“I’d like to know if there is anyone here who does not speak Russian,” Prof. Savely Senderovich, Russian literature, asked the audience Wednesday night in the common room of Alice Cook House.
From the attendees of a poetry reading by famed Russian poet Aleksander Kushner, four people lifted their hands into the air. Senderovich smiled and commented that this was far from a problem and introduced Kushner.
Kushner is considered one of the esteemed poets of Russia. Born in 1936, he is a prolific writer of 14 collections of poetry and numerous essays, as well as the recipient of many literary awards, including the 1996 Russian National Award and the 2001 National Pushkin Award. Many consider Kushner a master of the lyric style of poetry, in which poems are read aloud with a near-melodic rhythm.
While the majority of the crowd was familiar with Kushner and his work, others — predominantly students — attended with an interest in Russia and a desire to learn more about it.
“I really like the Russian culture,” said Bailey Yuan Chang ’09, one of the four who had raised their hands.
Elizabeth Moskalenko ’10 agreed, saying, “I felt this was a good opportunity to learn about Russian culture outside the classroom.”
In his introduction of Kushner, Senderovich emphasized the poet’s part in the 300-year-old rivalry between the St. Petersburg and Moscow schools of poetry.
“Mr. Kushner is a representative of the distinct St. Petersburg culture,” said Senderovich. “He is a truly different poet with a very unique style.”
Kushner, a bespectacled man of small stature, read 16 poems in his native Russian, speaking softly in a rhythmic tone. For the benefit of those in the audience who could appreciate the sound but not the words he spoke, the poems were then recited in English by Prof. Nancy Pollak, Russian literature. During his reading, Kushner also fielded numerous questions from the audience, many of which addressed Kushner’s influences and inspirations.
Through Senderovich, Kushner discussed his primary influences in poetry, including prominent Russian poet Aleksander Pushkin and the Greek epic poet Homer. “Their shades appear often in my poetry,” he said.
Kushner also described how important poetry was during his youth, specifically in the 1960s, when he developed his talent in his hometown.
He recalled the quality and quantity of talented poets in his “favorite city” as well as in Moscow, a city he described as “drenched in poetry.” He expressed disdain for the way that poetry was performed during that era, which was often in large stadiums.
“Stadiums are for football … The best way of reading poetry is at home under the light of a table lamp.”
In addition to speaking of his own past, Kushner spoke of the present and future of poetry. He spoke of the changes in the perception of poetry in Russia, noting that among the “many trends [in Russia], the interest in poetry is falling.”
“I hope it will rise again,” he said. “I cannot imagine Russia without poetry.”