By John Kaufman
Speaking of his poetry, here’s what Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who died yesterday in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the age of 84, told the Associated Press in an interview back in 2007:
“I don’t call it political poetry, I call it human rights poetry; the poetry which defends human conscience as the greatest spiritual value.”
If you are not familiar with Yevtushenko’s life and work, the NY Times provides a good, concise introduction to both.
Yevtushenko spoke in poems against the Stalin regime and against dictatorship and political oppression in general. Interestingly, the Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev praised, if vaguely, the dead Russian poet by saying “He knew how to find the key to the souls of people, to find surprisingly accurate words that were in harmony with many.”
Vladimir Putin himself reportedly said of Yevtushenko (through a spokesman) that the poet would remain part of Russian culture. In other words, someone of historical importance, but not necessarily relevant now.
And yet the recent protests in the United States and Russia against corrupt and illiberal leadership are in the spirit of Yevtushenko’s work as a poet of human rights. His death is well-timed in this respect: his art will be rediscovered and reread in the light of new threats to liberal democracy around the world.
Poetry lends itself best of all genres to emotional protest, being in form brief and memorable, reaching both the mind and heart. While a contemporary American poet is highly unlikely at present to attract an audience that can fill a soccer stadium on a single night, American poets can look to Yevtushenko (who after all was an adopted American poet) to provide proof of just how relevant and necessary poetry can be to speak truth to power and the powerless.
[Below is a video of a poetry reading Yevtushenko gave at the University of Chicago in April of 2007.] –JK