Long acknowledged to be one of Lithuania’s most important writers and a major figure in world poetry, Tomas Venclova remains less well-known in English in comparison with such friends and contemporaries as Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Joseph Brodsky, and Czesław Miłosz. The author of more than twenty-five books in Lithuanian, Russian, and English, Tomas Venclova was born in Klaipėda, Lithuania in 1937. From 1956 on, he participated in the Lithuanian and Soviet dissident movements and was one of the five founding members of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group. Forced to emigrate in 1977, he continued his dissident activities, and since 1990 has once again played an important role in Lithuania’s cultural life. The recipient of many awards, Venclova is an important European voice for culture and tolerance.
In the following conversation with poet, essayist, and translator Ellen Hinsey, Venclova discusses some of his early influences, the challenge of writing under Soviet Lithuanian censorship, and poetry as resistance. This conversation is taken from Magnetic North: Conversations with Tomas Venclova/Ellen Hinsey (University of Rochster/Boydell and Brewer, 2017) and has been slightly abridged for length.
Ellen Hinsey’s poem “Carved into Bark,” from her forthcoming collection The Illegal Age (Arc Publications, 2018) provides a haunting coda, taking up Magnetic North’s themes of resistance and endurance.
Ellen Hinsey: In the spring of 1972, you were allowed to publish a single volume—your only officially sanctioned book of poetry in Soviet Lithuania, The Sign of Speech—
Tomas Venclova: During this period, the censorship situation had somewhat improved. After 1968, the prevailing atmosphere was one of a “freeze,” but there were some unexpected fluctuations in the party line, which were duly reflected in the editorial policy of the Lithuanian state publishing house. For a time, experimental verse was permitted (or benevolently overlooked), especially if it possessed a “life-affirming,” that is, optimistic, quality or had a folkloric aspect. Usually, a “locomotive” was required: The very first poem in a book by a first-time author had to mention Lenin or Fidel Castro (or, preferably, both) with due enthusiasm. Everyone consented to this demand, which was unspoken, or only discussed in private between an editor and an author. For me, it was out of the question. After my experience with my science book, I scorned the system and had enough respect for poetry to reject these “rules of the game.” Incidentally, Brodsky faced a similar dilemma. After his exile, a book of his poems was being prepared in the USSR, but Yevtushenko told him it needed a “locomotive”—a piece about Lenin or, at, least, about the great Russian people. Brodsky had a poem on people and their language, and quite a good one (Akhmatova admired it), which could perhaps have been construed as “patriotic” and therefore adhering to the official line. [My friend, the physicist] Romas Katilius persuaded him this would have been a gesture of capitulation. Brodsky refused to include it in the book; it was subsequently rejected by the publisher. To my astonishment, The Sign of Speech appeared without any mandatory “locomotive” or “lightning rod”—perhaps the first such case in Soviet Lithuania, or possibly in the entire Soviet Union.
You had previously published under a pseudonym in small samizdat editions, including Pontos Axenos (1958) and Moscow Poems (1962)—
Pontos Axenos was a slim booklet of ten or twelve poems, a typical samizdat enterprise printed by Eglutė, the kitchen-table publishing house I mentioned earlier, whose spiritus movens was Natasha Trauberg. I can still see the book’s yellow cover, soft paper and pale typescript. In retrospect, I should have entitled it Axenos Pontos, as this word order is more common in Greek. As far as I remember, I used the semi-pseudonym Andrius Račkauskas (Andrius is my middle name, and Račkauskas my family name on mother’s side). Four or five copies were produced, and one or two of them were quickly confiscated by the KGB. I don’t know if there are any surviving copies. This volume was also a “first,” namely, the first unofficially published book of poetry in Soviet Lithuania, but it never went beyond a small circle.
Axenos pontos, “the inhospitable sea,” is the name the ancient Greeks gave to the Black Sea.
Early in their history, the Greeks called the Black Sea “inhospitable,” as they feared crossing it. Later, it became euxeinos pontos, “the hospitable sea,” as Greek colonization spread along the Crimean and Caucasian shores. For me, the title had strong Homeric overtones. Beginning in early youth, I had read Homer, especially the Odyssey—mainly in the good Lithuanian translation by Jeronimas Ralys, or in the magnificent Russian translation by Vasily Zhukovsky; I also read parts in the original, thanks to the lessons given to me by my grandfather. Odysseus became not just one of my favorite heroes, but a sort of a personal myth. I subscribe to the notion that a significant part of one’s life patterns are defined by such personal myths which arise during one’s formative years (for Brodsky, incidentally, it was a less popular epic hero—Aeneas). I entertained the idea—at one time current in Lithuania—that Odysseus might have visited the Baltic Sea, thus becoming part of our tradition, and I even wrote a poem about it, one of two texts about Odysseus that appeared in Pontos Axenos.
But my real passion for the classical world really began at university: my best hours as a student were spent in the old building that faced the cobblestoned courtyard and windows of the apartment where Adam Mickiewicz once lived. After that, there were my trips to the Caucasus (with Romas Katilius) and to Crimea. I perceived both of these places as extensions of the ancient Greek world (which they were). In Armenia, we found an authentic Greek temple, and I could touch its battered reliefs with my own hands—the Parthenon itself could not have left a stronger impression on me. At that time, I also started reading [Osip] Mandelstam, who never had the chance to visit Greece (or Rome, for that matter), but who grasped antiquity better than anyone else via the same lenses of the Caucasus and Crimea.
My generation shared the common belief that we had a task to fulfill. The chain of cultural memory had been broken and needed to be restored. To do so, we had to re-establish our foundations: this was the best way to overcome the disastrous legacy of Soviet rule. Thus, Pontos Axenos consisted primarily of verses on Classical (and even pre-Homeric) topics—a direction I continued to follow for several years after this first attempt at a poetic book.
In the context of Soviet Lithuania, Pontos Axenos could also have political implications—
Even before Pontos Axenos, I had written several pointedly political poems. I managed to publish both in the official press, which testifies partly to their weakness, and partly to the illiteracy of Lithuanian censorship. I did not include these, however, in Pontos Axenos. The “inhospitable sea” could also, of course, be construed as “the hostile system.” What I had in mind, however, was a general feeling of alienation, shared by many young men and women at that age, regardless of where they lived.
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.”
During the period preceding the publication of The Sign of Speech, how did the stages of writing a poem generally unfold? Did poems emerge all at once or over an extended period? Was there a recognizable pattern in their composition?
As a rule, my very early poems were short, consisted of a few quatrains (sixteen lines were the usual format), and were generally composed in one day. Following the Acmeists and young Pasternak (also Henrikas Radauskas, who was their admirer), I strove for an epigrammatic quality—naturally, with limited success. Later, during the period of Moscow Poems, this structure was supplemented by lots of technical innovations (including vers libre with insertions of prose), which I considered, somewhat naively, to be an antidote to Socialist Realism. These poems, many of which luckily did not survive, bordered on incomprehensibility; nevertheless, my goal was that they be succinct and aphoristic. Marina Tsvetaeva, a paradigmatic poet of the aphorism, once said that an entire poem should be written for the sake of its last line. Well, I devised my own version of Tsvetaeva’s formula: a poem should be written for the sake of its last quatrain—and its opening line (which was, in my case, the most difficult one, and frequently came at the very end of the writing process).
In those years, I generally did not produce poems at a writing desk, but during long walks through the deserted lanes of Vilnius or Moscow. This working method applied equally to translation, as I previously mentioned regarding my first translation of a poem by Akhmatova. While walking, my steps matched the intrusive rhythm of the “auditory hallucination,” which gradually crystallized into iambic, anapestic, or other metrical patterns. Similarly, vague amalgamations of words would begin to swirl in my mind, exchanging places and finally crystallizing into sound patterns, rhymes, images, and lines (preferably, but not necessarily, starting with the final quatrain). There was usually a certain general idea for the poem (along the lines of “landscape in October,” “short love encounter,” or “river Lethe”) that clarified itself in the process. Since I usually hummed and mumbled during such walks, this may have contributed to my reputation as a “slightly unhinged” person among the (luckily not numerous) people I met along my way. I only wrote the poem down after it was completed in my mind. Later, there would be corrections and changes (which might take weeks or months).
Anna Akhmatova considered traditional poetic technique an integral part of any work of value. Early on you began writing sestinas, sapphics, and employing intricate metrical forms—
In my youth, traditional poetic technique was as natural to me as breathing. In Lithuania, classical rhymed stanzas following iambic, trochaic, and similar patterns were introduced by Maironis at the end of the nineteenth century. He did his best to eliminate syllabic versification in Lithuanian verse, which was derived from Polish models. Maironis’s verse proved to be extremely influential, because he wrote well, per Auden’s dictum. Moreover, his versification was better adapted to the inner structure of the Lithuanian language. Maironis patterned his metrics on Pushkin and Schiller. My head was full of these traditional patterns, since I knew hundreds of Lithuanian and Russian poems by heart, and most if not all of them followed Maironis and Pushkin, respectively—sometimes with slight variations. Last but probably not least, these patterns were employed by my father as well, who admired Maironis and translated Pushkin.
There were other reasons I preferred traditional rhymed stanzas. As we just spoke about, I strongly believed that the threads of memory, severed by brutal historical events, had to be gathered up anew. That meant referring back to old topoi and mythical motifs, as well as to traditional forms. To our minds, these represented harmony—and therefore value—amidst our chaotic world deprived of such values. We learned much from Akhmatova in this respect. Further, our cult of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was also a cult of mnemonics: Akhmatova’s Requiem was memorized by a small group of people and then reconstructed on paper much later, word by word and letter by letter. This would have been much more difficult if Requiem had been written in free verse. It is rare for poems to be written under conditions as extreme as the height of the Stalinist terror, but this link between form and ethos—between form and victory over adversities—was significant for our entire generation.
Thus we valued the Acmeists, who were masters of poetic craft, over the Futurists, whose aesthetics consisted mainly of épatage and destruction. Later, when we learned some English and French, we preferred Frost to Pound and Valéry to the Surrealists. The world around us was unstable and cataclysmic, but the most effective artistic approach was not to imitate this chaos, but rather to confine it within a formal framework.
Gradually, however, I also came to understand the dangers of traditional poetic techniques: if not well handled, they can result in clichés and repetitions which choke meaning. The authorities also understood this and exploited it, in their own way: they used such forms to manipulate or “discipline” human consciousness. Half of Socialist Realist poetry was written in impeccable quatrains; the other half used quasi-Modernist sloganeering in a poor imitation of Mayakovsky. In an attempt to avoid these pitfalls, I increasingly began to use varied and unexpected forms. One method involved disrupting metrical patterns by adding or omitting syllables—metrical “substitution” in English—a method well known to many early-twentieth-century Lithuanian (and Russian) poets; another was to employ intricate stanzaic models. From time to time, I also made use of vers libre. As a rule, however, these latter poems still contained hidden patterns, visible perhaps only to me, but which nevertheless restricted their disorder to a degree.
Could you speak about the similarity between your book’s title, A Sign of Speech, and that of Joseph [Brodsky]’s translated collection, published some years later, entitled A Part of Speech?
[The screenwriter and journalist] Pranas Morkus proposed the title Metelinga for my book. Metelinga was a Lithuanian distortion of the Latin nota linguae: a punishment sign teachers used to hang around the necks of pupils who spoke Lithuanian instead of the mandatory Polish (or later, Russian). “You speak a sort of improper poetic language, therefore this would be a marvelous title for you,” Pranas said. However, such a title had no chance of getting past the censors due to its political connotations. Therefore, I rendered the Latin as A Sign of Speech (which corresponded, incidentally, also to my interest in semiotics, the science of signs). Joseph approved of the title, although he proposed, in jest, also the title Vodka (a parody of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Alcools), as all of us drank rather heavily. When in 1977 Brodsky published his A Part of Speech, I asked him: “Is this a reference to my title?” He answered: “Yes, it is.”
Thus, from the beginning, your work constituted its own specific universe. In his essay “Poetry as a Form of Resistance to Reality,” Joseph Brodsky said that your poetry represented an alternative to the Soviet reality that surrounded you.
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.
One of the techniques of resistance in your poems was a “filtering out” process. In your work from this period one senses that the human realm, with its usual range of activities and enterprises (with the exception of friendship), had become so deformed that it no longer merited a place in authentic poetic utterance.
That’s true. Everything mediated by the State or Soviet society was false. A certain level of inauthenticity is endemic to any society, but in the Soviet Union it reached extreme levels. Friendship—and love, which is (or should be) friendship to the second power—provided the only solid ground. In many of the East European countries, networks of friendships eventually crystallized into an “alternative society,” which played an important role during the systemic changes of the eighties. But it was a slow process, and in Lithuania, the “alternative society” consisted of small islands almost to the very end.
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.”
At times, this “filtering out” approach in your early work results in such a radical paring down that it is as if the poet can only find recourse in the reliable constants of time, nature, the elements and the fact of weather—
Nature undoubtedly was a certainty in our uncertain and inauthentic world. Here, once more, Pasternak comes to mind. He was perhaps the greatest poet of weather in the entire history of literature (he maintained that the duty of an author is to first depict the weather in the place of action, and only then describe everything else). Cloudbursts, blizzards, summer heat, and thunderstorms were frequently more significant in his verses than any other object or fact. One might say that the unceasing movement of nature represented for him, paradoxically, an immovable Archimedean point that gave him strength. The Sign of Speech—not without Pasternak’s influence—takes a similar approach (not to mention the fact that the elemental world is a fascinating and challenging topic in itself, especially for a young poet).
All this creates, in your early work, a poetic environment that is reminiscent of a Platonic universe filled with absolutes. I think, however, this would misrepresent its specificity. There is something entirely pragmatic about the elemental phenomena that remain in your poems. One senses that this is a reflection of the fact that tyranny—at least not as of yet—has been unable to corrupt the natural world’s periodic table or the weather—
I was struck by a rather comical scene in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, where the titular hero is informed by the authorities that the sun would no long be at its highest at midday. He scornfully thinks to himself, “As if the sun would obey their decrees!” This nonsensical scene points up the obvious: decrees cannot change the natural processes. Well, it gives one a modicum of hope.
Time, on the other hand, is a more complex issue; as you discussed in your essay “Czesław Miłosz: Despair and Grace,” “Totalitarianism … threatens the temporal dimensions of humanity first of all; if we wish to have a future we must have a past.”
Twentieth-century tyrannical regimes propped themselves up with eschatological myths (a trend continued by present-day regimes that emphasize nationalism). The perfect and happy future was understood as a continuation of the happy present, at best with minor modifications. Meanwhile, the past had to be continually cleansed, in accordance with Orwellian precepts. Time had to stop: in the sixties and seventies, we were still living somewhere around 1945, and we were supposed to have no knowledge of the changing world beyond our borders, or of the world that had preceded ours. One of my generation’s main concerns was the restoration of a normal past and, consequently, a normal future.
Nevertheless, all these things we have been discussing point to something miraculous in the human faculty. This is that, despite the best efforts of tyranny and indoctrination, individuals can still sense that things are “out of joint”—and something in their spirit compels them to seek out the truth—
Perhaps there is a transcendental element of human nature that compels us to strive for truth. In the final account, the efforts of Big Brother—however successful they might seem—appear unable to extinguish the instinct for freedom. But this is difficult to prove—we can only believe it: here, we exceed the limits of verifiable thinking and border on theology. Still, something I would like to stress again is the immense role played by literature in this process. 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.
None of this is achieved, however, without sacrifice. In the fall of 1972, only six months after The Sign of Speech was published, there was a significant tightening of the ideological net. In the poem “Winter Dialogue,” you speak about how there are moments when what can be positively affirmed is meager, but must nevertheless be cherished:
“This century is managing without
A sign; there’s just statistics.” “Gravity
Of death has fettered person, plant, and thing,
But sprouts burst forth from seed and sacrifice,
And then not all is over, or so I think.”
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.
 Translated by Diana Senechal.
* * *
Carved into Bark
by Ellen Hinsey
Tomas Venclova has written over twenty-five books of poetry, criticism, literary biography, interviews, and works on Vilnius. His poetry has been translated into more than twenty languages. Venclova has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Lithuanian National Prize, the Prize of Two Nations (which he received jointly with Czesław Miłosz), the New Culture of New Europe Prize, the Qinhai International Poetry Prize, the Premio Capri, and the Petrarca Prize. His works in English include The Junction: Selected Poems of Tomas Venclova, Vilnius: A Personal History, Forms of Hope, Winter Dialogue, and Aleksander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast.
Ellen Hinsey has published eight books of poetry, essay, dialogue, and literary translation. Her most recent works are The Illegal Age (poetry, Forthcoming 2018) and Mastering the Past: Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe and the Rise of Illiberalism (essays, Telos Press, 2017). Her volumes of poetry include Cities of Memory (Yale University Press), The White Fire of Time (Wesleyan/Bloodaxe Books), and Update on the Descent (Notre Dame University Press/Bloodaxe Books). Hinsey’s work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Irish Times, Poetry, and Der Tagesspiegel. She is the International Correspondent for The New England Review. The recipient of numerous awards, she is a former fellow of the American Academy in Berlin and in 2015 she was a Berlin Künstler fellow of the Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst (DAAD).