Yevtushenko Vinyl and the Freedom of Discernment

Jazz Readings in the CellarAgain at PCC, thirty years ago…. Several Russian students began dropping by my ABE workshop on a regular basis, for English lessons, and one day I brought a couple of record albums to class to play on our record player, a small cardboard box with a simple needle (the arm weighted down with a penny held on by a rubber band) that scratched across the grooves, spitting sound through a single tinny speaker. The albums were poetry readings. One of the records included Yevgeny Yevtushenko reading his poem “Babi Yar” with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The other album was Poetry Readings in the Cellar, with the Cellar Jazz Quintet, featuring Kenneth Rexroth and Ferlinghetti.

YevtushenkoI played the Yevtushenko, and during the “Babi Yar” poem, nine minutes long on the album, I noticed that one of the Russian students was crying. Later, I apologized, concerned that the poetry had suggested some bad memories. But that wasn’t the reason for his crying at all, he told me. It was the fact that we could listen to this record in our classroom without feeling any kind of fear. “What a country I have come to,” he said. “We can play this record in our classroom and no one even cares.”

It seems too cryptic to end this post there, yet there was no ambiguity in his meaning, but now, thirty years later, how does one care? At the risk of falling into a nostalgic fallacy, one does care; the current reading crisis, informed in part by changing technology, which in turn seems to be changing values (what we want), may soon have us yearning for a time when we had the freedom to read and write, and to talk and listen, and we tried to exercise that freedom with discernment.

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