...it's not dark yet, but it's gettin' there...

May 03, 2006

Wednesday Night Is Poetry Night


Thirty-six years ago, what has become known as the Kent State Massacre took place.

On May 4, 1970 members of the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of Kent State University demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine Kent State students. The impact of the shootings was dramatic. The event triggered a nationwide student strike that forced hundreds of colleges and universities to close. H. R. Haldeman, a top aide to President Richard Nixon, suggests the shootings had a direct impact on national politics. In The Ends of Power, Haldeman (1978) states that the shootings at Kent State began the slide into Watergate, eventually destroying the Nixon administration. Beyond the direct effects of the May 4th, the shootings have certainly come to symbolize the deep political and social divisions that so sharply divided the country during the Vietnam War era.
The most famous poetic response to the incident is of course Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio." Whenever I'm reminded of Kent State, it's Neil Young's opening guitar notes that immediately pop into my head. In the liner notes to the legendary compilation album Decade, Neil Young writes:
It's still hard to believe I had to write this song. It's ironic that I capitalized on the death of these American students. Probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning. My best CSNY cut. . . . David Crosby cried after this take.
Other musicians as diverse as Dave Brubeck, John Denver, Yes and the Beach Boys have all composed works inspired by the tragedy.

On the web, I found a couple of poems dedicated to the Kent State shootings. They range from the ironic to the angry. Allen Ginsberg references the incident in his poem "Hadda Be Playin' On A Jukebox," which was later set to music by Rage Against The Machine.

The most interesting poem to me was the one published immediately after the shooting in the Soviet propaganda newspaper Pravda. Over on our side of the Iron Curtain, the event instilled greater momentum to the peace movement. But for most adherents, it always remained a peace movement, except for those on the radical fringe.

On the Soviet side, the incident seems to have been a call to arms, judging by the crazy warlike imagery in this propaganda poem. Also take note of the clumsy materialist stereotypes of American youth by the communist poet.

Flowers And Bullets

by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
(English translation by Anthony Kahn)

Of course:
Bullets don't like people
   who love flowers,
They're jealous ladies, bullets,
   short on kindness.
Allison Krause, nineteen years old,
   you're dead
for loving flowers.

When, thin and open as the pulse
   of conscience,
you put a flower in a rifle's mouth
   and said,
"Flowers are better than bullets,"
was pure hope speaking.

Give no flowers to a state
   that outlaws truth;
such states reciprocate
   with cynical, cruel gifts,
and your gift, Allison Krause,
was the bullet
   that blasted the flower.

Let every apple orchard blossom black,
   black in mourning.
Ah, how the lilac smells!
   You're without feeling.
Nothing, Nixon said it:
   "You're a bum."
All the dead are bums.
   It's not their crime.
You lie in the grass,
   a melting candy in your mouth,
done with dressing in new clothes,
   done with books.

You used to be a student.
      You studied fine arts.
But other arts exist,
      of blood and terror,
and headsmen with a genuius for the axe.

Who was Hitler?
      A cubist of gas chambers.
In the name of all flowers
      I curse your works,
you architect of lies,
      maestros of murder!
Mothers of the world whisper
      "O God, God!"
and seers are afraid
      to look ahead.
Death dances rock-and-roll upon the bones
      of Vietnam, Cambodia -
On what stage is it booked to dance tomorrow?

Rise up, Tokyo girls,
      Roman boys,
take up your flowers
      against the common foe.
Blow the world's dandelions up
      into a blizzard!
Flowers, to war!
      Punish the punishers!
Tulip after tulip,
      carnation after carnation
rip out of your tidy beds in anger,
choke every lying throat
      with earth and root!
You, jasmine, clog
      the spinning blades of mine-layers.

   block the cross-hair sights,
   drive your sting into the lenses,
Rise up, lily of the Ganges,
      lotus of the Nile,
stop the roaring props
   of planes pregnant
      with the death of chidren!
Roses, don't be proud
   to find yourselves sold
      at higher prices.
Nice as it is to touch a tender cheek,
thrust a sharper thorn a little deeper
   into the fuel tanks of bombers.

Of course:
   Bullets are stronger than flowers.
Flowers aren't enough to overwhelm them.
   Stems are too fragile,
   petals are poor armor.
But a Vietnam girl of Allison's age,
   taking a gun in her hands
is the armed flower
   of the people's wrath!
If even flowers rise,
   then we've had enough
   of playing games with history.

Young America,
   tie up the killer's hands.
Let there be an escalation of truth
to overwhelm the escalating lie
   crushing people's lives!
Flowers, make war!
   Defend what's beautiful!
Drown the city streets and country roads
   like the flood of an army advancing
and in the ranks of people and flowers
   arise, murdered Allison Krause,
Immortal of the age,
   Thorn-Flower of protest!

It's comical. Despite some nice imagery (the melting candy), this poet completely missed the point. I'm not sure the communists were able to grasp the whole "peace and love" thing. Nor, I suppose, did the communist sympathizers over here understand the true nature of their revolutionary idols. They still don't actually.

Correction: I must apologize and amend what I said up there regarding the poet. When I wrote this last night, I cut and pasted the name Yevgeny Yevtushenko without really thinking, although the name sounded familiar. This morning John's comment inspired me to look up his stuff, which I was able to do, since I have a very fine book of contemporary world poetry, which Shelly sent me last year.

The truth is, the poet was not some unknown communist hack for Pravda, which I thought at first. Yevtushenko is one of the best known and controversial Russian poets of the twentieth century. Here's his Wikipedia entry.

Reading "Flowers And Bullets" alongside Yevtushenko's more famous protest poems like "Babii Yar" (which laments the Nazi execution of 96,000 Jews near Kiev) or "The Heirs Of Stalin," I was able to place the above poem in better context. The poet had a history of using his art to condemn atrocity.

That's what happens when you critique the poet instead of the poem. A common mistake. But I still stand by my criticism of the poem, which really fails to understand the American "peace movement" of the '60s and '70s. And it really was a socialist propaganda piece, which urged violent retaliation against a capitalist enemy. Whether Yevtushenko really held the same sentiment, or whether he just knew how to market a poem, is an open question I suppose.

Posted by annika, May. 3, 2006 | TrackBack (0)
Rubric: Poetry


I look upon the whole sad chapter as a photograph of the self important self obsessed baby boom generation. The people who thought that they alone discovered morality, art, and everything else.
All this crap over a minor incident. They should have been happy that only our people were killed. Confrontations between the young idiots being controlled by commie professors, and the angry young men in uniform were quite common, and something like this was bound to happen.
It isn't even big by American massacre standards. How many of these boomers ever even heard of Maitland I wonder?
Now these greedy self obsessed jerks are still screwing things up. They are about to bust the social security system, but fight against any reform.
BTW Neil Young is possibly the most overrated jackass in rock history. Well, second to Jimi Hendrix I guess.

Posted by: kyle8 on May. 4, 2006

It's pretty rich coming from the side that invaded Hungary in '56 and Czekoslovakia in '68.

Yevtushenko is an ass. And a lech in real life. When he came to my University's Salvic Department party celebrating the release of his flim "The Death of Stalin", we had to put a male grad student minder on him to keep him from groping the female grad students.

A lot of Russians still accuse him of selling his soul to the Communists, since he never did anything to get himself censored.

Posted by: John on May. 4, 2006

"How many of these boomers ever even heard of Maitland I wonder?"

You mean Victor Maitland? i've heard of him.

"Now listen my tough little friend, I don't know from what stone you crawled, or where you get these ideas about me, but it seems painfully obvious that you don't have the slightest fucking idea who you are dealing with. So My advice to you is why don't you crawl back to your little stone in Detroit before you get squashed."

Posted by: Scof on May. 4, 2006

annika adores obscure movie references!

"tell him he has herpes simplex ten, and he better get to a doctor before things start falling of the man..."

Posted by: annika on May. 4, 2006

"The poet had a history of using his art to condemn atrocity."

When it was generally safe to do so.

The beef of a lot of Russian emigres and dissidents is that he never did anything to really upset the Party. His argument was that censored poets are of little use, and he was gradually moving towards harsh criticism of the powers that were, until the point became moot in about 1986 or so. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. But, in person, he comes across as incredibly impressed by his own wisdom. My emigre professors (one of whom actually spent time in the Gulag)- not so much.

Posted by: John on May. 4, 2006

and he was gradually moving towards harsh criticism of the powers that were,
Well he blew his chance, since the old Soviet Union was the last place where the lost art of poety might have had some clout.

BTW, this might not sit well with our host, but I am glad poety is along with opera, and ballet, pretty much a thing of the past.
Modern life is far to fast paced for all of that. Look at movies, they can embody all of the former art forms, Plays, Opera, poetry, classical music, ballet and other dance. But its in a permenant and poular form.
I think movies and the novel and to a lesser extent popular music are the reamining art forms which hold importance to us today. Maybe new art forms from the computer world will emerge.

Posted by: kyle8 on May. 4, 2006

Yevtushenko was a Soviet stooge, as were most 20th century Russian literary figures. I can only think of three who weren't, Mayakovsky, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn of course. Among life's dubious distinctions, I have a minor in Russian lit. I was also a boy growing up 30 miles away when those kids were shot at Kent State that day. The trajedy was that the wrong four people were shot, but what the hell do you expect from Guardsmen. I don't think that Jim Rhodes ever lost any sleep over it.

Posted by: Casca on May. 4, 2006

really, you have a minor in Russian Lit? thats cool, I read Pasternak and Doesteyvsky, but not much else.
It all seemed so long and burdensome to me.
But Then again, I didn't much like many American figures of "great" literature either.
Fitzgerald was overrated, and though I liked Hemingway, he could get old real fast.

Posted by: kyle8 on May. 4, 2006

Casca - I think Yevtushenko skated on the edge of being a stooge, and pieces like this one put him over the line more than once. But he did express sentiments that would have gotten him jailed under Joseph Vissarionovich, so don't dismiss him too easily - it was by no means clear in '56 that Krushchev's reformers would stay on top. He took small risks, but not great ones.

Most of the official prose figures were stooges, with the possible exception of Zoshchenko, but the stooges are pretty much all minor figures. When you name the greats of the 20th Century, they were all Samizdat before the April Plenum, but stand out today: Bulgakov, Rybakov, Voinovich, Sinyavsky (Tertz), Erofeev. Of the poets, you have Akhmatova and Tsvetayeva who were not stooges, either.

Kyle8, I totally diagree that poetry had no clout in the USSR - it flourished in Samizdat. Russians of the late USSR could quote Akhmatova nad Tsvetayeva from memory. I think part of the problem with Russia then and now is that the Intelligentsia (including poets and writers) have too much clout - intellectuals are too facile at rationalizing stupidity. I prefer the American attitude of: "if you're so smart, why ain't you rich?".

Posted by: John on May. 4, 2006

LOL, well said John, I bow to your obvious knowledge, but I'd say that Pasternak skated the edge, while most of the rest posed.

Posted by: Casca on May. 4, 2006

Yawn. Dirtbags bought it 36 years ago - don't have to carry them now.

Who cares? More quarters for the jukebox!

Posted by: Radical Redneck on May. 5, 2006

quite an interesting piece

Posted by: Jane on May. 7, 2006