LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 37, No.3 - Fall 1991
Editor of this issue: Jonas Zdanys, Yale University
Copyright © 1990 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
ON THE CIVIC ROLE OF POETRY
In this time of triumphant reform and impassioned truth telling, few are interested in poetry. Having been at the center of public attention for so long, it seems to have withdrawn to the sidelines, surrendering its place to writing on current affairs. Some believe that to be only natural, that the shoulders of poetry are too frail to carry the burden of public discussion, while others believe that poetry plays no role in such matters since poets themselves are not capable of lifting such a burden. That first opinion is held, for the most part, by artists, by sensitive readers of poetry, and the second by people who read less and by correctly thinking intellectuals. The latter even like to add that in our land there are no individuals like Kudirka or Maironis, that our poets have been diminished spiritually. At least that is the impression I have after having read and heard the endless arguments about what poetry ought to be.
In his article "Mūsų kalčių vieškeliai," Marcelijus Martinaitis (Literatūra ir menas 8/27/88) looked deeply into the contemporary soul and discovered in it guilt and sediments of spiritual captivity. The poet is correct we all live with the guilt that the totalitarian system had tried to impute to us. We can and must liberate ourselves from that guilt.
But there is another side to that guilt as well. I am speaking not only about metaphysical guilt, that we were born in one and not in another point of time and space; not only about Christian guilt, that we live in a fallen state; or about that expressed in Eastern thought, which conceals itself in karma. Our guilt is that, perceiving untruth, we lived with it; that, seduced by the conditions of our lives, families, society, we accepted the world as it is and in that way participated in its illegitimacy. Such a feeling of guilt arises from the rules governed by a masculine emotional relationship to the world: the measure of the world and of the individual's worth is not life but highest truth. This guilt, therefore, arises from the ideal and not the real. However, this ideal is not accepted only consciously, through an act of will, but hides also in the unconscious part of our psyches. In other words, if the configuration of our personality is not genetically malformed, we should unconsciously feel guilt because we are guilty. This guilt is especially felt by those who do not participate in religious practices because they are not supported by a system which divides the world into the right and the wrong, and no one forgives them their sins.
Undoubtedly, this guilt oppresses the poet, too, no matter what kind of poetry he creates. The Kurdikases and the Maironises, whose absence we notice so often in this time of national awakening, cannot arise from among the guilty. Poets have now managed to come to terms with guilt. Our poetry today is more analytical, petitioning, and does not speak directly. For example, who now could say: "While young, my brother, sow the seed of your crop?" No one. It is too complicated and primitive. Complicated, because in the soul demoralized by guilt there is no power which could fuse the poetic "I" with its moral articulation. To try to do so artificially, the poet's language would ring like an empty kettle. That is why the contemporary author, when he seeks such an expression, dons a mask or begins to analyze the situation. The exceptions here only prove the rule. For example, in S. Geda's "Song About a Lithuanian Farm" and "Song About the Cottage of My Birth," the speaker is like that in Kudirka's poetry But S. Geda's voice is lacking in that seriousness. In it rings the rage of a man defending the last foot of his land.
On the other hand, a society demoralized by guilt will not accept a Kudirka-like utterance from the lips of one of its own. In us is concealed a collective immorality, the collective denominator of all the faults we use to accuse one another in our arguments about poetry and other matters. The reader is also inclined to analyze the situation, to search for a foot of real land on which to step. The poetry of national rebirth provides fortitude, beautiful emotions, but it does not affect the zone of guilt which girdles the reader's soul. And those emotions are more nationalistic than aesthetic, that is, if one can in fact make out the emotions at all. And finally, can we treat nationalistic poems as poetry? Or, as we recite their words, do not all those who led the nation to its reawakening and who suffered for it speak with our lips as well?
Contemporary poetry, which seeks to analyze reality, is in no way worse than the declamatory or the pedantic. In most instances they should not be compared. I am a partisan of the first, because I live in an epoch in which there is nothing to teach. All around are those more moral and intellectually more capable than I.
The poet can submerge himself in his nation's unconscious and from there lift its most meaningful words and use them to decorate his work, but he is prevented from doing so by guilt. And it is difficult to hear those words above the whispers of souls shattered by an intellect knocked out of equilibrium. Justinas Marcinkevičius seeks consciously to use such words. His partial success is demonstrated by the passion with which his followers took to dragging along his favorite images bread, word, goodness, and others into their own work. In Marcinkevičius' work existential guilt is already assumed, having become a feminine submissiveness which overgrows almost all of the poet's intonations. It is unique repentance, and the penitent is as if free of guilt.
Poets have tried in a variety of ways to cast off guilt. Some become silent, though they still had to live and work. Others dove into an active religious life, into a different perspective of existence. Still others arrogantly wrote "for the desk drawer." The majority tried to deceive themselves. But is it quite difficult to do so. The spirit immediately senses that it cannot realize its highest values and stops being interested in its home - the individual. Then, a person has two possible avenues: to vegetate spiritless or to escape from reality. The majority chose the second road, because anxiety did not allow for the first.
The escape from reality can be understood quite broadly. If in society there are barriers to truth, all poets find themselves in the position of running from reality. Even those who express reality most profoundly, excluding those who search for guiltless themes, conjuncturists, and those people who pay no heed to these matters.
Such retreat from reality is expressed not only in creative work but within the heart as well. Conformists strive to modify their hierarchy of values (which forms the personality's core), to adjust it to reality, in order to attain some measure of harmony in their lives. Noncomformists fence off their hierarchy of values from reality with a wall of contempt, sarcasm, or skepticism and try there to create order.
The structure of the personality is half unconscious; that is, it cannot be made conscious. Unexpected consequences arise when it is paid insufficient attention. In this way, many conformists became alcoholics, because alcohol for them was the single means by which they could dissolve the coercive mechanism of consciousness and at least for a time reconstruct the personality's value structure. Perhaps we could count on two hands the number of poets who have not tried that panacea, before becoming convinced of its hopelessness. The nonconformists' constructed wall is battered, as if by the waves of the sea, by reality, and that sometimes rattles the psyche.
But most poets live virtuously, according to their ideals, which are so great and bright that they cover over those tiny compromises that life forces us all into. And if, imperceptibly, the feeling of guilt leaves us, we just as imperceptibly, but unstoppably, begin to degrade.
Being in such an ethical situation since the end of the war, there have been endless discussions about poetry active in the public (civic) sphere.
During Zhdanov's time of social realism the accusation of a lack of civism was a bludgeon slamming against any creative work which did not adhere to thematic formulas. A few year ago, in the mouths of our critics, poetry's civic activity took on an opposite meaning the speaking of truth, the raising of contemporary problems. But is this division of poetry into civically active and everything else a myth given birth by the cult of the proletariat, a myth with whose mutations we are still colliding?
This myth is reflected well in an article by V. Kubilius (Literatūra ir menas 3/21/87) who writes about collections of poetry published in 1986. In his opinion, Lithuanian poetry after 1956, having turned away from actual social questions, searched for a stable spiritual foundation. That, he says, was its salvation as well as the reason for its weakness. I cannot disagree about the matter of salvation, but I do want to speak further about the matter of weakness.
First of all, about which actual social questions before 1987 was it in fact possible to speak? There were, of course, more questions than could "fit" inside the public's heads, but it was not possible to ask them openly. Each thought which had connected resiliently with our reality was born twisted as if by rickets because of its conjuncture with sophistry. Wanting to speak about actual social problems, the artist was forced to play sophistic games and not produce serious art. Otherwise, his efforts slammed into aggressive ideology, like grass into a cover of concrete.
One of the fundamental devices of this ideology was the "correcting of names". Corrected names create a different reality, formulate a different world view. Denationalization was called internationalism; exile and deportation to Siberia the voluntary transfer of residents; the suppression of democratic forces in other lands or aggression against them an internationalist duty; unending economic failures new sodalist victories; poetry which blindly repeated these formulascivic; and so on. All those who did not wish to believe in corrected names were called enemies of the people, dissidents, politically uneducated. Now, in this time of openness, we see that ideology had been part of a great mechanism of force and coercion. Behind it hid the horrors of a totalitarian system.
Poetry has always tried to speak the truth about the world and about people. Searching for metaphors which could more accurately convey such expressions, it also perfected its aesthetic form. The particular quality of metaphoric speech is that, through images and concepts are conveyed the correlations (the structure) existing within reality. And this structure is reality's deeper plan, having aesthetic, ethical, and intellectual significance. That is why metaphoric speech does not only provide a mask but also more deeply expresses ideas, more organically fuses them within the artistic whole.
The psyche of every person who seeks to interpret reality conceals a hierarchy of values which contains the foundation of spirituality the groundwork of the personality. Poetry which more deeply expresses reality interacts with the personality's system of values and strengthens it, altering its relationship with the external world's ideologies. Such poetry partially expiates the poet's existential guilt, although it does not annul it.
The ideologues of social realism knew all this full well. The Stalin-Zhdanov war against literature and culture in general was expedient, well thought out, and perfectly malevolent. The annihilation of eternal human values love, friendship, family, fidelity to one's beliefs sought to paralyze the individual's spiritual life, his archetypal value system, to block the unconscious, to convert the citizen into a machine able to be programmed with any and all ideas. On the one hand, the realization of that was implemented through general terror, and on the other, through the cult of the proletariat. Artists had to repeat the "corrected" names, glorify the system and not call forth other emotions, with the exception of the ecstasy generated by their vision of a bright future. That was an attack against mankind and humanism unlike any ever seen before. To this day, it is unclear what the meaning and aim of that attack was. It seems to me that one man's war to rule, the cult of personality, does not suffice as an explanation. Stalinism is an international phenomenon alive even today.
Poetry widely published in 1948-1956 was purely formulaic. It was rarely connected to individual lives. It is hard to imagine how much its creators had to endure. But the tradition of living poetry did not break down. Poems were written in exile and deportation, in prison camps; a large portion of the work of well-known poets was hidden in double-walled furniture, buried in bottles, or else was consumed by fire when there was a sudden knock at the door.
Our poetic tradition was also continued by poets living in emigration: Bernardas Bradžionis, Jonas Aistis, Henrikas Radauskas, Alfonsas Nyka-Nilūnas, Juozas Tysliava, Henrikas Nagys, and others. These were individuals who had grown up in independent Lithuania, having begun to express themselves during the fourth decade. For them Lithuania was not an ideal, as it was for Kudirka and Maironis, but a reality. That is why their poetry had more aesthetic refinement, self-reflection, interpretation of reality, than did the poetry of national rebirth.
Part of that same generation of poets remained in Lithuania after the historical break in 1940-1945. Their fates and their work became quite complicated. I have in mind Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas, Salomėja Nėris, Antanas Miškinis, Vytautas Mačernis who is in fact more an emigre poet whose posthumous collections were published abroad.
In 1956, the rebirth of our poetry, which began slowly, took its power from our entire poetic tradition, excepting the formulas of the proletarian cult. Eduardas Mieželaitis, Justinas Marcinkevičius, Janina Degutytė, Alfonsas Maldonis, Algimantas Baltakis were poets of the sixth decade who began to search for cracks in the concrete of social realism.
Poetry began to recover more fully in the seventh decade, when alongside the poets mentioned above appeared work by Vytautas Bložė, Sigitas Geda, Jonas Juškaitis, Marcelijus Martinaitis, Judita Vaičiūnaitė, Tomas Venclova, A. Mikuta, Jonas Strielkūnas, and others. It is a generation of poets with an astonishingly harmonious world view. They felt clearly the tradition of folk art and original poetry, understood it, connected with their own experience. Their world view is marked by moral sensitivity, seriousness, even a lack of humor.
In the eighth decade debuted a generation of nihilists raised in the schools of stagnation, to which I would also assign myself. It is true that education later rebuilt their violated system of values, but it remained like some ideal, hovering above reality. That generation's work is rebellious, at time destructive, futuristic or hermetic. Critics have correctly described it as "a reflection of a contradictory reality in a young person's soul." I speak here about Gražina Cieskaitė, Almis Grybauskas, Gintaras Patackas, Vytautas Rubavičius, A.A. Jonynas, Vladas Baltuškevičius, Juozas Erlickas, Donaldas Kajokas, Valdemaras Kukulas, the late-debuting Nijolė Miliauskaitė, and others.
In general, the eighth decade having in mind the work of older poets as well is the true renaissance of our poetry. Its dizzying search for beauty, its aestheticism, its light decadence, and poetic experimentations are like those of the fourth decade, if one pays no attention to the external backdrop of stagnation and the backdrop of guilt in the poets' souls.
Those who debuted in the ninth decade Edmundas Kelmickas, V. Daunys, Alis Balbierius, Vladas Bražiūnas, Aidas Marčėnas are less interested in the poem's form and more in morality, personality, the nation's cultural ideas. This links them with those who debuted in the seventh decade.
During that time, the view of poetry's social activity changed. In the sixth decade, citizenship was still understood as a repetition of the postulates of public ideology. The creation of poetry was possible only through the avoidance of social themes. In the seventh and eighth decades, the more decent critics avoided discussions of citizenship or tried slowly to change the ways it was understood. Poets intensely searched for means of expression, perfected the structure of their work, searched for zones of truth in which there was room for their own voices. A number of meaningful works were created, but there also appeared aesthetic games which paid no heed to reality.
In the ninth decade the critical perspective on civic activity changed completely. The public poet came to be the one who did not lie, who spoke about actual problems. The longing for such poetry became morally legitimate.
The poet's social surroundings are, first of all, the nation, in whose language he writes and his work exists. In that way, his poetry spontaneously takes on historical dimension; as the semioticians would say, it is synchronic and diachronic. Therefore, the most important feature of civically active poetry is its existence in language and not its existence in ideas. Ideas fit poetry only to the extent that they are part of existence, i.e. alive, moral, just and harmonious.
After 1956, poets began to reconstruct bit by bit our nation's shattered world view. Eduardas Mieželaitis raised shared humanistic ideas, Justinas Marcinkevičius called forth nationalistic and moral emotions. Each did "everything possible" and still a little more. That is how the climate of our poetry slowly warmed. Real poetry stood in opposition to dehumanizing ideology, and so was civically active.
Art which is socially inactive, non-civic, is weak art, one which it is difficult even to call art. Sometimes it is stuffed with political slogans or noble ideals, but these do not help it.
Does a poem which encompasses currently urgent themes thereby expand its civic qualities? At first glance, yes. But submerged in such urgencies it often forgets the human and thus remains superficial. It then interacts poorly with life and language, and therefore with society. In sum, poetry which makes use of currently urgent themes does not increase its civic activity.
There are no non-poetic themes. The poet can write about everything that moves him, but he must necessarily create poetry. Poets are not necessary to create reports and slogans. Even though that "create poetry" is not the determining factor, it is the palpable threshold protecting the territory of poetry from direct ideologizing. It seems to me that that threshold is called asocialness.
So it falls to poetry to suffer for all barriers to truth which exist in society. How can poetry be civically active if there are "white blots" in history? The absence of truth creates emotional tension. When this tension is pushed into the unconscious, behind tightly clenched teeth, society is condemned to live with guilt and is demoralized. That echoes not only in poetry but throughout all of society's spiritual life, morality, economics. Is this not where we should search for alcoholism, drug-abuse, irresponsibility, the causes of moral and economic disorder?
In service to the "heightened class war," this tension was created artificially. For example, where did our national anthem, national flag, and national symbols disappear to during the Stalinist era? Was there anything in them that offended any other nation? In what nation, when the state system changes, does all symbolism change? But perhaps more than that system changed? Perhaps efforts were made actually to destroy the nation and its people? The changed Lithuanian symbols became a convenient ground of action for members of the security police. They zealously chased the young and the downtrodden who had, here and there, displayed the national flag, who had sung the national anthem to comfort their own heartsinstead of fighting the grand corruption which was undermining the very foundation of the nation. A giant ideological apparatus held up a great shield to hide that corruption, while state-dominated criticism required civic poetry.
Isn't it strange under such conditions to talk about socially active poetry? Even if we require its civic-mindedness with the best of intentions, are we not offering it only a fool's cap?
When it is in service to tension created through falsehood, poetry deserves part of the blame, which has been variously named. The reader has many political questions and wordlessly assigns them to the poet. Unfortunately, the poet wishes to speak about the joys of life, goodness, love, spirit, God that is, the values of Being, which exist above social questions and which address them on a different plane. But the reader is hindered by his own questions. Not having found a direct answer to them, he declares the poet asocial, and having found even weak ambiguous allusions rejoices like a child, even though those allusions or direct versified recitation of current affairs serves neither the reader's spirit nor social truth.
Poetry is a higher form of community among people, a spiritual exchange. If the work is spiritual, it is civic according to the truest meaning of that word. In our society during the Stalinist era the institutions of spiritual life disappeared: religion was pushed out of public life, and without contemplation of freedom philosophy suffocated. That's why art, and poetry as its element, was left with a special responsibility.
Does this responsibility serve poetry well? Would it perhaps be better to remove the burden of its spiritual authority, which it in reality does not have? Imagined authority does not convey spirituality, only constricts the creator's movements. The spirituality of poetry arises from the work's structure and not from its idealized aspirations. Also, a work of art which has connected with its material and its essence is not a spiritual activity. By imbuing it with spiritual authority, by mystifying the creative process, we cheapen the concept of the spiritual.
The spiritual requirement of poetry must become the poem's structural requirement. Structure is the child of the creator's talent and of the personality's characteristics. It is formed as much by the creator's conscious as by his unconscious mind. It is a window into Being, and existence is the essence of all poetry. Religion and philosophy are supported by similar structures. They too are windows to Being, only larger. They ought to become accessible to all those who want to know, confess, and practice. Religion more than literature points out the roads of a spiritual life, formulates the individual's system of values. It would be most useful to our literature if the largest religious denominations in their publications would review books, would express their opinions about them.
Unfortunately, religion has long been attacked by militant atheism, by force trying to "prove" God's non-existence. And it is not surprising. "Academic" atheism was to become a composite part of the new religion, and that's why its war against other beliefs was so fanatical. The new "academic" religion tried to nurture a new man, one who did not acknowledge mankind's eternal values and who could therefore accept any nonsense which called itself academic. That's why so much absurd "learning" was discovered, One branch was the "learning" of proletarian literature, against which literary reality struggled with all its strength.
After 1956, zones of truth began to appear in the life of society, where poets could express their relationships with even a narrow strip of reality. Those zones expanded and have now come together into one massive zone, here and there leaving behind the black stains of falsehood. They will disappear when social questions are resolved in the social plane and they will no longer have to be clarified or masked by the poetic word. Then too will disappear the myth of a civic poetry, and its creators will be able to say: "We are free, and therefore not guilty."
Translated by Jonas Zdanys