I’m now on Victor Terras’s chapter, “The Twentieth Century: 1925-53,” in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature (see this post), and thought I’d quote this passage on a couple of poets of the 1920s and ’30s (neither of them known to me):
Among the constructivists, there were at least two major poets: Eduard Bagritsky (pen-name of Eduard Dzyubin, 1897-1934) and Ilya Selvinsky (real given name: Karl, 1899-1968), who practiced a pointedly functional approach to poetic composition, seeking to integrate every level of their text — sound, rhythm, imagery, lexicon, syntax — with its intended meaning. Both Bagritsky and Selvinsky used slang, argot, regionalisms, local color, the rhythms of folk poetry whenever a poem’s theme demanded it. Bagritsky’s “local color” was that of Odessa and the Ukrainian countryside. His Lay of Opanas (Duma ob Opanase, 1926), loosely patterned after the Ukrainian folk ballad (duma), tells the story of the peasant Opanas, who chose the wrong side in the civil war and paid for it with his life. When Bagritsky moved on from themes of the revolution to topics of the Five Year Plan, his poetry retained an air of genuine revolutionary romanticism.
Ilya Selvinsky travelled widely, pursued several different professions, participated in a polar expedition, and projected his varied experiences into his work. He was one of the first Soviet writers to do serious research toward his literary projects and to view composing poetry as a goal-directed, rational activity. Like Bagritsky, he adapted his language to the subject at hand, using technical jargon, thieves’ cant, Odessa Yiddish, gypsy, and whatever other idiom was required. Selvinsky’s best poetic work is the verse epic The Ulyalaev Uprising (Ulyalaevshchina, written in 1924, published in 1927), which describes the rout of a counter-revolutionary uprising by Communist forces.
The more I read about Russian literature, the more impressed I am by the role Odessa has played in it, from the 19th century (Pushkin wrote chunks of Eugene Onegin there) through the great 20th-century Odessans like Babel, Olesha, Ilf and Petrov, and others; you can read about it in this New Yorker piece, which I’m happy to see includes Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Pyatero [The Five]: “It’s not very famous. But it is the most nostalgic, sweet description of Odessa. He was a great patriot of the city, he loved it. He spoke eleven languages—the normal Odessan, back then, spoke four or five, but he spoke eleven.”