Flowers and Bullets & Freedom to Kill

Flowers and Bullets & Freedom to Kill by Yevgeny Yevtushenko


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  • Chapbook
    Flowers and Bullets & Freedom to Kill

    Published in 1970 by City Lights, Flowers and Bullets & Freedom to Kill features two poems by acclaimed Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. They bear witness to domestic tensions within America during the Vietnam War, including the violent repression of the civil rights movement and antiwar protests. The chapbook exemplifies the aim of City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti to bring international voices, such as Yevtushenko, to American audiences. It is also a document that highlights the complexities of the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

    By the time of the chapbook’s publication, Yevtushenko was celebrated in America as a new progressive voice of resistance, taking aim at injustice in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in the world—he had toured the country for packed-house readings, been on the cover of Time magazine, and visited with Robert F. Kennedy. His poems protesting Stalin’s legacy and his outspokenness on an array of political issues had also garnered him an enormous following in the U.S.S.R., where thousands gathered for his dramatic readings. Yet some detractors have suggested that he deftly maneuvered through the political landscape of post-Stalin Soviet regimes to become a kind of cultural ambassador, able to publish his work and travel, while more outspoken critics of the Soviet Union were exiled or imprisoned.

    Flowers and Bullets can be seen as a document of these strains. It collects two poems that are highly critical responses to violent political events that had recently taken place in the U.S.—the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the shooting of Kent State University students by National Guard soldiers. These poems were first printed in Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Subsequently, two prominent American newspapers in the United States—the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle—reported on the publication of the poems in Pravda and printed English-language translations of the poems. The chapbook reproduces the short articles from the American press outlets, foregrounding Yevtushenko’s status as a figure with a mass media platform in his own country and a mass media following abroad. A striking combination of yellow paper and red type echoes the colors of the Soviet flag. This is further underscored by the design of the front and back covers, which uses alternating English and Cyrillic letters to spell out Flowers & Bullets (ЦВЕТЫ И ПУЛИ) repeatedly.

    The first poem, “Freedom to Kill,” printed in Pravda on June 7, 1968, responds to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, which had taken place the day before. Yevtushenko suggests that the ideals of the nation are under attack from within, asserting in the first stanza “You shoot at yourself, America”; the poem goes on to invoke the Vietnam war, as well as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The American landscape appears not as a pastoral idyll, but as a militarized battlefield: “Ears of grain filled with bullets / Wave in Texas fields.” Yevtushenko ends by imagining a bloody Statue of Liberty rising up from the dead to “curse the freedom to kill.”

    Yevtushenko continues to mobilize direct rhetoric and arresting images to criticize American violence in the title poem, “Flowers and Bullets,” which was printed in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 24, 1970. This poem takes as its subject the death of Allison Krause, one of the four Kent State University students killed by the National Guard on May 4 of that year, during a non-violent protest against the Vietnam War. The day before she was killed, Krause reportedly placed a flower on the rifle of a National Guardsman and said “flowers are better than bullets.” Spurred by this account, Yevtushenko imagines flowers forming an army in retaliation and evokes a sense of the natural world in revolt: “Flowers, to war! / Punish the punishers! / Tulip after tulip, / carnation after carnation, / rip out of your tidy beds in anger, / choke every lying throat / with earth and root! / You, jasmine, clog / the spinning blade of mine-layers!”

    The two poems are representative of Yevtushenko’s capacity to quickly turn around an impassioned poetic response to current events. “Freedom to Kill” appears to have been written and published within 24 hours of Robert F. Kennedy’s murder, and the poem honoring Allison Krause within the month of her death. These topical poems demonstrate how Yevtushenko used bold rhetoric, powerful imagery, and engagement with flashpoints of unrest to reach audiences beyond the usual confines of the American literary orbit. Flowers and Bullets & Freedom to Kill can also be seen as a manifestation of Ferlinghetti’s desire for his publishing house to be a vehicle for “an international, dissident, insurgent ferment.” 

    Co-written by Poets House and Jessica Fletcher, a Poets House Special Collections Research and Writing Fellow, as part of a joint program with the CUNY Graduate Center.



    Yevgeny Yevtushenko

    Born in Siberia, Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933–2017) won acclaim as a poet of protest during the post-Stalin years of the Soviet Union and became an international literary celebrity. Known as a prolific poet who wrote thousands of poems, often about social and political topics, Yevtushenko was also a novelist, essayist, filmmaker, and member of the first freely elected parliament of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. Yevtushenko’s writing career stretched long past the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he taught for decades at American universities. His legacy is complicated, with detractors arguing that he strategically navigated strictures of the Soviet state, allowing him to publish and travel, while other more outspoken critics were exiled and imprisoned. Proponents uphold Yevtushenko as a voice of resistance who took risks to bring various Soviet oppressions to light and turned an eye to wrongdoing around the world.

    Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Gangnus was born in Zima, a Siberian logging town, on July 18, 1933. His parents divorced when he was young, and he took his mother’s last name. He lived with his mother in Moscow, until being evacuated in 1941 due to the threat of  German invasion, and he returned to the capital in 1944. Yevtushenko’s father, a geologist by trade and an avid reader, introduced his son to literature at an early age. After the war, he brought the budding poet along on expeditions in Kazakhstan, where he would recite poems from memory. While still a teenager, Yevtushenko began to publish his poetry in periodicals, and he was accepted into the prestigious Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow. He published his first poetry collection, The Prospects of the Future (1952), at age nineteen.

    After the death of Stalin in 1953, Yevtushenko became part of a group of young poets that began to test the possibilities for more vocal criticism of the leader and his legacy. Yevtushenko knew the costs of Stalinism first hand; both his grandfathers fell victim to the ruler’s Great Purge. His gifts as a theatrical orator and his poems, which explored the personal as well as the sociopolitical, made him a popular and well-known poet when he was still in his twenties. During this period, Nikita Khrushchev rose through the ranks to lead the Soviet Union, relaxing censorship, though writers and intellectuals still faced possible persecution. For example, Yevtushenko was expelled from the Gorky Institute in 1957 for his support for Vladimir Dudintsev’s banned novel Not by Bread Alone (1956).

    In the next decade, Yevtushenko was catapulted to a new level of fame with the publication of the poem “Babi Yar” (1961), commemorating the site of a 1941 massacre of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. In two days, nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered at Babi Yar, a ravine northwest of Kiev, and thousands more Jews, along with Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies, and others, were killed there in the following months—an estimated 100,000 deaths in all. The Soviet Union had refused to memorialize the site as a place of Jewish extinction, and Yevtushenko’s poem, though edited to appease state censors, was for many an electrifying acknowledgment of Soviet anti-Semitism. Lines from Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar,” along with lines from some of his other poems, were used by Dmitri Shostakovich in his Thirteenth Symphony in 1962, which helped to bring the poet to the wider world’s attention.

    Yevtushenko not only became one of the leading poets in the Soviet Union, with thousands packing stadiums for his readings; he also became one of the most recognized poets around the globe, appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1962. He traveled widely in the U. S. and elsewhere, giving readings and meeting with celebrated writers like T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost and political figures including Robert F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. He continued to speak out against Soviet government policies: he decried the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he intervened on behalf of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and he condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. However, he was criticized for not joining other writers in protesting the trials of poet Yuli Daniel and journalist and human rights activist Alexander Ginzburg.

    Yevtushenko’s political work and artistic output extended beyond the poetry he is best known for. In the final years of the Soviet Union, Yevtushenko served as an elected member of the Soviet Parliament. In addition to his many collections of poetry, he also published two novels, one of which focuses on an attempted coup of Mikhail Gorbachev. He also wrote screenplays and made and acted in several movies. In his later years, he maintained homes in Russia and in America, where he taught at the University of Tulsa, among other colleges. While his celebrity became more muted in the new millennium, he is remembered as an irrepressible, larger-than-life figure of literary history whose public life and work as a poet were enormously consequential. Looking back on Yevtushenko’s postwar break-out from the vantage point of 2017, Russian-American critic Vladislav Davidzon writes, “It is hard to imagine the scale of his importance now, as he constituted a direct lineage to the great Russian poetic tradition, of elevating moral figures to the state of political arbiters in a dictatorial culture of autocracy.”

    Co-written by Poets House and Jessica Fletcher, a Poets House Special Collections Research and Writing Fellow, as part of a joint program with the CUNY Graduate Center.


    City Lights

    City Lights has been a revered independent bookstore and publisher of innovative writing for over 60 years. Poet and writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded the bookstore in 1953 with Peter D. Martin; two years later, Ferlinghetti took over as sole owner and established City Lights Publishers, carrying forth a vision for both enterprises as avenues for the dissemination of progressive, countercultural literature and ideas. The press became a propelling force of the Mimeo Revolution, putting young avant-garde American authors, including the Beats, into print for the first time for national audiences to discover, as well as publishing leading experimental writers from around the world.

    Born in Bronxville, New York, in 1919, Lawrence Ferlinghetti grew up between New York and Strasbourg, France. He studied journalism at the University of North Carolina in 1941 and joined the Navy during World War II. On his return to the U.S., thanks to the G.I. Bill, he completed a master’s degree at Columbia in English Literature, then a doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris. Again returning to the U.S., he would move to San Francisco. He explained: “I was from New York and I tried to settle down there at the end of the war. I tried to get a job at publishers and newspapers, but everything was sewed up. Whereas in San Francisco, it was still wide open. It was still the last frontier in the ‘40s. It seemed like it was possible to do anything you wanted to out here.”

    Once settled on the West Coast, Ferlinghetti set about creating a meeting place for writers to gather and for new writing to be discovered with the establishment of the bookstore. Originally called City Lights Pocket Bookshop, it sold only paperback books, a choice intended to broaden the audience for literary work. Ferlinghetti has said that “the idea for the bookstore was to have it function like a community center.” Unlike most bookstores at the time, City Lights was open on weekends and late into the night, encouraging greater access. The store policy was to let people stay and read for as long as they liked. Furthermore, they stocked periodicals—another uncommon practice—that focused on radical politics, and Ferlinghetti has said that the Italian immigrant population of North Beach would flock to get the Italian anarchist newspapers unavailable anywhere else.

    The press, established in the basement of the bookstore, grew out of this interest in creating alternative communities for writers and political thinkers in resistance to the cultural conservatism of the early postwar era. “It was an attempt to record a certain dissident part of the voice of our time,” as Ferlinghetti put it. It began with the Pocket Poets Series in 1955—a series of distinctive small-format books by contemporary poets and writers—and soon widened its list to include not only literary poetry and novels but also works on environmental and political issues.

    The Pocket Poets Series set the stage for the press’s political and social engagement. The first book in the series was Ferlinghetti’s own Pictures of the Gone World (1955). The following year saw Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956) as Number 4 in the series, after Ferlinghetti heard Ginsberg perform the poem at the Six Gallery. This publication thrust the young press into a maelstrom of controversy; Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried on charges of obscenity in 1957. He was acquitted, and the trial proved to be a milestone in the protection of the freedom of artistic expression.

    The press would become the epicenter of the San Francisco literary scene of the 1950s and 60s, and was well-known nationally for publishing Beat writers, such as Bob Kaufman, Diane di Prima, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg—subversive American voices that exemplified City Lights’ efforts to provide an alternative literary outlet. And it introduced international poets to U.S. readers through such works as New Young German Poets (1959), edited by Jerome Rothenberg, and Red Cats (1962), featuring poems by three Russian poets—Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Voznesensky, and Semyon Kirsanov—edited and translated by Anselm Hollo. Ultimately, City Lights extended the dissident tone of the Beats into an international literary network intent on questioning convention.

    Ferlinghetti’s active life as a poet, artist, and activist would take him around the globe, informing the scope of the press over the next several decades. He is the author of over a dozen books, and his volume A Coney Island of the Mind has sold over a million copies. In the 1970s, Nancy Peters, a former librarian at the Library of Congress, came on as an editor for City Lights, becoming a co-owner in 1984 until she retired in 2007. Elaine Katzenberger, who joined the bookstore staff in 1987, moved over to the publishing side in 1994, where she would take over as publisher and executive director. City Lights continues to thrive, with some 200 books in print. Its bookstore remains a landmark destination for writers worldwide.

    The press’s devotion to radical poetries endures with the publication of books by new generations of groundbreaking authors, including social justice advocates, LGTBQ voices, and experimental writers across genres. City Lights also maintains its commitment to the anti-establishment voices it first brought to light in the middle of the 20th century. City Lights, which published Bob Kaufman's Golden Sardine in 1967, will publish the Collected Works of Bob Kaufman in 2019.

    Co-written by Suzanne Wise, Staff Writer at Poets House, and Jessica Fletcher, a Poets House Special Collections Research and Writing Fellow, as part of a joint project with the CUNY Graduate Center. 


    Yevgeny Yevtushenko reads at the University of Chicago in 2007

    This video documents a reading by Yevgeny Yevtushenko at the University of Chicago in 2007. The poems are read in English and in Russian. The reading was sponsored by the Center for East European and Russian / Eurasian Studies, the Division of the Humanities, the Division of the Social Sciences, the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost, the College at the University of Chicago, the Committee on Jewish Studies, the Program in Poetry and Poetics, the Russian Studies Workshop, the Department of History, the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, and Critical Inquiry.