N.I. Bukharin: Poetry, Poetics and the Problems of Poetry in the U.S.S.R.


3. The Turning Point

We shall now consider poetry in our country. First, however, I must make one reservation. I cannot here present a full picture (it should really be put more strongly) of the poetic work of our country as a whole. I am not considering here our tremendous and growing national literatures, our poetry in the languages of national minorities. I am considering only Russian poetry. I do so, not because I underrate the importance of poetry in the languages of our national minorities - one could hardly suspect me of doing this. But I am here following a certain rule laid down by Kozma Prutkov,1) who says among other things: "Not knowing the Iroquois language, how can you express an opinion of it which will not be superficial and stupid?" I know there are some amateurs who pass judgments on everything. But if, as is said, the translations of Tajik and Ukrainian poets into our language are bad translations, how can I judge the work of these poets? I can only say of them that they have a Soviet outlook, that they fight against nationalist deviations, but to pass judgment on their verbal scoring is beyond my powers.

I repeat once again: An all-Soviet literature is growing up in our country, in which the literature of national minorities possesses enormous significance. This significance will grow greater and greater. I had the honour to submit a proposal on this question at a special conference with Comrade Gorky, but I will not be so rash as to express any opinions on poetry in the languages of national minorities, because, not knowing these languages, I cannot study such poetry. It is easier for me to express opinions on German or French poetry, or even on English poetry, than, let us say, on the poetry of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, because, as a curse of the historical past, I have not studied these languages. We shall have to learn them, and this, most certainly, will be a very good thing.

There can be no doubt that the giant nature of the revolution was bound to cause and did cause radical changes in the psychology and mentality of all sections, classes and groups, as well as tremendous emotional shocks and. new growths. Of the remarkable "old" poets who were touched, in one way or another, by the wings of the genius of revolution, we must name three, entirely different and unequal in value. They are - Blok, Yessenin and Bryussov.

In Alexander Blok we, of course, have a poet of tremendous power. His verse achieves a chiselled monumentality, rising as it does to the scintillating heights of "Retribution," whose rich images envelop the whole period of the crisis, with the foreboding of the crash and all its tragedy. "The Twelve" will forever remain a monument of the revolutionary chaos of the first years of seething rebellion, and the very fabric of the verse, with its changing rhythm, serves to convey this kaleidoscopic picture, unified by an invisible inner logic. His "Scythians" is written with an acme of expressive power and embraces a tremendous sphere of ideas and images. Blok is for the revolution, and with his "yes," proclaimed to the whole world, he has earned this right to stand on our side of the barricades in history. And for all that, we can never say of him that he is the standard-bearer of the new world. A skilled son of the old culture, he wanted to emblazon alien symbols on the gates of the new era. He is a poet profoundly philosophical and at the same time profoundly emotional. But his philosophy is descended from Vladimir Solovyev,2) from religious-erotic mysticism, from purified Greek orthodoxy with a Catholic tinge. There is something, too, of the old Slavophile spirit, to which the huckster's trade has become repugnant, and which has acquired a touch of Populism.3) From the evening's gory sunset and the tense atmosphere of gathering storm, Blok sensed the impending catastrophe with pain and anguish, and hoped that the font of revolution would, perhaps, asperge mankind with new and brotherly unction. And that is why he "blessed" the revolution, and Katka, and the "Twelve," and made the tender image of Christ march at the head of the revolutionary torrent with "stormladen tread." But can we say that this poetized ideology, these images, these searchings for an inner, mystic sense of the revolution, are on its plane? Is the "hidden meaning," the "dhvana" of Blok's poetic speech in the least akin to the proletariat? Is this a prelude to the new world? Of course not: it is rather the swan song of the best members of the old, who had torn themselves away from the sombre shores of the past, but who did not in the least understand, did not see the new ways. The heroics of his "Scythians," where the sinewy strength of the images and the music of the verse blend into the measured tread of history, express in fact a fictitious history, the history which Blok awaited. This incantation of a new race, of the Asiatic, of the primitive and the original, of a Scythian Messianism, very closely akin to Blok's philosophic position - does it not in some of its tones and odours remind one of the flowers of Eurasianism?

We love the flesh - its taste, and hue, and smell,
Like to the stifling, deathly odour of flowers....
Are we to blame if your frail bones as well
Crunch in these heavy, tender paws of ours?

We do not know how Blok's work would have developed further. It is clear he took the revolution tragically, but it is a big question whether this tragedy was revealed to him as an optimistic one. Blok had his roots in the life of the landed noble's estate, and the filigree pinnacles of this culture, with its roses and crosses, had a fairly strong inner hold on him. Socialist machinism and the flourishing of a new culture on this basis did not arise before his mind's eye. Rather he thought that with the sign of the cross he could bless and at the same time exorcize the image of the unfolding revolution, and he perished at that stage without having spoken his final word.

More of the soil, considerably less cultured, with the nature of a peasant-kulak, Sergey Yessenin, a full-throated singer and minstrel, a talented lyrical poet, strode across the fields of the revolution. He "accepted" the revolution in an entirely different way. He accepted only the first stages, or, to be more exact, the first stage, when the power of the landlords crashed to the ground. The song structure of his poetical speech, his harking back to the folksong rhythms of the countryside, to the patchwork quilt of village imagery, the profoundly lyrical and at the same time the boisterous dare-devil timbre of his poetic voice were combined in him with the most backward shreds of ideas - enmity to the city, mysticism, the cult of provincial bigotry and the knout. His fitful impulses in favour of the proletariat were to a great extent external reflexes. In his heart of hearts as a poet, he was filled with the poison of despair when confronted with the new phases of the great revolution. But deep within him there also lurked a hope that history would take another course. The "confession of faith," the real credo of his poetical work, is contained in leis pamphlet, The Keys of Mary - a work remarkable in its own way. We shall find "socialism" here too. But what sort of socialism? It is "socialism" or heaven, for in peasant lore heaven is a state where there are no taxes to be paid, where "huts are new and covered with cypress hoards," where "decrepit time, wandering over the meadows, invites all tribes and peoples to the world's great table and serves each with mellow homebrew out of a golden ladle." This "socialism" is directly hostile to proletarian socialism. "The raised hands of Marxian guardianship over the essential ideology of art are repugnant to us. With the hands of the workers they build a monument to Marx; the peasants want to build one to the cow." Yessenin raises a veritable rebellion against the "persecutors of the Holy Spirit - Inysticism," and prophesies the fate of the coming culture in the poetic speech of the biblical prophet: "That which now appears before our eyes in the building of proletarian culture, we call: 'Noah sending forth a crow.' We know that the wings of the crow are heavy, its way is not long, it will fall, not only without reaching the land, but without even having seen it; we know that it will not return, know that the olive branch will be brought back only by the dove, whose wings are knit of human faith, not of classconsciousness but of the consciousness of the temple of eternity which surrounds it." The prophecy proved false in all its component parts. It was the "dove" which became entangled in the toils of its eternal spiritual clashes, while the "crow" has turned into a mighty eagle and watches alert from its stupendous world-historical tower....

Nearest, in fact very close, to the proletarian revolution came Valery Bryussov, once "king of symbolists," the ideologist of the upper circles of the radical industrial bourgeoisie, crowned with all the laurels and chrysanthemums of fame in the Mæcenas salons of the cultured bourgeois aristocracy - perhaps the only real man in that literary world, to judge by Andrey Biely's last works with their deadly character studies. How are we to explain the historical paradox that precisely this commanding figure of bourgeois literature should have come over to us and died a member of the Communist Party, upon which all the powers of the old world lavished their abuse? Why was it he and no other who, at a time of devastating social crisis, broke away from his class and came over to the camp of the triumphant "rabble"? This is to be explained by the profound intellectuality of the poet, his subtle sense of the period, thinking in categories of continents, centuries and millions. He was himself a colossus of culture. He was interested'' in Cretan culture, in the Middle Ages, in the lost Atlantis, in the later Latin poets. He listened eagerly to the iron tread of history, exulted in the heroics of great events, and the drama of the rugged heights of humanity was forever fanning the cold blue flame of his remarkable and. avid mind. That is why he could not but perceive the rift in the bourgeois world, and, while singing of this world and still believing in its permanence, in its lasting strength, he nevertheless wrote about the coming Communist "Huns," whose "cast-iron tramp" "over still undiscovered Pamirs" was already audible to his sensitive ear. His "Coming Huns," for which the epigraph was written: "Trample their Eden, Attilal" ended with the pathetic lines:

And you, who are to destroy me,
I meet you with welcoming anthem!

It is also not by chance that it was Bryussov and no other who introduced into our literature such a mighty revolutionary poet as Emile Verhaeren with his Uprising, his "octopus-cities," his Blacksmith, Tribune, Dawns, with his wrath and thought, his prophetic glimpses of the manycoloured revolutionary spring-floods, his rebellious spurts into the future, girt around with a precious woof of brilliant images and rhythms. Bryussov was attracted by all that was majestic and grandiose, historically splendid, universally significant. And as soon as the helm of history turned, and the triumphant avalanche of the revolution began to rumble over all the plains of the former empire, Bryussov abruptly broke with the old and lived to the end of his days with the revolution, suffering stoically through the grimmest, most agonizing years, when we were being buffeted from all sides by the deathly storm-winds of intervention, famine, conspiracies, cold, diseases - woeful, barbaric, truly "troglodyte" poverty. Earlier yet, when the intelligentsia turned its back on October, Bryussov wrote a bitingly sarcastic "invective" addressed to the "comrades intellectuals"

You were in love with doom and drama,
And dreamed of the Deluge coming back,
Conjectured whether old Europa
Would perish in fire or on the rack.

That which you glimpsed in dream from afar
Has leapt to life in smoke and thunder....
Why then do your false eyes gleam with fear,
Like a startled fawn in timorous wonder?

He fully understood the historical necessity of the new order, and how inevitable was its triumph:

Though losses drive us for a little
To darkness, cold, defeat and dearth:
No, not in vain the Hammer and Sickle
Blazons its emblem o'er the earth.

Through the powerful lens of his keen mind he saw this victory coming, and, with a premonition of his own death, he wrote:

Days will shine forth with matchless May-time lustre,
Life will be song; a red and golden cluster
Of flowers will bloom on all the graves that be.
Though black the furrow, though the wind be stinging,
Deep in the earth the sacred roots are singing -
But you the harvest will not live to see.

The poetic thread leading from "Coming Huns" winds itself into a compact hall in "The Torch of Thought," where Bryussov, in terse lines, tries to present a picture of the fundamental stages of the world's history.

The poet's purely socialist glimpses of the future are scattered with a lavish hand over the pages of his works.

His "Central Palace of Machines" is tremendous:

From gloom, from chasm of other ages,
Like Titan rises from those scenes,
Majestic in the unquivering æther,
The Central Palace of Machines.

Remarkable is the picture of the coming change in the countryside - a change not consummated until many, many years after the death of this tirelessly searching poetic mind. ßryussov bewails the inevitable doom of the old, but raises his goblet to pledge the glory of the future:

What then? The future will lovelier render
Earth renascent in living attire.
New men will come - they whose strength and skill
Will force the stormclouds to rain at will,
Compel the ploughland its yield to tender,
And ocean's bosom span at desire.

A man of encyclopedic knowledge, of tremendous culture, who had imbibed all the sap of its vital springs, Bryussov suffered not a little from eclecticism. But he was dominated by one central idea :the idea of an inherent law in everything - a law which he sought for everywhere, in all directions, drawing upon his astounding store of erudition. This splendid stranger from alien shores contributed a vast heritage of choice ideas and imagery to socialism's common treasury of poetry and thought. An assiduous master of culture, he is now undeservedly forgotten, and we have deemed it our duty to rescue this remarkable figure from oblivion.

Quite different in aspect are the two other poets whom we shall now deal with; both, again, are entirely dissimilar, and each has had an enormous influence on the entire development of poetic culture in our country. These are Demyan Bedny and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Demyan Bedny is a genuine proletarian poet. The fundamental principle of his poetic work is its mass appeal, its profoundly popular character, its influence on the millions. In this respect the position he holds in Soviet poetry is quite unique. His popular character has no ideological connection whatever with the "populism" of the Narodniki, in which classes are essentially indistinguishable, being, merged in the general concept of "the people." To adopt a political terminology, one can speak here of a "union of the working class with the peasantry under the hegemony of the proletariat." This is the intellectual axis, the dominant key, the regulating principle or "social meaning" of his poetry. But his wide influence among the masses is the result of the whole diverse complexity of component elements in his work. He takes as his material the "latest news." The forms he employs are those suited to the level of the millions - the song, the fable, the short repartee, the satire, the poem. His imagery does not suffer from ornateness; it is simple and at the same time keen, readily understandable, taken from the thick of life, breathing its flavour. His language, indissolubly linked with it, is strong popular language, that spoken by the millions, the apt language of the proverb and adage, striking hard at the opponent, having its roots in folklore. In comparison with so-called literary language, it is, if you wish, primitive. But this is not the studied, artificial primitiveness affected by the refined and spiritless representatives of a tired culture, which, from wearisome complexity and the pretentiousness of hypertrophied artificiality, is attracted to a caricature-like reproduction of bushmen drawings, Negro dances, etc., reminding one of the idiotic lispings of grown-ups in the presence of babies. It is the healthy, relative primitiveness of the mass itself which finds its expression in the poetic works of Demyan Bedny. His rhythm, the lilt of his verse, has its roots in the heart of the people, and that is why many of his poems have become folksongs and are sung in town and country, in the army and navy, in the great centres as well as in the most outlying regions. His somewhat crude, simple humour, always a little sly, evokes an involuntary smile. Charged with a healthy inner cheerfulness, strong as oak, his verses, which wing their way like swallows to all ends of our vast country, acquire the force of keen suggestion and of faith in the lasting strength and invincibility of the revolution. Demyan rises at times to great heights of poetic generalization. Remarkable and unforgettable is his "Main Street," where the story of the struggle and victory of the working class is woven around the theme of the Nevsky Prospect in full-blooded and stirring imagery. But even here there is no literariness: the expressive simplicity of the poem stands out as a model of mature and self-assured craftsmanship. The work of Demyan Bedny is a living refutation of the prejudices against so-called "tendencious" poetry - prejudices which were once widely held, notwithstanding Freiligrath and Heine, Barbier and Béranger.

At the same time, we must make one critical remark, which, in its turn, will probably call forth a critical remark from my friend, Demyan Bedny. It seems to us that the poet is not now taking into account all the tremendous changes, the incredible growth of culture, its growing complexity, its richer content, the heightened tone, the changed dimensions of all our social life. He takes new subjects, but everything else remains almost as of old. For this reason he is becoming out-of-date, and here lies a manifest danger for him.

Another great - and from a poetic viewpoint, strikingly innovational - figure of our poetry is Vladimir Mayakovsky. This turbulent, thorny and tremendous talent, with his thunder-like voice, broke through to the proletariat from the Bohemia of the semi-bourgeois literary world, and, through futuristic revolt against all rules and canons, against the dry commandments of the past, crashed his way with mighty fists into the camp of proletarian poetry, achieving one of the first places in it. In the seething cauldron of the revolution, when the masses came out on the city squares, when all the ancient bastions crashed to the ground., when all customary conceptions went by the board, and the roar of the millions filled the whole country, Mayakovsky stood out as the mighty voice of the street. "Headstrong turbulence," the tense drama of destruction, the semi-anarchist fringe of the revolutionary process, unrestrained as yet by the iron disciplining will of the proletarian vanguard, were native to this impetuous nature which - with all its passions - broke out to freedom from the prison cage of bourgeois society. Angular and ungainly, this roaring poetic lion of the revolution began, lo the crackle of the machine-guns in the Civil War, to pour out the lines of his stanzas, which themselves sounded like volleys of machine-gun fire. Their rapid strokes rained down like real blows, and his whole ebullient, choppy, short-worded system of rhythms, bold and self-assured, which seemed brazen and almost ruffian rudeness to the admirers of classical musical melody, was really an apt reflection of the rhythm of the street and the square, of the headstrong dynamics of the revolutionary semi-chaos, within whose womb was gradually maturing the chiselled, organized force of the new-born society. His imagery and metaphors surprised one with their unexpectedness and novelty. His great, long, hairy arm reached down to the very depths of shattered life, and dragged up from thence paradoxical prosaic details, which suddenly started to poetic life in his audacious verse. He was not afraid to exalt and glorify that which sober minds considered to be "the end of creation." His "street" muse thundered forth the triumphant "Left March," which will stand forever as a splendid poetic monument to this heroic period. Everyone knows it, and everyone can feel in it the menacing beat of the pulse of revolution:

Fall in in column of march!
No place for quibbling this...
Silence, you speakers!
You have the floor, sir!
Enough of the laws of the bosses
Adam and Eve have left.
History, hustle your horses!

The poetry of Mayakovsky is poetry in action. It is poles asunder from the "contemplative" and "disinterested" concepts contained in the æsthetics of idealist philosophers. It is a hailstorm of sharp arrows shot against the enemy. It is devastating, fire-belching lava. It is a trumpet call that summons to battle.

During the war of intervention Mayakovsky became famous for his "agitational" poems, and in proportion as construction work was developed, the notes of construction began to resound ever more clearly in his mighty voice. The poetry of labour became the basic content of his work. While toiling untiringly at problems of language ("spendthrift and squanderer of priceless words"), Mayakovsky let loose all the dramatic power of his indignation against the life of the philistine, against the "canary," which in his hands grew into a veritable symbol of yellowness in life, against the suffocating mustiness of bureaucracy, against the mental muzzle of the respectable citizen. Enemies fled headlong before him, and he pressed grimly on; his poetry thundered and mocked at them, raising still higher the pyramid of the creative efforts of this mighty, stupendous poet, the drummer of the proletarian revolution. Mayakovsky gave Soviet poetry so much that he has become a Soviet "classic." Such are the dictates of historic "fate." He "lives on" in almost every young poet, and his poetic method's have become a permanent part of our literature.


1) Kozma Prutkov - a pen-name under which several authors of clever satirical works wrote in the 'eighties, so that the pen - name became identified with clever satire. Ed.

2) Solovyev, Vladimir Sergeyevich (1853 - 1900). Russian poet and mystical philosopher.

3) The Populist, or Narodnik, revolutionary movement of the 'sixties and 'seventies in Russia, advocating a peasant socialism. Ed.