BORN: 1933, Moscow, Soviet Union
GENRE: Fiction, poetry, nonfiction
Voznesensky: Selected Poems (1966)
Nostalgia for the Present (1978)
Andrei Voznesensky. © Christopher Felver / CORBIS
‘‘The name of Voznesensky in soviet poetry often becomes the centre of heated discussion,’’ observed Vladimir Ognev. ‘‘The young poet leaves nobody indifferent. Widely differing estimations are given to his poetry—some call him a daring innovator, others a cold rhymester.’’ Regardless of the more critical views of his work, Voznesensky warmed the hearts of his followers and heated the tempers of Soviet officials during his rise to international prominence in the 1960s. His swift, uncluttered, and often bold verse differed radically from the restricted poetry the Soviet Union had known in the Joseph Stalin years, and Russian audiences responded enthusiastically to the young poet’s work.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Surrounded by Books. As a child, Voznesensky was introduced to Russia’s great literary tradition by his mother, who surrounded him with books by great authors such as Aleksandr Blok, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Boris Pasternak and read poetry to him as well. Voznesensky experimented a bit with writing when he was young, but devoted himself mainly to painting and drawing. After he received his degree from the Moscow Architectural Institute, however, his interest in architecture dropped. Some of his poems appeared in magazines at that time and two years later, in 1960, he published his first book, Mosaic.
As a teenager, Voznesensky had sent some of his poems to Pasternak, who consequently invited Voznesensky to visit. The poems were obvious Pasternak imitations. Later, though, Voznesensky sent some of his postgraduate poems to Pasternak, revealing an entirely different poet. In the 1980s, Voznesensky participated in the drive to reinstate Pasternak into the Soviet Writers Union, giving the writer official status in the Soviet Union for the first time since 1958.
Success and Change. Several factors contributed to Voznesensky’s ‘‘meteoric’’ rise from a developing poet to one of the Soviet Union’s most prominent literary figures. To begin with, poetry is Russia’s ‘‘national art,’’ contends Voznesensky. In addition, his generation was financially and politically in a position to afford and appreciate poetry readings. By American standards, the audiences were stupendous. Typical crowds for readings by Voznesensky numbered more than fourteen thousand. Enthusiasm for the printed word matched the enthusiasm for the spoken word. Even today, Voznesensky’s new books sell out within hours of publication.
Problems with Authority. To Soviet government officials and heads of the Soviet Writers Union, Voznesensky was somewhat more of an individual than they would have liked. Many times during his career, he has been at the center of controversy. One especially noteworthy denunciation took place in 1963, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev reprimanded Voznesensky and other Western-oriented intellectuals, accusing them of straying from the paths of‘‘Soviet realism.’’ The Soviet regime at the time subscribed to the notion of socialist realism, in which art was seen as a tool for expressing the ideals and praising the accomplishments of the Soviet people; art for any other purpose was viewed as nonproductive at best, and destructive to society at worst. Attacks continued in 1965 when the government- controlled Communist youth newspaper accused him of obscurity of content and experimenting with complicated poetic forms. By 1969, government suppression had erased Voznesensky’s name from Soviet literary journals. A decade later, in 1979, Voznesensky and several other writers were chastised for their roles in the publication of Metropol, a new literary magazine that challenged the government’s strict control of the arts.
One much publicized incident involving Soviet restrictions occurred in 1967, when a New York City reading had to be canceled. Two days before the scheduled reading, rumors circulated, suggesting that Voznesensky had been the target of governmental attempts to detain or restrict him. At first, messages from Moscow said Voznesensky was sick, yet later reports revealed that his passport had indeed been sent to the U.S. Embassy with a request for a visa. But renewed hope for Voznesensky’s appearance faded when the poet himself phoned New York and canceled his visit.
Publications and Continuing Popularity. His first two major translated volumes are Antiworlds and Voznesensky: Selected Poems, in which Voznesensky stresses the importance of human values through works of irony and eroticism. Voznesensky’s later works have benefited from the increased artistic freedom permitted under the rule of Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Critics assert that Voznesensky’s contemporary poems are more thoughtful, direct, and dynamic than his earlier verse. Voznesensky also comments on such modern problems as Siberia’s water pollution and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which resulted in the forced permanent relocation of over three hundred thousand citizens. An Arrow in the Wall: Selected Poetry and Prose (1987) probes humanity’s pretensions through extensive use of irony. Reviewers lauded the volume’s humor and sincerity, and he is regarded as one of Russia’s finest to this day.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Voznesensky's famous contemporaries include:
Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-): Last head of state of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and contributor to the end of the cold war.
Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007): First president of the Russian Federation after Gorbachev and the fall of Communism.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-): Voznesensky's peer and fellow poet; the two are often compared or confused with one another.
Bella Akhmadulina (1937-): Russian female poet whose works, despite the times, are decidedly antipolitical.
Works in Literary Context
Pop Culture. A trademark characteristic of Voznesensky’s work is its use of cultural references from around the world and throughout modern history. In one of his most celebrated poems, ‘‘I Am Goya,’’ Voznesensky expounds on the destruction and wars that have ravaged Russia by utilizing the persona of Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), the Spanish painter whose works reflect the political and social upheavals of his time. Loss of identity is explored in ‘‘Monolog Merlin Monro’’ and ‘‘Oza’’ through two distinctly different techniques. The first poem, a discussion of ill-fated actress Marilyn Monroe, shows how the manipulative power of society can turn individuals into objects, while ‘‘Oza,’’ a spoof of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘‘The Raven,’’ examines the bewilderment of artists in a technocratic world.
Nationalism and Internationalism. Despite his conflicts with Soviet authorities, Voznesensky maintains an intense love for his own country. In one poem, for example, ‘‘he exalted the ancient idea that Russia’s mission is to save the world from darkness,’’ reported the New York Times. Voznesensky has also admired the United States and, particularly, Robert Kennedy. The poet and the senator met in 1967 and discussed, among other topics, the youth of their respective countries. After Kennedy’s death, Voznesensky published a poem paying tribute to his assassinated friend.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Voznesensky is concerned with political oppression, most likely inspired by the censorship of his own work in the Soviet Union. Though many of his peers chose to avoid being political for these reasons, he soldiered on and made an impact on the literary scene. Here are some other works that are defiantly— and often controversially—political.
The Prince (1532), an essay by Niccold Machiavelli. This list of rules for a leader to follow has often been criticized as cruel, and it has a decidedly untrusting slant.
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), a novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Not only did this book portray the cruelty of slavery and advocate abolition, but some say it helped spark the American Civil War.
A Tale of Two Cities (1859), a novel by Charles Dickens. The basis for this famous, intricate book is the French Revolution.
1984 (1949), a novel by George Orwell. Though cloaked in the guise of fiction, this novel is obviously a warning against totalitarianism in England and Europe.
Works in Critical Context
Voznesensky has become a favorite of several distinguished American literary figures. Among the poets who have translated his work into English are Stanley Kunitz, Richard Wilbur, William Jay Smith, Robert Bly, W. H. Auden, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In his introduction to Nostalgia for the Present, playwright Arthur Miller assessed Voznesensky’s efforts: ‘‘He has tried to speak, in these poems, as though he alone had a tongue, as though he alone had learned the news of today and tomorrow, as though the space taken up by his poem were precious and must not be used by counterfeit words.’’ Another Voznesensky admirer, W. H. Auden, once gave these reasons for appreciating the poet: ‘‘As a fellow maker, I am struck first and foremost by his craftmanship.... Obvious, too, at a glance is the wide range of subject matter by which Mr. Voznesensky is imaginatively excited ... and the variety of tones, elegiac, rebellious, etc., he can command. Lastly, every word he writes, even when he is criticizing, reveals a profound love for his native land and its traditions.’’
Selected Poems. Translations have been a difficulty with reviewers of Voznesensky’s work, especially in some of the earlier volumes. Anselm Hollo’s translations in Selected Poems, for example, disappointed Gibbons Ruark. Voznesensky’s ‘‘work is clearly superior to Yevtushenko’s,’’ Ruark wrote in comparing the two poets. ‘‘Unfortunately, his excellence seldom shows through Anselm Hollo’s translations.’’ Critics agreed that Herbert Marshall’s translations in Voznesensky: Selected Poems surpassed Hollo’s. ‘‘The volume of selections by Herbert Marshall is, on the whole, an improvement over Anselm Hollo,’’ wrote the Hudson Review. ‘‘But it is still an awkward and in places a careless performance.’’ Other translations of Voznesensky’s work have received considerably more praise.
Antiworlds. In his review of Antiworlds, Graham Martin noted ‘‘Voznesensky’s main bogy is the ‘cyclotron,’ symbol of all the dehumanising pressures in the modern world, and in ’Oza,’ a long difficult poem, he deploys all his satiric force against ’the scientist,’ damn his eyes.’’ Similarly, M. L. Rosenthal found in Voznesensky ‘‘a satirist... who is against the computerization of the soul.’’ As Auden pointed out, however, Voznesensky’s focus can vary considerably. Miller Williams explained: ‘‘Voznesensky is an exciting writer who bangs and tumbles through his poems, knocking over icons and knocking down walls, talking with curiosity, anguish, and joy—in sharp and startling metaphor— about love and technology, science and art, the self and the soul and Andrei Voznesensky and people.’’ Another admirer, A. Alvarez, praised Voznesensky, too, for ‘‘whatever direct, passionate thrust launches them [his poems in Antiworlds], they curve obliquely and brilliantly through layer after layer of experience before they land again.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Read two or three of Voznesensky’s poems. With a classmate, discuss how Voznesensky’s feelings toward technology are revealed in these works. Look specifically at language and imagery.
2. Using resources at your library or on the Internet, research Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Read one or two of Yevtushenko’s poems. Then read one or two of Voznesensky’s poems. Finally, using examples from the poems to support your opinions, write an essay in which you compare and contrast Yevtushenko’s style with Voznesensky’s.
3. Using resources at your library or on the Internet, research the Cold War. Then read one or two of Voznesensky’s poems. Write an essay describing how the effects of the cold war are present in the poems you chose.
4. With a group of your classmates, discuss how political oppression could have actually helped Voznesensky’s writing. Use examples from poems that you have read to support your ideas.
Carlisle, Olga. Poets on Street Corners. New York: Random House, 1969.
________. Voices in the Snow. New York: Random House, 1962.