"People" by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

In any man who dies, there dies with him
his first snow and kiss and fight.
It goes with him.

There are left books and bridges
and painted canvases and machinery.

Whose fate is to survive.
But what has gone is also not nothing:

by the rule of the game, something has gone.
Not people die, but worlds die in them.

Whom we knew as faulty, the earth's creatures.
Of whom, essentially, what did we know?

Brother of a brother? Friend of friends?
Lover of lover?

We who knew our fathers
in everything, in nothing.

They perish. They cannot be brought back.
The secret worlds are not regenerated.

And every time, again and again,
I make my lament against destruction.

From люди (People), Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1961
Translated by Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi
Yevgeny Yevtushenko: Selected Poems, Penguin Classics, 2008

In my twenties, I came under the spell of modern Russian poetry, especially the work of Boris Pasternak, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina. I encountered their poems not only in English translations but through recordings. (Yevtushenko was an excellent performer of both his own work and the poetry of Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Tsvetaeva and others.)

The Russian poems were full of open vowels, rolled r's and emphatic consonants that made them more sensual that the English-language poetry I knew, and the Russians seemed more at ease expressing powerful emotions. The link below to a 1979 Yevtushenko reading will show what I mean.

Returning to Yevtushenko's work now, it still impresses me with its warmth, its insight, its lightly-worn eloquence. In this poem, which closes the Penguin selection of his verse in Robin Milner Gulland and Peter Levi's fluent translations, Yevtushenko reminds us that every lament is, in part, a celebration of those we mourn.

Yevtushenko performing in 1979 (see second link below)

Arthur Miller, New Yorker artist Saul Steinberg and Yevtushenko in 1966.
(Photo by Inge Morath, courtesy of the Saul Steinberg Foundation.)

"The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter"

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead,
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse;
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you 
                           As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

Li Bai (701-762), translated by Ezra Pound
From Cathay (1915)

In my early twenties, I didn't know many poems outside the Anglo-American tradition. I had studied Latin for six years but didn't see how the Aeneid or any other verse from a foreign language could help my writing in the 1970s. Then I read Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era and learned how Ezra Pound had found, in ancient Chinese poems, a model for using imagery in modern poetry. 

In 1913 Ezra Pound was a 28-year-old freelance writer living in Church Walk, Kensington. He'd been reading Confucius and grew interested in Chinese poetry after discovering the stilted but evocative translations of Herbert Giles, a Cambridge University sinologist.

Church Walk, Kensington, as it is  in today's London

By an extraordinary piece of luck, Pound met Mary Neil Fenollosa at a London party. She was the widow of the American scholar Ernest Fenollosa, who had spent years studying Chinese verse. Impressed by Pound's earnestness and by his poetry, she entrusted the young man with her husband's research notes.

Working from them, Pound translated 17 poems by Li Bai (sometimes called Li Po or Rihaku) and several other Chinese poets, and in 1915 he published them as a collection titled Cathay. Many of the poems dealt with separation and loss, and, in the second year of The First World War, they resonated strongly with readers.

I've loved this poem since the first time I read it. The woman's voice is convincing: the handful of details it offers brings a whole world to life but without any unnecessary embellishments. If you've ever been parted from the person you love, I think Li Bai's poem, brought over into English with such care and affection by Pound, will touch you.

In February 1915 Pound checked the proofs for Cathay in this Sussex cottage he shared with W.B. Yeats (Photo: Nigel Purdey)

"Proud Songsters" by Thomas Hardy

The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
                In bushes
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
        As if all Time were theirs.

These are brand-new birds of twelve-months' growing
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
                Nor thrushes,
But only particles of grain,
        And earth, and air, and rain.

In 1926 Virginia Woolf visited the 86-year-old Thomas Hardy at his home in Dorchester, Dorset. He was, she wrote, "extremely affable and aware of his duties." What impressed her most was "his freedom, ease and vitality" (A Writer's Diary, edited by Leonard Woolf, 1953).

Those three words also fit the poems he was working on at the time, which showed undiminished powers of observation, reflection and metrical invention. A writer for the Spanish newspaper El País once quipped that Hardy had the rare distinction of being of one the finest novelists of the 19th century and one of the finest poets of the 20th.

And Hardy was prolific: by the time of his death in January 1928, he had written, rewritten or selected 105 poems for an eighth collection of his poetry. It was published the following October, with the title Winter Words

The work was drawn from five decades; "Proud Songsters" was placed near the head of the book, and it has remained one of Hardy's best known poems. A few years later, Gerald Finzi set the poem for tenor and piano, finding music that follows the progress of the words, from the matter-of-fact first stanza to the wonderstruck second.

There are many poems about spring, but this is one of my favorites: as quiet as an April morning, but pulsing with life, like the season itself.

Hardy at the Garrick Theatre, London for a production of Tess of the D'Ubervilles in December 1926 (Courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery)