Yevtushenko’s Moral Genius

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Why is it a brilliant poem? [In Memory Of The Poet Xenia Nekrasova]

Well, first of all, what would be the purpose of “poetry,” in this age, old or new. The same as it would be in any age—to make us feel.

It is rarely lamented that poetry is eliminated in Western society, as we careen toward mass industrial-technocratic indifference. Indifference to the feelings of the world, of others, is now considered a necessary trait to be a successful human.

What Yevtushenko achieves in this poem is immortality for Ksiusha.

“I’ll never forget about Ksiusha…”

Already in the first line, in plain language, he’s stopped the train of progress, of human indifference, of forgetting and discarding, of hailing only the strong.

“And how was she to blame?”–Very few writers would ever write such a line today. Blame that leads to indifference to the plight of another is the currency of the age.

He sets us up; We can’t escape. We must hear the story. He’s dismantled the possibility of blaming Ksiusha.

“What did she really want of us?”–In this line our hearts begin to ache, and there is a wish to look away.
But Yevtushenko is just gathering steam.

“In general, we gave her the lemonade” (we tried to get rid of her, easily) “but as for the kindly smile–hardly that. We even paid her an occasional fee, but we wouldn’t accept her as a writer, because our moral guardians had decided she wasn’t normal.”

Note the use of “we.” Yevtushenko manages a simultaneous redress of a whole literary mindset, a clique, a people, all of humanity, and himself. He is clearly remorseful. It’s an indictment that resonates all the more powerfully for not being only other directed.

Then there is a pause, and then a stunning escalation–a javelin.

You,

who are so revoltingly normal,

you

are abnormal from birth.

How could you understand that Ksiusha
was full of courage
and pregnant with music?”

Pause there.

It is such a tremendous line–unforgettable.

I leaned against it once; I remember it vividly. I was attending, out of ghoulish curiosity, a Barnes and Noble talk given by Michael Specter, New Yorker science writer and author of a vicious New Yorker article “The Denialists,” and equally heinous book “Denialism” (The death of science, common sense, etc etc–with a beaker spilling blue liquid to symbolize how dangerous cow-people have “eroded faith in public health…”)

He had silver hair, blazer, checkered shirt, and oozed contempt for humanity. He was sarcastic, not especially bright. A few women asked pointed questions and he literally maimed them with contemptuous answers. “Look, if you want to take vitamins because you want your urine to be brighter yellow, be my guest, you’re welcome to it…” He was seething. I sensed that he really really did not like women, or at least that they should question him. He stood as the beleaguered ambassador of all that is obvious, clear as day, scientifically proven, rational, sane, right and good. But it’s a crazy world! Pregnant women don’t think they should take flu shots! What can a man do except pull out his silver hair in exasperation?

As I sat there, Yevtushenko’s line settled on my shoulder like a sparrow. “You who are so revoltingly normal–”

I smiled and felt he was sitting right next to me. Successful writers are often monsters. They advance the causes of monstrosity, cash the checks. Tone deaf to everything on God’s green earth.

“…with what are you pregnant? With music maybe? Or merely with bones of contention?”

By the end of the poem, the revoltingly normal moral guardians are crucified. And Ksiusha ascends, we can see her with her folded hands, and feel every blow she endured. In a few lines, the poet has set the world right again.

Poetry is neither collections of sounds, opaque word play, evasion, decadence, or depravity. [The holy ‘Beat Poets’ and their incoherent lusts–]

Poetry is only that which makes us feel something we couldn’t quite feel before, rendering it as a crystal on the page. The language must be direct, the emotional arc must be clear; This is classical Aristotelian “tragedy,” which has yet to be improved upon, or invalidated, though modernists will never stop trying.

A brilliant poetry teacher, and poet I once studied with, Martha Rhodes, used to say: “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.”

And to me she said: “What you have to watch out for is sentimentality.”

She was always right. Walking that line brilliantly, is Yevtushenko, making it look so much easier than it is.

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