"Poets in (England and America)," W. H. Auden wrote in 1966, introducing Andrei Voznesensky to a Western audience in the foreword to "Antiworlds"--"have never been considered socially important enough for the state to take any notice of them . . . whereas in Russia, whatever the regime, they have been taken seriously."
Voznesensky himself is a case in point: The object of Khrushchev's special wrath in the infamous attack upon modern painters and poets at the Manege exhibition in Moscow in 1963, he was vilified and unpublished for seven anguished months--part of an attempt by the state to renew a Stalinist control over its artists. This effort failed, not least because of the immense popularity of poets like Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina: 100,000 subscribed to Voznesensky's "The Triangular Pear"; press runs of 300,000 to a half million for the new work of young Russian poets sell out.
In 1962, a crowd that would only gather in this country for an athletic contest came together 14,000-strong in a Moscow stadium to hear Voznesensky read. Why? For one thing, he reads magnificently, by all accounts (and the accounts are worldwide): like music, it is said. People in his audience follow the text as they would a score. The stretched, resonanting vowels, the assonance, the modulations of pitch, the extraordinary intensity.
Moreover, Voznesensky accepts Pasternak's definition of the Poet as Prophet, as Conscience of the Race. "For an artist true-born/revolt is second nature:/ he is both tribune/and troublemaker." Many Russians nowadays look to their poets to cleanse into truth a language debased by politics.
But, finally, it wouldn't matter how magically he read or with what moral vigor his work was infused if the poems themselves were inferior. Against such a judgment, "An Arrow in the Wall" is proof. This bilingual edition contains poems from two earlier American collections, "Antiworlds" and "Nostalgia for the Present," along with a selection of new poems and two prose pieces.
"I am Fourteen" is a memoir of Voznesensky's first schoolboy meeting with Pasternak in the mid-'40s and their continuing relationship. There are memorable scenes of life at Pasternak's death in Peredelkino; illuminating replications of the style and content of the elder poet's speech: revealing anecdotes, some of which disclose an occasionally unattractive Pasternak.
The title of the essay does not refer to the age at which Voznesensky first met the famous poet and novelist. "Bunin and Nabokov have the clarity of early autumn; they are always forty. But Pasternak is an eternal adolescent . . . Only once in his poetry does he give his age: 'I am fourteen.' Once and for all."
In the second prose selection, "O," Voznesensky moves fluidly, almost cinematically among impressions of Pasternak, Henry Moore, Picasso, and the architect L. N. Pavlov. At the heart of (O) is a revealing tale of Voznesensky himself, hung upon the skeleton of these luminaries.
Now, the poems. No one writes like this in America today: the surreal, the declamatory, the political subtext . . . the noisy poem.
The jivey, colloquial poem, bequest of Mayakovsky (who painted roses on his cheeks before he read to his bedazzled, post-Revolutionary audience): "We were not born to survive, alas,/ But to step on the gas." The satirical poem: "Of Stalin do not sing:/ That is no simple song . . . " The "political" poem, raised buildings high above mere politics: "In these days of unheard-of suffering/ One is lucky indeed to have no heart:/ Crack shots plug me again and again,/ But have no luck." The elegiac: Do not overlook the very fine "Saga" with its sorrowing, recurring "I shall not see you anymore." The lyric: "In a world of metal, on a planet of black,/ Those silly shoes look to me like/ Doves perched in the path of a tank, frail/ And dainty, as delicate as eggshell."
The range is considerable. But the best of Voznesensky is the confluence of energetic emotion, precise, compelling, often bizarre imagery, political innuendo, and the fluid colloquialism of his voice. Listen to the opening lines of "At Hotel Berlin" (from the long, ambitious, "Oza"): "You are celebrating your birthday today--the 16th--in the banquet room of the Berlin. The ceiling there has a mirror." From these, Voznesensky constructs a sustained metaphor of the antiworld/antihero motif central to his work: "Under this world suspended on the ceiling, there is a second world, an upside down one . . . they are counterpoised like the two halves of an hourglass. . . ." Extraordinary similes, scattered throughout, stretch the center of the poem ("the partings of well-groomed hair shine like the slits in piggy banks" . . . "You sitting there next to me, but you are splendidly remote, like a gift wrapped in cellophane").
If we assume an analogue between a good poem in our own language and its source in another, then most of these are excellent translations. The poems of the earlier "Antiworlds," which compose the first section of "An Arrow in the Wall," were offered up in literal translations by the eminent British linguist Max Hayward to six exceptional American poets--among them, Auden, Richard Wilbur, Stanley Kunitz and William Jay Smith, one of the editors of this volume. Hayward was so perfectly fluent that no Russian would ever believe him other than a native; he was therefore able to offer his six non-Russian-speaking poets a rich hoard of nuance to add singular dimension to their poems in English. It is perhaps an ideal way to work upon the intractable, ultimately untranslatable poem. Voznesensky himself collaborated with the editors in their translations of most of the poems in the remaining two-thirds of this collection. The standard achieved seems exceptionally high.
It is good to have such a large body of Voznesensky's work available to us at last, and under one cover. For these words of Auden's are indisputably true: "I am certain that Voznesensky is a good poet because though I know no Russian and have never been to Russia, his poems, even in English translation, have much to say to me."
by Andrei Voznesensky
A girl is freezing in a telephone booth,
huddled in her flimsy coat,
her face stained by tears
and smeared with lipstick.
She breathes on her thin little fingers.
Fingers like ice. Glass beads in her ears.
She has to beat her way back alone
down the icy street.
First frost. A beginning of losses.
The first frost of telephone phrases.
It is the start of winter glittering on her cheek,
the first frost of having been hurt.
--translated by Stanley Kunitz
From "An Arrow in the Wall, Selected Poetry and Prose" (Henry Holt: $22.95; 344 pp., 1987, by permission). Andrei Voznesensky is visiting Los Angeles this week. See Book Calendar, Page 10.