‘Life’s certainties? Death, taxes and crap adolescent poetry’. So said Elmer Rautchberg in 1957. And it can’t have been the first time that someone publicly railed against substandard teenage verse. The wild scribblings of angsty young adults have, for all the passion contained within, rarely set the world alight. Though volumes of early works by some of the age’s greatest sonnetists continue to shift significant amounts, very few of them have garnered critical praise.
It’s true: waves of cynicism lick the beach of my brain repeatedly, but still I will confess that I have a slight weakness for crap adolescent poetry. Not my own of course (heaven forbid) – nor that of your ordinary troubled citizen. But when someone emerges with a piece of early writing by a contemporary master, I am almost always intrigued. It may lack the skill, poise and sense of later work, but it just as often delivers an unexpected punch: a line or two, maybe, of surprisingly wonderful verse – or the tentative appearance of themes integral to maturer writings.
I was thus thrilled to see that some of Pyetr Turgidovsky’s youthful work has recently been republished (against the author’s wishes, I believe) in a Russian literary magazine. Who knew that the young Turgidovsky used to pour his heart into poetry? And who’d have imagined that it would be this good?
I want to die by the side of the road (written at the age of sixteen and by far the best of the present lot) is nothing short of a classic. Of course, adolescent self-loathing is pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the mad Russian miser, but it’s nonetheless a shock to see how good he was this early on. This, truly, is moving stuff. And they will scrape me up/and they will lay me down/and they will kick me clean/across the gravel. And what about those lines about the hedgehogs and the crows? And the description of the maggots? The Russian critic Alexander Hrabav says it best: ‘Imagine The Good Samaritan, but without the goodness’ – a line that could just as well describe everything Turgidovsky has written since, much of which appears to have grown like mould from the festering wound of this poignantly shocking early work.