what have I done?

The Arts Festival ended on Sunday, but the last event I attended was on Friday night. For a couple of hours I was in the presence of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a poet who was a vocal dissident against the worst of the ruthless policies enacted by the post-Stalin generation in Russia. Not knowing much about Yevgeny before the recital, I was amazed at the huge audience the man commanded. It was by far the best-attended literary event of the Festival.

Yevgeny is a flamboyant character. He throws himself bodily into his poetry: enunciating the passion, pain and joy that flows through his language. Noting the difficulties of translation, he sometimes had another person recite his poems in English, which he would repeat in Russian. Other times he recited them himself in both languages, and sometimes to the accompaniment of a piano. This was not a boring poetry recital, but an entertaining, uplifting, and conscious-raising event.

Yevgeny reminds us that the word can be a weapon, if the poet has the courage to throw it. Much of his work, such as “Dwarf Birches”, was banned for decades in his homeland because of its criticism of the political regime. While Yevgeny was never imprisoned for his outspokenness, it must have been an active concern–and yet he continued to fire his stones at the establishment.

And while Russia has transformed in the past decades, Yevgeny’s message is still valid. The poet can still be the mad truthsayer, often ignored like god-touched Cassandra, but whose words can shine a harsh light upon the soul with its uncomfortable questions.

As we see in this quote from “The Torments Of Conscience”:

And if in this wide world where no one,
no one is guiltless, someone has heard
within himself the cry “What have I done?”
then something can be done with this world.

I do not believe in the prophets construing
the coming of the Second or the Thousandth Rome,
I believe in the words “What are you doing?”
in “What are we doing?” bitterly spoken.

And on the slippery edge of lost faith
I am kissing your dark hands,
for you alone are my last faith,
torments of conscience–fierce torments!

I can’t remember the last time I saw a poet (or any writer) touch people, and engage people, the way Yevgeny did on Friday. He got two standing ovations, and they were well-deserved.

This man causes change. He’s a philosopher’s stone: transmuting the sleeping into the awake with a trumpet blast of language.

“Poetry Gives Off Smoke”, and Yevgeny knows how to feed the flames.

And for those who struggle with words, agonise over the structure of their sentences, and love the slippery, elusive flow of language, it’s wise to remember: “Disbelief In Yourself Is Indispensable”.