Asked to name their favourite poems about the Second World War, many English or American readers of poetry would flounder. A few might mention Keith Douglas, Richard Wilbur or Anthony Hecht, or Hamish Henderson’s vivid, thoughtful poems about the North African campaign. Many might reply that the best poetry was written by civilians, citing T S Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ or HD’s ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’. Strangely, hardly anyone would mention the only truly great English poetry about the Second World War: the last section of Randall Swingler’s The Years of Anger (1946). Most people, in any case, would accept the conventional view that the Second World War gave birth to little significant English poetry.
It is hard to imagine any Russian saying something similar about Russian poetry. Maria Bloshteyn, editor of the new bilingual anthology Russia is Burning, refers to ‘the extraordinary treasure hoard of Russian poetry from the Second World War’. And she cites a claim made by Dmitry Bykov, an eminent contemporary poet, novelist and biographer, that nothing of the scale and calibre of Russian Second World War poetry exists in any other literature.
A vast amount of poetry was published in the Soviet Union during the war in journals, books and mass-circulation army and civilian newspapers. Poems were broadcast on the radio and quoted in speeches by frontline political commissars – and not all of these poems were mere propaganda. Some were both good and genuinely popular. Vasili Tyorkin, Alexander Tvardovsky’s humorous mini-epic about a Red Army Everyman, is said to have made a real contribution to army morale, but there are few mentions in it of either Stalin or the Communist Party. The poem is patriotic without being chauvinist and much of its popularity was due to its humour and straightforward truthfulness. James Womack’s new translation is outstanding; unlike many translators of Russian poetry, he avoids padding and syntax. The loosely but imaginatively rhymed verse is lively, natural and entertaining, with a rhythmic drive that carries the reader forward.
Konstantin Simonov’s lyrics were still more widely read. One of Simonov’s later editors described the popularity of one of his poems:
In February 1942, when the Germans were being driven back from Moscow, Pravda published a lyric which immediately won the hearts of our troops. It was ‘Wait for me.’ Soldiers cut it out of the paper, copied it out as they sat in the trenches, learned it by heart and sent it back in letters to wives and girl-friends; it was found in the breast pockets of the killed and wounded. In the history of Russian poetry it would be hard to find a poem which had such a wide general impact.
Mike Munford’s translations of twenty-five of Simonov’s best-known poems, to be published in October under the title Wait for Me, are lucid and singable:
Wait for me and I’ll come back,
Escaping every fate!
‘Just got lucky!’ they will say,
Those that didn’t wait.
They will never understand
How, amidst the strife,
By your waiting for me, dear,
You had saved my life!
As well as being available in separate publications, poems by both Tvardovsky and Simonov are also included in Bloshteyn’s anthology, possibly the most varied collection of Russian war poetry yet published anywhere. The first part is called ‘Seven Poets Killed’ and focuses on poets who were killed in the war; the second part, ‘Voices Heard’, contains poems acceptable enough to the Soviet authorities to have been published during the war years; the third part, ‘Muted Voices’, contains poems by émigrés and dissidents, as well as the less orthodox work of poets who were, for the main part, officially accepted; the fourth part, ‘The War Remembered’, is devoted to poetry written from the end of the fighting up to the present day. Bloshteyn includes poems written by frontline soldiers, civilians in besieged Leningrad, Gulag inmates, POWs and at least one poet who collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. There are poems by such well-known figures as Boris Pasternak and poems discovered only recently by family members sorting through the papers of deceased veterans. The tone ranges from heartfelt patriotism to nihilistic despair. There are sardonic comments on deaths by ‘friendly fire’, bitter complaints about the inhuman treatment of amputees in the years following the war and a comic account of three men arguing about the nature of evil. After being shot, the men ‘reconvened to continue the dispute six feet under’.
Bloshteyn offers informative notes about each poet, some of them as evocative as the poems themselves. Her gloss on Yulia Drunina (1924–91) reads, ‘In 1941, Drunina’s division was encircled. She broke out of the encirclement with 22 other fighters. In 1943, she was wounded and hospitalized; she spent the time writing a long poem about breaking through the encirclement, but was unhappy with the result, cutting out everything except for this quatrain. It became the most anthologized of her poems.’ The quatrain reads:
Once I saw hand-to-hand combat.
Then I dreamt it a myriad more.
Whoever says war is not frightening
Knows nothing at all about war.
Bloshteyn’s note about Nikolai Domovitov encapsulates still deeper tragedy. Domovitov fought on the Leningrad front and was hospitalised after receiving machine-gun wounds to both legs. While in hospital he was arrested and taken directly to prison, where he was tortured before being sent to the Gulag. The reason was that ‘when he added up the figures of enemy dead provided by Pravda he exclaimed, “So who are we fighting with, if all the Nazis have been killed?”’
Many different translators are represented in this anthology, but most of the translations are by Bloshteyn herself. These are always clear and readable – and many are memorable. My only serious criticism is that she has been too respectful towards the work of other, less capable translators. One clearly has a poor grasp of the workings of Russian verbs, rendering the last two lines of Anna Akhmatova’s ‘The First Long-Range Artillery Shell in Leningrad’ as ‘And how indifferently it brought/Death to my child.’ This leads us to imagine that Akhmatova’s only son has been killed. The real meaning, however, is something like ‘how indifferently it threatened to bring death’. And the hammer blows of Marina Tsvetaeva’s response to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia – in which she says she refuses to go on living in a world whose creator countenances such evils – are sadly blurred by such incomprehensible lines as these:
I refuse – to do as they do.
With the sharks on land
I refuse to swim – down –
On the backs of their stream.
Fortunately, there are few such failures. What matters far more is that many fine poems are now being made available to the English-speaking reader for the first time. I shall conclude with eight lines by Ion Degen (1925–2017). In another of Bloshteyn’s exemplary notes, she explains that Degen was a ‘legendary Soviet tank commander who later became a pioneering surgeon’ and wrote ‘fierce, unblinking poems about the brutal reality of ground fighting. His poems were not published, but they travelled the fronts anonymously as part of the unofficial canon of wartime poems and songs.’ Degen wrote this poem when he was nineteen years old, months before he was nearly killed. It was famous, but no one knew who the author was. In Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman referred to it as being written by a lieutenant killed in the fighting.
My comrade, in your final agony,
don’t bother calling to friends.
Better that your steaming blood
should warm my freezing hands.
Don’t cry and moan, you’re not a child,
you’re not wounded, you’re merely shot dead.
I’ll take your boots to remember you by –
there’s still lots of fighting ahead.
All three of these bilingual volumes deserve a wide audience. They showcase a generation of poets unjustly eclipsed by the high Modernists immediately before them. Vividly and succinctly, these poems bring home to the English-speaking reader the many facets of an extraordinarily brutal war now receding from living memory. And they are remarkably cheap: they would be good value even if they contained only the English text.