When NonDoc launched, we had a fluttering idea that we might run the occasional poem. Initially, we paired a few with Mike Allen’s early comics in what was then-branded Sunday Funday. Eventually, as more poems came in and as Mike began adding some prose to his cartoons, poetry pieces became standalone posts, often featured on Saturdays.
Those poetry pieces have reached us from across the world, a fact none of us at NonDoc could have anticipated. Talented wordsmith James Coburn helped connect our platform with a cadre of budding international voices. Soon we were creating author boxes on our site for writers in Nepal, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Kuwait and Iraq, not to mention various locations in the U.S.
Unbeknownst to me, an international figure in the world of poetry had been living just up the turnpike for several years: Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a famed Russian critic of anti-Semitism and tyranny.
He died April 1 at the age of 84. He had taught at Tulsa University since the mid 1990s and had made Oklahoma his second home. The New York Times‘ remembrance of his life is well worth reading, as is this article by Ken Miller of the Associated Press.
One beauty of poetry can be its ability to convey raw emotion in smooth verse. Yevtushenko’s signature poem — published in 1961 — did just that. Titled Babi Yar after a ravine in Ukraine where German soldiers massacred 33,000 Jewish people in 1941, the poem opens with a chilling line:
No monument stands over Babi Yar
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
That version of the poem was translated into English by Benjamin Okopnik in 1996. In the YouTube video above, Yevtushenko can be heard speaking both the original Russian and English.
In the end, I’m saddened to realize I will have never taken the trip up the turnpike to meet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
The good news, however, is that we will have his verse for eternity.
(Editor’s note: A longtime supporter of NonDoc suggested the topic of this post.)