“(…) a shadow obscures the past (just like the present). The first serene / weeks scour the bridges in a peaceful corner of Europe between Wannsee and Potsdam – where / much has happened, but, probably, nothing more will.” Despite their far-reaching immediacy which dares to express a cautious prediction at the same time, these verses originate from 2003 and were written by one of the greatest poets of our time: Tomas Venclova. Called the Lithuanian Odysseus by Thomas Kling, Venclova is frequently mentioned in connection with Nobel Prize laureates Czesław Miłosz und Joseph Brodsky. The three friends have much in common, including an East European native land whose linguistic and national boundaries can not easily be defined, their being poets turned dissidents out of sincerity and human kindness, and finding themselves compelled to immigrate: cosmopolitans rooted in literature and forever faithful to their respective mother tongues. Venclova’s “first mother tongue”, Lithuanian, is the smallest and least accessible, and hardly had it found its place in literature when, in the course of alliances and conquests, it was forced to compete with Belarusian, Polish and later Russian before permanently becoming the national language. “Up until today it has remained the heart of his world, even if this world reveals influences of many kinds,” writes Cornelius Hell, one of the few well-established Lithuanian literature experts in the German-speaking realm, before adding: “His poems do not appear on blank pages; beneath them ancient handwriting, quotes, and allusions rise to the surface (…). Integrated into this intertextual dialogue are Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian pre-texts, and naturally English, German, and French, while from behind these, here and there, antiquity shimmers through.”
Born 1937 in Klaipëda, Lithuania, Tomas Venclova studied Russian literature and Lithuanian history in Vilnius. At first a communist like his father – poet and cultural minister Antanas Venclova, who composed the hymn of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic – he lost his faith in communism altogether, when the 1956 Hungarian uprising was crushed by Soviet tanks. This event was the subject of “Hidalgo”, one of his first published poems (as a samizdat copy), in which the young poet’s sharp, critical awareness, grounded in literary-historical fact, becomes coupled with an exceedingly classical sense of form already: “We will never see through it, why/we are meant for seats and tribunes,/for bullets, hangman’s cord and armoured tower.” Following longer stays in Moscow and Leningrad, where he met Anna Achmatova and began his fruitful friendship with Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova returned to Vilnius and taught literary history and semiotics at the university there. Although only a fraction of his poetry and essays could be officially published, he was left in peace for the most part until he co-founded the Lithuanian Helsinki Group for the Defence of Human Rights in 1976. To protect his friend from threatening reprisals, Brodsky, with the support of Czesław Miłosz, saw to it that Venclova was invited to Berkley as a guest lecturer. Soon after leaving the country, his compulsory denaturalization followed in 1977, and Venclova was not allowed to return to his native land until its independence in 1991. This led to his visiting of the world, with his customary sensitivity for the presence of the past and the transitoriness of all present. In his poems, he evokes Vienna, Paris, Copenhagen, and Berlin as effortlessly he does Voronezh, where Ossip Mandelstam – whose concept of the dialogue of the poet and thinker plays a key role in every period of Venclova’s creative work – lived in exile. In addition, Venclova evoked Moscow, Leningrad, and repeatedly Vilnius. In the United States, where he has held a professorship since 1993, he was given a chair of Slavic literature at Yale University. Beside teaching and completing his own literary work, Tomas Venclova has proven his untiring service to literature by not only translating Mandelstam, Brodsky, and Miłosz into Lithuanian, but also Achmatova, Pasternak, Wisława Szymborska, Konstantin Kavafis, Henri Michaux, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and many others.
Along with Venclova’s volume of essays entitled “Vilnius. A Personal History” – the lively portrait of a unique city studied over several time periods – a third of his collected poetry has been translated into German and commented upon by Claudia Sinnig and Durs Grünbein, who carried out this task with great diligence, expertise, and verbal finesse. In his epilogue, Durs Grünbein, himself an outstanding poet, emphasizes the importance of Tomas Venclova’s creative work: “To open with a great statement: with a clear conscience, the poems presented here can be deemed a successful life achievement. They number among the most outmoded works offered by modern poetry – and their greatness lies in this fact. These are poems by an especially rare bird, with a well-developed and heraldic profile. (…) On the surface, they seem to be strictly bound to the use of poetic meter. (…) Internally, however, a rebellious subject is always ready to pounce and demand freedom as intensely as someone denied it early on in life. The nature of Venclova’s poetry, its stirring paradox, resides in this drama.”
Text: Patricia Klobusiczky / English translation: Karl Edward Johnson