Gennady Aygi (1934-2006) is widely considered to be one of the great avant-garde poets from the former Soviet Union. He was born in Chuvashia, a territory located in the western part of Russia. In 1958 he was expelled from the Literary Institute in Moscow for his first book of poems, which was condemned by the censors as “hostile poetry” because it was written in Chuvash. Being an outsider in the Russian empire had a profound impact on his life and poetry. His poems are infused with an elemental sense of life, mortality, and humanity.
As scholar and translator Sarah Valentine explains in the introduction of her new book of Aygi translations, Into the Snow, “much of Aygi’s poetry is written against darkness, against institutionalized evil, against our tendency to constantly undermine our own humanity and the humanity of our fellows through violence, nationalism, propaganda, and war.”
“I came into contact with Aygi’s poetry in a contemporary poetry course in my PhD study program in Russian Literature at Princeton,” Valentine told me this week via email. “I was so enamored of his work – but also somewhat baffled by it – that I decided to write my dissertation on him and began translating many of his poems in the process.”
“He has a very unique aesthetic among 20th century Russian poets (and among Russian poets in general) and part of the challenge for me has been to articulate exactly how/why it is different and what implications that has for Russian and world poetry/literature.”
Aygi is “an important voice in the poetry of witness of the twentieth century,” says Valentine. “His status as a Chuvash writer writing in the Russian/European traditions, his blend of avant-gardism and spirituality, and his dedication to confronting institutionalized evil while refusing to play into easy dissident politics make him a critical and fascinating voice at the confluence of many traditions.”
Valentine’s artful translations are an excellent introduction to the Russian poet, and her informative preface sheds light on Aygi’s role as a writer within the larger Soviet culture. I found Valentine’s analysis of poetry written in America versus poetry produced in totalitarian societies particularly insightful:
“Though Aygi was a committed experimentalist in his relationship to language, canon, and convention, he was deeply connected to a fully humanist understanding of the purpose and value of poetry. His work bears the mark of deep spirituality in which the poetic process becomes a space for meditation and worship—of our human capacity for creation as much as for otherworldly divinities. Thus the creative force of language is always linked in his work to creation on a cosmic scale.
I think many poets in the United States today struggle with a feeling of irrelevance, of impotence in the face of global-scale crisis. Sidelined in a mass-media, technology-driven culture, the American poet seems to have a slim chance of connecting with an audience, and even less of a chance to effect large-scale change through poetry. But elsewhere in the world many poets, like Aygi in the Soviet Union, wrote and continue to write poetry at the risk of losing their lives and livelihoods. For them poetry is an ethical act, an act of humanity, regardless of the cost. Many of Aygi’s poems confront the political and social crises of his age, but many others are small poems about the beauty of fields and flowers,the birth of a child. Some consist of only a few lines, few words, or a single word, or a single letter.
Why bother? What difference could jotting down a few lines about flowers possibly make? The answer, I think, for Aygi was that each word of each poem was part of a grander project, and exploration of the nature of existence, of our place in this universe—whatever that is—of what lies beyond the limits of our knowing, and of how, through a humane art, we can maintain our connection with all of it. Also, and perhaps most importantly, each poem is a celebration of mystery, of the fact that, though we pursue these questions, life in all its forms is a mysterious gift.”
I have two of Valentine’s translations to share with you this Sunday. Both poems appear in Into the Snow: Selected Poems of Gennady Aygi, now available from Wave Books. Happy Easter!
in the invisible glow
of pulverized melancholy
I know uselessness like the poor know their last piece of clothing
and old utensils
and I know that this uselessness
is what the country needs from me
reliable like a secret pact:
muteness as life
indeed for my whole life
Muteness is a tribute—but silence is for myself
to grow accustomed to silence
like the beating of one’s heart
as if a well-known place there
and is this I am—as Poetry is
and I know
that my work is both hard and for itself alone
like the sleeplessness of the night watchman
at the city graveyard
from Twenty-Eight Variations on
Chuvash and Udmurt Folk Songs
And in the fog
the green oak
has nothing stronger than a branch
to sing with
These hands and this head
will remain with those who died in a foreign land—
smoke from the locomotive hits us in the face,
to rob us of memory once and for all.
And suddenly—peace, as if
I were alone in the world,
and the blizzard out the window, blizzard in the garden,
blizzard in the fields.
And the day fell silent, like something
meaningful in it had died,
and the fox sleeps in the foothills,
covered by its red tail.
Between the Kazakh and Chuvash lands
did you see the post that marks the boundary line?
It is not a post; it is I standing there, petrified
About Gennady Aygi
Gennady Aygi was one of the outstanding Russian poets of the 20th century. His most important works remained virtually unpublished in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, by which time he had been published and translated in more than 20 countries and several times nominated for a Nobel prize.
He was born in the remote village of Shaymurzino in the Chuvash republic, a land with a Turkic language, some 450 miles east of Moscow. His original name was Lisin, which he changed to the older family name of Aygi (meaning “that one”). His father, a teacher of Russian, was killed in action during the second world war. His mother was the daughter of a peasant, one of the last “priests” of the ancient pagan religion.
Showing a precocious gift for poetry, Aygi went to Moscow in 1953 to study at the Literary Institute, and stayed in the writers’ colony of Peredelkino, where Boris Pasternak was a neighbour. He became close to Pasternak, who encouraged him to write in Russian and whose love and gratitude for life remained an inspiration to the younger poet.
From 1960, all Aygi’s major poetry was in Russian. His friendship with Pasternak, at that time being harassed by the authorities, and his own innovative poetics made him persona non grata in Chuvashia. Even so, the fields and forests of his native land permeate his work, and he remained deeply attached to his ancestral culture, striving to give it a place among the cultures of the world. He translated poetry from many languages into Chuvash and produced an Anthology of Chuvash Poetry (published in English by Forest Books in 1991). Eventually, after the perestroika of the late 1980s, his work was acclaimed in his homeland and he became the Chuvash national poet.
His main home, however, was in Moscow, where in the 1960s he found a much-needed support system among “underground” writers, artists and musicians, who together were discovering the forbidden fruits of western culture. For 10 years he worked at the Mayakovsky Museum, acquiring a deep knowledge of the Russian avant garde of the early 20th century. Modern French poetry (above all Baudelaire) was another essential influence, but his personal pantheon also included Nietzsche, Kafka, Norwid, Kierkegaard and many religious writers.
Aygi quickly became known abroad. In 1972 he won a prize from the Académie Française for his Chuvash anthology of French poetry. More dangerously, he was published in the émigré journal Kontinent, which made him a target for attacks at home. During the Brezhnev years he led a precarious life, subsisting mainly on his meagre earnings from translation. He lived in a series of small flats in the outskirts of Moscow, close to the fields and woods.
Perestroika brought radical changes. Aygi was now published in Russia and recognised as a key figure in the Russian avant garde. He was also able to travel widely, he was further translated, received many honours and was invited all over the world to poetry festivals and symposia. He made four visits to Britain, feeling a particular affinity for Scotland, where he made a pilgrimage to the grave of Robert Burns, and for London, the city of his beloved Dickens. Six volumes of his poetry have been published in English, the most important being the bilingual Selected Poems 1954-94 (Angel Books, 1997) and Child-and-Rose (New Directions, 2003).
Aygi remained a controversial figure. For some readers his free verse (still unusual in Russian poetry) was too much to take, and there were accusations of cosmopolitanism and wilful obscurity. His work was highly unusual; writing, as he put it, on the borders of sleep and waking, he created a medium full of ambiguities and silences to suggest visions, anxieties and joys that defied direct statement. His poetry was quiet and simple, refusing the rich vocabulary and rhetoric of some of his contemporaries, yet it was also intensely oral – audiences were overwhelmed by his powerful incantatory delivery.
He wrote from a deep awareness of the losses and destructions of the 20th century. Though many of his poems were devoted to victims of oppression, from Raoul Wallenberg to Varlaam Shalamov, the great writer of the Gulag, his work was not political. It was tragic in essence, yet he always resisted the poetry of despair. One of his collections bears an epigraph attributed to Plato, “The night is the best time for believing in light”, and like Pasternak’s (from which it differs in manner) his poetry was a poetry of light, seeking to assert the values of human community and oneness with the rest of creation.
(The above biography was taken from Gennady Aygi’s obituary in The Guardian, which was written by Peter France and published February 24, 2006.)
About Sarah Valentine
Sarah Valentine’s first book of translations, Into the Snow: Selected Poems of Gennady Aygi, is a collection of poems translated from the Russian-language poetry of Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi (1934-2006). Individual translations have been featured in the Two Lines anthology Some Kind of Beautiful Signal, as well as in journals such as diode, Circumference, and Redaction: Poetry and Poetics. Sarah has a BA in Russian Studies and Creative Writing from Carnegie Mellon University and a PhD in Russian Literature from Princeton University. She has received a Templeton Foundation grant for her research at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion and a prestigious Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Humanities at UCLA. Sarah lives and Los Angeles and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of California, Riverside, in the Department of Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages where she teaches Russian literature, comparative literature, film, and critical theory.
If you enjoyed the work of Gennady Aygi, you may also like this Sunday Poem by Russian poet Anzhelina Polonskaya, translated by Andrew Wachtel. You can read Gwarlingo’s entire Sunday Poem series here.
“Silence” and “from Twenty-Eight Variations on Chuvash and Udmurt Folk Songs” appear in Into the Snow: Selected Poems of Gennady Aygi by Gennady Aygi, translated by Sarah Valentine. Copyright © 2011 The Estate of Gennady Aygi and Sarah Valentine. Used by permission of Wave Books. All rights reserved. Sarah Valentine biography also courtesy Wave Books.