Ilya Selvinsky

Ilya Selvinsky Poems

The biography of Selvinsky reads almost like an adventure story: he was an actor, a circus fighter, a dock worker, and an instructor in fur processing. The son of a furrier, he grew up in Evpatoriya and in 1923 graduated from the faculty of social sciences of Moscow State University. A leader of the Constructivist movement, he brought a scientific approach to the realm of poetry. As a poet, however, Selvinsky turned out to be strongest when he was not following his own theoretical guidelines. His most famous work, "Ulialaevshchina" (1924), is unforgettable, possessing the power of an unrestrainable natural phenomenon. Its refrain, "The Cossacks rode, tufts of hair over their lips," was ecstatically quoted by Eduard Bagritsky and many others and became Selvinsky's hallmark.

Characteristic of Selvinsky was an experimental megalomania; many of his epiclike works collapse under their own weight, such as the novel in verse Pushtorg (Fur Trade), the long poem "Cheliuskiniana," the graphically factual "Kak delaetsia lampochka" (How to Make a Light Bulb), and countless eccentric dramas and ponderous historical tragedies. The best of his creations are — like individual chapters of "Ulialaevshchina" — relatively short poems, to which the author himself apparently ascribed only secondary significance. Paradoxically, Selvinsky, who spent his entire life rebelling against tradition, became purer and stronger in poems of classical meter: "Kuban," "Rossiia," "Sebastopol." A celebrated poet who was his contemporary once said that "he resembles a shiny, rumbling train, its pistons and locomotive wheels working furiously, but suspended in the air and not taking anything anywhere." Despite his lack of sound judgment on his own poetry, his cumbersome qualities, and his ineffectual "locomotiveness," Selvinsky is a major figure in Russian poetry.