Sergei Aleksandrovich Yesenin, Sergey Yesenin or Serge Isenin was born on September 21st 1895 or October 3rd 1895. He died by committing suicide, or was bumped off by the government a few months after his 30th birthday, having the week before sent a farewell poem to a friend or former lover, no one knows for certain. He was married six – or eight – times, depending on the source of information. The attachments he formed with the women in his life never lasted more than a year, after which time he abandoned them. One of his wives was Isadora Duncan, and another (the last) Sophia Andreyevna Tolstoya was the granddaughter of Leo Tolstoy. He had four children by three different women; the last, whom he never saw, washis sonby the poet Nadezhda Volpin: Alexander Esenin-Volpin, waslater to become a mathematician of note and a Soviet dissident.
Yesenin had longer, and perhaps more durable relationships with men than with women. His liaison with Nikolai Kliuievlasted two years, and the one with Anatoly Mariengof, with whom he cohabited and to whom he dedicated many of his works, lasted four. Yesenin took up with Mariengof a year after his marriage (his second) to actress Zinaida Raikh in 1917. Despitesubstantial and undeniable evidence of his homosexuality or bisexuality, (he was very close ‘friends’ with openly gay poets Riurik Ivnev and Leonid Kannegiser, who promoted his career), these facts seem to be ignored in all the popular sources I came across on the web.
Yesenin’s suicide-note, written in blood, was addressed to a young Jewish poet Wolf Ehrlich in whose company he had recently spent the night, Yesenin has never beenconsidered by the Russians, who revere his work, as anything but heterosexual. This should come as no surprise, since Russian society, then, as now, was virulently homophobic, and to acknowledge a ‘national’ poet as being anything but dedicatedly heterosexual would be pure anathema.
Yesenin was a debauchèe from a very young age, given to drinking, and later, drug-taking. He was a philanderer, a wrecker of hotel-rooms, a hooligan by his own admission, who once scrawled obscene graffiti on a convent wall in the name of poetic innovation and, shamefully, he was a batterer of women. He was mentally unstable, having been admitted to mental institutions at least five times during his short life. He doubtless suffered from what we today think of as bipolar disorder, absence of impulse-control, depression, narcissistic disorder, borderline personality disorder and episodes of medium to severe psychosis complete with hallucinations.
He was a poseur, given to costuming himself opulently in pseudo-peasant garb of silk shirt, red boots and gold belt. He relished being accorded what amounted to a semblance of royal patronage when he was asked to read his poetry to the Tzarina. He supported the revolution and applied for (and was refused) membership in the communist party, because he was considered“too individual and alien to any and all discipline.” Later on he was to denounce the revolutionaries as frauds, and there is a suggestion that unnamed and unidentified functionaries of the state compelled him to commit himself into the mental institution from which he ‘escaped’ a few days before his death. His work was banned by Stalin, but secretly devoured by the masses. His poetry is considered quintessentially Russian, and despite hisviolent behaviour and many other serious human defects, he isstill considered a hero by the Russian people. Part of the cover-up of Yesenin’s homosexual relationships is the questionable account of the suicide note entrusted to Elisaveta Ustinova, with the directive that she should not read it immediately. In fact the note was given to the young Jewish poet Wolf Ehrlich, in whose company he had spent thenight two days prior.
Anyone who reads Yesenin’s poetry and fails to feel the tectonicmood shift from ordinary sense into entranced melancholy has to be singularly unfeeling and insensitive, or even in a sense dead. His poems are powerful, compelling, evocative, persistent, haunting, inducing the mind to take flight and enter the places to which it is effortlessly conveyed. This can sometimes feel like a transplant of mood and emotions – a kind of possession: such intense feelings, such losses, confusion and despair….
One feels that Yesenin’s poetical modus was that of a hunter who was able tosnatch the wild denizens of his symbolic brain from theirforest-dwelling in his intuitive self, and to conveythe essence of theirpotent and shadowy existence into poems, while keeping their wildness even as they are tamed by language. He was able to effect their forcible conversion into language, fix them on paper, and there to make them move again, and resume their lives in other minds.
Yesenin is an aberration. His are disturbing poems, with their dark emotions, and jaunty rhythms, some of which express a kind of insolence, but most if not all, possessing a powerful and seductive beauty. It is clear that he was able to see into the soul of things. His love of nature and animals, the Russian countryside and its people, rings strong and clear. Yet, he resembles in many ways what Robert Graves referred to as the anti-poet. The anti-poet is someone who falsely puts on a poet’s cover, who has an avocation as opposed to a vocation: someone who seduces women rather than reveres them, and who, far from being devoted to a mystical art, is merely a writer of poems. The anti-poet’s muse is an object of desire until it has been captured and claimed, but afterwards becomes a mere possession and a plaything, to be used and abused, degraded and then discarded. A genuine poet is certainly not given to battering the women who inspire his poetry, betraying them, humiliating them, exploiting them and deserting them. A genuine poet is never a misogynist: an anti-poet always is. Yesenin’s behaviour certainly bore this out. His heartless comment about his marriage to Isadora Duncan whom he battered and humiliated throughout their brief relationship, was that he “married her for her money, and for the chance to travel.” Even after his death, Yesenin continued to be a fatal blight on many of the women who loved him. In 1926, a year after his death, Galina Arturovna Benislavskaya, who had been his secretary of sorts for several years and who Yesenin had cast aside to marry Sofia Andreyevna Tolstaya, hanged herself on a tree growing by Yesenin’s grave. Isadora Duncan, in a weird echo ofYesenin’s death, was killed in a tragicmotor accident when the scarf around her neck was caught in the wheel of the car in which she was riding. Zinaida Reikh, Yesenin’s second wifewas murderedby the KGB in 1940.
So it is confusing – this ambivalence I feel, which compels me to examine the grey area where one finds what seems to be genuine poetry written by a dipsomaniacal cad, a drunk, and a mental case. Yesenin’s poetry moves me, but I cannot repress the feelings of disgust and revulsion whichYesenin’s character inspires in me. I think I now understand a little better how Christians feel who must for their own peace of mind distinguish the works of the holy spirit from those of the devil, particularly when their manifestations mimic each other. The works, the signs, the marvels which are his poems, are wonderful to contemplate, but they exist in the shadow of something quite monstrous – his outrageous and often contemptible behaviour.
Perhaps in his repeated seductions and betrayals of women Yesenin was re-enacting the desertion he felt when he was abandoned by his parents, who left him with his grandmother when they went off to live in the city. His boisterous uncles treated him roughly – and we cannot be sure if the roughness was altogether good-natured. He was stripped naked and thrown into the water in order to learn to swim, and later on made to serve in lieu ofa dog to retrieve gamewhen the uncles went duck-hunting. They ‘taught’ him to ride by setting him offbare-back on a galloping horse. All these apparently rough- and-tumble experiences could have been felt, even if they were well-intentioned, by a sensitive child to be jarring and sadistic, and the damage they may have caused could have led to a permanent lack of mental balance. It has even crossed my mind that Yesenin might have been illegitimate, or of uncertain paternity – for why was he the only one of his parents’ children to have been cast-off in this fashion….?
It occurs to me that one possible way in which to resolve the paradox of contemptible poet and beautiful, seeming ‘true’ poetry, is to conclude that some of the poetry was genuine, whereas the ‘poet’ was not. This speculation leads directly to another, which is, that we are contemplating not one, but two people. One of these dual personalities is a deeply flawed human being, tormented by mental illness, addiction, conflicted sexuality and a deeply ravaged character with violent and sadistic tendencies. The other produced ravishingbeautiful poetry.
Narcissistic personalities, depending on their level of intelligence (and Yesenin was highly intelligent) are able feign empathetic behaviour while completely lacking the genuine feelings that inspire it. The dual personality speculation is supported byAlexandr Voronsky who attempted to get treatment for Yesenin’s chronic alcoholism. Voronsky states that”On the one hand, he was polite, calm, restrained, reasonable and distant. On the other, he was arrogant, boastful and rude.” Voronsky goes on to describe an incident where “Yesenin, extremely drunk, climbed on a chair and began an incoherent, boastful speech. But then a little later, he recited his poetry from memory… It was masterful, hypnotizing. Yesenin was one of the best at reciting poetry in all of Russia. The poems came from his very core, and any excesses came from his heart.”
One wonders about how Yesenin’s life might have been different if he had lived today, when a diagnosis of manic depression, and possible treatment might have provided some relief from his mental torment, and perhaps provided some sense of stability. But it is also very likely that treatment, like the lethal combination of mental illness, alcohol and drugs which fueled his rush to perdition might also have dampened his creative impulse. We cannot know to what extenthis dual personality, narcissistic disorder, alcoholism, drug abuse, lack of impulse control, his violent outbursts, grandiosity, promiscuity, and homosexualitymight have been the engine of his genius. Was he an injured and abandoned child or a monster? Was he a pure soul afflicted by mental illness, or a sociopath? An opportunist, or merely an unsuccessful survivor? Or was he all of these things coexisting in a bedlam of tottering personality?
In the end, above all Yesenin remains a symbol of how perhaps Russians wish to think of themselves. His vigorous strain of melancholy, his blazing talent, his deep love of nature, his vivid and tragedy-infused sense of life, are all things we associate with the Russian ethos. The photograph of Yesenin in his coffin shows stark evidence of the undertaker’s art – the tamed hair, the steps taken to keep the eyeballs from sinking as they are prone to soon after death, all speak of a hopeless attempt to salvage a memory which begs to be retained, but which also must be sanitised, if it is not to be not expunged. The picture of a ruined life can be endured only if it is rotated to an unfamiliar angle. In the end persists the touching detail that Yesenin did not use a hangman’s noose to end his life, but that he “wound the cord around his neck like a scarf.”