Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Stafford and Yevtushenko

An oddly matched pair--William Stafford and Yevgeny Yevtushenko: the former a conversational, modest American, in favor of low-key rhetoric; the latter in a tradition of more public, declamatory poetic rhetoric, and also in possession of a robust personality.

I've convinced myself I perceived an intersection in their work, however, specifically in a couple of stanzas. The first is from the opening of Stafford's poem, "Next Time":

Next time what I'd do is look at
the earth before saying anything. I'd stop
just before going into a house
and be an emperor for a minute
and listen better to the wind
or to the air being still.

The poem is from An Oregon Message, and the last line of the stanza is supposed to be indented 5 spaces, but the blog-machinery doesn't want to cooperate.

I like the matter-of-fact whimsicality of the lines but also the way they and the whole poem suggest a wish to do and to be better.

In "Requiem for Challenger," a poem from Almost At the End and, as the title states, a poem concerning a space-shuttle explosion, Yevtushenko begins with a great dramatic image: "This white tragic swan/of farewell explosion," and then, with his panoramic view, manages to take in Arlington Cemetery, the Kremlin, the Pyrenees, the Caucasus, Mt. Everest, and the Statue of Liberty. --Broad, bold strokes: what one has come to expect from this poet. But here is how the poem concludes (and again, the indentation of lines is off; my apologies):

Our life is a challenge.
Our planet is our common Challenger.
We humiliate her,
frightening each other with bombs.
But could we explode her?
Even by mistake?
Even by accident?
That would be the final error
never to be undone.

Like Stafford, Yevtushenko is interested in one's, in everyone's, doing and being better, and, in my opinion, he makes a nice choice when yoking one kind of technological disaster with another one--the nuclear one. Probably some will see "our common Challenger" as trite--a repetition of the "spaceship Earth" analogy, but Yevtushenko is never afraid to err in the direction of big plain statements, large-hearted emotion from which he probably knows some readers will recoil.

Perhaps the intersection between these poems and poets, if it exists, concerns something as simple (but difficult) as wisdom.
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