Sometimes Poets Are Successful, and Other News


On the Shelf

Yevtushenko reading before thousands in the Soviet Union.


  • Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who died this weekend at eighty-three, reminds us that sometimes a poet can achieve that rare thing: popularity. All it requires is persistence, good fortune, and cultural conditions dramatically different from those of the contemporary U.S. At the height of his powers, Yevtushenko commanded audiences of thousands in the Soviet Union, where his readings gave voice to the hopes and fears of a generation struggling to come out from under Stalinism. In an obituary for Yevtushenko, Anna Nemtsova writes, “He was like a giant loudspeaker sending messages across Soviet borders on behalf of his country, without sarcasm or cynicism, even when his country’s leaders made it impossible to love the state, when they beat down his own love for Russia by banning the best avant-garde art, destroying lives, repressing dissidents, deploying armies to foreign states … Yevtushenko and three other famous poets, Andrei Voznesensky, Bella Akhmadulina, and Robert Rozhdestvensky, turned poetry into a cult, brought it to stadiums, recited their lyrics for thousands of spectators. Once, during one such poetic concert, Yevtushenko’s fans carried him around Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, as if an Olympic champion of poetry.”
  • Listening to the lounge chanteuse Diamanda Galás, Hua Hsu hears a voice unadorned, “ancient-feeling in its primal ambitions,” and thus at odds with almost everything on the radio right now: “In the early days of pop music, the microphone was still an instrument to be mastered. Singers like Holiday, Sinatra, and Baker explored the possibilities of what amplification could accomplish, cooing and chatting over their bands in a way that felt intimate, as though the words were being poured into your ears alone. Our expectations are different nowadays. Some of the most exciting current experiments in pop music involve processing those voices, using technology not to capture the singer’s quiet whisper but to make the singer sound unfamiliar, pulsing and flickering, swirly and surreal. It’s music conscious of our states of constant distraction, the voice tracking the surges and flows that comprise life in digital spaces.”

  • Is travel writing dead? Geoff Dyer answers as one must: by dithering, shrugging, and finally denying the validity of the question. He writes, “The problem is that travel writing, a form of writing about departures, about leaving the known in order to venture into the unknown, could become a stay-at-home genre. Any successful travel book should involve some kind of departure from previously visited ideas of the travel book. Claudio Magris’s Danube was a subtle expansion of the possibilities of travel writing. Or one could just delete the ‘travel’ part altogether and say it’s a great piece of writing. That deletion cannot always be safely made since certain titles enjoy a reputation as ‘travel’ classics while falling way below more general standards of literary achievement. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts depends on these standards being dispensed with entirely. (That would be an interesting journey: an investigation into the way certain books serve as fake passports, permitting the author to travel to literary immortality without the let or hindrance of critical questioning.)”
  • In 1976, after the artist Josef Albers died, Nicholas Fox Weber went through his storage unit, where he discovered that Albers had pursued a quiet hobby as a photographer and collagist: “Josef assembled these photo-collages in the years when he was also constructing furniture, sandblasting glass, and teaching the nature of form and materials at the Bauhaus. Some of us will fasten onto the personalities that come alive in these photographs, and details like Paul Klee’s impeccable choice in the white cotton knit sweater he wore at a beach resort; others of us will see the lines left in the sand when the ocean recedes at low tide as evidence that the natural world was the greatest geometric abstractionist of all times. Josef’s camera work, and the intuitive yet precise way in which he juxtaposed photos large and small, reflect the desire that was his lifeblood: ‘to open eyes.’ ”