For an essay A Nation Sings Out by Laima Sruoginis

Lithuanian Poetry

J.C. Todd's Introduction to this Lithuanian feature in riverviews

For J.C.'s other columns on Lithuania:

Lilacs and a Resinous Will: Poetry Spring in Lithuania

International Poetry Festival


To visit the Anelauskas website with important essays on Lithuanian poetry, including:

About Modern Lithuanian Poetry


Experience of Exile in Lithuanian Poetry

Reflections on the Poetry of Contemporary Lithuania

by Kornelijus Platelis, Sigitas Geda, Laurynas Katkus, Giedre Kazlauskaite, and Mindaugas Kvietkauskas.

Poet Kornelijus Platelis:

The changes in Lithuanian poetry could be viewed from the perspective of the abolition of censorship that already happened in the last years of Soviet system. The poetry lost its social mission to convey meanings forbidden by political regime. It lost a huge number (about 90%) of its readers with this mission as well. This was not only because many people were reading poetry for its social content and there was no need anymore for that but also because they became busy with creating a new life for themselves or just trying to survive. The poetry became more direct, more democratic, more related to everyday life, sometimes more simple. On the other hand it became more free from any formal requirements and any discussion with tradition.

I do not observe many changes in our poetics in the years since Independence. Traditional Lithuanian poetics of the first half of the twentieth century are based on syllabotonic schemes with strictly rhymed lines, though there are many examples of syllabic versification in our old folk songs. This tradition was powerfully supported by Soviet censors in the first years after the World War II. The censorship began to lose its position in the 60's under the pressure of poets who were not in bad relations with the regime. In the 70's and 80's poetic forms became more or less free and available to everybody. Therefore, the most intensive fights for freedom of form and the strongest pathos of form were in these years. There were two main camps of “traditionalists” and “modernists” at that time although the “modernists” ere very far from any stylistic homogeneity. All of them were trying to find their own voice and had their own approaches to tradition as it is now when tension in our literary life is not so high.

Poet Sigitas Geda, translated by Ursuala Geda:

During these last ten year, Lithuanian poetry became more simple, more concrete. Often poetry merges with prose or with the language of everyday speech, with slang. Now with no more censorship, poetry is not so refined. It is less emotional, less passionate. Less mystical, but now there is more fragmentariness. It can be rude, vulgar and erotic; sometimes just nonsensical or foolish.

Poet Laurynas Katkus:

In the gigantic machinery of the world, poetry plays the role of a shock absorber or synchroniser, which allows other parts to function without falling apart. If poetry would change as quickly as commercial ads or clothing fashion, we would soon be living in a society consisting only of psychiatrists and their patients, and the question would be, which one of them is less mad.

Nevertheless, poets have their own winter to pass through. It does not correspond directly with political and social changes, but no doubt is affected by them. After the Independence, Lithuanian society had to change from the rear gear of socialism to the high gear of capitalism, if it wanted to catch up to those sexy racing cars bearing the inscriptions “Marlboro” and “West”. For the poetry it meant that from now on it was completely free—with all consequences, good or bad. The support, the public attention to literature shrank drastically, although, curiously enough, the prestige of it remained quite high. Many poets, especially of the older generation, did not pass this test. They started reproducing themselves, or turned poetry into half-bohemian, half-nationalistic lifestyle.

But in the few last years, here and there I notice a murmur, a bubble, a drop of words, which show that another brand of poetry is coming. I do not care whether it comes from the mouth full of blood, of foreign words, or amphetamyn tablets, as long as there is ferment in it. It sounds in an void, but I am sure that is an advantage. The poet from a provincial country, with a not widely spoken language, has less to care about than the poet writing in a “world” language and living in a cultural centre such as Berlin or New York. Writing in Lithuania, which is probably not the ass of the world as one of our writers has put it, but still the lowland, the poet acquires a strange, kind of froggish perspective to global events. By froggish, I mean as in cinema, where the word is used for the perspective from below, for instance, from the earth up to a standing big man. If the writer is able to use his strange, eccentric, unexpected perspective, the better for all; if he doesn't succeed, nobody cries.

I think the future belongs to the openeyed, mindful poetry, elegaic and ironic at the same time.

Poet Giedre Kazlauskaite:

Lithuanian literature has experienced quite distinct ruin after Independence. The political situation provoked enthusiasm at the beginning, but later the literature was pushed out and other spheres got the larger interest of society. During the Soviet time, poetry was adored and meaningful: people were buying and reading books that were published in enormous printings. Poetry was a way to catch ideas hovering among intellectuals, to feel the thought and reflection of the nation's enlightened persons. Poetry often used the fabulist language of “Aesop,” encoding language to express ideas which were officially forbidden, so it became a bit hermetical and isolated. Poets read all the foreign literature they could get through the Iron Curtain. There was a passion to write because it was necessary. Now, that reason is not so important. I think a post-modern attitude at last has come. Young people are writing, but they don't see any noble mission in it. It gives no pragmatic advantage, no popularity, no honour. (As it did in Soviet times.) To write now is just an instinct. I won't say contemporary foreign literature doesn't have any influence, but not everybody reads it with such passion and interest as before, because everything is easily accessible now.

Poetry is looking for new forms of expression and the opportunity to find its niche in forming the national mentality.

Poet Mindaugas Kvietkauskas:

To answer the question “what is poetry?” What poetry isn't — is also an important part of the question, as Lithuanian literature has been changing rapidly since 1988, moving away from the totalitarian past. Of course, every poet has his particular answers. Still there are some attitudes common for the main part of Lithuanian poetic community.

First of all, what Lithuanian contemporary poetry isn't. Now it doesn't have any direct political purposes, which were raised in it in the circumstances of silent struggle against the totalitarianism; no longer is poetry a careful guardian of Lithuanian national traditions, which are mostly rooted in the rural culture; poetry in Lithuania is also in opposition and alien to the mass and commercial culture; and we still archaically believe that poetry is not just a masterly game of words or a perfect dance of textual signs and structures.

The senior generation of Lithuanian modernists - Vytautas P. Bloze, Sigitas Geda, Marcelijus Martinaitis, Tomas Venclova - have revealed the possibilities of poetry as a language of deep mythological images, of collective subconsciousness and of the classical cultural heritage. The middle generation, born on 1950's, — Nijole Miliauskaite, Kornelijus Platelis, Donaldas Kajokas, — derives poetical inspiration more from the dialogue between temporary or paradoxical individual existence and the totality of the world and culture, from the struggle between the Eastern intuition and the Western rationality. In the texts of the young generation, which began publishing books after 1988 (Aidas Marcenas, Sigitas Parulskis, Gintaras Grajauskas and others) poetry is often connected with the sense of silence and emptiness and that signifies the retreat of the modern tradition and the fresh openness to the personal authenticity. Lately the tendencies of realism, narrativism and minimalism are distinct in the poetry of the youngest.