetry.''

That change in the political landscape has touched Russian poetry in ways difficult for Westerners to appreciate. In 600 years of pre-Gorbachev Russian history, Mr. Yevtushenko can add up no more than a total of 12 months without the kind of censorship imposed first by Tartar despots, then by the Czars, and finally by the Communists.

In that context, he says, the poet became ``a voice of all the voiceless.'' The importance of poetry arose, he explains, because ``it was only possible for the conscience of the people to be expressed in a metaphorical way. That's why poetry was a kind of spiritual newspaper of the people. Sometimes we published our unpublished poetry in the pages of the open air, with our own voices. Published poetry was a great spiritual power. Being oppressed, being sometimes not published, a poet in Russia is a little bit like a holy man - they are always martyrs in the understanding of people.''

How has that changed today? He points to the use of what he calls ``anecdote.'' The Russians, he says, ``were very great in the art of anecdote. Now there is no art of anecdote anymore, because all our magazines, all our newspapers, are officially publishing jokes, anecdotes, and caricatures of government figures.''

This new freedom of public criticism has brought ``an incredible development of newspapers,'' which are ``very beautiful, very bold, very well written - very high professionalism.'' But as a result, he says, ``poetry is in a completely different situation. It's very difficult for me to be adapted to it.'' Now it must be ``more and more concentrated on the intimate problems, on the abysses of psychology.''

Such changes, he thinks, are also affecting the next generation of Russian poets. ``We were idealists - we were people of the '60s,'' he says. ``But many of our ideals were broken, and we had a very bitter experience afterward.''

He worries that today's young poets, while ``full of energy,'' have not got ``even little drops of idealism in their soul. In our country, they are full of skepticism, full of irony. And I think that's destructive. Naive idealism is destructive, of course. But lack of idealism is also destructive. Their irony is their shield against corruption, against the potential deception of idealism. But their psychology becomes too shielded, too defended, too protected. They are protected from a ssaults of life, but also they are criminally protected from sentimental human feelings.''

WILL rock music replace poetry as the dominant cultural form for the young? That, he says, is already happening. ``I'm not against rock music. I am against having rock music or any kind of music forbidden in the Soviet Union. But at same time, we have a very dangerous sign: For the first time in many years, you can easily get tickets for symphony concerts in the Soviet Union.''

Yevtushenko, who grew up knowing the symphonic music of the great Russian composers, finds the change especially troubling. He also worries that the younger generation is not very well read - neither in such Russian writers as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, nor in such ``American classics'' as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Stephen Crane.

``This generation is more audio than we were. They imitate the superficial features of Western mass culture, and they think that is culture. They wear black-leather jackets and metal chains, and they feel themselves citizens of the world. They idolize America as a country with mountains made from blue jeans and rivers of Coca-Cola.

``If you chew American chewing gum,'' he adds, ``probably ignorance is chewing you at the same time.''

As his country moves rapidly to embrace Western mass culture, he notes what he sees as a ``frightening sign'': the resurgence of the ``hard-liners'' who ``want to resurrect censorship.'' Does he worry that Mr. Gorbachev's current hard line on separatist movements in the Baltic republics could herald the end of glasnost?

``We are very divided on these questions,'' he says. ``I represent people who began perestroika before perestroika, when Mr. Gorbachev was just a student.''

But with the reforms of the last several years, he observes, there is no longer a ``silent majority'' in the Soviet Union. ``The majority screams, shouts in the streets. And sometimes it shouts very good things, and sometimes very wrong things - because they are desperate, because our economical life is very difficult, our daily life is getting more and more hellish.''

Under the pressure of those screams, and responding to the situations in the Baltics, he feels that Gorbachev has retreated much too far to the right. ``In my opinion, we must give the Baltic peoples their right to separate, to leave the Soviet Union.'' At the same time, he says, the rights of the Russian minorities living in the Baltics must be preserved.

Does the current situation spell the end for Gorbachev?

``I don't know any politician who doesn't make mistakes,'' says Yevtushenko, who was elected to the Soviet Parliament in 1989. But Gorbachev, he says, has ``begun to make mistakes too often. I think he relies mostly now on right-wing advisors, the yes-men advisors. I think that's his weakness. He now, himself, is [farther to the right] than the majority of the Russian population. He must find again where the center is.''

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