Thursday 12 February 2009

Tomas Venclova: The Labours of Poetry: Between Classicism and Ruins by Ellen Hinsey

In Herodotus’ Histories one finds the story of the two Spartans who offer themselves in atonement for a wrong committed by their democratic society. The tyrant who receives them tries to dissuade them from such extreme measures, suggesting instead that they switch sides and accept to live under tyranny. Their response, among the most moving in the history of world literature, is not only poignant but astounding: ‘You who have not experienced liberty do not know if it is sweet or not. If you knew what freedom was, you would advise us to fight for it not just with spears but with battle axes.’ For the text, written nearly 2,500 years ago, has already established the essential coordinates of an ethical geometry that remain valid to this day: at the base is the conflict between individual conscience and the threat of tyranny. And above both, in the freedom of the telling of the story, floats the word.

Tomas Venclova, one of the last of a generation of poets in the great European tradition, is a writer with a lived experience of both tyranny and the power of the word. Born on 11 September 1937 in Klaipeda, Lithuania, he took his degree (interrupted for a time due to ‘forbidden’ literary activities) in Lithuania’s capital city of Vilnius. He continued his studies in semiotics and Russian literature at the university of Tartu, returning to the University of Vilnius to teach. In addition to writing poetry and literary criticism, he translated writers such as T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Charles Baudelaire and Osip Mandelstam into Lithuanian. During this period he also travelled extensively in the Eastern Bloc, in particular to Moscow and Leningrad, where he made the acquaintance of the great Silver Age Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, as well as a generation of younger poets, including Natalia Gorbanevskaia and Joseph Brodsky, who would become life-long friends. Already in strong disagreement with Soviet policies following the 1956 invasion of Hungary, his outspoken involvement in the 70s with dissident politics – which included being a founding member of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group – led to a ban on publishing, exile in the West, and the stripping of his Soviet citizenship in 1977.

Joseph Brodsky, in his essay on Venclova’s work, ‘Poetry as a Form of Resistance to Reality’,[1] observed that Venclova’s involvement in such dissident activities ‘bordered on foolhardiness’. This remark is best understood in light of Lithuania’s particular fate in the second half of the 20th century. Venclova was born during the long-fought for but short-lived independence that Lithuania experienced during the interwar period 1918–40. At the start of the Second World War, Tomas and his parents were forced to leave Klaipeda (formerly the German city of Memel, occupied by Germany early in the war) and were relocated to Lithuania’s interwar capital, Kaunas. In 1940, the entire country was annexed by the Soviet Union, and during the first year of the war an estimated 17,000 Lithuanians were deported by the Russians. In June 1941, the country was invaded by Germany. During this period the Venclova family members were separated, and Tomas’s mother was briefly arrested. Over the next four years, more than 170,000 Lithuanians would be killed, including almost the entire Jewish population of the country. In the summer of 1944 when the Germans retreated, the Soviets reoccupied Lithuania, and while the exact number of those deported to Siberian labour camps at the end of the war and up until Stalin’s death is disputed, it is estimated at 140,000,[2] of which approximately 30 percent perished. The vice-like grip of these successive occupations, and the ‘long historical winter’ that followed in its wake, greatly suppressed Lithuanian culture and national aspirations. At the time of Venclova’s participation in the fragile dissident movement in 1976, support of Lithuanian human rights was indeed foolhardy. The country’s independence still lay another decade and a half in the future.

Venclova’s experience of growing up in the shadow of these post-war ruins is an integral part of his work. For, as in many European cities, the ruin that surrounded him was not merely metaphorical: in his writings he tells how, on his very first day of school, he got lost in Vilnius’ ruins and wandered for four hours in search of his house. Half of the city was destroyed, and on certain streets, every other house was burned out. Yet by some miracle, all the city’s churches had survived, together with certain other monuments from the capital’s architectural past. As a young man, Venclova came to regard these vestiges as a sign – one that ‘made a statement and exacted a demand’.[3] During the years of Communist monotony and repression, he memorised Vilnius’s architectural details down to the last window frame and column, and at difficult moments in his life he would stand in one of the city’s squares and allow the sheer presence of their historical continuity to lift his spirit. These vestiges represented the remains of a coherent world, a world that – however far off that eventuality might be – could one day, given enough patience, rise from the debris.

If it can be said that formal choices for poets are an extension of autobiography and a reflection of intimate belief, a reading of Venclova’s work affirms how such a firsthand encounter with des-truction can have the counter-effect of forging a driven uprightness. This personal and aesthetic credo was further strengthened by the moral compromises Venclova witnessed close to hand, not the least of which were those made by his father, a high-ranking Soviet official and poet, to whom he addresses a conflicted, poignant elegy in The Junction. After leaving Lithuania, Venclova travelled in Europe and in the United States, taking a position at Yale University, where he has been a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures for the past 25 years. During this period in exile he continued to write poetry, which has been translated into more than 20 languages. He has also written literary biography, cultural commentary and essays, many of which concern the fates of persecuted writers. Throughout his work he addresses the lived experience of totalitarianism and the lessons and warnings that can be gleaned from its dark historical passage.

But, the uprightness one finds in Venclova’s work is not only ethical, but also material and concrete – it is the technical basis out of which his poems arise. Long ago Venclova chose as his poetic vehicle a modern and “rebellious” form of classicism. While the formality of his poems might at first glance seem anachronistic to the Western reader, over time the implications of their logic become urgently clear. For Venclova’s brand of classicism has nothing to do with political conservatism (as the aesthetic is sometimes portrayed in the West) but rather the contrary: it is a way to preserve the conditions that give rise to freedom of thought, democracy and culture in general. Throughout the course of his oeuvre Venclova has affirmed that, in the face of the destructive forces of history, one of poetry’s tasks is to be ‘filled to the limits with harmony and sense, so that it might resist the monotony and predictability of the world outside’.[4] For Venclova, as well as for other poets with whom he shares this poetic vision, including Anna Akhmatova, a poem’s clarity, rhythm, syntax and composition constitute in them-selves a moral task.

To this end, Venclova’s poems employ a vast range of traditional forms and techniques, including variations on metrical schemes, intricate rhyme strategies and other resources from poetry’s inheritance. These technical elements are set against the poems’ contents and landscapes. If in his earlier volume of selected poems in English, Winter Dialogue, there is a concern with endurance, and a search for absolutes in the face of adverse conditions both in Lithuania and in exile, in his most recent work we find the figure of a poet returning from exile, surveying what has occurred, what buildings still stand, and the fates of those one loved. And while these poems are filled with melancholy at the passage of time and the poignancy of anticipated mortality, there is also a sense of affirmation. For despite everything, each element that is salvaged constitutes a form of victory. And in this light Venclova’s poems, with their stanzas that fit one atop the other, begin to appear like classical columns, which slowly rise towards the mythical silence where Venclova believes poetry begins and ends. His poems at once harbouring the memory of culture and becoming an enactment of culture itself – a testimony to all that can be, and is, preserved from the vicissitudes of History.

Understandably, the task that Venclova has set himself is a formidable one. And there are times when it seems that the poet believes that by sheer will and virtuoso technique alone, the tottering ruins of the world can be held together – just. Yet Venclova also allows for the possibility that this spiritual, philosophical and moral challenge might fail. And in the end, despite his cautious optimism, he perceives in this neither cause for surprise nor ultimate despair. A metaphysical poet, his work maintains the traditional task of the writer’s reflections on ultimate things that began before us and will exist after us, and thereby makes peace with the uncertain future that we create for ourselves. If classicism is the vehicle for Venclova’s craft, then his voice – the wise and patient voice that inhabits this poetic world – is not unlike that of Zeno of Citium, who sat teaching beneath the columns of the stoa’s portico in ancient Athens. For Venclova’s philosophy is not far from that of the Stoics who espoused the idea that good lies in the soul itself, in wisdom and self-control, and believed in a detachment that embraced pain and misfortune, life and death.

At the end of his most recent book in Lithuanian, Sankirta (The Junction), there is a poem in which the poet visits the lake district on the outskirts of Berlin, and stands on the shores of the Wannsee, home to the conference house in which the Nazis consolidated pol-icy for the extermination of Europe’s Jews. In ‘In the Lake Region’ the poet has been watching for days the restless movements of a black crow, and hypothesises that ‘The ancients would have said her / stubbornness augurs something.’ The poem goes on to say:

The past does not enlighten us – but still, it attempts
to say something. Perhaps the crow knows more about us
and about history’s dirt than we do ourselves.
Of what does she want to remind us? Of the black photos, the black headphones
of radio operators, black signatures under documents,
of the unarmed with their frozen pupils – of the prisoner’s boot or the trunk
of the refugee? Probably not. We will remember this anyway,
though it won’t make us any wiser. The bird signifies only stoicism
and patience. If you ask for them, your request will be granted.

Venclova’s most recent work offers us a vision of our time and returns to us fragments of civilisation’s aspirations, so often treated ironically by modern poetry. But Venclova would be the first to caution us against the belief in any easy solution. One might hear him saying that the benefits of an outlook such as his might be small, amounting only to ‘stoicism and patience’. But in times when the recovery of these qualities is paramount, in reading Venclova’s work you may find, if you ask for them, ‘your request will be granted’.

[1] Tomas Venclova, Winter Dialogue, translated by Diana Senechal (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1997), p. xiv. Foreword by Joseph Brodsky.
[2] Statistics for this essay were provided by Dr Ceslovas Laurina-vicius at the Lithuanian Institute of History in Vilnius. Current research is being carried out to establish ever more exact figures for these events.
[3] Tomas Venclova, Forms of Hope (Riverdale-on-Hudson: Sheep Meadow Press, 1999), p. 21, ‘A Dialogue about a City: Czesław Miłosz and Tomas Venclova’.
[4] Forms of Hope, p. 138. ‘Three Russian Poets’.

This essay by Ellen Hinsey introduces her edition, The Junction: Selected Poems by Tomas Venclova, translated by Ellen Hinsey, Constantine Rusanov and Diana Senechal (Bloodaxe Books, 2008).

Lithuania’s Tomas Venclova is one of Europe’s greatest living poets. His work speaks with a moral depth exceptional in contemporary poetry. Venclova’s poetry addresses the desolate landscape of the aftermath of totalitarianism, as well as the ethical constants that allow for hope and perseverance. The Junction brings together entirely new translations of his most recent work as well as a selection of poems from his 1997 volume Winter Dialogue. Tomas Venclova was born in 1937 in Klaipeda, Lithuania. After graduating from Vilnius University, he travelled in the Eastern Bloc, where he met and translated Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak. Venclova took part in the Lithuanian and Soviet dissident movements and was one of the five founding members of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group. His activities led to a ban on publishing, exile and the stripping of his Soviet citizenship in 1977. Since 1985 Venclova has taught Slavic languages and literature at Yale University.

Ellen Hinsey has published three books of poems: Update on the Descent (Bloodaxe Books, 2009), a 2007 National Poetry Series Finalist; The White Fire of Time (Wesleyan University Press, USA, 2002; Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2003); and Cities of Memory (1996), winner of the Yale Younger Poets Award. She also edited and co-translated Tomas Venclova’s The Junction: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2008). Her poems, essays and translations have appeared widely in publications such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Poetry Review, Poetry and The Irish Times. Her translations of contemporary French fiction and memoir are published with Riverhead/Penguin Books. Her other awards include a Berlin Prize Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a Lannan Foundation Award. She has lived in Paris since 1987, and teaches writing and literature at Skidmore College’s program and the French graduate school, the École Polytechnique.

Tomas Venclova and Ellen Hinsey are giving readings from their two new books in Britain and Ireland during March and April 2009, including at Poetry Now (Dun Laoghaire), Dove Cottage (Cumbria), Newcastle University, and in London at the British Library and British Lithuanian Society.

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