By John Frederick 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

 

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There are some things, like poetry,
that cannot come easy
if the thing is likely to last.

Some advice: don’t enter
a building or a poem (or any long-term relationship)
that is not carefully

constructed for what
you risk is
deconstruction

of all you thought
you stood upon– the present
fails to slam the past

and you fall until
you hit something more resistant.
Call it “lit.”

Though perhaps only of interest to students of American literature, the death this past week of former UW-Milwaukee English professor Ihab Hassan made news because he is credited for creating the term “postmodernism” to describe a style of thinking and writing prominent in the latter half of the 20th century, say after the trauma of World War II.

To be “postmodern” is essentially to be, as I understand it, an artist or thinker without a firm rational or intellectual or moral foundation, to create in a kind of celebration of chaos or perhaps a literary sort of extreme inclusion: even the kitchen sink. If modernism was an attempt to recover or discover meaning in an “age of anxiety” and the lapse of religious belief, postmodernism was/is a more nihilistic denial of general meaning and all cultural foundations– “art for art’s sake.” Extreme individualism is another way to describe the postmodern way of writing. In terms of style, a fictional narrative can now be wildly wobbly and disconnected and poems can drop meter and rhyme and discursive making of sense. Postmodern, mainstream journalism tends to veer away from humanistic judgement as it seeks some scientific notion of objectivity, sometimes known as the political “center.”

A vacuum demands to be filled, and once the cultural foundations of mainstream American culture began to erode, it was replaced by what scholar Frederic Jameson called “the cultural logic of late capitalism,” the logic of which did not impress him. What we postmodernists lost, says Jameson, is our sense of history and tradition, which sounds conservative but is merely a defense of the humanities. For what replaced our cultural/religious foundations was/is a high-octane capitalistic ethos (“greed is good”?) uninformed by the past: the present is the ultimate good (“buy it now!”), and the future will be even better. (There is perhaps no better evidence of Jameson’s thesis than the current crop of Republican presidential candidates.) Deep culture and religion survive but in muted form; today “pop culture” and religious fundamentalism are the dominant forms of seeking meaning. So to be a Jameson sort of postmodernist is to be a writer without much depth or sense of history or sense of public responsibility beyond going along for the hopefully rich and famous literary ride.

Of course, not all writers can be lumped into a general literary shift just because professors create terms and categories. Some very prominent writers and poets in recent years have not operated under the postmodern or even modernist umbrella. We could call them pre-modernists or un-modernists, I suppose, or not bother to categorize at all.

And where are we today, literarily speaking? Some say we’ve reached a post-postmodernism which is really just more of the same, or an intensification of it. Perhaps a true post-postmodernist is someone like Jameson who critiques the capitalist ethos and, most importantly, offers alternatives, even some found in the past.

(This poem of mine first appeared in the last issue of Verse Wisconsin, Issue 113, in April 2014.)

 

Giuseppe Maria Crespi - Buchregal mit Musikschriften 1725-30
Giuseppe Maria Crespi – Buchregal mit Musikschriften 1725-30 (Giuseppe Crespi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

 

What We Must Preserve

by John Kaufman

 

To hear each other, what
we must preserve
is the dignity of trees,
obstinacy of rock,

the patient way a book
occupies space, its voice
less than a whisper,
its light as dim or bright

as the sky. And like
the sky and trees and rocks
the way the book belongs
right where it is and

holds you there even
when it speaks openly
of somewhere else– the quiet
of all those voices

leaning so calmly together
on the shelf.

[Today I’m pleased to present three new poems by Australian poet Rebecca Kylie Law. The poems were submitted to The Afternoon Journal and are published for the first time. Please note the copyright: All rights reserved.]

 

For St Francis of Paola, Hermit

 

In the afternoon becoming night,

 

noticing small ribbed shells

the shape of petals, reminding

 

myself not to pick them up

for the inconvenience of not

returning home directly, I looked

 

instead at the silhouettes

of two figures standing on the precipice

of a granite rock jutting

 

out just as the bay curves

round to invisibility. It

 

seemed strange that in the

approaching dusk their shadows

 

had already been cast head

to foot. And then jumping feet

 

first into the water, their

arms flailing, daylight returning

to their calves, stomaches, then in it’s

 

entirety. A sleep forgotten.

 

Later that night, my mind

in the woods of Schumann, his

 

lonely blue flowers and yellowing

Autumn, I lay my head

 

on a freshly laundered pillow,

a grey loose weave rug about

my shoulders and drew my

 

hands together, the tips of my

fingers to my lips. You never grow out

 

of owls. Their wide-eyed blinks and

moist irises, their round steady pupils,

 

the swoon of their beaks from a high tree

and half-smiles. “Ne m’oubliez pas”

 

in our prayers, “ne m’oubliez pas”.

 

by Rebecca Kylie Law

 

Whilst the Hourglass

 

Here

birthdays come

as the practise song

of anonymous birds;

and day is the almost

blue of sky.

 

The brother or the sister-

They have turned older

in another Capital

and I am waking to the memory

 

of tandem bicycles or mini-

frights in surfacing the waves.

 

Last night, walking

down the street

behind my flat

 

I looked for the first

time at the rooms

of my neighbours

lit up in strong lamplight

 

and I felt as though

I was rambling over

 

love. Then tonight

the idylls of birds

still anonymous, air-

bound, a paling sky

before the true darkness

 

and candy striped candles

that light up a face.

I tie you a ribbon.

 

by Rebecca Kylie Law

 

 

Excerpt From The Secret

 

My dreams have no land

though seem peopled

 

as flowers grow in this

 

manner of sporadicity:

 

Myself within and once

a cloud wide as rectangles

can be, was It –

 

then a clamouring of forms

not distinct as bodies

gathered about like the

 

flowers again, for their petals

(which was really, better

 

to love and be loved

 

forever mindful, these nights

 

of cloud-kissing, how it

truly epitomises the making

 

of a scene). In the beatitude.

 

by Rebecca Kylie Law

 

(Editor’s Note: Poems copyrighted © 2014 Rebecca Kylie Law. All rights reserved.)

 

Rebecca Kylie Law is a Sydney based poet, essayist and reviewer. Published by Picaro Press, her poetry collections include “Offset”, “Lilies and Stars” and “The Arrow & The Lyre”. Other  publications include thewonderbook of poetry, Notes for The Translators, Poems for the Young Chinese Adult, Best Poem Journal, Virgogray Press, Australian Love Poems 2013, Southerly, Westerly, Rochford Street Press, The Australian, The Euroscientist Ezine, Poetry Pacific and The Lake. She holds a Masters Degree in Poetry from Melbourne University.