This past June, Franklin D’Olier Reeve, the husband of my favorite college professor, Laura Stevenson, died. I learned this, weirdly, from a Facebook friend who lives in Russia. He posted a link to Franklin’s obituary in the New York Times, which I suggest you read if you want to see a blueprint of an amazingly full life. This friend, John Freedman, is an American journalist living in Moscow, who is a contributing drama critic for the Moscow Times, Russia’s daily English language newspaper. John was aware of Franklin’s work as a translator of Russian literature into English; Franklin had been a professor of Russian language and literature at Wesleyan for forty years. After I read the obituary, I decided that I wanted to read Franklin’s memoir Robert Frost in Russia, published in 1963. I read the 2001 reissue that included a new forward by Franklin.
I read it with a strange sense of alienation as well as keen interest. Imagine along with me: a revered icon of American poetry visits the USSR, with a distinguished entourage including his translator Franklin Reeve (only 35 at the time) at the request of John F. Kennedy, initiating a new arts-ambassador exchange. In Moscow, he is greeted by the press (whose attention lasts the duration of the visit) and prominent poets, writers, and editors who are members of the Soviet Union of Writers, the government-sanctioned group of professional writers. There are readings, dinners, lunches, tours, and 88-year-old Frost hopes for most of the book, to have a private audience with Krushchev.
Frost maintains an earnest connection to what he believes is his special mission: to talk with the First Secretary of the Communist Party about the relationship between the USSR and the USA in terms of a “magnanimous rivalry” that rejects pettiness and revenge-politics and spurs each nation to excellence on a loftier plane. “Magnanimity” is his watchword. In public settings, even with the help of able translators and audiences full of fellow writers and poetry appreciators, he cannot bridge the immense cultural gap in understanding between his reality and theirs. His privilege, lack of experience of censorship, and life-long ability to do as he liked cannot be grasped as artist-ideals or even be touched upon in meaningful conversation, of which he has little. Franklin describes the gulf often felt at dinners given for Frost in the homes of artists:
Above all, I think, many of these writers felt far removed from Frost. They knew little, if any, of his work. Their notion of him as a solitary, metaphysical poet working in the craggy Vermont hills was remote from the obligations which they, as writers, felt and from the complicated political and literary worlds in which they had to live.
Exhausted by the demands of the tour, Frost falls ill in Moscow just before he is to fly to Gagra, a resort town on the coast of Georgia, for a visit with Krushchev at his dacha. To his and his entourage’s dismay, he arrives at his host’s dacha, too ill to finish the journey to Krushchev’s. Krushchev instead comes to him. Franklin quotes Frost saying, earlier in the trip, several remarks along the lines of “That’s the great thing about Krushchev. He did it, he just went right in, he’s not afraid of power. He knows what power is, and he’s not afraid of it. That’s what you’ve got to do.”
Franklin recounts the hour and a half long conversation with a great deal of detailed recollection and describes a respectful, meaningful exchange, power speaking to power. Frost, greatly honored and feeling the full weight of his public being, head to head with the First Secretary, Stalin’s successor, no stranger to ideological violence, but also having opened the doors to honesty a crack with his famous “Secret Speech” of 1956 denouncing Stalin’s purges (which he himself had participated in as Stalin’s commissar). This conversation is the pinnacle of Frost’s experience in Russia.
And now back to the 21rst century, Putin-era reader, me. The experiences described were challenging to fathom: I could identify with none of the people in the book (except perhaps for the nameless wives of Russian poets serving the food). I am not a great reader of poetry, and rarely have I pondered the relationship between poetry and real politics (actual public policy as opposed to theory). It may surprise some of you to learn that I have never been honored by a head of state. It was hard at times not to dismiss Frost as an elderly egoist causing a great deal of fuss to those around him. I could understand his attraction to Krushchev’s overt use of power and the masculine world of “Caesars” he felt a part of, and yet it also seemed like a moral failure for Frost to not have said, “I condemn the murders of your regime.” What end would a statement like that serve? On the other hand, what end did the constant refrain of “noble rivalries” and the plea for “magnanimity” achieve?
Still, dear reader, I found myself crying at the end—particularly reading this excerpt from Franklin’s 2001 forward.
There would be no point now in a Frost-Tvardovksy [the Russian writer who was to visit the US] exchange. There is no politician on either side who represents national authority, and there is no poet who bears a national emblem. Some Russian writers have taken a stand against the oligarchs, and some Americans, against corporate financing. Many on both sides, however, have simply tucked their heads in the sand—or, like some Russian “stars” from the Sixties, gone abroad or joined the dominant forces. Freed from political censorship, Russian poetry today makes no strident protest. . . . Never mind that now good poets’ “kind of writin’ is not the sort of President would read or have sympathy with,” today’s presidents simply don’t read.
I can’t believe that today’s presidents don’t read. But I’m very able to believe that they don’t read poetry. If they do, the keep it to themselves.
But of course the worlds of art making and politics continue to overlap, in both countries. I don’t know whether or not it’s true that “Russian poetry today makes no strident protest,” but certainly Russian theatre does. (And let us not forget the ongoing imprisonment of three members of Pussy Riot.) Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin characterizes the current relationship between the Russian power-elite and literature:
The new authoritarianism in Russia could not care less about literature; its priority is to control the electorate through television. For most of Russia’s population, television is the main source of information. In the twenty-first century, the “zombie box” presents its audience with the same painfully familiar picture: the holy Fatherland—though now without any ideology—surrounded by an ocean of enemies led by the United States, and only the father of the nation can save the country from its foes. (From “Poets and Czars from Puskin to Putin: The Sad Tale of Democracy in Russia”)
It’s harder but not impossible to level blows about the indifference towards poetry (or even arts in general) expressed by Washington’s power elite, although I feel fairly secure in characterizing the arts as a frivolous “non-issue” to the myriad powers that be. Certainly there are years of decreased funding and threats of elimination posed to both the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We continue to enjoy the tradition of having a Poet Laureate (Natasha Tretheway is the current one, and she is the first one in years to have moved to Washington DC to promote her role within the context of government).
Obama is known to have shared some heady observations about T. S. Eliot in his younger days, as well as having written poetry. A Google image-search on “Obama reading” yields an encouraging mosaic of the president reading books to children and simply reading in general—as phony as most of this may be, it at least nods to the idea that reading is worthwhile. Even the president does it. It’s an amusing exercise to compare these results to “Putin reading,” (this led me to a 2012 article about Putin having proposed a new, 100-book canon of Russian literature—yay!). I can be persuaded that poetry and even poets still wield power in the concrete sense of the word. But it would require a lot more evidence.
Photos, top to bottom:
Robert Frost and Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1963
Franklin D. Reeve
Robert Frost and Krushchev
Barack Obama and poet Rita Dove