LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 20, No.2 - Summer 1974
Editors of this issue: Thomas Remeikis
Copyright © 1974 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
AN INTELLECTUAL'S ENCOUNTER
MODERN TRENDS IN LITHUANIAN POETRY
The Ohio State University
Lithuania, for better of for worse, is not yet a world metropolis either in fact or in the mind, and its poets have remained where, as Pasternak once said, poetry itself still lives: close to the grass. The native Lithuanian poetic tradition is provincial and Arcadian in its origins. The first important poets, Kristijonas Donelaitis (1714 -1780) and Antanas Baranauskas (1835 -1902) wrote of the labors of the peasant, the changes of the seasons, and of the glorious minutiae of native forest full of life. Later poets, such as Jonas Maironis (1862-1932) sang of romanticized landscapes, ancient castles and of the deeds of heroes past, dreaming great visions of Lithuania reborn to its ancient glory. With the coming of independence in 1918, many talented poets continued this tradition even as they began to relate to various trends in West European and Russian poetry. Through all its experiments in the direction of symbolism, Christian mysticism, or even futurism, the Lithuanian poetry did not venture very far away from nature, nurturing its imagination on the gentle offerings of the native landscape.
The Second World War shattered this pastoral scene and sent many of the best poets into exile. Instead of native brooks and meadows, the appalling cadaver of once-proud West European civilization now presented itself to their imagination. In a typical gesture, during the early postwar years most of the exiled Lithuanian poets turned their eyes away from this grand catastrophe, and concentrated with passion upon their own suffering, their own dispossession. The Arcadian image of their previous poetry now became a paradise lost, and the poets could hardly bear to speak of anything else. Consequently, the same landscape of home now left behind continued at the center of their creative effort, and the framework of nature remained as the dominant system of images.
As the years went by, the younger poets began to readjust their perspective to the challenge of the alien world and picked up the thread of existentialism, of avant garde experiments, becoming more and more aware of the power of poetry to confront the agony of the great intellectual complexities attending the birth of the new postwar European civilization. On the other hand, however, they were so much the children of the Lithuanian poetic tradition that even the new themes in their work found their expression not in urban and industrial terms, but in the pastoral imagery of nature. At the present time their poetry resembles much of what is being written in the major Western languages to the extent that it is often darkly existential in mood, complex and at time modernistic in form and intellectual in content. It is unique, however, in using nature as the basic frame of reference for the creation of poetic speech as the medium through which thought is filtered before it reaches the reader transformed into emotion.
In the Soviet Union and in the areas under its domination there was a period of moral and intellectual starvation under Stalin. This period also witnessed the forcible creation of a collectivized and industrialized Lithuania. The poets, afraid and oppressed in spirit, could only respond to these changes in doggerel verse in which Communist slogans were mixed with the technical vocabulary of "socialist construction." On the surface, this verse presented a triumphant canvas of the new era, but it was dead at heart.
The situation changed around 1956 when, on a signal from Moscow, the Lithuanian poets started speaking more for themselves. Their own language, as it turned out, was again mostly pastoral, lyrical and contemplative. In a comparison with Russian poetry of the early period after the revolution, one might say that the poetry now written in Lithuania has retained more of the intimate vision of Akhmatova than of the outward-looking stance of Gumilev, is closer to the nature-oriented, organic principles of metaphorization typical of Pasternak than to the futuristic and hyperbolic style of Mayakovsky. But there is also an intellectual depth and complexity which, like a great inner force, has reshaped the traditional landscape imagery into profoundly symbolic and sometimes strange new designs.
The main issue facing the Lithuanian poets at home is the question of personal and ethnic identity in a country which is subject to the pressures of rapid industrialization and urbanization as well as to those of Russian ethnic imperialism. In search of an inner dimension strong enough to overcome these pressures, the poets have often turned to ancient native myth, the outlines of which could be read in the basic semantic patterns of their own Lithuanian language, the vocabulary of which is abundant in images of nature. Because so many of the younger poets writing there today are talented people, their verse has reached a high level of beauty and sophistication. Both in the West and at home, a good deal of poetry being written now is intellectual at least in the sense that it reflects an individual's experience of life as a complex existential puzzle, but its basic imagery and metaphors are taken from the living canvas of nature.
Among the poets of exile, Algimantas Mackus (1932 -1964) was most intensely committed to the contemplation of death as the ultimate and therefore the only absolute reality confronting and individual's consciousness. According to Mackus, in a universe which is hostile or indifferent to the human mind, the cultural condition of a creative artist is one of exile, and the poet's task is to strive passionately toward the perfection of man's awareness of his solitude in the cosmic void. Consequently, the images and symbols which in poetic tradition signify life must be reconstituted to become the messengers of death. To read Mackus one must, for instance, adjust one's perceptions of such things as water and the green grass, and black earth, in such a way that together with the poet we would feel in them not the promise and fulfillment of life, but the finality of death. Water is associated in some of Mackus' poems with the lifeless crystal of glass in a context where the eyes of someone dying lose their moist radiance. This establishes the metaphorical associations needed in other poems to transfer the meaning of death to the image of grass covered with rain or dew. Thus, in a poem called "Strange Death" Mackus writes:
For one night only I enjoyed the Spring
but I sank down to earth that very night
and yet, the dew had blossomed green
and greener than the Springtime's any other thing.
In a continuing development of such "reverse imagery," a poem called "Dead Guests" relies on the colors of black and green to carry the message of death:
In the green river
(moving toward the black and the tenebrous forest)
our weary bodies are reflected.
In the green river
(its surface is pierced by the silvery bow of the moon)
plays the soul of our boy.
In the green water
our bodies are cold
and in the green water
the soul of the boy is dead as well.
Above the green water
(it reaches the black and the tenebrous forest)
The death of all trees, of all forests, has lighted its fire.
Above the green water
(which is held in the hand of our small boy)
the red torso of fire is rising so slow.
In the green water
our bodies are but fire extinguished
And in the green water
we are dead guests.
The associations with the idea of death here are catastrophic: the loss of a beloved child, and a universal conflagration as an image depicting the sunset. Death is also a presence that does not belong to the continuum of natural processes (which include rebirth in some other ' living shape) but is totally alien and final, like a dry logical necessity, like the conception of the end of all things which could arise in an intellectual's urban imagination. Yet, the carrier-images river, moon, forest are all Arcadian, all in the tradition of Lithuanian nature poetry.
In a grim and truthful book called The Generation of Unornamented Speech and Its Wards, Mackus developed the theme of nature in relation to folkloristic imagery, to the present-day poetic language of the absurd and to the images and speech cadences inherited from religious Catholic hymns. One of the poems, entitled "Jurek," describes the death and burial of a Jewish child killed by the Nazis in Lithuania. Ancient traces of folkloristic laments for the dead are combined here with a spiritualized symbolic landscape:
not daring to risk hatred,
in the terrible moment of recognized fate,
I closed the brown eyes of Jurek
from the stroke of the sun, from sun's fury.
Let his ripe eyes maintain the falsified image of our age.
I shall lift his naive body into the silver rain,
into the pinewood winds,
so that, together with trees and with rain,
together with silver, the green
will murmur the heart that knew no hatred.
These are not shots that echo in the forest, it is a silver swarm of bees
coming to the hive in our garden.
Into the silver rain into the pinewood wind,
so you could rustle in its branches,
Jurek, I cast your green coffin,
and I die.
Mackus uses landscape to its largest scale, encompassing an entire continent, in his last book, Chapel B, devoted to the sudden and violent death of his friend and fellow-writer Antanas Škėma, in highway accident. Insofar as "every man's death diminishes me," Škėma's tragedy is in itself symbolic of our own ultimate reality. Mackus, however, wishes to use the moment specifically as a metaphorical statement describing our condition of being, individually and all together as humanity. Consequently, the dead body of Škėma, crushed upon the road, is portrayed as if it were a representation of an entire land mass, a grim and tragic map:
Upon the map with claw-marks by the hand of fate
the voice of the continent calls out for an excursion,
the voice of the continent springs up below the mist
the voice of the continent is growing from Non-God.
Cold, cold, I only want the cold,
green moonlight of September
and on the copper plate intaglio
the map which has soaked through into the blood.
Grey, grey, I only want the grey
rising of the September sun
and in the open tangle of the bones
the map which has spread outward from the blood.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The voice of the continent, at dawn, before the act, having become
both sex and body, cries hysterically;
on copper plate, intaglio,
the furious God in midst of ritual,
recalls salvation thrown out to the crowds.
The idea which emerges from this is that the "copper coin" which is now the earth bearing the imprint of one man's remains may also represent the involuntary but inescapable image of God, the only one we are permitted to possess an image we must behold as a price that man has always paid for having hoped that there may be salvation in some transcendent reality.
A very different poet, presently writing in Lithuania, is Sigitas Geda (born 1943). His entire poetic imagination is so closely bound up with nature that one could almost say in him nature has found its own green tongue. Geda should probably not be called an intellectual poet at all, because in his work he does not undertake to confront complex philosophical issues, nor does he consciously absorb into his own poetic canvas literary concepts and allusions coming from past poetic tradition, although in the work of many modernistic poets this in itself has acquired the trappings of an intellectual enterprise. The intellectual ism of Geda manifests itself most of all in the intricate thought patterns underlying the evolution of a nature-based imagery which comes to us as an emotion so intense that it approaches a magical experience.
The first major landmark in Geda's evolution as a poet was his book Strazdas (1967), a closely-knit string of poems devoted to the memory, indeed, the legend, of an eighteenth-century Lithuanian priest and poet, whose name, Strazdas, happens to mean "thrush." In Geda's book Strazdas comes through as a kind of mythological halfman, half-bird who hovers over his native land, casting a great and green shadow of love. The birth of this figure takes place just at the moment when the mind and the heart of the priest Strazdas respond simultaneously to the sorrows of his people and to the song of a thrush. In other words, it is an intimate and secret meeting of man and nature deep in the poet's heart. The quality of this moment could well be symbolic of most Lithuanian poetry, including Geda's own. The result is a landscape such as the following:
Those bumblebees humming,
This might of the ages,
Over tumbledown villages
Come, twilight, unfold,
Show me ages gone by
With his wings spread aloft
Strazdas tills Lithuania.
There are lambs in the meadows.
Rivers flowing. The hills.
In the sky, wondrously,
Blooming sun, flowering God.
In a later book 26 Songs of Autumn and Summer (1972) Geda's landscapes become much more complex they turn into richly patterned and multicolored fantastic visions which send out tangled threads of symbolic kinship to the deepest sources of man's mythological imagination as well as to the allegorical and symbolic constructs of man's mind throughout the ages. Geda's basic effort seems to be to construct poetic embodiments of all forms of life, transforming every tree, flower, bird or insect into a complex emotional-intellectual entity by means of metaphorization. He then moves across this new symbolic universe toward a deep level of one's personal identity with all living things, as if the poet and the man were in reality a kind of articulate "limb" of nature. In his search for this consciousness of unity of all life Geda follows the obscure promptings of an instinct for magic, but still more the yearning to love.
The luxurious foliage of. Geda's poetic language in this volume makes it very difficult to translate him with any hope of approaching his special quality. However, some notion of his poetic manner might come through in the following poem:
You are so charming, cornflower abyss,
where no one will allow my soul
to enter: there the lips
of sand, the plant
you hold in darkness,
cradling in your palms, in
the earth of lilacs...
And at the foothill of the animal
there is a verdant spirit,
it exercises magic,
the foamy bottom of the sea,
it starts and looks and
revives again, and speaks
the pigeon in a voice of blue,
sometime a man...
The maiden turns her slender
beak toward the flying seashell...
I hear the timid breathing of the swallow...
The dappled bottom of the sea
comes closer: and the world,
is only one,
and the spirit
is indivisible... An oval
is its red circumference...
You're born, and white
powers of the moonlit nights
until you enter back the
wide island of the seas...
It grows and it expands,
the unknown secret
of this thing...
Mackus and Geda are certainly not the only noteworthy poets on either side of the Atlantic in whose work modernistic style and abstract thought blend into a single design which reaches the eye as an image of nature. In Lithuania this trend of poetry is evident in the work of Tomas Venclova, Jonas Juškaitis, Judita Vaičiūnaitė and Albinas Bernotas. In the West we see it in the verse of the outstanding poet Henrikas Radauskas as well as in Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas, Kazys Bradūnas, to a certain extent in Jonas Mekas and in Liūnė Sutema. We have chosen to speak of Mackus and Geda for the reason that the "perfection of death" in the work of the one and the magic transfiguration of life in that of the other appear to stand at opposite ends of the scale which encompasses the themes and artistic devices of the present-day Lithuanian "intellectual poetry of nature."