Sometimes I buy LPs because I’ve read that they’re going to be good, because someone I trust has recommended them, because the songs have swearing in the titles, because there’s nudity on the cover, or because it’s the latest from someone I like. I bought Yevtushenko Zima Junction in Carmarthen market in August 1997 on a mooch about with my brother, solely because it was on Folkways Records from 1967 and it was a classy looking LP, from a classy label. Now at the risk of outing myself as an English Lit graduate, I am an English Lit graduate and as such I do love poetry and know a bit about it*.
I knew nothing about Yevtushenko of course, apart from his nationality when I bought this and it was nice to come to a work without any preconceptions, other than the fact that Russian poets, as pointed out by Woody Allen in ‘Love and Death’, do tend to bang on about wheat a bit. Zima Junction is a long form poem about the poet returning to Zima Junction in the Ukraine where he grew up, where in fact his grandparents were forced to settle following some agrarian unrest, real or imagined, against the state. It is about the melancholy and comforting feeling of belonging you get when you go home, meet old friends, relations and feel comforted, but out of step with it all. The egotistical worries of an intelligent young person looking for echoes of their future in their past.
There are entertaining accounts of a Worker’s concert, proper state-licensed ideologically sound entertainment and the foibles of relations, but this is a quest poem. At the end of the poem (couldn’t type ‘Spoiler Alert’ with a straight face there!) the voice of Zima Junction speaks to the poet enjoining him to keep love, truth and happiness at the forefront of all he does and is and, tellingly, that ‘Don’t worry. Yours is no unique condition / Your type of search and conflict and construction’ and
have me in mind, I shall be watching.
You can return to me.
I went, and I am still going’
I hear echoes of this poem in Dylan’s early work, the same youth, the same searching and the same freshness, it makes me think of ‘My Back Pages’ particularly, which can only be a good thing. Although it should be mentioned that Yevtushenko was always a bit of a controversial figure in Soviet letters, often criticised for not rocking the boat enough. Personally, my view is that in the context of time and place you can’t condemn a man for not behaving like an early Christian martyr, a poet’s worth in the final analysis is not the sum of his deeds, but the sum purity of his works instead.
I do have a weakness for spoken word material and I do listen to this one occasionally, it’s an easy listen and doesn’t demand your full concentration (unless you want to try to write about it afterwards!) and I like letting the story wash over me, finding that I always pick up on different phrases, images each time.
Here endeth the lesson, or as Yevtushenko says, ‘Hold out, meditate, listen’ – he should have added ‘for you hold in your hand, a freakin’ classy LP’.
* My favourite poem? I hear you ask, it’s by the mighty, incomparable Ogden Nash:
Shake, oh shake the sauce bottle,
None comes out and then a lottle.