An Empty Saddle for Yevtushenko

By Carson Vaughan

The late Yevgeny Yevtushenko had an unlikely affinity for cowboy poetry.

An Empty SaddleLast 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.
“He said, I consider myself a Siberian cowboy! He actually said very disparaging things about academic poets in the United States, about how precious they were,” said Hal Cannon, the founding director of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and its host organization, the Western Folklife Center. “So he related to it, and related to the passion of it, the spirit. So I think it was a great experience for him and I think it was also really validating for many cowboy poets.”

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