Lithuania’s Tomas Venclova: A poet of “metaphysical and political overlap”


“Above all, love language” (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Last week, a friend told me that Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova was in the current issue of The Spectator – and of course, London was the perfect place to find an old-fashioned “hard copy.” I stopped in a shop or two in London – no luck. I stopped in a shop in Chalfont St. Giles – nada.

Fortunately, there is such a thing as the worldwide web. Here’s an excerpt from the article about the leading European poet:

He describes Nineteen Eighty-Four as ‘a very important book in my life, and the one that taught me the most about the Soviet system’. A passage he says made ‘a very strong impression on me’ comes in an exchange between Winston Smith and his interrogator O’Brien. Winston asks O’Brien: ‘Does Big Brother exist?’ ‘Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.’ Winston presses: ‘Does he exist in the same way as I exist?’ O’Brien replies: ‘You do not exist.’

The story chimes with a sense of erasure in many of Venclova’s poems. ‘Henkus Hapenckus, In Memoriam’, for instance — a poem inspired by the memorial notice to an imaginary person, attached to impossible birth and death dates, in the window of a funeral parlour in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas — opens in the English translation: ‘Only a true nobody can manage/ to shoulder the weight of non-existence.’

‘I invented this person, Henkus Hapenckus, who never existed, and an entire universe for him,’ Venclova says. ‘He could be anybody. Because almost every kind of existence in the Soviet Union amounted to non-existence.’

Venclova’s artful, frequently formal verse plays in that area where the metaphysical and political overlap — the nothings of Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’, perhaps, meeting the nothings of O’Brien. ‘Those things — those kinds of non-existence — they are in a sense overlaying each other and having something in common,’ he says. ‘More than one of my poems is about those overlapping sorts of non-existence.’

The role of poetry: East vs. West: “Poetry always means more in eastern Europe or Russia than it means in England or France. I wrote once that in the West, poetry mainly survives on the university campus, and in our countries it survives mainly in the prison camps. This is the difference. They managed to establish such an unshakeable system that every living word — not only but especially the poetical word — worked against it. Everything else was false.”

And of course the interview mentions his important new Q&A memoir, Magnetic North. I wrote about that book for the Times Literary Supplement here (excerpt here).  Read the whole Spectator piece online here.

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