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by Virginija Cibarauskė

Socio-cultural shifts in independent Lithuania and poetry

The trends of today's literary field in Lithuania cannot be discussed without taking several important aspects into account. First of all, the re-establishment of independence in 1990 and the socio-cultural changes caused by it. The most crucial of these was the possibility of alternative voices, narratives, styles, and personal approaches. During the years of the Soviet occupation, not a single published author avoided censorship, the literary field had only one voice, and official literary life was not challenged by an alternative underground, simply because the latter did not exist.

The years immediately before and after the re-establishment of independence was a time of debut for authors, whose freedom of self-expression was no longer restricted. The most prominent debuts of that time were of Aidas Marčėnas (b. 1960) with his poetry collection Šulinys (A Well, 1988), Sigitas Parulskis (b. 1965) with the collection Iš ilgesio visa tai (All That is Due to Longing, 1990), and Neringa Abrutytė (b. 1972) with her book of poetry Rojaus ruduo (The Autumn of Paradise, 1995). It was in their texts and demeanours that the open autobiographical aspect, the quest for personal subjectivity, and a polemic with tradition emerged.

Their debut poetry irrevocably absorbed the aesthetics of ugliness and the poetics of irony and disharmony and challenged pure literature by introducing everyday spoken language.  They were of the view that conventional, and thus worn-out, poetic forms and topoi suppressed the authentic voice and were no longer relevant for the experiences articulated. The debuting authors turned away from the agricultural worldview nourished by myth and folktale, which was of extreme significance to the poets of the older generation. One of the prevailing themes is the deconstruction of the rural landscape and of the poet admiring it by depicting eerie urban spaces, or the subject who no longer finds solace in nature and abhors it.

Preference is given to subjectivity and aesthetic experiments. The debuting poets rejected the notion of the poet as a leader of the nation and the function of poetry as a nurturer of a nation and community, both of which had accumulated substantial symbolical capital. These young poets perceive themselves as exceptional, alien, and apolitical loners. In Marčėnas’s words, the poets of his generation were a “lonely hearts’ club” and “the sergeants of literature.”

These changes were also enhanced by the actual, not just symbolic, deaths of the poetic fathers (patricide being one of the favorite themes of the debuting poets of the late twentieth century).  The recent decade witnessed the death of three poets who had accumulated significant symbolical capital during the years of the Soviet occupation and were active figures of the Sąjūdis movement:[1] Justinas Marcinkevičius (1930–2011) who made his debut in 1955, Marcelijus Martinaitis (1936–2013) who published his first book in 1962, and Sigitas Geda (1943–2008) whose first book appeared in 1966. In spite of different stylistics, the source of meaning and consistency of the creative work for each of them was the agrarian worldview resting on myths and folktales. For all three of these poets, poetry possessed the nurturing function that was shaping the nation's identity, and the poet was the leader of the nation. In other words, these poets and their work represented exactly what the young poets deconstructed.

 

The new poetic fathers and sons

At present, the role of the new poetic fathers is shared between Donaldas Kajokas (b. 1953) and Marčėnas. It is these authors, their approaches, and their creative work that are referred to as a source of inspiration by the young. The influence of Parulskis and Abrutytė remains relevant solely on the textual level: for different reasons, both poets no longer participate in literary life and its activities, such as the consecration of new members, the distribution of awards, and the like.

Kajokas and Marčėnas assume the roles of intuitive wizards. Kajokas’ poetry is appreciated for its laconic nature, its gentle astonishment, and seemingly naive wisdom. He looks for inspiration in Eastern philosophy: his works resemble haiku, the Rubaiyat, and meditational poetry of varying length. On the other hand, the wisdom born in the wonder of the moment and a harmonious relationship between the human being and nature characterize a typical personage of Lithuanian literature: a villager unscathed by intellect and self-destructive reflections. Nature teaches the observer humility, openness to change, and restraint on lyrical egocentricity when the poet thinks he is the center of the universe.

The Eastern hue is less pronounced in Marčėnas’s poetry. He exploits the genre of confessional poetry in a peculiar manner but does not strive at a genuine confession: subjective experiences are filtered through the cultural context and in this way are rendered universal. His poetry abounds in irony and hyperbolized—and thus self-denying—sentimentality. For instance, in the book Tuščia jo (Let It Ride, 2013), the condition of the ageing poet, who nonetheless realizes his power and seeks to maintain it, is compared with the drama of the Shakespearean King Lear, and the writing of lyrical poetry, with the help of the wordplay, to Lear’s (that is, lyrical) suffering.
The fact that Parulskis’s work, and primarily the narrative of the poet-stranger and of suffering, is still relevant is confirmed by the authors of the younger generation. Rimvydas Stankevičius (b. 1973), one of the main poets of the younger generation, identifies Parulskis as his poetical father. Neo-romantic sentimentality and post-independence negativity intertwine in the poetry of Stankevičius and in that of Vytautas Stankus (b. 1984), who is close to Stankevičius from the perspective of worldview and stance.

Stankevičius assumes the role of the poet prophet. He explores cultural memory and the rural worldview, which returns as a utopian space, for a way out of negativity. Stankus, meanwhile, seeks to show the other side of reality—pain, anxiety, and dying. The poems in his second collection Iš veidrodžio, už (From the Mirror, Behind, 2015) are letters to his beloved from the other side. Suffering is reduced by changing to the register of lyrical sentimentalism. Another way is to transform feelings into images. The latter texts are characterized by segmentation and fragmentation.

 

Poet-essayists

The other side of reality is a concern of the essayists, Alfonsas Andriuškevičius (b. 1940) and Kęstutis Navakas (b. 1964). To these writers, it is not the meaning but sensations and the subtle play of poetic images, consonances, and phrases that matter. In Andriuškevičius’s minimalist texts critics have discerned the echoes of the Eastern essayist and poetic school. However, unlike Kajokas, Andriuškevičius does not make a claim to the role of naive wizard. The poet is more interested in such abstract experiences as death, loneliness, or love, which can hardly be captured by language than the interaction of the subject and nature. He makes a conscious effort to avoid drama.

For Navakas, the source of inspiration is Western European literature, from the sonnets of Petrarch and Shakespeare to the German romanticists. Like Andriuškevičius, Navakas is interested in conditions and emotional and existential experiences and avoids drama and pathos. The center of his poem is dissociated from the poet’s personality. He is concerned with sensations, objects, situations, and with their spontaneous process. Another important theme is that of writing as an attempt to record and define the aspects of non-linguistic experience. This attempt is always doomed because what is recorded does not do that or exactly that.

 

Towards confessional poetry

Meanwhile, Giedrė Kazlauskaitė (b. 1980), Vitalija Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė (b. 1981), and Mindaugas Nastaravičius (b. 1984), sympathizers of confessional poetry, take an entirely different position. For these poets, freedom is the opportunity to speak about what is relevant on a personal level. They primarily write about traumatic experiences, mostly from childhood and the teenage years, unhappy love, romantic and sexual adventures, and the search for their own identity.
In their poetry, Kazlauskaitė and Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė focus on the theme of female sexuality and its different forms, which is not made into a symbol or a myth, had a taboo status, and is important in Lithuanian poetry. The subject of Kazlauskaitė’s poetry is the homosexual woman, the mother, and the creator. In her debut book Kvėpuoju (I Am Breathing, 2016), Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė shows preference to the themes of woman’s desire, motherhood, and violence. Nastaravičius pays special attention to patricide. Patricide involves a complicated relationship both with the literary canon and with his own past, which he attempts to change and record at the same time. His texts, which resemble poetry in prose, abound with episodes from the daily life of a teenager from a small town.

 

The post-avant-garde and postmodernist trends

In Lithuanian literature, the post-avant-garde tradition stretches from the interwar avant-gardes (the movements of Keturi vėjai [Four Winds] and Trečias frontas [The Third Front]) to the so-called post-avant-garde poets Benediktas Januševičius (b. 1973) and Gytis Norvilas (b. 1976). The latter seek the synthesis of the word and the image and experiment with the boundaries of poetry by creating poems-objects encompassing written and visual discourse (Januševičius’s collection Eilėraščiai / daiktai [Poems / Objects, 1997]) or poems-drawings (Norvilas’s collection Išlydžių zonos [Spark Zones, 2012]). Post-avant-garde is frequently identified with postmodernism. Discussions about the postmodernization of Lithuanian literature were popular at the end of the twentieth century. At that time, the aesthetics of ugliness, the deconstruction of the agricultural worldview, an ironic attitude towards traditional lyrical poetry, and intertextuality were referred to as landmarks of postmodernism. At present, postmodernist aesthetics is primarily concerned with texts that include fantasy imagery akin to surrealism, exploring sexuality and the marginal states of the body and mind and contains manifestations of social critique and interdiscursivity.

For example, the poetry of Dainius Gintalas (b. 1973) is dominated by the themes of obsessive lust for fantasy creatures, domination, and sadomasochism. Shocking, frequently grotesque and surrealist imagery turns into signs and expressions of the subject’s core— the subconscious. In Aušra Kaziliūnaitė’s (b. 1987) poetry the fantasy imagery fulfils the function of critiquing society for thinking in binary oppositions. She seeks to disclose the other side—what hides beyond language, stereotypical thinking, and the repertoire of behavior.

 

1. Formally, the  Lithuanian Movement for Restructuring (Lithuanian: Lietuvos persitvarkymo sąjūdis). The Lithuanian independence movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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