Poetry Dispatch No. 99 | August 28, 2006
The poems below by Yevtushenko go back to my memories of the 60’s, of bookstores in Chicago, of Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the great little bookstore and publishing operation he ran then (still going strong today), City Lights Books.
Along with his main-line books of known and little-known writers (domestic and foreign), he created and offered, at next-to-nothing prices (a buck a piece) the “Pocket Poet Series” which included the poetry of Ginsberg, Corso, Burroughs, O’Hara, Jacques Prévert, William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Lowry, Kenneth Patchen, and Ferlinghetti’s own little classic, “Pictures of a Gone World.” He also did broadsides (a single sheet)—from 35¢ to 50¢ a piece. Something I’ve tried to carry on with Cross+Roads Press, having issued four of them to date (more coming) at a buck a piece.
But the Pocket Poets Series (still available—slightly more expensive) were truly pocket-sized, easy to carry, stack on a shelf, pass on to a friend. A way to spread the word across America and the world at large at a reasonable price. But this was back at a time when poets still celebrated ‘the common man’ in the Whitman and Sandburg tradition (re-energized by the Beats in the ‘50’s, the counter culture of the 60’s and 70’s) and readers had in interest in the voices of “the working class” (the ‘proletariat’?) —which sounds old fashioned, damn right un-American in these day of corporate culture and corruption, rendering “the common man” either speechless or extinct.
But I am slightly off-topic. Back to the Cold War in America and that upstart Russian poet, Yevtushenko, whom some of us read when we could because he represented the freedom and protest, as well as that old, earthy soul of the Russian people–the voice coming through a crack in the wall.
He was a showman. A Slavic minstrel-man who barked out his poems with such drama he seemed born for the stage, though here in America, we didn’t see him at first. Only heard of him. And he seemed so American! A poet who shook his fist at all the false gods, fighting suppression of truth through the old underground network of words—samizdat (underground) publishing. Occasionally bringing his message to light outdoors, filling entire stadiums with thousands of people.
All these borders—
bug me! Nothing
do I know
of Buenos Aires , or
–and I should
know! I should be able to go
and walk around,
and talk to the people,
even if I can’t talk so good,
around. Like a little kid
I want to ride a bus
and I want an art
that is something
else, is an exciting sound—
The Russian leaders weren’t certain what do to with him. Jail him? Or use him, use his growing popularity around the world. Some suspect a deal of sorts was made. (Yevtushenko to this day has never fully explained it.) Gradually, he was set free, let go to traipse around the world, spreading his word. But he never sought citizenship in another country. He always returned to mother Russia.
A few years ago, something happened I could never conceive happening back in the time of Ferlinghetti and the beginning of the Pocket Poet Series. I heard Yevtushenko read in Madison, Wisconsin one night. One of the most extraordinary readings I have ever experienced. Forget your slams, your rap, your Bukowski sputtering drunk on stage. Check out Yevtushenko if you ever get the chance. He brought all of Russia, poetry, history, culture, his life to the stage. He shouted, whispered, sang to the rafters, laughed, appeared humble, aggressive, defiant, flailed his arms, pranced around the stage, even walked into the audience, ala the old Phil Donahue, reciting his poems by heart to people—to women, especially.
Afterwards, I shook his hand and asked him to sign a book of poems. I can’t remember what I told him, only what I wish I had told him. But I walked away feeling I held history in my hand, a whole generation, a literary movement. I felt I had just shaken the hand of Dostoyevsky or Chekhov.
Yes. He was so American. Even in his hero worship: Norbert Blei
As we were sitting in that waiting-room
at Copenhagen Airport
like having some coffee in modern surroundings
real comfortable, elegant, tired surroundings
all of a sudden
there was this man, this old guy
in a rough green duffel-type jacket
with a face burnt away by salt and wind—
it was not as if he’d come in
he just appeared,
rolled through the tourist crowd
as if he’d just come off the boat,
a helmsman, his beard like meerschaum
white, a fringe all around that face.
Parting the people in a big wave
determined and grouchy he moved
through the old time that leads to the new
through all that modernity that’s really decrepit-
had a vodka, straight
at the bar: the skin on his hands looked parched
and cracked, his shoes
were the kind that make a hell of a noise
his pants had never been to the cleaners, and yet
he looked great.
He looked a damn sight greater
than all those elegant hippies around him.
The floor seemed to give
like the planks on a ship—
he really walked
And one of the guys I was with
gave me a nudge and said, “Look at that
—like some Hemingway …”
And he walked off,
the whole hulk of a man, and that hulk
was everywhere, in his tiniest gesture
with that fisherman’s gait
the granite fisherman
—like walking off through a hail of bullets
dodging the low-slung lamps like a man bent double
in trenches, pushing aside tables and people
that were in his way,
yes, he really looked like “a Hemingway”.
And later I heard
whom I’d seen,
I had seen
from RED CATS, #16, The Pocket Poet Series, third printing, 1962, English Versions (translations) by Anselm Hollo, City Lights Books