An invitation to represent England at the 100th Anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway was scary enough. But to share a stage with the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko at the same time: absolutely terrifying. I remember Yevtushenko from the 1960s when I was a Columbia student. He was the pop star of the intelligentsia in those days, everybody’s idea of a poet, passionate, young, courageous, glorious to look at. Women screamed and fainted at his performances.
The conference was to take place in Tromsø way high up above the Arctic Circle in the summer of 2001, a pretty town, an island city right out of a child’s toy chest. The theme was War and Peace—Tolstoy’s grandson as the guest of honor. The moderator of my session asked me if I minded speaking first.
“If you don’t,” he laughed, “you might not get a chance to speak at all.”
“It is a little, er, difficult to stop this poet once he gets going.”
But there was no Yevtushenko in the theater when the session started. A minute or two into my speech, a figure appeared in the front row. I’m no good at faces, but I was pretty sure I’d spotted him because he stared at me in that disconcerting, unblinking way that Russians do. When I finished, the moderator thanked me especially—and pointedly—for keeping to my 20-minute limit. A Dane spoke after me. When he finished, the moderator thanked him too—again pointedly—for keeping to the 20-minute limit.
Then Yevtushenko approached the podium. He was nearly 70, hair thin, face deeply lined, back no longer straight. Even so it was clear at once what all the fuss was about. This was a hell of a delivery. Maybe his English belonged in a farce, but no Western voice soars and swings like that. Up and down. Loud and soft. Face and body in motion too. He began with an unpublished poem and went on to something about a Russian nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s swans and great big dinosaurs. But he could have been saying anything, anything at all. With a delivery like that, who cares?
And he’s a man who knew how to handle a moderator as well as an audience. After 40 minutes or so, he turned to the moderator—visibly restive by this time—and said, “Is all right? I can finish? You permit?” Then came questions. As soon as the first one started, Yevtushenko leaned across to me and said, “What is phrase seel-kee prose? What this mean?” In my speech, I’d described an American I knew as being master of the New Yorker’s “silky prose.” I explained as best I could. “Is good,” he said. “Is little bit ironic, yes?” I nodded. He leaned back in his chair, then forward again. “You sink?”
Sink? “I’m not sure what you mean,” I said cautiously,
“You sink?” he said louder.
Could he mean think? Could I have said something really stupid? I gave him a puzzled look.
He leaned back in his chair. “You have beautiful voice. All seel-kee.”
PG says the best poetry is meant to be spoken and heard. In a tradition going back a few centuries, poets generally wrote and performed their poetry because the sound and tempo of the words was crucial to full understanding of the poem. Poetry was a performance art. Unfortunately, poetry is primarily a subject for academic study today.
In the middle of the twentieth century, several poets were well-known for their performance abilities. Dylan Thomas performed his poems on the BBC during World War II and even wrote and performed a poem, A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London, commemorating a young victim of a German bombing attack.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko was an accomplished performer of his poetry as well, both in Russian and English.
Below are a couple of YouTube videos of Yevtushenko’s poetry performances, first in Russian, then in English.
The poem is Babi Yar. The first lines of the poem are:
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
Babi Yar is a deep ravine near Kiev where Einsatzgruppen (Nazi SS paramilitary squads who followed the German army to pacify and cleanse the civilian population in conquered territory) killed 34,000 Jews in two days, September 29-30, 1941. Later, additional Jews, gypsies, Communists and Soviet prisoners of war were slaughtered there.
Two years later, while retreating over the same ground, the SS tried to cover up any signs of this atrocity. The bodies were dug up, burnt, and all the evidence destroyed. Babi Yar is the grave of over 100,000 victims of the SS.
Following the war, the Soviet government refused requests to erect a monument at the site and it remained unmarked for over 30 years. An official memorial to Soviet citizens shot at Babi Yar was erected in 1976. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukrainian government allowed the establishment of a memorial specifically identifying the Jewish victims.
In 1962, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 13 in B-flat minor, subtitled Babi Yar. The first movement, Babi Yar: Adagio, includes choral settings for Yevtushenko’s poems including references to the Dreyfus affair, the Białystok pogrom and Anne Frank.
Following Yevtushenko is a recording of Thomas performing his wartime poem.
Not exactly about the writing business, but certainly about a couple of interesting, albeit overpriced, books.
From The Wall Street Journal:
Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” became a best-selling book after it was first published in 2011. He argued that people dominate life on earth because they are the only animals that can cooperate in very large groups. Such mass cooperation only became possible, he says, with the emergence of myth, in which many people believe in the same thing, regardless of whether it is a religion, a nation or an economic system or corporation.
His latest work, “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” published in 2017, dwells on what he believes to be the next stage of human development. Having learned to manage famine and war, he says people need a new challenge. He foresees an era in which authority shifts from humans and their myths to data and algorithms. In the foreseeable future, he argues, algorithms well may become so powerful that we will be able to program people just as we program computers, creating a superhuman species, “Homo Deus.” People might use this power to use in any number of ways, he argues. He says he wrote “Homo Deus” to spark a productive conversation about those choices.
. . . .
How much of the disorder that you see stems from technology?
For example if millions of people, especially in developing countries, lose their low-skill jobs in areas like the textile industry, because of the rise of new technologies, then we will see much more impact on political developments and also more and more influence on the ways the conflicts actually are managed.
. . . .
I imagine AI makes it easier for a smaller entity with few people to exert control and that masses of people become obsolete in a way? Does this prefigure where the rest of us are headed?
Yes. For all the talk of job loss and the impact of technology, one of the best places to look today is the military. It is a few steps ahead of the civilian economy. And what people are predicting for the civilian economy in 30 years is actually happening in the armed forces today. The armies rely on small numbers of highly professional super warriors and on sophisticated and autonomous technologies. I am not saying the civilian economy will happen in exactly the same way, but it is good testing ground for what might happen in the civilian economy.
You think people and technology will merge in a way, create literally or figuratively a new species, and that this new species, Homo Deus, is superhuman. We won’t all have super human powers but some of us will and the rest of us may become less and les relevant?
The basic insight is that nothing is deterministic. Technology is going to evolve. But the social and political outcomes are not deterministic. Just as in the 20th Century you could use electricity to build a communist dictatorship or a democracy, so in the 21st Century we have choices.
…Now one of the most important questions in the world, is who owns the data of humankind. Maybe the most important asset in the 21st Century is not land, and it’s not money, it’s really data. This is the basis for everything. And we are now accumulating the data to decipher humanity, and to change humanity, data about human behavior and even more importantly the human body.
When it comes to questions of mind, we are far less certain. Our understanding of mind is very limited and very poor.
AI will outperform humans in more and more tasks. This I think is almost a certainty. And it will not take a long time. When it comes to questions of mind, there we are far less certain where we are heading because our understanding of mind is very limited and very poor. One school of thought says that essentially minds work on the basis of electrochemical reactions in the brain, and that if we accumulate enough data on the brain, and enough computing power, we can hack humans in the same way as we hack computers. And once this happens you can start creating direct brain-computer interfaces and once you do that, you can connect several brains together into an inter-brain net, so I can access your memories … Now, personally I am skeptical about this particular idea because I think we are far from understanding the mind. But I know there are a lot of very serious people in places like Silicon Valley that think this can happen in 20, 40, 60 years. They even talk about uploading human minds into computers and so forth. As a historian, I say okay. I am just reporting that there are people who think this. But they are very serious people and they have billions of dollars invested in this.