Tomas Venclova is a poet and was a dissident.
Some would say that he was still a dissident, in that he continues to speak uncomfortable truths to his fellow countrymen in Lithuania. He was expelled from the Soviet Union and deprived of his citizenship in 1977 for daring to challenge the illegal occupation of Lithuania by Stalin and for being part of the steering committee of the Lithuanian Helsinki monitoring group. The Soviet Union signed the Helsinki Final act during the period of detente with the West and in it they made explicit promises to respect human rights. Yet although the USSR had theoretical legal protections, the fact is that Communism is not a system of laws and in any event the Politburo has no intention of reducing the oppressive measures that they used to keep their unwilling populace in subjugation.
So it was that the man now widely recognised as the greatest living Lithuanian poet was forced to come to the West almost thirty years ago. Yet Venclova is not just a Lithuanian poet, he forms with Josef Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz, part of a triumvirate of witnesses to oppression. Though now he is free to come and go to Lithuania- and is indeed a Lithuanian Citizen- when he left he was forced to leave behind his wife, his parents, his daughter and all of his friends to come as an unknown to the United States, where he now teaches at Yale. It was an experience that both Milosz and Brodsky were also forced to undergo from their respective homelands.
Czeslaw Milosz was for me the gateway into Central and Eastern Europe, his book "The Captive Mind" explained to my then 14 year old mind the nature of the Communist system- and the punishment it would inflict on those it considered heretics. It was thus that I became a passionate anti Communist, Soviet Socialism being still in my eyes no lesser a crime than National Socialism. Brodsky's dense poetry dealt with themes of the individual and society and like Milosz he too won the Nobel Prize for literature- a prize that is often linked with Venclova himself, though not, so far, awarded.
Though born in Klaipeda, it is with the City of Vilnius that Venclova is most associated, and his poetry draws much of its inspiration from the baroque mysteries of the renewed Lithuanian capital. The architecture inspires Venclova as it inspired Milosz, who went to university there during its interlude as a Polish city. The mysticism of the City- seen in the Ausra Varta icon-set in a chapel above the "gates of the dawn", which the Poles call Ostrabrama; and in its most famous Jewish mystic, the Gaon of Vilna- has also influenced the poetry of Venclova.
Last night, as part of a schedule of talks in London to celebrate the Lithuanian millennium and the term of Vilnius of capital of European culture Venclova came to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies to discuss his work and his inspiration.
The richness of the ideas flows through even in translation, though lacking the rhythms of the original Lithuanian. It was a wonderful evening to hear a poet who speaks with such integrity and of course, of beauty. Full square in the tradition of Auden he remains a direct link to a generation sorely tried, but found equal to the tasks presented to it.
A POEM ABOUT ARCHITECTURE
here the days are all so loyal
and all so light, my friend,
like the heights of the bell towers and steeples
at whose bottom we wait for darkness;
so tell me, how will we struggle against
the springs found in the clay,
the meteorite mints on the porch,
the dynasty of islands and straits?
and so then we, who pick the luxurious apple
which did not grow for us in the deserts,
who have divided the glory of the dead
like a giant linen shawl,
who have declared freedom's moratorium,
who have learned to repeat
the history of heaven's unliving in the storm,
the geometry of resurrection;
and so the beginning, and the foam in the boat
beyond the smoking red embankment
(boulevards, sailboats and the Baltic
breathe deeply and accept)
– though the city stones constrict us,
with new names we named forever
the waves, middle-age, middle-earth,
winters and the water full of birds;
and so our homeland; defend yourself;
its gothic doors are ajar,
and the airless distances are so close,
and the heavens are like smokeless gunpowder
Tomas Venclova Translated by Jonas Zdanys
Now a new edition of his poetry is available in English: "The Junction" from Bloodaxe Press. For those who do not know this great mind, it may be a revelation.