Poets are plagued by two stereotypical images: the romantic ideal of the eternal wanderer making every strange experience of their fantastical life into verse, and the pretentious, heady beret-wearer who gets on stage, and flounders in on themselves while grappling with a big idea. The poet is, by nature, involved with the rebellious, with pointing out the flaws in society through their art and capturing the sickening as much as the beautiful. The poet and the activist are entwined, and this week the world lost one of the great representatives of both.
Artists and poets get organized during times of grave injustice: how many anti-Trump works of art are we seeing created these days?
Yevgeny Yevtushenko traipsed an often-blurry line politically: never a true dissident, he nonetheless openly criticized the government of the time, the very same that sent his grandfathers to the Gulag. In 1961, after the death of Stalin, he released a poem called “Nasledniki Stalina,” or “The Heirs of Stalin:”
The Party discourages me from being smug.
'Why care? ' some say, but I can’t remain inactive.
While Stalin’s heirs walk this earth,
Stalin, I fancy, still lurks in the mausoleum.
He declaimed the philosophy that still ruled Russia even after the death of the leader. Despite calling Moscow his home after moving there post-World War II, he was extensively traveled. Yevtushenko gained fame in the East and West, his readings drawing rock-star level crowds. He performed with the great American Poets of the time in New York and San Francisco, communing with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and shining just as bright in comparison.
Yevtushenko was unafraid to speak out, and yet balanced enough to play the system of the time to survive long enough to continue the activism that would come to define his work. His now-legendary poem “Babi Yar” brought attention to the largest massacre of the Jews during the Holocaust by Russia, and his reading of “Bombs for Balalaikas” in Madison Square Garden, which he wrote days before the performance after visiting impresario Sol Hurok’s bombed headquarters, denounced those who would destroy culture to advance their agendas.
Yevtushenko was unafraid to speak out, and yet balanced enough to play the system of the time to survive long enough to continue the activism that would come to define his work.
Artists and poets get organized during times of grave injustice: how many anti-Trump works of art are we seeing created these days? How many poems and songs about black death? How many times must we continue to write and sing and fight about these wrongs until we have justice? The pleasure of reading––and hearing––Yevtushenko lies in the acute pain of these issues that he captures. When protesters are on the street, poets and artists are on the front lines, eager to capture the movements, the energy of opposition.
Yevtushenko died in a United States that remains politically tumultuous, giving lectures in Oklahoma. His outspoken poetics and his activism will live on in the poets of the street and of the stage, and in everyone out with a fire lit under them to say something and a hunger for change.