It’s Easter and with this unexpected time on my hands I’ve been reading a collection of Akhmatova’s selected prose, My Half Century. In a diary entry from February 1966, she writes of Yevtushenko, ‘Why does nobody see that this is simply very bad Mayakovsky?’
I laughed aloud, then felt rather guilty about it. Not only because of his death so recently – which left me shocked as well as saddened, somehow, for I had somehow never conceived of his death – but because he has long been of a kind of sentimental value for me. When I think of my favourite poets and writers, he never comes to mind right away, but I owe a lot to him. He was the first Russian writer that I read actually in his original, as opposed to in translation – a bilingual anthology aged seventeen, the only Russian-language book in the library. With no other choice but him, it was a coincidence that we were brought together and perhaps I might not have ever discovered him otherwise.
Since that time I’ve read much more Russian poetry – the past few months, especially, it’s been just about all I’ve wanted to get my hands on – and I wonder if I were to read him now whether I too would think him just ‘very bad Mayakovsky’. Yet I can’t dismiss things that were once important to me just because I ‘knew less’. It was he who showed me that the structure of Russian could be beautiful – its form, I suppose, as well as its content. I have always struggled with Russian grammar (though, revisiting it recently, I realised I’ve finally outgrown the Schaum’s I’ve dragged out every Easter since age fifteen – so I must have made some progress, at least!) and before I read him I only saw the genders and declensions and all the rest as things that ‘get in the way’ – an imposition, a restriction, something rigid and immovable to be obeyed.
It was Yevtushenko that made me look at these rules in a completely new and more positive way. I wish I had a copy so that I could quote him, and because I haven’t read much of him since – but what about Закличание, for example, which begs to be recited? What struck me most as I read him was his playfulness with sound, what he was able to evoke by using declensions to create rhymes. My favourite poetry is that with rhyme and rhythm and a strict metre, poetry that’s musical in its way when you read it aloud – and this is one way you can do this in Russian that in English we lack. We have a book in English, or books, and that’s all. But how many forms can книга take? Or девочка, or город, or мост or anything else? At least English nouns have a singular and a plural, but our adjectives are more limited still; we have sad and that’s it, but what else can печальный take on? Far from being a hindrance as I had previously seen it, grammar becomes a help and grants you greater freedoms.
I don’t want to get caught up in worrying about whether we ‘should’ follow the ‘rules’, but Yevtushenko showed me a way of operating within them to enrich poetry rather than restrict it; to create new sounds that fit well together, that are satisfying to recite, that sit well in your mouth. I am no better at grammar now than I was at seventeen – it still doesn’t come naturally to me, and it’s beginning to seem like I’ll never understand verbs of motion – but I can appreciate it now in a way I couldn’t before him. If I must study it and if I must suffer (!), it becomes less arduous knowing that I might find beauty in it, also.