Recently, I’ve been trying to cut down the massive piles of unread books in my house. By reading them, not by going on some kind of iconoclastic purge of weird books I thought I might want to read at some point in the last decade.
Some of these books have turned out to be surprising gems, some have turned out to be awful, and some have ended up being – as everything tends towards when averaged out – very mediocre. This, Yesenin: The Selected, is an example of the latter.
Sergei Yesenin was a Russian poet. When I read about him, when I bought a book by him, why I thought his work was something I should consume, I honestly don’t know. It’s been there, in a pile, for years and years and years. But it was slim, and I had a few spare hours before the predicted carnage of a double bank holiday weekend in the hospitality industry, so I thought I’d give it a go.
The paperback copy gives me no information about the poet other than his nationality (which I could guess/remember from his name), but it doesn’t tell me when he was writing or who he was writing for. I chose to not look this up and go in bareback, missing the prophylactic of cultural context. When I’d finished the collection and made my conclusions, I sprinted over to Wikipedia like it were a cocktail bar and this was the evening, and boy oh boy was I surprised by what I learnt.
The 56 poems in this collection have been translated by Yuri Stepanenko, a possible pseudonym that has no other literary translation to his name (according to Google). The translation – as well as the editing – is ropey. There are misspellings, there is incorrect phrasing, punctuation is missing and often the wrong – though similar – word is used. Though some of these poems do feel like they’ve been translated properly and time has been spent on them, a good quarter feel like they’ve been banged into Google Translate and left to dry on the side. This is a very cheap publication, a fact proven by the “printed by Amazon.co.uk” I found hidden in small print at the bottom of the last page. [Insert argument here about Amazon not caring about content, about the wider cultural risks of the death of the publishing industry, how arbiters of taste and sense are important, etc etc etc*] However, for all the feeling of being rushed and incomplete, this collection does offer an insight into the poet’s work.
Without knowing anything about him, I could’ve told you that Yesenin was a lyric poet, interested in nature imagery, in youth, in love, in romance, in regret. His verse is pastoral, but less bucolic and more provincial; his interests are in ageing and in nostalgia. His verse – particularly in this translation – feels like something written by an old man in the first half of the 19th century. Pre-Dostoevsky, but trudging towards the same ideas and ideals of self-hatred and regret. But not in a refined way. I thought, to be honest, that these poems that lean towards an existentialistic world view may in fact have been an influence on ol’ Dosty, but I was completely wrong: it turned out that Yesenin died in 1925 aged only 30. He was writing for about a decade, comfortably in the 20th century, through the Russian revolution and the rise of Stalin who, some people believe, had Yesenin killed in a faked suicide.
What is shocking to me is Yesenin’s age, and how despite being young he writes of youth and love and romance as long past, despite continuing to have love affairs throughout his life, many of them with culturally prominent women, such as Isadora Duncan.** Yesenin exhibits the same kind of bitterness and short-sightedness in his poems that I do in this blog, and it gives me a rare moment to reflect on the ridiculousness of my position and tone and notion that my life is “behind me”. No, my “youth” is behind me, my “life” is a stream in which I’m bobbing along, and middle age and death is as much a part of “life” as “youth” is. It just happens to be less “fun”, whatever that means.
The highlights in here are few and far between, but there is a beautiful poem about making eye contact in the street with a woman the poet had a one night fling with years before, there’s lots of good material about death and about the ageing of one’s parents and grandparents, and there’s a wonderful closing couplet in the poem that functioned, effectively, as his suicide note:
To perish in this life is nothing novel,
Although to live, of course, is nothing new.
In its use of rhyme and metre, these poems feel old and out-dated. In their expression of a young man feeling old they also feel dated. However, “old poets write about women, young poets write about death” is an adage that doesn’t apply to Yesenin – his continual nostalgia for a life he was actually living feels a little hollow. This is Byron-type poetry without the excuse of good poetry not having been invented yet. This is a collection of old ideas, unoriginally explored, and Yesenin writes with an ignorance of city-living that is not really in keeping with the modern world. All in all, the fact that Yesenin was considered culturally important is a disappointing fact when read in context of the literature of a country that had already produced so many stellar and modern-feeling works before Yesenin was even born.
This is backwards-looking poetry, and I can perhaps see why it was popular with the youth of Yesenin’s day at the time, but in the same way that no one is listening to all those derivative indie rock bands me and my peers went mad for in the noughties any more, no one is going to read Yesenin and be wowed. As I said, imagine Dostoevsky’s ideas but half-baked and written in an 18th-century voice that didn’t write poetry well.
The translator can’t be held accountable for all these faults…
* All of this is heavily steeped in confused self-hatred because obviously the publishing world have rejected my numerous propositions made towards them, whereas Amazon would let me publish anything I fucking wanted, regardless of quality. See my never-hyped eBook, Tell Me About Love: The Blood, Come and Vomit-Splattered Provincial Writings of S. Manley Hadley, currently boasting a 1 star rating on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Tell-About-Love-Vomit-Splattered-Provincial-ebook/dp/B00CVFKY58/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8
** This is probably how I came to read about Yesenin long ago: Duncan is an individual who crops up in the biographies and memoirs of many of the people of that era I find compelling. I probably read about her being briefly married to a Russian poet half her age, pinged off an Amazon order for his poems immediately, then sank back into whatever literary stupor I was in at the time.
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