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Two Poets

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Embassy of the Russian Federation
2650 Wisconsin Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20007
United States

October 20, 2009

Ambassador Kislyak, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, distinguished American and Russian friends. We gather this evening to honor the legacy of two poets with different backgrounds but common visions, two cultures with more in common than is generally assumed.

Born less than a generation apart, Alexander Pushkin and Walt Whitman captured the imagination of their countrymen with insightful depictions of the human condition exemplified in the spirit and dignity of the common man. Each was a radical. Pushkin, who championed freedom movements in Greece and the Balkans, was censored and exiled to the countryside when his poems were used by the Decembrists in the attempted revolution of 1825. Whitman, the populist, was fired from a job at a newspaper because of his “free soiler” politics and later at the Department of the Interior for his graphically free speech.

Their iconoclastic political and social views were matched by their lack of poetic orthodoxy. They were the fulcrum of modernism in an age of change. Their free flowing verse led the transition of romanticism and transcendentalism to realism but neither could be pigeon-holed into schools of thought linked to the past.

Pushkin, a poet of both hardship and love, died from wounds of love in an age-old duel of honor. Whitman, who was intoxicated with the notion that poetry might be an antidote to violence, found himself daily treating wounded Civil War soldiers in Washington. The weight of death and the assassination of Lincoln were subjects with which he was obsessed in his art and later essays.

Both Pushkin and Whitman robustly embraced national life in all its aspects. Music was particularly central in the work of each. Whitman was inspired by music and frequently employed musical terms and analogies in his poems. Pushkin, perhaps because he benefited from writing in a more musical language, inspired music-making, especially the opera.

Pushkin died before “Leaves of Grass” was published, and there is no evidence that Whitman read much Pushkin. But he knew of Pushkin and was well aware of 19th-century Russian literary movements. Late in his life he became fascinated by an article on the Russian realist painter, Vasily Vereshchagin. Commenting on a passage from the article, Whitman wrote that “like Gogol, like Tolstoy, like Dostoieffski...Vereshchagin works, not for art’s sake, but for the sake of humanity—that is, narodnost, which was born into literature with Pushkin and nourished by Gogol...”

Whitman thus proudly identified with a poet from a distant land and the realist and narodnost traditions to which he gave birth. When someone proposed to translate his work into Russian, Whitman drafted an introductory letter to the Russian people in which he asserted, “...my dearest dream is for an internationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy...”

At the dedication of a Pushkin monument almost six score years ago, Dostoevsky affirmed something similar: “Beauty will save the world.” In his dedicatory speech matched in America perhaps only by the Gettysburg Address, Dostoevsky noted that Pushkin gave to Russia an art that was both profoundly national and remarkably universal, the gift of identity in a particular place and time and a connection to all places and all times.

During the darkest days of World War II, Hitler’s forces occupied Pushkin’s estate on the assumption that if they destroyed the earthly symbols of Pushkin and Tolstoy, the Russian spirit would be weakened. The reverse occurred, demonstrating to the world that the soul of a courageous and creative people is more powerful and sustaining than the most oppressive occupying army.

Let me conclude with two observations. Pushkin and Whitman stood out reflecting societies with enormous differences but greater similarities. Russia is older; it has more frequently undergone trying times. America is young; it has assimilated a mosaic of cultural influences from many parts of the world to create its own way of life.

Alexander Pushkin and Walt Whitman told us who we are and made clear that we are cousins, if not brothers and sisters. Each of our peoples have inherited a vast land mass and each of our peoples have a futuristic mindset. We stand tall together, but never more so than when, in the greatest alliance in the greatest war in history, we fought together to defeat fascism.

Words matter. When pieced together in the logic of works like Mein Kampf, they may be used to instill hate and divide, or they may, as in the poetry of Pushkin and Whitman, be used to uplift and unite. These are our choices. In this context, I can think of few symbolic acts more meaningful than an exchange of statues of two men of letters who affirmed the importance of the common man—the real heroes of each of our histories.