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Leonas Linas Katinas, Seven Days in Rusnė or the Blooming of the Dandelions I, 1971. Cardboard, dandelions, oil, 61 x 81,5 cm. From the MO museum collection.

by Ramūnas Čičelis

For Lithuanian poetry, the past decade was one of deeply felt losses. Prominent poets such as Marcelijus Martinaitis and Sigitas Geda passed away. These people were poetic universes from which numerous younger poets found encouragement and inspiration. Martinaitis and Geda, in particular, were hopeful symbols of Lithuanian poetry’s continuity.

As for the poets writing today, they are primarily linguistically responsible for continuing and originally interpreting the legacy of the Lithuanian poetry of the second half of the twentieth century. At that time, the poem as an art form was hugely influenced by French existentialist philosophy, the main effort of which was to place the human in front of the wall of the absurd, to bring him or her to that boundary of the perception of self and the world beyond which there is either nothing or everything. The popularity of existential philosophy in Soviet and early post-Soviet Lithuanian poetry was the condition that enabled the localization of the poetic subject in his or her native place and the continuity of the tradition of rural, yet still sophisticated, world-perception. At the same time, French philosophy showed Lithuanian poets the significance of loneliness/solitude as a fundamental condition for poetic creation. Poetry intended for mass consumption soon lost its relevance in post-Soviet Lithuania, and what remained was measured aesthetically and ontologically as well as ethically.

The youngest generation of Lithuanian poets derive the roots of their creativity from the verses and public demeanor of the abovementioned poets. The poetry of Mantas Balakauskas, Nerijus Cibulskas, and Vytautas Stankus is dominated by the “literary dimension” and the narrative quality of the lyrical subject that are akin to the current trend in Western European poetry. (Early twentieth-century Russian structuralists define the literary dimension as what is opposite to life: literature is literature to the extent it is not life.)  Nonetheless, despite the desire to preserve their solitude, the creative work of the young is heavily influenced by the essay genre. The essayist narrative in the first-person singular upholds, in a distinct manner, the shifts and synthesis of the genres that were introduced in the 1970s. In the poetry of Balakauskas, Cibulskas, and Stankus the individual is opposed to the masses by their original way of thinking and the way they see the world; they are open to social and, at times, even political criticism and self-irony, and raise the question of their place in the world in which the attachment to the homeland is no longer deep. To them, the lyrical subject sees the world to the extent it is necessary for self-perception, while the latter is not a simple act of psychologization or a naïve shortcoming of identity: it is not stating conditions but an attempt to realize what the condition is and what a poem, as a form of this condition, is. To some extent, poetry becomes a meta-language of its own—poetry reflects itself in a non-narcissistic manner. A condition or a state becomes an opportunity for inner liberation. It means that the line of a poem maintains the balance between self-interest and orientation towards social existence.

Unlike the poems of the three authors mentioned, the work of another young poet, Ernestas Noreika, is somewhat more affected. The roots of mannerism in European culture lie in the post-Renaissance period when the grand masters of painting and sculpture were already in the ground and the overwhelming longing and attempts to attain their level of mastery were strongly felt. Differently from the work of his contemporaries, Noreika’s poetry contains a noticeably larger number of the realities of Western culture. In his texts they strike a balance between stylization and original interpretation. It is only the individuality of the poetic feeling that saves Noreika’s poetry from a straightforward rendering of texts and other works of Western culture into Lithuanian poetic language. Noreika is one of those rare contemporary Lithuanian poets who feels the freedom of Lithuanian poetry and its ability to inhale influences and to convey them in its own idiosyncratic manner. Some would compare this quality to mannerism, while those of a less skeptical frame of mind would call it a broader outlook on the art of the word and its prospects. Noreika’s poetry compilations are the bursting bud of what the philosopher Leonidas Donskis called “the European soul”: culture becomes a factor uniting Lithuanian- and English-speaking poets and builds a common identity that is open and free of fear.

The poetry of Giedrė Kazlauskaitė, a poetess of the middle generation, is the embodiment of the direction that Noreika’s lyrical subject pursues. When in the second decade of the twenty-first century we have lost a common historical memory and live a conscious life that does not rest on the deep layers of experience, Kazlauskaitė arises as one of the best-remembering poets. Her poetry is dominated by the aspect described by the American theorists of the new historicism in literature and philosophy: memory is only alive when it is a condition of the present and not when it is placed under a bell jar like a museum exhibit, safely and indifferently.  In this respect, Kazlauskaitė’s work remembers Ancient Greece and the beginning of Western culture and of the European continent. It is from the perspective of this particular period that Kazlauskaitė’s lyrical subject looks at the present and at herself in the present. The standpoint when the past affects the present offers hope that a poetic vision of the world has a future and will not suffer from amnesia perpetuated by social media.

Eugenijus Ališanka is another representative of the middle generation of Lithuanian contemporary poets. He is also a participant of numerous international poetry festivals. His work can doubtlessly be considered postmodern: realities of Western culture are necessary not so much for the updating of memory as for providing a context for the Lithuanian language and way of thinking. Readers of this type of poetry liberate themselves from complexes of ostensible provincialism or from language barriers: in his work Ališanka firmly asserts that Lithuanian poetry is originally and vividly affected both by historically distant European history and by the cultural factors of the present time. His poetry can be seen as addressed “to the four parts of the world.” Ališanka’s readers are in for mental journeys offering  great pleasure and the possibility to be citizens of the world.

Aidas Marčėnas and Donaldas Kajokas, Lithuanian poets of the older generation, can be called poet-sages. The former is searching for answers and, understandably, cannot find them through Western philosophizing; the latter asserts a Buddhist stance in Lithuanian poetry when the poetic subject seeks to master the void. Marčėnas is full of words, questions, and quests for meaning. Kajokas’s poetry speaks of silence, of not asking questions (which, incidentally, is not a state of indifference), and of the tranquility that descends when any claims of understanding the definitions, rules, and laws of the world are dismissed.  For Kajokas’s lyrical subject the poetry brought about by postmodernist interest in Asian philosophy is the path leading from Nowhere to Nowhere. Tranquility and meditation experienced between these points draw a line that separates poetry from essayist tendencies. Aidas Marčėnas can be called a restless sage, while Donaldas Kajokas turns down wisdom as such for the sake of the void.

Tomas Venclova, a poet of the oldest generation of the living Lithuanian poets, is the most cosmopolitan in contemporary Lithuanian poetry. He resides in the USA (in the 1970s, he emigrated from Lithuania as a dissident of the Soviet regime) yet he writes poetry exclusively in Lithuanian. His work can be called classic both from the point of view of literary sociology and aesthetics. Venclova’s recognition is so deep rooted that we can refer to him as “a living classic.” His poems, like Giedrė Kazlauskaitė’s, are oriented towards the classical epochs of European culture. Just like the outstanding poets of post-Soviet Lithuania, Venclova’s poetic work can be called a poetic universe as it encompasses almost all poetic qualities characteristic of both the older poets and those who are younger. The reader needs Venclova’s poetry as a way of consolidating awareness. Classical Greek myths and cultural realities are neither stylized nor affectedly recreated: they are interpreted as a promise to the seemingly confused reader that the classical structures and forms of thinking, thought, feeling, and hope are still here and that any dangers are minute.

Lithuanian poetry is currently vibrant because of new poetry books and poetry that appears in various other publications as well as due to the intense activity of the literary industry: poetry is heard at numberless public readings and festivals, poets take part in book fairs, their work is being translated into foreign languages, and public organizations of poets and writers contribute significantly to the diffusion of the poetic word (for example, the mentioned young poets belong to the Slinktys [“Shifts”] association. Lithuanian poetry is enjoying a freedom rare in its history. This freedom is the opportunity to write poetry, to be heard and understood, to accept the influences of others and to affect others with one’s own work.

 

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