One Long Soundless Scream

by Jeff Martin

Yevgeny Yevtushenko teaches English at the University of Tulsa. His poetry has been translated into 72 languages.

Little more than ten years ago, in late September 2001, Yevgeny Yevtushenko published an article in The Nation called “Babi Yar in Manhattan.”  In the piece, the famed Russian poet speaks of the 9/11 attacks, still dangerously raw at the time of publication, and references his most famous poem, 40 years old then, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Having debuted to wide acclaim in 1961, “Babi Yar” remains his most widely known, powerful, and enduring work. When the time comes for Yevtushenko to shuffle off this mortal coil, it’s a near 100% certainty that the words “Babi Yar” will appear in the first sentence of every eulogy from Zima Junction, Siberia (his place of birth) to Timbuktu.

In the Nation piece, Yevtushenko pulls no punches in drawing parallels between his upbringing during Stalin’s reign and the Old Testament eye-for-an-eye rhetoric coming from the Bush Administration in the immediate aftermath. He warns against reactionary behavior, believing that “our wish to catch criminals as soon as possible, to point our finger at the first suspect, could lead to unforgivable mistakes.” These worries and predictions pre-date the invasion of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban, and the ill advised and opportunistic quagmire of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” which would follow months later.

Written when the poet was nearly 70 years old, this was perhaps Yevtushenko’s finest, or at least most relevant, moment since the original “Babi Yar.” Did his comments make waves? Was he called “Anti-American”? No. The article went fairly unnoticed by the would-be critics, fading into the crowd of other post-9/11 commentary. Just days before, Bill Maher, the always outspoken comedian/host of ABC’s Politically Incorrect, caused a stir by making a statement defending the courage of the hijackers. “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly,” said Maher. He was soon fired, and his show, popular for its outrageousness, was quickly cancelled.

Maher’s statement is by no means any more “controversial” than Yevtushenko’s article. The only real difference— the bridge that divides what becomes part of the national conversation and what doesn’t—is that one was a celebrity with a network television outlet and the other was a poet. Who really listens to poets anymore? Sure, Maya Angelou gets the occasional face time should Oprah come calling, but even then it’s nothing new. Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate and arguably the most famous poet in America today, appears from time to time on A Prairie Home Companionand delights the crowd with occasionally touching and often-humorous poems about the often-ignored details of everyday life, and sometimes dogs. But would Anderson Cooper call upon Mr. Collins to comment on (fill in the world disaster)? Doubtful. Sean Penn? Absolutely.

The “poet,” once a valued spokesperson for the intellectual and social concerns of our society, now mainly takes up space on university campuses, in coffee shops, and on the poetry slam stage, which honestly owes more to the history of hip- hop than the history of poetry. When exactly did the poet become socially irrelevant? When Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was released last year, some heralded it as the return of the big “social novel.” Something that mattered. Like the works of Mailer and others of that ilk, Franzen’s work was suggested to have power beyond the page. No one is suggesting or anticipating that a single poem or collection of poetry could do today what Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar” did in the early 1960s.

Interestingly enough, when Mr. Franzen paid a visit to the University of Tulsa in October to speak as part of the ongoing “Presidential Lecture Series,” Yevtushenko—decked out in clashing patterns and multiple plaids—was literally the first in line to get a book signed. Oh, how times have changed. On August 23, 2010, Jonathan Franzen was on the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Great American Novelist.” Little more than 48 years earlier on April 13, 1962, Yevtushenko graced Time, being heralded as “Russia’s New Generation.” Later that year, on December 18, legendary composer Dmitri Shostakovich debuted his Symphony No. 13. The work was inspired by “Babi Yar,” and included choral passages in Yevtushenko’s own words.

Poetry mattered. It was everywhere, from the aging “Bard of America,” Robert Frost (who would die in early 1963), to the Beats (Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, etc.) of San Francisco. This environment remained strong throughout the ‘60s as the Vietnam War became more of an issue and the protest song became a staple on commercial radio. There was a belief, at least among the young people of the time, that policy and social change could be brought about through verse. The success and impact of “Babi Yar” gave Yevtushenko a voice in world affairs as he prolifically continued to publish new work throughout this period.

In 1970, in reaction to the killing of students protesting on the campus of Kent State University by National Guard troops, Yevtushenko wrote “Flowers & Bullets.” Published in Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist party, the 111-line poem focuses on Allison Krause. Prior to the shooting, Krause was quoted as saying “flowers are better than bullets” after placing one into the barrel of a guardsman’s rifle. In the same way that the September 11, 2001 attacks inspired “Babi Yar in Manhattan,” this piece could have easily been called “Babi Yar in Ohio.” The only difference is scale.

On September 29-30, 1941, more than two months before the U.S. officially became involved in WWII after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Nazis killed 33,771 Jews in a ravine in Kiev, Ukraine known as Babi Yar. It is believed to be the largest single massacre of the Holocaust. Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks of 9/11. Four students died at Kent State on May 4, 1970. But to Yevtushenko, the issue was not one of body count. An unjust death was an unjust death. This was, and I believe remains to this day, the central theme that permeates Yevtushenko’s best work.

Exactly why “Babi Yar” became such a phenomenon in the early ‘60s may never be fully explained. Twenty years after the event, it wasn’t as if it were a topic on the tip of everyone’s collective tongue. We were much more concerned with the clear and present threat of nuclear war than looking back at the atrocities of WWII. Perhaps it was this fear that gave the poem weight, the fear of a new kind of holocaust, not one created by those in search of a superior race, but by scientists splitting atoms and men with red phones. There had been, in the late 1950s, a renewed interest in the Holocaust from a cultural standpoint. The Pulitzer Prize winning stage adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary opened on Broadway in 1955. A film version came in 1959 and won three Academy Awards. In 1960, Elie Wiesel’s Night was published in English and quickly became part of the cultural landscape. But Yevgeny Yevtushenko is not Jewish. It might be easy to look at “Babi Yar” in this historical context and accuse the poet of blatant opportunism. But all one has to do is sit down and read the piece, in which Yevtushenko wisely addresses the issue up front.

“In my blood there is no Jewish blood,” he writes. After all, isn’t humanity the only prerequisite for writing about the human experience? “Babi Yar” isn’t about the Holocaust. It certainly isn’t about Jews. It’s about our collective capacity for evil. The first-person point of view in the piece is both Yevtushenko’s and our collective “I.” Nearing 80, Yevtushenko has now spent nearly two-thirds of his life in a post-“Babi Yar” world. One can only hope that the burdens of early success have been in some way balanced by the immense opportunity it also affords.

On November 30, 1982, Michael Jackson released Thriller. It would soon break all records and go on to become the most successful album of all time. Jackson had already been in the limelight for years, but this was something different. Journalist Nancy Griffin interviewed Jackson several times over the course of his career. In the July 2010 issue of Vanity Fair magazine, Griffin’s article “The Thriller Diaries” makes a startling point. Michael Jackson didn’t see Thriller as a phenomenon. Subsequent projects disappointed because they could never reach the same level. The 24-year-old pop star was happiest during the “upward trajectory” and could not deal with the eventual decline. It may be crude to call “Babi Yar” Yevtushenko’s Thriller, but either way it seems obvious that he has been able to deal with it in a healthier way.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko is one of only a handful (or less) of living poets who had a moment on the world stage, a moment when Springsteen-sized crowds would show up to hear his words. That moment has passed and times have changed. But Yevtushenko remains. If you see him, say hello. In those clashing patterns and multiple plaids, the man is hard to miss.