Posts Tagged ‘Ellen Hinsey’

Does good literature inoculate us against lies? Poet Tomas Venclova thinks so.

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018
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“Above all, love language” (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

I was one of the few people to review Magnetic North, the great Baltic poet Tomas Venclova‘s book-length Q&A with poet and translator Ellen Hinsey certainly in the West, when I wrote for the Times Literary Supplement earlier this year. The book was never going to get a huge commercial audience, certainly, but seeing the long excerpt in the current Music & Literature makes me wonder if the book will have a second (and maybe third and fourth) life in excerpts.

I’m willing to help the process along, so here is an excerpt of the excerpt in the tony online journal (and if you don’t know Music & Literatureyou should): 

Before we go on to speak about other poems, I’d like to ask about poetic inspiration. In her book Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam says that for poets “auditory hallucinations” are a reoccurring occupational hazard, and that Osip Mandelstam experienced poetic inspiration as a musical phrase insistently ringing in his ears. Early on, did you notice any particular sensations that heralded the onset of a poem?

I’m not a very musical person. My imagination is more visual than aural: I admire (and, I hope, understand) architecture and painting, and I love Bach, Handel, and Purcell primarily because they remind me of architecture. Thus, the phenomenon of auditory hallucination described by Nadezhda Mandelstam comes to me not so much as musical phrases sensu stricto, but rather as rhythmic units that can also be understood in spatial terms. But yes, I experience an insistent and intrusive, even irksome feeling of something constantly repeating itself and demanding a liberating effort. It is frequently preceded by a general feeling of unease and a bout of bad mood. In my youth, I learned to understand this as the signal: “A poem is coming.”

Interlocutor

The passage above was the first that caught my eye in the Music & Literature article, but then another further dow, picked up a theme I’d discussed only a few days ago in The Book Haven post, “’Bro – he lives!’ Joseph Brodsky on the morality of uselessness, and the need to ‘switch off’. The Lithuanian poet Venclova’s work, from the beginning “constituted his own specific universe,” as his interlocutor, said his translator, Ellen Hinsey. 

I think Brodsky had in mind not just Soviet reality, but reality as such. True, Soviet reality was grimmer than most. After the nightmare of the camps and executions, from which we were trying to awake (to quote Stephen Dedalus, whose experience was milder than ours), we were confronted by an ugly and monotonous present that promised no further change. We were surrounded by the absurd. And that was only a part—one of the worst parts, to tell the truth—of the chaos and nonsense of life. Poetry—and art in general—was a way of resisting that chaos, holding it at bay. This also had political consequences. Politics, seen from this perspective, was something transitory (even if one had to make decent choices in everyday life). On the other hand, it would be an overstatement or even a distortion to assert that we were totally apolitical in our work. The stifling Soviet atmosphere, aggravated by the smug audacity of the authorities, provoked not only disdain, but resentment and indignation that could not help but find its way into our verses. …

Everything possible

Akhmatova frequently speaks about how the Soviet period robbed individuals of the chance to live out their own destinies. In your “A Poem about Memory,” and elsewhere, you reflect on “such a shortage of authentic fate—”

In her magnificent poem, the fifth “Northern Elegy,” Akhmatova speaks about all the things she was denied due to the circumstances of her era. She nevertheless states that she perhaps did everything that was possible in the only life left to her. I was stunned by these proud words. Naturally, our situations were not comparable, but in “A Poem about Memory,” I attempted to understand the way to “do everything possible.” …

He loves architecture.

All literature of quality provides the reader with patterns and insights that enable him or her—perhaps not systematically, but frequently enough—to resist false doctrines. Poetry, in particular, is somewhat mysteriously linked to ethics; and poetic discipline to the fortitude of the spirit. Many poets, including Zbigniew Herbert and Akhmatova—and her protégé, Joseph Brodsky—insisted that refusal to succumb to evil is primarily a matter of taste. I was of the same mind. …

Thus the human quality of tenacity also becomes an important component of personal and poetic ethics. Or as you described in “A Poem about Friends,” dedicated to Natasha Gorbanevskaya, and written after the 1968 demonstration against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in Red Square: “And those who live are chosen by the fog, / Deserted houses, journeys into the distance, / Their weapons are staunchness, abstinence from speech”—

During this period, it seemed as though the course of events were governed by laws of raw power, that is, by statistics. The force of words and human solidarity were our means to counter this, even if this meant prison or exile, as was the case for many of my friends. Speech—or, at least, a silent refusal to lie—was the axis of their existence. I tried to convey this in the very title of my book.

And the title of the book is Magnetic NorthRead the Music & Literature piece here

Poet Tomas Venclova in the TLS: “All will end well, but I will not see it.”

Friday, February 2nd, 2018
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A “historical optimist” (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

My review of  Lithuanian poet, essayist, and freedom fighter Tomas Venclova‘s Magnetic North, “No Pigeons in the Attic,” is featured in this week’s Times Literary Supplement here. Readers of the Book Haven will recognize the name of the eminent European intellectual, although it is, in general, too little recognized on this side of the Atlantic. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here, among other places. Magnetic North is a book-length Q&A with translator Ellen Hinsey, recapping his life, his art, and his nation’s turbulent history.

A few excerpts from my piece:

He rejects the romantic notion that a poet’s work only thrives in his or her homeland. “It would be absurd to maintain that a writer needs permanent contact with his or her native soil and withers when deprived of it”, he says, citing Marina Tsvetaeva, Nabokov and Brodsky among the dislocated Russians; Mickiewicz, Norwid, Miłosz and Gombrowicz among the Poles. He finds something fortunate even in exile, and seems to enjoy the role of lucid observer: “As a rule, one sees the general contours of the country’s development more clearly if one is not embroiled in local squabbles. For  an ‘outsider,’ these contours are projected on the larger screen of history”. But his international wanderings have not eroded his love of country – he has written three books on Vilnius, one of them the most commercially successful of his long career. He likens his beloved capital to a European Jerusalem. “I once said that these heterogeneous, asymmetric, and extraordinary buildings kept us from forgetting the very idea of civilization”, he recalls. “I still believe this.”

***

Lithuanian, the native tongue of 3 million people, continues to fascinate and sustain him, as it is “not only archaic, but rich and sonorous, virtually on a par with the Greek of Homer and Aeschylus. To me, as a poet, this has been rewarding”. He likens its rough phonetics to feldspar, adding that it has retained an archaic vocabulary and grammatical structure akin to preclassical Latin of the third century BC. And, Venclova points out, while it is one of the classical Indo-European languages, like Latin, Ancient Greek, Gothic, or Old Slavonic, it is the only one of them that  is still alive. It nearly was not so. In the nineteenth century, it was in serious decline, like Gaelic or Welsh. Venclova compares it to the former, another archaic language that embodies an ancient past. Neighbouring Poland views Lithuania the way the English view Scotland, as wild and untamed, with “more primeval forests and a valiant but not-too-civilized people”.

***

And the historical winner is…

Venclova has described himself as an “historical optimist”, which he characterizes thus: “All will end well, but I will not see it”. He views with dismay the growing nationalism that is threatening the cosmopolitanism he embraces. He notes that everyone in the twentieth century was a “loser” – Franz Joseph, Wilhelm II, Nicholas II, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Churchill, even Mahatma Gandhi. All except for Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, an obscure Serbian nationalist: “The only winner was Gavrilo Princip, since his mentality has survived – indeed, it has resolutely endured”.

 Read the rest here.  As for the title,  “No Pigeons in the Attic,” well … read the article.

Postscript on 2/21: And some nice feedback in the TLS letters column, as tweeted:

“Caligula at the Gates”: Guess who is the star of Venclova’s new poem?

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
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putin

Yes…I see the resemblance…

Those who don’t live in Eastern Europe, where memories of life under Communism during much of the last century linger, don’t fully comprehend the chilling effect across that region of what’s been happening under Vladimir Putin’s rule:

Our respite was short-lived in the end.
But after long hardships it had seemed
It would never draw to a close. Friends
Invoked poetry and feasted in gardens …

When I saw Tomas Venclovas new poem “Caligula at the Gates,”  in The Irish Times (the translator, Ellen Hinsey, had kindly dropped a note to let me know), I associated it with the Lithuanian poet’s autumn sojourn in Rome. Not so, he told me – it was, in fact, written in August, in Montenegro, one of his favorite haunts. And the subject is “Mr. Putin, of course.” Well, of course. The Roman touch is a common metonymy, he reminded me, though I shouldn’t have needed reminding. My head has been far away from current events – a luxury not afforded everyone in the world. I’ve always maintained that Tomas Venclova, who is one of the leading figures in literary Europe, and whose poetry has been published in more than twenty languages, and he should be better known in the United States, where he has been resident at Yale for years and years now (resident, that is, when he’s not on the road, as he is much of the time)…

Caligula

They have the same scowl.

We ridiculed the words of the prophets
But, agelessly, they proved to be true …

This poem, in particular, has been already published in Poland, Germany, also in Russia. But you don’t have to be located in any particular part of the world to sense the following:

Blow out the candles and close the gates.

Beyond them – Caligula and the plague.

Read the whole thing here.

 

Ellen Hinsey and “that most archaic idea, ‘thou shalt not kill.'”

Sunday, July 8th, 2012
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Are we facing the start of an "unlawful age"?

I’d heard the name Ellen Hinsey before.  We have a mutual friend in the eminent Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova (although I am mostly a long-distance friend, and she is a longstanding colleague).  She has had the pleasure and labor of translating his poems into English for Bloodaxe’s The Junction: Selected Poems of Tomas Venclova.  I had the privilege of publishing an essay by Tomas in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz.

The Paris-based poet is not usually mentioned in the New Yorker, however, so I noted her mention in this week’s “Page-Turner” blog post in the magazine about the closing of Village Voice (I wrote about it here). The relevent passage:  “On the night of the farewell party, it must be said, not everyone was teary. The novelists Jake Lamar and Nancy Huston, the poets Ellen Hinsey and Denis Hirson, and dozens of others were trading sentimental stories.”

Poetry International has a fascinating Q&A interview with her in 2009.  It starts slowly, but picks up considerable steam. It picks up precisely at the point where she said that a central concern in her The White Fire of Time and Update on the Descent was,  years following a murder in her family,  “how we can renew our belief in that most archaic idea, ‘thou shalt not kill.'”

She also poses “a question that I think we are extremely afraid to confront”:  “The last few years have brought us perilously close to an unspoken fear that we are losing the battle against violence, and that the climate of relative decency we have known is no longer holding firm. Or even that, if we do not do our best to battle against it, we may be facing the start of an unlawful age.”

"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

Let me cite the final portion of the interview:

…Some years ago I mentioned that I was interested in the possibility of a “poetics of radical reflection.” For me this means, as Hannah Arendt wrote in the Life of the Mind, the idea that perhaps thought itself can help us to maneuver and survive the dangers around us—the dangers of our own making. With the end of the 20th century we found out that, incredibly enough, we did not arrive at the end of History. History and terror—as well as the possibility of meaning—are still with us. We didn’t escape their noose: they are, and will always be, things with which we must wrestle.

Q.  In the last poem in your book, “Update on the Last Judgment,” there is no “Judgment,” but only an “abyss.” What, then, is “judgment” and who is passing that judgment?

A.  This was a complex poem for me. When you begin to write a poem, you don’t always know exactly what you think about your subject. Regarding the topic in general, I tend to agree with what the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova wrote in his poem “Verses for a Child’s Birth”: “it’s best to keep silent/ because we don’t know yet if God hovers/ above the empty featureless waters.” However, it seems fair to say that until we arrive at that unknowable moment, we are entirely responsible for our actions here on earth and it is to our peril that we look for recourse or justification for those actions in any kind of afterlife. For the foreseeable future, we only have judgment with a small “j”, which is to say the mortal, imperfect and fallible judgment that we possess as human beings and with which we have to attempt to make sense of our world. Despite how terribly fragile it is, it is all that we possess. But it is still immense.

I had already bookmarked that particular poem, “Update on the Last Judgment” – the Poetry Foundation has it here.  Read the whole thing.  I’m not going to try to excerpt it.

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