March 01, 2003

A Gogol for the 20th Century

Nikolai Zabolotsky, one of the great poets of twentieth-century Russia, remains little known in the West. Part of his obscurity stems from the fact that his poetry is difficult to categorize. The last link in the Russian Futurist tradition, Zabolotsky was also the first significant poet to come of age in the Soviet period. He endured eight years in labor camps and exile as an anti-Soviet poet, only to be taken to task by Western critics for having abandoned the modernism of his early verse. Unfortunately, the politics of his life have tended to cloud the extraordinary originality of his poetic voice.

Zabolotsky’s poetry can be divided into three distinct periods: the daring verbal experiments of his early work (1926-1928); the visionary poems of his middle period (1929-1938); and the more conventionally philosophic verse of his post-imprisonment years (1946-1958). The poems in his 1929 volume of verse, Stolbtsy (Scrolls), typify the early phase as they carry the reader on a strange circuit of Leningrad, in which waking and dream states, the real and the unreal, merge into one. Leningrad’s elite reading public found Zablotsky’s voice new and exciting, and his book sold out almost immediately.  But critics faulted him for what was perceived as his depiction of a timeless vulgarity from which there was no escape. This marked the beginning of a press campaign against Zabolotsky, where he was repeatedly attacked for the alleged mockery of his verse.

Zabolotsky’s middle phase is most notable for three long dramatic poems in which his philosophy of man’s role in nature begins to enrich lyrics still marked by striking verbal experimentation. “Torzhestvo zemledeliya” (“The Triumph of Agriculture,” 1929-30), “Bezumny volk” (“The Mad Wolf,” 1931), and “Derevya” (“The Trees,”1933) serve as a microcosm of his poetic world. But critics called the masterly “Triumph of Agriculture” a “kulak poem,” and the government printing house suppressed his second volume of verse. In an effort to survive, he turned to children’s poetry and translation.

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