Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Can't get you out of my head

In an earlier post I compared RS Thomas to the Russian poet, Sergei Esenin (below). There's something in Thomas's delicate interleaving of the natural and the human in his more gentle love poems that reminded me of Esenin. On reflection, a better match for Esenin is Dylan Thomas: both lavishly lyrical, celebrators of nature's richness and of the provincial; both were probably more beloved by the public than the critics. They also share a spectacular streak of self-destructiveness.

Unlike Dylan, however, Esenin's lyrics celebrating nature, the rural, and village life bore more serious consequences than a measure of metropolitan critical disdain. He was disapproved of by the Bolsheviks, who couldn't countenance such a reactionary attitude. He was condemned by Bukharin and banned under Stalin and Kruschev. But despite this he remained one of the most popular of poets. One can well imagine the literate, industrialised Soviet man and woman gaining a wistful comfort from his works.

He was a drinker and a drug-taker, fulfilling the decadent stereotype. A man of violent rages, he was an early adopter of the rock star habit of trashing hotel rooms. He was also something of a lover, marrying five times. One of his wives, unlikely as it seems, was the dancer Isadora Duncan. She was eighteen years older than him and they hardly spoke a word of each other's languages.

Inevitably, he met the reckless poet's early death, hanging himself in 1925 at the age of thirty after having written his goodbyes in blood from slashed wrists. Neither Chatterton nor Dylan topped that. This was his valediction:
Goodbye, my friend, goodbye
My love, you are in my heart.
It was preordained we should part
And be reunited by and by.
Goodbye: no handshake to endure.
Let's have no sadness — furrowed brow.
There's nothing new in dying now
Though living is no newer.

Anyway, the reason I come back to him is that years ago I memorised a few Russian poems, one of which is below, an untitled work by Esenin. Of course, to appreciate it fully you'd have to read and hear it in Russian. So the chances are I can't really share with you very effectively why I like it (it trots along with a lovely iambic bounce). But as it's been rattling around in my head since I mentioned Esenin in the RS Thomas post, and is still refusing to go away, I felt like posting on it.

Below it's in the Russian, and below that I've attempted a mostly literal translation. The latter should give you a rough idea of its appeal: it's effect is very similar to that of a Chagall picture. It's distinctive of a very Russian artistic style. It has an almost naive simplicity made uncanny through some mystical and folkloric references.
О пашни, пашни, пашни,
Коломенская грусть,
На сердце день вчерашний,
А в сердце светит Русь. 
Как птицы, свищут версты
Из-под копыт коня.
И брызжет солнце горстью
Свой дождик на меня. 
О край разливов грозных
И тихих вешних сил,
Здесь по заре и звездам
Я школу проходил. 
И мыслил и читал я
По библии ветров,
И пас со мной Исайя
Моих златых коров.

O the fields, the fields, the fields,
The sadness of remote Russia.
In the heart is the day before yesterday,
In the heart shines old Rus. 
Like birds, fly the miles
From under the horse's hooves
And the sun throws its showers
in handfuls over me. 
O region of terrible floods
And the gentle forces of spring,
Here, from the dawn and the stars
I received my schooling. 
And I thought and I read
According to the Bible of the breezes
And with me Isaiah watched over
My golden cows.


worm said...

informative aaand interesting! Its always a privilege to be introduced to new people and ideas every day - god bless the internet!

not sure I can live with the rhyming of 'endure' and 'newer' - unless it was read by a person with a strong scottish accent. Perhaps he couldn't live with it either and that's why he topped himself immediately after

Brit said...

Russian poetry translation? You are a man of many unexpected talents, Gaw!

I envisage that poem to be uttered in a thick dark bass, while neraby widows wail in the wind.

Brit said...


Bunny Smedley said...

Oh, I don't know - I quite liked the way 'neraby widows wail in the wind' scanned.

Meanwhile it's frustrating that there doesn't seem to be a version of the 'O the fields' recited in Russian anywhere on the internet. (I've just spent rather too long searching, but nonetheless, this is one of those rare cases where I'd genuinely love to be proved wrong.) The translation here is beautiful and moving in its own right, but it would be a wonderful thing to be able to compare it with the sound and metrics of the Russian original.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Mmmm. I only knew Esenin from the film about the life of Isodora Duncan, and it seems that may have been a reasonably accurate portrayal. Loved the poems; they remind me of the Russian poems that Elgar set to music.

No Good Boyo said...

Elegant and wise, Rageh.

Just read your post on Goronwy Rees at Aberystwyth. I remember disapproving tales of his whisky drinking in local hotels. It was rather like Brian Clough at Leeds Utd, or the 13th Duke of Wymnbourne in a nurses' dormitory at 3 am. What on Earth were they thinking?