Saturday, June 7, 2008

Life Falls Short of Perfection

Dear Everybody:

Okay, today we have a Russian poet -- in fact, during the Cold War pretty much the only Russian poet American had ever heard of. I never really knew what to make of Yevtushenko... It was a truism that honest artists suffered under the Soviet Union, while lackies, toadspittles, and people willing to write what they were told to write thrived.

Still, Yevtushenko seemed like an okay guy. He visited America and got drunk with Alaskan pipeline workers. He laughed a lot. He didn't hang out much with politicians.

Here's one of his poems:

Monologue Of A Broadway Actress
by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Said an actress from Broadway
time had pillaged like Troy:
'There are simply no more roles.
No role to extract from me all my tears,

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Okay! Not bad! Especially for a translation. The voice is quite good (but then, Updike was one of the translators). The story is clear. The actress starts out bemoaning the fact that there are no roles -- there are, of course, but not for her -- but as he diatribe continues, we see that by roles she means something larger than parts in a play. She means a role in life. Something meaningful to do. Everybody needs something meaningful to do, and finding it is one of the most important things you have to do in life.

Buried in the poem, incidentally, is the line, "Where are the great writers! Where?" In Russia, the arts are taken far more seriously than they are here, and in the Soviet Union they were taken far more seriously than they are now in Russia. Eric Hoffer, "the longshoreman philosopher" (he really was both), wrote that intellectuals in a free society envy those in an oppressive state because though they might be persecuted they're at least taken seriously. Which statement I would have thought populist demagogery if I hadn't heard an intellectual give a speech in which he said exactly that.

So we've got liberty and that means that writers aren't as important. Good! Still, I persist in believing that their works are important in proportion to the degree to which life falls short of perfection. In Paradise there is no poetry. Here, it can be of genuine assistance, if you let it.

All best,


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