/ 7 October 2019

Week of the Festival: Druskininkai, Lithuania

Country, City, and Source

The Urban Experience in Lithuanian Poetry

The leading Lithuanian philosopher, Arvydas Šliogeris, holds the view that genuine, powerful poetry (and visual art) comes from a transcendental encounter with things in themselves. For those familiar with the history of philosophy, it is as if the Kantian noumena suddenly shines through our experience for a moment, breaking through our conceptual and linguistic screens, giving us a glimpse of how things really are, divorced from our interests, concerns, and ideas. Great art tries to capture and convey this moment, just as philosophy, in his view, is an attempt to talk about it. Although, as far as this goes, we could imagine it happening with, say, a chair, the chair remains a human artefact, natural material worked over by our hands in accordance with our needs and concepts. What Šliogeris is driving at is more the experience of the non-human, so his examples turn again and again to the natural world. The influence of his philosophy in Lithuanian culture can be felt in the work of Lithuania’s leading literary critic, Viktorija Daujotytė. She has even stated that ‘[t]he one who cannot get nourishment out of nature, cannot do so out of life either. Nor, in the end, from language’. It follows, then, for her, that poetry must have its roots in the natural environment: ‘Primordial poetry lies in nature’.


Such an outlook finds confirmation in a dominant neo-romantic trend throughout the tradition of Lithuanian poetry, one that leans towards the natural world as a source of inspiration and meaning. The émigré literary scholar, Rimvydas Šilbajoris, points out a significant group of what he calls ‘village prose’ and ‘village verse’ writers, whose work was rooted in ‘the centuries-old traditions of the Lithuanian farming community, since it is perceived to embody the quintessential traits of the Lithuanian national character and culture’. One might think that the Soviet focus on socialist realism and its valorisation of workers and industry would have put an end to such a trend, but the reverse was true. As the poet and critic, Kornelijus Platelis, has pointed out, ‘[i]n these years we were living in the same political situation as that of East European Romantics of the XIX century: occupation by a foreign power, censorship, collaborators and resisters. So, our poetry had this additional meaning and additional burden though it wasn’t romantic in its style. Yet our mentality was somehow romantic’. One can see examples of this to the present day, not just with traditional neo-romantic poems focused on nature, but even in the avant-garde. 

For instance, the poem ‘Shahida’, by Gytis Norvilas, written in the last decade, describes a woman traveling through the city, ‘having wrapped her graceful waist / with gravel roads / dark-haired streets and alleys’, taking a package on the trolley bus that is ‘redolent of choleric radiation’ to a small plot in which she plants a magnolia shoot. The title and the ‘package’ imply a kind of terrorist attack against the city, but the ‘terror’ turns out to be an element of nature, opposing, even ‘attacking’, the dirty, poisoned city. Nature remains the inspirational source and salvation, despite the poem’s avant-garde style. 

On the other hand, this neo-romantic opposition between the natural and the urban is not the only way in which Lithuanian poetry has treated the city. Tomas Venclova both represents and enunciates a different perspective: 

For me, a city – be it Vilnius or Klaipėda – was not a mere industrial setting, but a man-made, cultural landscape often preferable to a natural one; it was a place where human relations achieved new levels of dynamic sophistication. Moreover, this was a link to world culture and history (while the village represented isolation and repetitiveness). Such an attitude was an exception in the Lithuanian letters of my period; Vaičiūnaitė also           attempted to convey a similar message…

Venclova’s work opposed Soviet ideology, not by situating itself in the natural or folkloric world, but by focusing on the city as a locus of a broader history and culture. As he mentions, we can see these elements of history and personal relations in the work of his contemporary Judita Vaičiūnaitė. In ‘Vilnius. Archeology’, for example, she finds in the architecture and archaeological layers of the capital city – not in the country cottage or landscape – a source of national identity: 

            We dug up a miserable Troy,

                        an impoverished, little Pompeii,

            the city’s sunken, sacred horizons  

                        – limestone grown ulcerous,

            we dug up our roots from stone

                        – we found them full of pain.

Vaičiūnaitė, in such poems, expresses Venclova’s claim about the city as a focal point for human relations. Again, numerous examples abound, but here is an untitled work uncovering the live-giving quality of friendship and poetry that can be found in Vilnius’s uniquely baroque landscape:

            Old Town apartments burn with tile stoves.

            The window opens – the universe.

                        Red bullfinches warble.

            Your square, covered in snow, fills with sky.

                        Your poems are coal black, smoky – 

            fire sparks between their lines.

            You gave me white wine that will not freeze.

                        You gave me the dark radiance of poetry.

            Through the blizzard I carry 

            a baroque bundle 

                        of city, simile, and love. 

            (While Atlases shoulder a beaten balcony on my way.)

All this is not to say that nature is forgotten or ignored in her work. In many cases, Vaičiūnaitė finds poetic inspiration, or the transcendental moment, in the way in which nature intrudes on the city. This can take the form of an underground stream, blooming flowers, or even weeds growing through sidewalk cracks. Such poems reveal elements of the old opposition between the natural and the urban. In this way, her work maintains a connection to the long thread of neo-romantic poetry by finding its vital source of value in the natural world, though in her case, these discoveries are often humble and unexpected. ‘Old Town (II)’ reveals the wonder and power of the wild within the crumbling Old Town landscape (purposely left in the Soviet era to decay):

            grass spurts from out of the steps, 

            the street is a wilderness –

            the broken echo of poetry,

            the savage, intoxicating victory of life... 

            The bleak heat of garbage dumps,

            the neglect of forgotten dead-end streets,

            endless –

            old fireplaces shattered

            by wormwood, burdock and nettles. 

Poems like this imply that there is a problem with the city– that it needs the natural world for its redemption, at least in the eyes of poetic experience. More recently, poets have continued this trend of depicting the city in a negative light. It becomes hard to detect the positive emphasis on culture, history and human relations that we can find in the work of Venclova and Vaičiūnaitė. One reason for this, unrelated to any adherence to neo-romanticism, may be a turn away from the (now) renovated and ‘touristic’ Old Town, towards a gritty realist depiction of outlying neighborhoods (where poets often now live). Thus, Aušra Kaziliūnaitė, in ‘as in the sky, so in’, articulates the environment of ‘Krushchev’ style housing projects, encountering an ominous maid (Death? A dark angel?): 

            but their squawks recede

            on the wind usurped 

            by pitiless

            red tenement tracts

            bloody red-ement tracts

            that spit out a black-haired maid

            who makes the bed

            of clouds i see

            swimming by

            amazed at her dexterity

            as she removes the seagulls

            and changes them

            for something fresh

Similarly grim imagery appears in the work of Marius Burokas, another contemporary poet of the city who is not averse to exploring its dark corners, its neglected neighborhoods. An untitled poem of his begins, ‘In the city, quarantine / and mourning. everyone / waits for snow. // on the facades, and / in the streets–– / an indelible hideousness’. The poem, instead of ending with a salving image of nature (as we might expect in Vaičiūnaitė), follows the negative impressions to where (we might say) they naturally lead: 

            in the window 

            of the facing house,

            in the kitchen,

            a light burns.

            naked death

            rummages through

            the refrigerator.

            it’s her 

            yellow jackboots

            that shine

            when she walks 

            the streets.

            she notices me

            and nods.

            see you soon.

Both of these younger, urban poets encounter an ominous female figure in poems that describe the urban outskirts. In their work, the city seems to be a fallen place in need of redemption. The joy of human relations made available by the urban environment are in short supply (compare the American articulations of urban life in Whitman, Hart Crane, and Frank O’Hara). However, both poets also accept the city (not the countryside), and particularly Vilnius, as their home. For instance, in Burokas’s ‘Home Again’, the city again appears in grimy realism:

            I recognize

            these, my concrete innards

            the rusty gums of mailboxes

            vases covered in cobwebs

            side boards in the corners gone wild

            (and the elevator shaft with sooty miners)

Yet, by the end of this poem we see a kind of acceptance, a coming to terms with the darkness and distress presented by the cityscape. Vilnius is now recognized as a place with a kind of sacral power. It is, after all, home:‘All of this horror / (this blessing)’. And so the poem ends, a bittersweet ode to an authentically urban home.

The poetry of Gintaras Grajauskas (of a generation between the latter two poets and the former two), reveals a somewhat more relaxed attitude to the city. It is neither particularly grim nor does one get the sense that it is a place in need of redemption. In ‘damn, again with that red mazda’, he uses an all too common urban experience as a surprising objective correlative carrying the implication that redemption is required (although its possibility remains to be established). The redemption, however, is not the redemption of, or from, the city, but of the person as seen through the lens of the urban. A car alarm is going off at night:

            damn, again with that red mazda

            under the window: sickly sensitive as if

            someone had peeled off its skin, it screeches

            from a gust of wind, the slightest breath of air

            on its exposed, bloody muscles

We are then led to understand that the car is like him (the objective correlative):

            and I screamed like that, skinned 

            alive, barely feeling life begin 

            to snuggle up to me –

            I screamed, groaned, complained 

            under the bitch’s coarse tongue

So his prayer (and I think we can call it that, despite the informal speech), for it to stop screaming, at the hands of its owner, is his own prayer to God (his owner, if such exists):

            please, car-owner, have pity

            on that perhaps worthless thing –

            it served you to the best of its abilities

            and understanding, with all of its 

            pathetic mechanical powers

            wake up, car-owner, stretch out

            your saving hand – all you need to do

            is wiggle one finger and the screaming

            stops, so I pray to you,

            press the remote control.

I believe that these poems show that although the city remains problematic in the poetic imagination of Lithuania, Lithuanian poetry has now grown in to this relatively new soil (if you’ll pardon the natural metaphor), for poets have found a home there, as well as the requisite objective correlatives to describe the human experience. Whether grim or redemptive, the transcendental moment need not be discovered and articulated only through the natural world, but can be experienced in the concrete, brick and steel that present themselves to our everyday eyes (we being mostly city-dwellers now) – in the quotidian experiences from which poets have previously turned away. The chair can be the source of poetry as much as the tree. If this be a banal claim, it is still not one that everybody sees.

By Rimas Uzgiris, a poet, translator, and critic. He is the author of North of Paradise, Kelsay Books (2019). He is translator of Caravan Lullabiesby Ilzė Butkutė (A Midsummer Night’s Press), Then Whatby Gintaras Grajauskas (Bloodaxe), Now I Understandby Marius Burokas (Parthian), The Moon is a Pillby Aušra Kaziliūnaitė (Parthian), and Vagabond Sunby Judita Vaičiūnaitė (Shearsman). Uzgiris holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark University. Recipient of a Fulbright Grant, a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship,  he teaches translation at Vilnius University.

Edited by Marius Burokas