Poems by Sergey Esenin
Esenin was born in a peasant family and grew up in the religiously strict home of his grandfather, who was an Old Believer. He went to Moscow as a youth and studied at the A. L. Shanyansky Peoples’ University from 1912 to 1915 while he worked as a proofreader. Esenin was perhaps the most Russian poet of all time, for the poetry of no one else was so formed from the rustling of birch trees, from the soft patter of raindrops on thatch-roofed peasant huts, from the neighing of horses in mist-filled morning meadows, from the clanking of bells on cows’ necks, from the swaying of chamomile and cornflower, from the singing in the outskirts of villages. Esenin’s verses were not so much written by pen as breathed out of Russian nature. His poems, born in folklore, gradually themselves were transformed into folklore.
Esenin’s first poetry was published in journals in 1914. Still very much a village boy from the Ryazan province when he arrived in the St. Petersburg world of literary salons in 1915, he wrote afterward that “it was as if a Ryazan mare had splashed his piss on the emasculated snobbish elite.” He did not turn into a salon poet; after a night of carousing he would pretend to catch grasshoppers from the
fields of his peasant childhood with the silk hat taken from his golden head. Esenin called himself the “last poet of the village” and saw himself as a foal maddened by the fire-breathing locomotive of industrialization. He extolled the Revolution, but, failing at times to understand “where these fateful events are leading us,” he diverted himself with heavy drinking and hooliganism.
The roots of the national character of his poetry were so deep that they remained with him during all his wandering abroad. It was not from mere chance that he sensed himself an inalienable part of Russian nature — “As silently as in their turn/The trees shed leaves, I shed these lines” — and that nature was one of the embodiments of his own self, that he was now an ice-covered maple, now a ginger moon. Esenin’s feeling for his native land extended into feeling for the limitless star-filled universe, which he also made human and domestic: “[A dog’s] tears, like golden stars, / Trickled down into the snow.”
With Nikolai Klyuev, Vadim Shershenevich, and Anatoly Mariengof, Esenin was one of the leaders of Imaginism, which gave priority to form and stressed imagery as the foundation of poetry. Esenin sought friendship with Vladimir Mayakovsky and at the same time carried on a polemic with him in verse form. They were totally different poets. No other poet engaged in such candid confessions that left him vulnerable, though sometimes they were concealed in riotous behavior. All of Esenin’s feelings and thoughts, even his searching and casting about, pulsed in him openly, like blue veins under skin so tenderly transparent as to be nonexistent. Never a rhetorical poet, he exhibited the highest personal courage in “Black Man” and many other poems, when he slapped on the table of history his own steaming heart, shuddering in convulsions — a real, living heart, so unlike the hearts of playing-card decks that dextrous poetic card sharks trump with the ace of spades.
Esenin’s ill-fated marriage to Isadora Duncan exacerbated his personal tragedy. He tried to find salvation in vodka and gained a reputation as a hooligan. After writing his final poem in his own blood, Esenin hanged himself in a room of the Hotel Angleterre in Leningrad. A story circulated that he was in fact killed.
For the confessional honesty of his poetry he was loved by his fellow Russians. Indeed, it is safe to say that no other poet’s work has ever enjoyed such genuinely universal popularity. Literally everyone read and reads him: peasants, workers, the most sophisticated intellectuals. The secret of his popularity is simple: an extraordinary candor both in his celebration of Russia and in his own selfrevelations. His grave is perpetually scattered with flowers left by admiring readers — taxi drivers, workers, students, and simple Russian grandmothers.