Posts Tagged ‘Algirdas Avižienis’

Why reality holds little love for poets

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

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

“To travel through time, a poem must possess a unique intonation and perception.”

I’d never read the late great Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky‘s essay on his friend and fellow poet Tomas Venclova (they also shared a common fate, ejected from the U.S.S.R. a few years apart), but last week I rummaged through the Stanford Libraries to find the Lithuanian poet’s Winter Dialogue so that I could find the Brodsky essay, “Poetry as a Form of Resistance to Reality,” which was included as a foreword to the volume.

It didn’t disappoint:

Venclova’s poetry fits this requirement perfectly. His intonation is striking for its restraint and low-key quality, for the conscientious, intentional monotony that seems to be trying to muffle the far too obvious drama of his existence. In Venclova’s poems the reader will not find the slightest sign of hysteria or the slightest insistence on the uniqueness of the author’s fate, an insistence that logically presumes the reader’s compassion. On the contrary, if his poems postulate anything, it is the awareness of despair as a habitual and exhausting existential norm, which is temporarily overcome not so much by an effort of will as by the simple elapse of time.

I have The Junction: Selected Poems, and look forward to comparing its choices with the total collection of Winter Dialogue.  In any case, one particular poem, which the poet himself discussed in recent correspondence, has become a particular favorite. From “Tu, Felix Austria” (translated by Diana Senechal):

Death is not here, she always looms.
The tones of the bells come closer;
she lives in granite, heat, wine,
and bread, in chestnuts entwined
with acacias. She roams
in dreams. History is part
of death. Galileo, not Hegel, was right:
eppur si muove.  A dense, charred
sphere revolves into night.

What at first seemed real is just a denial
of time. There is no revival
in sleep. Nothing and clouds extend
through the window. Death
is not here. Death is at hand.
She rides around in the cage of the room,
crosses out the next calendar date,
then looks in the mirror and meets
you face to face.

Brodsky continues in the introduction:

Venclova’s song starts at the point where the voice usually breaks, at the end of exhalation, when all inner forces are used up. In this characteristic lies the exceptional moral value of his poetry, because the ethical focus of the poem is in its lyricism rather than in any narrative element. For the lyrical quality of the poem is in effect a sort of utopia attained by the poet, and it conveys to readers their own psychological potential. In the best circumstances, this “good news” provokes a similar internal motion in readers, moves them toward creation of a world on the level suggested by this news. At the least, it liberates them from dependence on the reality they know, making them aware that this reality is not the only one. That achievement is not small, and it is for this reason that reality holds little love for poets.

Tomas Venclova tells the story of how he was deprived of Soviet citizenship on video here.  Curiously, the story involves Algirdas Avižienis, the kindly professor from Kaunas who showed me Czesław Miłosz‘s rural birthplace.


Joseph Brodsky: “If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

The city where Adam Mickiewicz taught secondary school. (Photo: C. Haven)

“If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”  That’s what Joseph Brodsky reportedly said in 1966 when he surveyed not Rome, not Athens, but humble Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city.

The words come from Ramūnas Katilius, fils, quoting his father, Ramūnas Katilius, père, from this vantage point overlooking the city.  The elder Romas, a physicist, was one of the poet’s greatest chums, sometimes seeing the poet several times a day when they were in Leningrad.  Romas was in the photos of Joseph Brodsky departure from the Soviet Union forever in 1972.

Both Romas and Algirdas Avižienis, professor emeritus at director of the Czesław Miłosz Birthplace Foundation, hosted my visit to Miłosz’s Issa Valley.  I’ve just returned to Poland.

While much of my discussion with Romas was about his friend, Tomas Venclova, the physicist was interested when I told him that I had been a student of Joseph’s (he called me part of “the family”) – and hence our discussion returned to his memories of Leningrad, and J.B.’s time in Lithuania. There’s even a plaque in downtown Vilnius where the Russian Nobel poet stayed.

Admittedly, the quote I have cited above is secondhand, but it’s suggestive of how much the poet liked Lithuania. You could guess that, perhaps, from his poem “Lithuanian Divertissement.”

Ramūnas Katilius, Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova in 1972 (Photo by Marija Etkind from the archive of Ramūnas Katilius and Elė Katilienė)

This remote and stunning little city was the temporary capital of Lithuania, when the Polish army occupied Vilnius in 1920.  The Nazis occupied it during the war, of course, and it was a Soviet Socialist Republic at the time Joseph Brodsky visited.

It’s also very early evidence, before he had seen Venice, Paris, or New York, of his early partiality of the cozy places on the outskirts of empire.  He was later to defend Russia’s historic hegemony in an acrimonious exchange with Miłosz, Derek Walcott and Susan Sontag, as described in Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets.

I’m in Poland right now, and obviously don’t have access to Irena’s book or anything else in my library, but a Keith Gessen’s piece in today’s New Yorker (with a dynamite photo by Irving Penn) makes the same point:

Poetry was immortal, he argued: “That which is being created today in Russian or English, for example, secures the existence of these languages over the course of the next millennium.” But this wasn’t true, as Brodsky eventually acknowledged in a great and furious late poem, “On Ukrainian Independence,” in which he berated the independence-minded Ukrainians for casting aside the Russian tongue. “So go with God, you swift cossacks, you hetmans, you prison guards,” it says, and concludes:

Just remember, when it’s time for you, too, to die, you bravehearts,
as you scratch at your mattress and visibly suffer, you’ll forget
the flatus of Taras, and whisper the verses of Alexander.

Alexander Pushkin, that is. Despite itself, the poem is an anguished admission that a Russian state and Russian-speaking subjects are still vital to the project of Russian poetry.

Now.  Here’s an interesting bit about the photo above.  See the white double spires?  That’s the Jesuit church.  Now take a look at the rather nondescript yellowish building in front of it.  That’s where Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish language’s ur-poet (and, like Czesław Miłosz, he was born in Lithuania) taught at secondary school to pay off his university tuition  at the Jesuit’s Vilnius University.

Note to self:  Must read Mickiewicz when I get back to California.  Anyone know the best translations?

En route to Szetejnie, and a Celtic meditation on cheap flights

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

The road to Szetejnie...

Right now, I am planning the long, winding, and endlessly complicated trip to Warsaw, Vilnius, Kaunas and Szetejnie, the birthplace of Czesław Miłosz, on the invitation of Romas Katilius, a friend of Tomas Venclova‘s, and Algirdas Avižienis, professor emeritus at Vytautas Magnus University (we met last week at the conference).

I am apprehensive about the trek, especially after this morning’s unnerving business with Vol de Nuit Airlines, which repeatedly cut off phone calls, when they weren’t trying to extort six euros a shot for the privilege of talking to them.  That was while they laughingly rejected (a small, metallic chuckle emanated from my computer) my online transactions from such small-time organizations as Bank of America and Paypal. The allocated funds for the ill-fated transaction are nevertheless kept from my wallet in permanent deep freeze by my bank. I’m told they’ll be released in a year or two. In between my weepy phone calls, Vol de Nuit employees would entertain themselves by jacking up the airfares, which began around $250 and, last time I checked, were hovering between $600 and $700.

I have decided to travel instead by a combination of train, bus, and, for part of the journey, muleback.

Internet access is likely to be bumpy during this saga.  Be patient.  Meanwhile, the thoughts in the youtube video below express my sentiments exactly.