Happy 75th birthday, Tomas Venclova! Plus a note on the feldspar of languages…


His alma mater, Vilnius University (Photo: C.L. Haven)

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,

Birthday Boy (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

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.



3 Responses to “Happy 75th birthday, Tomas Venclova! Plus a note on the feldspar of languages…”

  1. asta Says:

    Laba diena,
    mes buvom šioj Žemės dimensijoj susitikę, bet Jūsų sutiktų žvaigždžių parade, aš eiliinė našlaitė. Šiandien klausiau per radiją Jūsų pasisakymus….Jūs sakote dabar Lietuvoje nebėra dėl ko prasigerti ir (suprantu, kad manot tik nevykėliai naikinasi…..). Labai įtariu, kad Jūsų net nepasieks šitas rašlinėlis…………jei pasieks – Jūs net neįsivaizduojat, kaip naikinama mūsų tauta ir kaip kai kurie yra įkalinti(tėvų, vaikų, giminių….valdžios……………..). Jei dar spėsit, parašykit, kad Jūsų didžiavyrių paraduose esmė – kantrios bobelės…

  2. Diana Senechal Says:

    This is wonderful. Thank you for bringing Tomas’s work to your readers. Thank you, also, for the post in which you quote from “Tu, Felix Austria” and from Brodsky’s essay. Best wishes to you.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    And thank you, Diana, for a wonderful translation!