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The Chastushki: Naughty Poem or Tool of Dissent?
2003-04-01

harles Ludlam, the founder of the Ridiculous Theatre company included in his mission statement his intentions to create a theater that was "without the stink of art," and this phrase of his has stuck with me. It goes a long way toward explaining why I tend to avoid the poetry section of most bookstores, where, alphabetized among the works of genuinely good poets, such as Blake, are thousands of self-involved little tomes. There is an unbearable floridity to most contemporary poetry, a groaning and wheezing desire to transform the plainest material -- to often in the form of pure autobiographical -- into something profound. Poets foist upon us sentence after sentence of banality wrapped in gasping, dizzy language, as though, through the sheer force of plumping up a bad idea with busy words, the idea can be made grand.

I don't much care for grand ideas anyway. I say take care of the poem and let the profundity take care of itself. Let me offer up a quote to demonstrate exactly what it is about many poets that makes me wish ill upon them. Here is a paragraph from a book by author and poet Natalie Goldberg, from a book called Wild Mind. Goldberg writes:

"One day after we knew each other a while -- Jim was ten years older than I, a veteran poet -- he turned to me. 'Who gave you permission to be a poet? Was it Allen Ginsburg?' I had studied with Ginsburg the summer before. 'Someone along the way has to give you permission.'"

There is a proper answer to this question, and it is as follows: "Yes, I got permission. It was from somebody named Mr. Whatthehelldidyoujustsaytomeyoupompousass." I will not go into detail right now the romantic fallacy that produces statements like this, except to say that it is evidence of a particularly despicable form of artistitis. Here is an illness in which people who do very mundane creative acts suddenly get it into their heads that they are the most special people in the world, and I, for one, can't bear it. There is craft to poetry, yes, and I would recommend that anyone who decides to set pen to paper, even to compose very bad poems, familiarize themselves with this craft. But poetry is not some secret cabal, the entrance to which is offered during some magical hippy moment by one beautiful creative soul recognizing another and granting access.

Far from it -- although it sometimes seems mired in the depths of morbid self-absorption in the United States, if you start scrounging through the ditches, you find a lot of it. Try kicking up clods of dirt on the playground or leafing through back issues of Stars and Stripes magazine. You'll quickly discover that children and soldiers, as just two examples, are quite happy to use rhymed verse. And there is often great cleverness there as well -- sly satires, broad parodies, and devious little experiments is both form an content. You won't find any of these poems sitting alongside Blake, Byron, and Jewel on the poetry shelf of your local bookstore, but who cares? For my tastes, as I have said in the past, it is for the best that some forms of poetry fall below critical radar. Give them too much credibility, and pretty soon they will be confronting each other to ask where they got permission to write nursery rhymes and barracks doggerel.

In fact, I recently stumbled across a form of poetry that is important exactly because it is disreputable. I speak of a style of Russian doggerel called the chatushki, it is not likely to be the toast of any artistic circles. Consider this example, translated from the Russian by some semi-anonymous online poster:

My dear darling - he's so nice,
He gave me four small pubic lice.
But how to feed them - how, how, how?
Because they're so very tiny now.

I doubt very much that the author of that verse ever begged permission from an established poet -- Pushkin, for example -- for the opportunity to compose that squalid little poem. Or consider the following:

My sweet darling, out of grief,
Punched a hole through three boards with his cock.
This will strengthen year by year,
The power of the Soviet block.

I must say, my appreciation for the original poem is compounded by the awkwardness of the translation. I do not know Russian, and so I cannot say how these translations compare with the original. I would be very disappointed, however, if the original poems were less vile in content, or less awkward in structure. Here are poems that thrive in an entirely oral tradition -- but for occasional online collections, there is no established publishing environment for the chatushki, neither are the authors of such poems generally known. Instead, the travel by word-of-mouth, like dirty jokes, which they often resemble. Consider the following:

Little Nickie is very sad:
doesn't want to ride moped,
doesn't want to ride his horse
wants to have an intercourse.

There are similar traditions of bawdy poems in almost every culture, of course. However, the chatushki has a special place in Russian culture. After all, where else would so vile a poetic form find itself celebrated in a concerto for an orchestra by a virtuoso composer? Russia's foul poetic tradition, in the meanwhile, formed the basis for Rodion Shchedrin's Ozorniye Chastushki. In his notes for the piece, Shchedrin made explicit the importance of this poetic tradition: "In a chastushka there is always humor, irony and a sharp satire of the status quo, its defenders and the 'leaders of the people.' Even such powerful or dreaded names as Marx, Lenin and Stalin have been ridiculed in chastushki."

It's true. The same poetic form used to describe Little Nicki's pathetic condition was also put to service mocking Raisa Gorbachev in the following pair of couplets:

Get off your high horse, Raisa,
You’re no queen, no actress either,
Don’t wear those furs for foreign fans,
In the Soviet Union you’re a flash in the pan.

I should point out at this moment that the Chastushki has a more embedded position in Russian culture that, say, the limerick does in ours. Chastushkis are sung along to simple balalaika melodies in restaurants, and the more pedestrian verses sometimes find their way onto children's albums, such as the Middlebury Russian Choir's Little Golden Bee. Although this album consists mostly of Christmas music and Cossack songs, it also contains this Chastushki:

We fell in love with the cook,
whenever he turns up he brings us butter and cottage cheese.
Our boys are so crazy,
they propose to seven girls in one night!

I would be very much surprised if there isn't a version of this in which the crazy boys in the poem do much more than "propose" to seven girls in one night. But we might expect that there are Chastushkis that lack any explicitly sexual or political content -- there is a long tradition of similar limericks in the West. When you consider that the Chastushkis has a place in a traditional folk festival, Whit Sunday, it makes sense that there some Chastushkis are composed for general audiences. After all, on Whit Sunday it wouldn't so to have a young Russian maidens make an effigy of a woman out of birch branches, bring it to a river, and dance around it while accompanied by an accordion while singing:

No longer sad, no longer listeless,
I'm going to marry Khrushchev's mistress!
I will squeeze with these two hands,
The most Marxist tits in all the land!

Although, when you consider that Whit Sunday is the residue of a fertility ritual, such a poem might be perfectly appropriate.

The beauty of this common but subterranean Russian poetic form is that, because it was sourceless and rarely written, it could flourish outside state control. So the lowly Chastushki became a beloved form for expressing dissent during Soviet years -- Chastushkis mocked everything from communist theory to the Soviet leadership. Consider these two examples of explicitly political Chastushkis:

Red cow of the collective farm, we all admire
How you give us milk and lots of fertilizer.
Instead of being fed, you were sent to school for Marxists,
Labor leaders are still awaiting cream because of this.
The whole collective farm is very, very proud of you,
Oh horned one, you're our very own main attraction true.
For in response to Lenin's own appeal throughout the land,
You heaped a load of fertilizer on the socialist plan.

A sickle left, a hammer right,
This is our own Soviet sign.
You want to forge, you want to reap,
All the same, you won't get beans.

Believe it or not, this poetic form proved so successful that the Soviet government attempted to produce its own versions, but with pro-Soviet messages. From what I understand, they met with limited success.

There's a lesson here for contemporary American poets. Before they sit down to write loquacious odes to their own self-importance, they might look to the anonymous Chastushki. Superficially, this form seems like nothing more than an exercise in giddy pornography. After all, what value can there be in a poetic form that produced the following:

Train is speeding from Tambov
Tailgate lights are on and off,
Girls aboard would -- what the heck! --
Fuck their way through ticket check!

But this lowly, ignored form still packs a hell of a wallop in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Consider the case of Nikolai Markevich and Pavel Mozheiko, both of the newspaper Pahonia in Belarus. Both were sentenced to two-plus years of community service in 2002 for mocking President Alexander Lukashenko from the pages of their paper. Among the items used to convict the men was the following Chastushki, which they presumably composed:

I promised my people that the mafia would be dead.
Congratulate me now -- I’m the mafia’s new head.

Evidence, perhaps, that the most potent, dangerous satire is often the plainest and least self-important. Markevich and Mozheiko took care of their poem -- and it is not a great one by any standards. Nonetheless, the profundity took care of itself -- with a vengeance.

Cheers!

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Posted by UkuleleKing at 8:43 a.m.

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