An Empty Saddle for Yevtushenko
Last Saturday, April 1, outside Mandan, North Dakota, the fifty-year-old Shadd Piehl cooked dinner for his family: lasagna, garlic bread, a simple spinach salad. The wind chimes whispered on his porch, the breeze parting the prairie grass and bare elms beyond the barn. With the table set, Piehl called his wife, Marnie, and their three boys to the kitchen. He raised a toast: “To the great Russian poet and witness to our marriage, Yevgeny Yevtushenko.”
As unlikely as it seems, Yevtushenko—the internationally renowned poet, the voice of so many young Soviets crawling out from Stalin’s long shadow, the “angry young man” on the cover of Time in April 1962—cinches their memory of an era. Yevtushenko, who died of cancer Saturday, lived in Oklahoma, where he’d been teaching poetry at the University of Tulsa since 1992. His eulogies trumpet his defense of the Jewish people; they quote from “Babi Yar,” his most recognized poem, composed after his first visit to the unmarked mass grave near Kiev, Ukraine; they boast of the thousands who once flocked to hear him read. But few have mentioned his impact in the world of cowboy poetry, a genre in which Yevtushenko—unlike so many snickering journalists and dismissive academics—appears to have found common ground with Americans.