Of all the art-objects I had consumed as a child, only a few made it with me into adulthood. At 4, I was given a tape-player, a pair of headphones, and several cassettes of Soviet music—luxury items, by any metric, in the Belarusian summer of 1991, just as they would be for the kids I’d soon meet in New York. The tapes were of varying quality, often veering into bad pop and propaganda, though even these had a level of craftiness and fun missing from most pop. Sometimes, however, I’d come across an artist or a song I’d (much later) recognize as great. This would usually happen as I sat on a park bench alone with my music and a loaf of keks. Because I was rarely at school or had my time accounted for by anyone, there were opportunities to wander, all on my own schedule. My life of absenteeism—that is, my wish to be in my own little corner, of my own construct—probably arose in this period. In retrospect, it helped that the music I was unwittingly feeding my tape-player so often celebrated a rich inner life. This might surprise Western readers, but the advent of Russian bard music brought forth a level of creative disobedience not seen in decades. The effect of musical agitprop—most obvious via Alexander Alexandrov’s “The Sacred War”—was, on the one hand, something for the state to tap, but on the other, would inevitably find its way into the grip of ordinary people. That guitars and voice lessons were hard to come by proved not only irrelevant, but downright supportive of the new art. If this sounds counterintuitive, a deeper understanding of the Soviet bard tradition can help explain some broader principles of art, so that today’s bards (almost always a posthumous honorific) can be better recognized. […]
Distrusting as she was of the Soviet Union and its adherent Communists (and the Bolsheviks, before them), the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva nevertheless wrote some devastating verse that was, at least in part, sympathetic to their anti-bourgeoise principles. Yet, even in her critique, there are unexpected depths averse to easy politicization. Take, for example, the excellent and ironic “In Praise of the Rich” which subtly (and not-so-subtly) effaces its subject whilst taking the form of an ode.
There are a few translations available to read online, and I struggled for a short while to lock one down for analysis. Elaine Feinstein’s book is indispensable, and offers a great selection of the poet’s oeuvre, but I found her translation of “In Praise of the Rich” to be much looser, oddly enjambed, and not as accessible as McDuff’s – even if hers is a more faithful rendering of the original Russian, at least in a literal sense*. Granted, its plainspoken quality has a directness (as if homespun) that McDuff’s more obviously lyrical translation misses, but if English-friendly accessibility is paramount, here, then his version gets the nod.
The speaker is distanced from the rich, and the gap is quite large, but already a paradox emerges since in spite of this distance, the speaker declaims an affection (from the rooftops, no less) for them. More than affection: love. Now, the accoutrements of Soviet agitprop are all present: the poor speaker’s “honest” place, contrasted with the rich, their crushed plight underneath the wheels of excess, and the next two stanzas exacerbate further. […]