I toast a special anniversary at midnight, though not, perhaps, the one you’re thinking of. The poet Tomas Venclova turns 75, and a few days ago returned to Vilnius in his native Lithuania to celebrate the occasion. (Frankly, I prefer honoring this anniversary – it’s a refusal to let killers own this day.)
I think the Lithuanian writer would agree that poets are the means by which language lives. So what better way to honor him than to celebrate his native tongue, spoken by a few million people? In his own words:
“Matters get more tangled when we speak about the poetry of a small country, a country that is – or was, just until a few months ago [this was written in 1990 – ED] – under the rule of a foreign-speaking, totalitarian empire. Lithuania is one of those small countries. Besides, the Lithuanian language differs from its friends in misfortune. It is one of the classical Indo-European languages, like Latin, Ancient Greek, Gothic, or Old Slavonic; but it is the only one of them that is still alive and is by no means near to being dead, regardless of sufficiently adverse conditions …
“On the whole, the Lithuanian language is by no means delicate or weak. In an odd way, a poet’s direct feeling also confirms this. The Lithuanian language is harsh, jagged, not especially musical, with consistency and texture that bring a feldspar to mind. Its verb is sculptural in catching a hundred nuances of evolution and change. It is especially because our language is palpable and graspable that writing in Lithuanian is a happy and gratifying preoccupation.”
It seems to have been a happy and gratifying preoccupation for him, though often a lonely one. I cannot say this is now my favorite poem by him, but it’s my first favorite, and serves as a sort of ars poetica:
Above all, though it’s hard, love language –
humbled in newspapers, obituaries saturated with lies,
in the bedroom’s close darkness, the informer’s confession,
in the cry at the bazaar, trenches, the stench of hospital wards,
in third-rate theatres, secret police offices, on lavatory walls.
In grey buildings where the stairwell’s shaft is guarded
by steel nets, so that it is not a man, but the century,
which selects the instant of his death;
this language, almost collapsed, littered with sound
and fury. That’s it, love language –
banished to earth beside us,
Though carrying with it the primordial Word …
Happy birthday, Tomas.
Postscript on 9/12: The U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was murdered in a rocket attack yesterday. The killers got the day after all.
Tags: Tomas Venclova