During the Vietnam War (and other wartimes – why does this seem like one???), poetry was a thing that helped people keep their spirits up in the streets, in all sorts of venues. In Russia, a hero in the poetry world was Yevtushenko, in Czechololovakia, Vaclav Havel, in Germany, Bertold Brecht. Octavio Paz, Mexican, and Pablo Neruda, Chilean, all wonderful.
So what did these poets have to tell us that made us more human and loving with each other? It matters now when our sense of self and country are in disarray, scrambled, muddied. Where is the goodness and innocence we knew as children? Still part of us but lately obscured on the national stage by the super rich, the alt-right, the conspiracy theorists, eager to take all that we share as the commons and privatize it in the name of saving the disinfranchised middle class and poor white population (who don’t seem likely to benefit from tax breaks for corporations!)
How did we get so far away from the core values of decency, tolerance, freedom of expression and care for all our people and planet? It is hard to say other than that we were lied to over and over and over by those who organized and built an empire which is in no way democratic. The alt-right Leadership Institute, begun in 1964, sent over 160,000 trained persuaders out across the country while the Democrats did nothing like this.
In order to regain our integrity as a nation, we must call the dragon by its name and move away from it. How to do this I cannot see but move away we must at least in our minds and hearts if not (and don’t set aside the possibility) of moving away from this country.
From Yevgeny Yevtushenko, famous among other things for reading aloud all over the world and encouraging others to do so:
By Yevgeni Yevtushenko
Translated by Benjamin Okopnik, 10/96
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.
It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself. *1*
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.
I see myself a boy in Belostok *2*
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.
I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”
It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.
-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”
-“They break the door!”
-“No, river ice is breaking…”
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring *3*
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!
From the Poetry Foundation:
…Babiyy Yar, a work about the Nazi massacre of Jewish citizens in Kiev and the Soviet Union’s refusal to acknowledge it. Notable Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich set the poem to music shortly after its publication.
As with several other poets of his generation, Yevtushenko had the odd distiction of being a celebrated dissident during a fairly repressive time. This notariaty brought him great success, leading to performances in packed stadiums and frequent reading tours abroad, but also left him open to criticism from both the Soviet government and those that felt his criticisms didn’t go far enough.
About Vaclav Havel:
Havel’s political philosophy was one of anti-consumerism, humanitarianism, environmentalism, civil activism, and direct democracy. He supported the Czech Green Party from 2004 until his death. He received numerous accolades during his lifetime including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Gandhi Peace Prize, the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, the Order of Canada, the Four Freedoms Award, the Ambassador of Conscience Award, and the Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award. The 2012–2013 academic year at the College of Europe was named in his honour. He is considered by some to be one of the most important intellectuals of the 20th century. International airport in Prague was renamed to Václav Havel (from Wikipedia)
It Is I Who Must Begin
It is I who must begin.
Once I begin, once I try —
here and now,
right where I am,
not excusing myself
by saying things
would be easier elsewhere,
without grand speeches and
but all the more persistently
— to live in harmony
with the “voice of Being,” as I
understand it within myself
— as soon as I begin that,
I suddenly discover,
to my surprise, that
I am neither the only one,
nor the first,
nor the most important one
to have set out
upon that road.
Whether all is really lost
or not depends entirely on
whether or not I am lost.
~ Václav Havel ~
Brecht’s subsequent commentary on those events, however, offered a very different assessment—in one of the poems in the Elegies, “Die Lösung” (The Solution), a disillusioned Brecht writes:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts.
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
To Those Born After Us
I. Truly, I live in a time of darkness!
The innocent word is foolish. A smooth brow
Suggests lack of sensitivity. Those who are laughing
Just haven’t heard the terrible news yet.
What kind of times are these,
When a conversation about trees is almost a crime,
Because so many misdeeds are left unspoken?
That person there – calmly crossing the street,
Is probably no longer available
To his friends who are in trouble.
It’s true: I’m still earning a living.
But that’s pure coincidence.
Nothing in what I do justifies my eating my fill.
By chance, I am spared. (When my luck runs out, I’m lost).
People say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad that you can.
But how can I eat and drink, when what I eat
Is taken from the mouths of the hungry, and the
Water I drink deprives one who is thirsty?
But still…I eat and I drink.
I would like to be wise.
In ancient books one can read what is wise:
To not participate in the conflicts of the world,
To be without fear, in the short time we have,
Also to get along without violence,
To requite evil with good,
To not satisfy one’s wishes, but to forget them –
These things are considered wise.
All of them are beyond me.
Truly I live in a time of darkness!
II. I came into the cities at a time of disorder,
A time of hunger.
I came among people at a time of uproar,
And I was outraged with them.
So passed the time
I was given on Earth.
I took food between battles,
And laid down to sleep among killers.
I was careless in love,
And regarded nature without patience.
So passed the time
I was given on Earth.
In my time, all roads led to a swamp.
My language gave me away to the executioner.
I could do very little. But the rulers
Sat more securely without me – that was my hope.
So passed the time
I was given on Earth.
III. You, who are the ones who will rise up
From the flood in which we went down,
When you speak of our weaknesses,
The dark times from which you escaped.
We travelled, changing countries more often than shoes,
Through the wars between classes, in despair
Because we found injustice, but no outrage.
And yet we do know this:
Hatred, even of meanness,
Distorts the visage.
Anger, even at injustice,
Makes hoarse the voice. Alas,
Though we wanted to prepare the ground for kindness,
We didn’t know how to be kind ourselves.
But you, when the time comes,
When human beings can help one another,
– Bertolt Brecht