I was shocked to look at the NY Times this morning and learn that Andrei Voznesensky has died. I now think of Voznesensky as an enjoyable minor poet, but when I was in college and studying Russian in the late ’60s, he was the first modern Russian poet I came to love, and I retain the affection inspired by that discovery. I still have the copy of Ахиллесово Сердце (1966; cover) I bought at Foyles and carried with me on my trip to the USSR (inspiring envy in young Russians who had no way of getting a copy themselves) and the collection he graciously signed for me when he was in New York in the ’80s, and I will never forget the shock and delight of first reading poems like Гойя, Баллада-диссертация (“Вчера мой доктор произнес…”), Параболическая баллада (“Судьба, как ракета, летит по параболе/ Обычно—во мраке и реже—по радуге”), and Антимиры. Now that I’ve read his major influences (notably Mayakovsky and Pasternak), not to mention a truly great modern poet like Brodsky, I can put my enthusiasm in perspective, but I’m still thrilled by the sonic delight packed into a line like “Смола, шмели” [Smolá, shmelí] (‘resin, bumblebees’) from Велосипеды. You can see a few seconds of him in his prime in 1964 in this clip; if anyone has better links, please share them. Вечная ему память.
Update. The Fortnightly Review has published my obit of Voznesensky, based on this post but longer, with more polish and less Russian.


  1. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised all things considered, but when I discovered the other day that Jacques Martin had died in January, I was duly sad.
    So it goes.

  2. For us nonRussophones–has any of his work ever been metamorphized into an English version?

  3. Yes, quite a lot of it has; there are a number of bilingual collections out there.

  4. I saw Andrei Andreevich two or three years ago at the Taganka. He looked very ill, the way people look after a major stroke — his face half-paralyzed, some lady supporting him by the elbow.

  5. “Some lady” was undoubtedly his wife, Zoya Boguslavskaya, also a writer.

  6. Yeah, he’s been looking bad for a while.

  7. You went to Oxy, Hat? I went to Caltech. I wandered onto your campus occasionally.
    We had a Russian instructor at Caltech, a short-tempered man with a Rasputinate aspect. He used to pause at things I’d say in class and remark, “That’s a bit of … Talmudic reasoning.” Which might not have been false, for all that.
    That’s all apropos of nothing, of course. It’s a well-written obituary – thanks for posting it.

  8. Heh. I visited Caltech during the antiwar protests of ’69-’70 — we Oxy firebrands were trying to get college students all around LA to sign a petition. At Caltech we were pretty much ignored; students had tests to study for. (At Ambassador, we thought we would be sent packing with anathemas, but of course we were greeted cheerily by very friendly young Christians, who listened politely to our spiel, looked at our petition, and said “Thank you, but I don’t think so,” with a very sweet smile. It unexpectedly made our day.)

  9. Ахиллесово сердце (same cover) was how I first learned about (and got addicted to) Andrei Voznesensky. 25 years ago I was maniacally clipping pages containing bits and pieces of his poetry and reviews out of every magazine and newspaper I could get my hands on. Юность (, where Voznesenski served on the editorial board, published his poems on a regular basis. Later, I had the clippings bound and still read them from time to time.
    I’m ashamed to admit it, but some of the small-town libraries in Arkhangelsk region still have missing poetry pages in their (otherwise unread, judging by the library cards) bound subscriptions of magazines.

  10. I know we’re talking opinions, but still I struggle to find a definition of ‘minor’ that would apply to Voznesensky. ‘Achilles Heart’, which I also cherish, had a print run of 100,000. Just one version of the song ‘Million Scarlet Roses’ (‘Миллон алых роз’, pre-internet, 1983) to Voznesensky’s verse now has nearly three million views on YouTube. ‘Juno and Perhaps'(“Юнона и Авось”), a musical story of love between a Russian officer and a Califronian girl, 1980, lyrics by Voznesensky, has been on stage in Moscow’s Lenkom theatre for 30 years and still draws full house.
    Voznesensky’s taking part in almanac Metropol probably saved other dissident writers from harsher punishment by the authorities.
    The story of Khrushev’s confrontation with Voznesenky in 1963, widely referred to, including in your obit, has a very different take in Vasily Aksyonov’s memoir ‘Mysterious Passion’ (title from Akhmadulina). After all the shouting and threats, V. asked for permission to read a new poem, ‘The Lenin Sequoia’. Apparently, on a visit to California, he found a giant red wood tree named after Lenin. Permission was granted, the poem read, a puzzled Khrushev sat in silence for a moment and then said to Voznesensky: ‘You have a lot of work to do on your verse, and in the meantime here is my hand, go and work’. They shook hands and after that no one would dare to touch Voznesensky. I find Aksyonov’s account more plausible than others. Brezhnev, who was about to oust Khrushev, was also in the presidium of that meeting.
    He was widely translated into English, notably by WH Auden, who had a high opinion of V. ‘Whatever effects can be secured in Russian by rhythm, rhyme, assonance, and contrasts of diction, he clearly knows all about,’ Auden wrote. Voznesensky showed Auden’s translations to Kornei Chukovsky, himself a translator (Walt Whitman), who loved them and said: ‘One madman understood another’. (anecdote retold by John Bayley)
    I put a few clips with Voznesensky on my blog Tetradki/Тетрадки, but what I’d really love to find is a vinyl record of a poetry reading, probably at Hunter College, with Voznesensky alongside a number of his translators, including Auden. The disc is mentioned on this Gramophone page.
    Oh, and have comments of ‘begging question’ been closed? I had an idea…

  11. I meant “minor” only by comparison with Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Brodsky, but it may have been too harsh; my Fortnightly Review piece represents a more considered view. As for Auden, his opinion is pretty much irrelevant since he didn’t know Russian and had no basis for making such a statement. But I hope it’s clear I still have a high opinion of V; I was just stressing the change in my attitude once I learned more about modern Russian poetry.
    Feel free to share any thoughts you have on “begging the question” here, or if you have a particular post in mind you’d like to comment on, let me know and I’ll reopen it.

  12. Also (if it needs saying) his popularity, his personality, and his politics have nothing to do with his quality as a poet.
    By the way, my opinion of Bella Akhmadulina has risen tremendously since my student days, when I didn’t understand her at all. I would now rank her above V and Evtushenko.

  13. foreseeing your disqualification, Auden says: ‘after reading literal prose translations of his poems, studying metrical models, and listening to tape-recordings of him reading his own work, I am convinced that his admirers are right.’ And he analyses the phonetic transliteration of ‘Вчера мой доктор произнес’ you mention above. Chukovsky’s opinion is also important.
    Something tells me not to argue any further, so I’ll just say that my yardstick must be longer and wider than yours 8) – but, of course, blunter.

  14. Eh, we’re not actually arguing, just clarifying our respective positions. We both think very highly of Andrei Andreevich.

  15. Oh, and thanks for the wonderful video links at your post!

  16. yeah, I’ve just had an exchange with an old friend of mine, mentioning ‘Longjumeau’, V’s poem about Lenin. He says he passes the place on his way to work and every time it hits him with a warm wave, remembering V. I think that’s what is so appealing about him: never really angry or sad, but always – warm.
    re videos: I was slightly surprised there weren’t more of him.

  17. I learned that the author had given up architecture for poetry and that he wrote about things like parabolas, airports, and New York City.
    Long ago I read Massie’s book “The Living Mirror” and noted, as I remember, that four of the five poets in the book had an engineering education. I don’t have the book available and can’t remember most of their names (I remember Brodsky and Gleb Gorbovsky). At about that time I’d read an interview with one Russian poet, possibly V., in which the poet talked at some length about prestressed concrete. A freak of Soivet education.

  18. Curiously (or not), I don’t think “minor” is insulting, if properly construed.
    In many respects “major”, with its attendant implicit inflation, is worse,
    I was hosting Allen Ginsberg in Cambridge at the time of his initial meetings with both Yevtushenko and Voznesensky. A.G. in that epoch had an elaborate private ritual of greeting famous poets according to their major or minor status in his mind. Minor, he shook their hand. Major, he kissed their feet.
    I asked which of the Russian poets had gotten which treatment.
    Voznesensky had got the handshake, Yevtushenko the foot kissing, he said.
    (He also reported that on another occasion, though he’d decided Christopher Isherwood deserved highest honours, that when he had got down on hands and knees and was proceeding, Isherwood had said, approximately: “Stop that! Get up this minute!”.)

  19. Heh. That’s a great story.

  20. ahwow, great story indeed. there’s a picture of V. and Ginsberg not quite shaking hands, but performing a ‘finger contact’, E.T. style. I wonder if Spielberg’d seen it. was it part of G.’s ritual too?
    foot kissing Yevtushenko
    there’s a certain stink around Y., mostly because of his periodic recants and kowtowing to authority, and also because of his alleged links to security.
    Poets, alas.

  21. For most of the European 19th c. I prefer the minor artists to the major artists. Maybe it’s because I’m a minor person, but a lot of ambitious literature seems puffed-up, fraudulent, and deformed to me. More than a certain level of seriousness is pathological, in my opinion, and 19th c. Europe had an enormous seriousness excess.

  22. That’s for sure. I can barely listen to Brahms symphonies, for instance; the ponderous “greatness” is just too heavy a burden.

  23. Greatness coupled with seriousness can quickly become unbearable; though a great part of the unbearability seems to lie in nothing ever happening quickly among the great.
    An extremely serious person of my acquaintance was wont to listen to Brahms symphonies for hours on end in an unfinished basement, and attributed his own unique genius, one got the impression, largely to these subterranean auditions. A visit to his premises inevitably entailed long turbid passages of listening in silence to these symphonies along with him. But politeness of course has its limits.
    In later years I understand he has also become, among other things, a prominent member of a reading group that meets on Thursday evenings in a rural retreat by the sea to study and discuss the works of Heidegger. Not sure whether Brahms symphonies are played at these sessions, at least in the breaks, but something tells me they are.
    (Touchstone, “A great reckoning in a little room”, was surely referring to a different form of greatness.)

  24. That juddering sound I hear through the floorboards must be the rumblings of the great, angry at being slagged off.
    They cannot be kept down for long.
    All one need do is hold still a moment, and Martin Heidegger will come to life, and tell you a bit about his philosophy.
    (He appears fit enough, here, to remind that he is currently in training, more than likely, for
    the philosophers’ world cup.)

  25. E: I’d read an interview with one Russian poet, possibly V., in which the poet talked at some length about prestressed concrete. A freak of Soviet education.
    Structural engineering is not at all an inherently prosaic subject. It’s just that most people don’t know much about it. Structures is one of those things that ought to be taught to young schoolchildren. At high school level, it would be much more useful than either calculus OR statistics.

  26. The NYRB just posted the Auden article on Voznesensky which Sashura quoted.

  27. oh, thanks, as usual I’m too lazy and too busy to remember about links.

  28. enjoyable minor poet
    Isaac Asimov told this story about John Ciardi: “Once, when I was taking leave of him, I held out my hand and said, ‘Farewell, O minor poet!’ Without missing a beat, he said ‘Farewell, O major pain in the ass!'”

  29. John Cowan says

    The Fortnightly Review has published my obit of Voznesensky, based on this post but longer, with more polish and less Russian.

    Why would there be any Polish at all?

    Structural engineering is not at all an inherently prosaic subject. It’s just that most people don’t know much about it. Structures is one of those things that ought to be taught to young schoolchildren.

    Two days ago, my older grandson. who is applying for various NYC middle schools this year (all middle schools here are grades 6-8), was interviewed by one such school. They asked a group of interviewees to build a tower of paper cups (or some objects made of paper, anyway; I got conflicting testimony about it). This was a test of the candidates’ ability to collaborate smoothly, something considered very important in this particular school. Dorian said making the tower was fun, but then it fell over. I hope they will teach him some elementary structural engineering if he goes there.

  30. The phrase “middle school” still sounds alien to me. When I were a lad we had elementary school, junior high, and high school, and we were satisfied with that.

  31. January First-of-May says

    In Russia, средняя школа is apparently technically 5th to 9th grade (or so says Wikipedia), but in practice it seems to just be a fancy bureaucratic-ish term for a regular school. I’m surprised to find out that it’s not supposed to extend to 11th grade.

    OTOH, we do have младшие классы and старшие классы, but, as far as I can tell, no средние классы (or, at least, it’s not a commonly used term), and definitely no ??среднеклассники… actually, Google does find at least one published example of the latter, from the hilarious classic Vera and Anfisa (among with many more, mostly non-published, examples referring to other meanings of “middle class”).

  32. When my middle school had changed from 7–9 to 7–8, they changed the name from “Judson Junior High School” to “Judson Middle School.” There were there other junior high schools in the district at that time, and two of the others made the same kind of name change. However, the schools were frequently known by their initials (Judson being “JMS” in my time), and we noticed the Parrish Junior High never did change to “Parrish Middle School.”

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