Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tomas Venclova at Poetry Now

The highlight of last night's two reading sessions at Dun Laoghaire Poetry Now Festival was Tomas Venclova's reading which finished off the second session.

Born in Lithuania in 1937, here was someone who was a participant in, rather than a link with, that great dissident literary movement in middle and eastern Europe of the last century. As a young poet he met and translated Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak and was involved with Joseph Brodsky and others in the Lithuanian and Soviet dissident movements. He was exiled in 1977 and has lived and has taught in the USA since.

He was a wonderfully live presence on the stage. He spoke excellent English with a marked eastern European accent. He introduced all the poems himself, read some in Lithuanian and two others read the English versions. In some cases then we heard Venclova's introduction and the English version only. If that sounds awkward it wasn't.

His poems were not oppressively political, not exclusively focused on the oppression of the past but finely balanced between the general and the specific, the personal and the public.

One of the first he read was about being interviewed by two younger reporters. He muses about the generations asking the same questions:

I know evil never disappears
but one can at least strive to dispel blindness -

and poetry is more meaningful than dreams.

Another poem, "For an Older Poet", dealt with his relationship with his father, a poet who became a "Soviet poet"and with whom he had a difficult relationship. His poem "In the Lake Region" is an understated consideration of "a peaceful corner of Europe between Wansee and Potsdam". Wansee is where Hitler's "Final Solution" was comfirmed and Potsdam is there at a conference Churchill and Roosevelt agree that Russia would have influence over the states of eastern Europe, including Lithuania. This is a place "where much has happened, but, probably, nothing more will".

Venclova's readings of his poems in Lithuanian were the highlight of the event. I didn't want to hear the translation read. He has a striking reading style, helped by the fact that I had never heard Lithuanian being spoken before. It was wonderful. Do we really need foriegn language poetry translated? If he had come out read all his poems in Lithuanian with an English introduction I would have been delighted. I suspect many more in the audience would have been also.

Some of his poems can be read here. Interview here. More here.

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