In this accessible translation of the works of Sergei Esenin, Roger Pulvers shows why he remains Russia's favourite poet

"Russia's most popular poet", Sergei Esenin. Picture: Getty Images

"Russia's most popular poet", Sergei Esenin. Picture: Getty Images

  • Wholly Esenin: Poems by Sergei Esenin, translated by Roger Pulvers. Balestier Press. $49.27.

In 2016 a Russian public-opinion pollster not yet taken over by the authorities asked a representative sample of 1600 Russians, in face-to-face interviews (few Russians being likely to speak candidly over an open line about anything controversial), to name the 20 most significant figures in world history. Stalin came first, but no less noteworthy was the nomination of three poets: Pushkin, Lermontov and Esenin. In Russia poets matter. The reasons have to do with the authoritarian impulse to control what people think, and the "weaponising" of literature that has been a feature of Russian life since a genuinely Russian literature first emerged in the late 18th century. In Russia, words are actions, and poetry can be a dangerous, even fatal vocation. Esenin is among a constellation of outstanding Russian writers of the Soviet period (1917 to 1991) in whose deaths the state was either directly responsible or complicit.

Only 30 when, in 1925, he hanged himself in a hotel room in what was then Leningrad, he left a short poem of farewell, written in his own blood, probably known to every ethnic Russian with a secondary education - over 120 million people. It seems likely that disillusionment with the emerging outcomes of the Bolsheviks' seizure of power in the "October Revolution", and the perception that his poetry was anathema to the new regime, exacerbated the depression and severe alcoholism which became chronic even as he won laurels as one of Russia's most popular poets.

Readers of book reviews in The Canberra Times would know that for over a century Russian prose works have, as Hemingway put it, "changed you as you read them". But few, it seems fair to assume, would be familiar with the works of the poets in the Russian survey. Even Pushkin, who a recent Russian ambassador to Australia, paraphrasing Dostoevsky, claimed was "the greatest poet of all time in any language and of any race", is little known. That's because he was a poet.

For the British translator Anthony Wood, Pushkin is "the most elusive of Russian writers". Former Canberra denizen Roger Pulvers, who studied Russian poetry and prosody under the legendary Roman Yakobson, is no less qualified than Wood to make such a judgment, and he would challenge it. In his Wholly Esenin, an anthology of translations with commentary, he argues that in his homeland Esenin is "the most popular modern Russian poet". Some might cavil with that ambit claim, but that Esenin occupies a special place in the affections of his compatriots is plain. This is the more noteworthy given that for three decades after his death he was reviled by Soviet cultural commissars and hardly published: in Stalin's Russia, "writing in the style of Esenin" was a charge that could have dire consequences.

In seeking to make Esenin accessible, Pulvers represents a tribe of translators of poetry, courageous because the task is daunting and risky. Indeed, for Vladimir Nabokov, translating poetry was "innately futile", yet he famously tackled Pushkin's novel-in-verse, Evgeny Onegin. Conveying meaning can be straightforward, but to capture the cadences, rhythms and idiosyncracy of Esenin's language, and convey the potency of his imagery, requires a deep knowledge of Russian and its literary heritage. Pulvers usefully arranges his translations in four chronological chapters, each preceded by commentary that demonstrates as well a formidable erudition in the historical context and cultural milieu, including the antecedents and contemporaries who influenced Esenin.

Born in 1895 into a peasant family in the heartland of "Old Russia" near Ryazan, Yesenin was bought up by Old Believer grandparents, leaving for Moscow at 15. But in a sense he never left fully, because he is prized above all for his elegiac evocations of village life - soon to be engulfed by Stalin's collectivisation. This he conjures almost palpably: the aromas, sounds, colours, textures, seasons. Pulvers remarks this vivid "painterly" quality of the imagery ("the pale-grey calico of our poor northern skies"), a technique recalling both Chagall and the crystalline clarity of many haiku (about which, incidentally, few if any non-Japanese know as much as Pulvers, as his former students at the ANU could attest). Following Nabokov's principle of verse translation, Pulvers' main focus is semantic accuracy, but he has also contrived to capture some of Yesenin's techniques, including renderings of arcane peasant vocabulary, unfamiliar even to many Russians, that will send readers to their dictionaries.

In his lyrical evocations of and nostalgia for the village life of his childhood - no idyll, presented in all its rawness, with an implied curse on urbanisation and industrialisation, Esenin recalls the work of Patrick Kavanagh, mournful bard of rural Inniskeen, who likewise sought solace in alcohol.

Pulvers himself compares Esenin to Dylan Thomas, in terms of the potency of his language and imagery, and of another key aspect of his character, what a prim German critic has called his "unprincipled lifestyle": substance abuse and debauchery. Esenin's hard living appears to have been fuelled by a severe bipolar disorder. This manic, self-destructive side is captured starkly in later poems that constitute a separate genre, exemplified by the Expressionistic "Man in Black". They recall the work of one of the other poets nominated in the Russian opinion survey, Lermontov, a parallel of which Esenin himself was doubtless aware. If anything, Pulvers' renderings of these dark pieces are even more successful in conveying the essence of the originals.

In the final paragraph of his eloquent but in-plain-English commentary, Pulvers asserts "if you want to know how Russians feel about their country, read the poetry of Sergei Esenin". This reviewer would quibble that Esenin wrote about only one part of Russia, that his evocations of the countryside and villages on his childhood and distillations of angst and despair might not seduce the inhabitants of Siberia, or of the Kuban steppe. That said, if a reader is curious to learn why some in the Russian reading public put Esenin in the top 20 most significant figures in world history, and is not prepared to accept Vladimir Nabokov's stricture that to do so they should first learn Russian, they should read Pulvers' accurate, agile and deeply pondered translations.

  • Kyle Wilson is a visiting fellow at the Centre for European Studies, ANU.
This story Russia's favourite modern poet first appeared on The Canberra Times.