See J.C. Todd's Introduction to the Lithuanian feature in riverviews
For Commentary by four well-known Lithuanian poets.
For Laima's translations (including a Translator's Note) of Miliauskaite
For J.C.'s other columns on Lithuania:
International Poetry Festival
To visit the Anelauskas website with important essays on Lithuanian poetry, including:
A Nation Sings Out: Poetry, Politics, and Folk Song in Contemporary Lithuania
By Laima Sruoginis
Words are so powerful as to require rules on how to use them. Traditional Lithuanians abided by two basic folkloric truths: never say the word "love" because then the feeling will fall apart and never use words if you can avoid using them. Words were believed to be so powerful as to exist in silence, only to be uttered under extreme circumstances. These folkloric rules formed the backbone of the codified language necessary for survival after all the treaties were signed in the aftermath of World War Two and Lithuania was left on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Words were kept under lock and key not only in everyday life and in literature. A lean, middle aged man, his tousled gray hair interfering with his thick glasses, is pulled up onto the stage by a student wearing a green armband bearing the symbol of Gediminas Castle, situated just behind the Cathedral square. Only a few months previous one could be tried, sentenced, and jailed for possessing this symbol of freedom. The man grins as he approaches the microphone. Then the crowd sees him. Voices break the murmurs of thousands and a chant loosens into the crisp air: LIE-TU-VA, LIE-TU-VA (Lithuania, Lithuania). The energy of the chant is palpable as echoes bounce off the medieval walls. This word, pent-up for decades, was now being shouted. Until now Lithuanians had led a double life - in their hearts they were Lithuanian, but on paper they were Soviets. Their official language was a foreign one linguistically different from their own. Seeing the poet on stage solidifies the crowd's mind - they are one body. The poet shyly waves his hand and the crowd stills. He grins again, as though barely able to contain himself, then, without introduction, in a voice as loud as he can muster, he speaks into the microphone:
A group of folklorists scramble onto the stage; they are singers who scour the countryside for ancient pagan songs and chants that reveal the essence of Lithuania's traditional past. Stalin set out to literally bury the oral tradition by bulldozing thousands of Lithuanian villages and displacing their populations either to collective farms or to factory life in the cities. The lead singer pays homage to the absence of words after Martinaitis's recitation, but when the poet, shaking his head in wonder, steps away from the microphone, he breaks into song. The group catches the melody, but are soon drowned out by the voices of thousands singing in unison:
Folk song is the backbone of traditional, modern, and contemporary Lithuanian poetry. Rhythmical structures from folk song carry over into the poetry. Sometimes the reverse is true. In the 19th century a poet-priest named Antanas Drazdauskas, who wrote under the name of Strazdas, roamed the land reciting poems to his peasant parishioners. The villagers adapted Strazdas's poems to folk melodies and soon were singing them in the fields. Another poet, Paulius Sirvys, crushed by his experiences during the war, wrote poetry that was song. Even in his worst moments of alcoholism Sirvys could scribble a perfect poem onto a napkin for a drink in any bar. The written poetic tradition in Lithuanian began in the eighteenth century with the epic work The Seasons by the poet/priest Kristijonas Donelaitis. Prior to Donelaitis, Lithuanian poets wrote either in Polish or in Latin, while a poetic folk song tradition flourished independently in the four major Lithuanian dialects. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Lithuanian poets borrowed forms and prosody from the Poles, who were borrowing from the French and Italians. Because Polish is a Slavic language, and Lithuanian is a Baltic one with close linguistic ties to ancient Sanskrit, this conversion was not always entirely successful. Only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did a truly linguistically Lithuanian poetic movement emerge. Lithuanian nationalist movements in revolt to serfdom under a czarist occupation of Lithuania gave rise to a new poetic tradition. Poet/Priests Kudirka and Maironis led the folk in redefining their sense of nationhood, inspiring them with patriotic verses - poetry that sang of beauty and virtue using agrarian imagery every Lithuanian could recognize. The contemporary Lithuanian poet Kornelijus Platelis isolates Maironis as the founder of an organically Lithuanian poetic tradition, and also as one of the first in a tradition of poets acting as populist leaders. In his essay "About Modern Lithuanian Poetry" Platelis writes "Maironis organically fused the Lithuanian folk song tradition with European syllabotonic poetic forms, and for many people Maironis became the general symbol of what it was to be a Lithuanian poet (28)". The independent Lithuania of the thirties and forties mimicked poetic movements fashionable in Saint Petersburg and Paris. Lithuanian literature at the time had its share of symbolists, futurists, and expressionists who met in cafes to discuss technique and theory. When Stalin's armies invaded Lithuania in 1940 and again in 1944, the Soviets deported Lithuanian intellectuals, government workers, teachers, and successful farmers to the gulags of Siberia. Poets either fled to the West or faced certain death; a few, like the poet Vincas Mykolaits Putinas, managed to live out the remainder of their lives in marginal conditions. The exiled poets found each other in German Displaced Persons' camps where they managed under dire conditions to set up presses and publish their work, hold literary evenings, and stage plays. In the 1950's refuges were given the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, Canada, Australia, or Latin America. Temporarily dispersed, Lithuanian émigré poets sought each other out and continued to publish literary journals and books abroad in their native Lithuanian, sometimes editing them on one continent, printing them on another, and marketing them on yet another. Émigré poets drew from their Lithuanian past, while at the same time continuing to be influenced by Western literary trends. The critic Rimvydas Silbarojis writes of that era in his anthology Perfection of Exile, "the holocaust of war blew down the walls of [our] home, making us both naked and free. It was a tragic liberation, but it did open up new horizons, new countries, new civilizations, new ways of perceiving and understanding things (22)." Almost half a century later only a few younger poets of Lithuanian descent compose their poetry in Lithuanian. However, many of these poets remain fundamentally influenced by the work of the émigré poets, which very often was the first literature young people growing up in insular émigré communities came in contact with.
After the war, up until the mid-80's, the work of émigré Lithuanian poets was known to the new generation of emerging writers in Soviet occupied Lithuania only in the form of handwritten underground notebooks. The exiles' books were banned outright by the Soviet regime and the punishment for being caught with "contraband" literature was severe. Throughout the forties, fifties, and sixties Social Realism was the Soviet Union's officially sanctioned art form. Many poets towed the party line; however, much of the work they produced was not significant enough artistically to survive history. Other poets remained underground, risking total artistic extinction or imprisonment if detected by the KGB. Eventually, in the late 1960's and early 1970's, Lithuanian poets found ways of publishing "officially" with Soviet publishing houses while remaining true to their own artistic vision.
During the Kruschev era, when censorship in the Soviet Union became, relatively speaking, relaxed, Lithuanian poetry was able to throw off the straight jacket of Social Realism and experiment with new forms. According to the poet and critic Kornelijus Platelis, poets such as Sigitas Geda, Jonas Juskaitis, Marcelijus Martinaitis, Justinas Marcinkevicius, Albinas Zukauskas, among others, "chose the camp of truth, balancing on the changing border of what was allowed by the censors, beneath which stretched the hell of socialist reality with its Gulag, insane asylums, deadly "unfortunate accidents", suicides and alcoholic stupor" (About Modern Lithuanian Poetry, 33). Platelis points out that this group of poets opposed Social Realism and "were united by their efforts to renew [Lithuanian] poetic language, purge poetry of lies, and to portray as clearly as possible individual reality" (32). Lithuanian poets developed an elaborate system of metaphor to get around the censors. Key phrases and images took on metaphorical meaning for the people and served to open up "repressed" or banned topics and emotions. Love of nature came to represent love of nationhood; love of family, especially love of one's mother, symbolized love for the motherland. Lithuanian poets sought to preserve a personalized sense of national identity in their work by embracing the uniqueness of Lithuanian rural life, which to this day remains steeped in the relics of a pre-Christian religion that gives unprecedented importance to the cycles of nature and the power of fate.
Many of the poets who came of age in Lithuania in the seventies and eighties were influenced by Vytautas Bloze, an officially banned, highly prolific, underground poet and translator. In Lithuania Bloze is known as the Lithuanian "grandfather of free verse". His knowledge of foreign languages allowed him a peek into literary trends abroad and his close ties with Russian poets and translators gave him a broader perspective. Influenced by the work of Vallejo, Cavafy, Heine, and Nekrasov among others, Bloze forged a free verse style unique to Lithuanian. Bloze's work broke away from traditional uses of rhyme and meter, aggressively manipulating language to suit his creative needs. Bloze's genius becomes apparent in "Bird in Freedom" (Paukstis Laisveje) in which he describes his forced imprisonment and "treatment" in a Soviet psychiatric hospital by breaking down language to reflect the deterioration of linear thought under the influence of various "medications" administered to him against his will. Throughout "Bird in Freedom" Bloze mesmerizes the reader with one intricate image after another in language that defies the rational in order to lure the reader into experiencing on an emotional level the madness of the systematic destruction of his nation, his people, and their traditional way of life:
Throughout "Bird in Freedom" Bloze depicts the nightmare of the post-war period with a lurid realism ironically borrowed from the officially sanctioned Social Realism and appeals to a Christ who seems to have forgotten this lonely part of the world. Bloze's deaf God is perched in a tree. When an elk, a symbol of rebirth and renewal during the solstice season, is shot "his rack and soul smashed into a roadside birch/God toppled out of the tree, and in his hand he held a pie (6.13 - 14)." With a subtle irony Bloze creates a preoccupied God who, like many Western nations at that time, chooses to have his pie and eat it too, and to forget promises made to smaller nations. By creating a scene in which "Christ in felt boots sits conversing with a few Jews at his knees (8. 34 - 35)" in the local church, Bloze shows that war and Soviet influence have irrevocably destroyed the balance of life that had existed between Jew and Gentile in Lithuania since the Middle Ages. As a boy of thirteen Bloze witnessed the Nazi annihilation of every Jew in his native village of Baisogala. Bloze laments the dead Jews of Baisogala by bringing them back to life in many of his poems. In a poem honoring his dead boyhood friend, Shalom'ke, considered too dangerous to be published when it was first written in 1966, Bloze invokes a decimated cemetery as a symbol of the destruction of a people and their way of life.
The poet Judita Vaiciunaite, one of the few contemporary Lithuanian poets to draw her inspiration from a cityscape rather than a rural landscape, is fascinated by human events which occur within the backdrop of Vilnius' Old City, where she has lived her entire adult life. Throughout the nineties the sons of various political reformers were found dead under mysterious circumstances. Vaiciunaite laments the death of a young man, the son of a parliamentarian, kicked to death and left on the street in her poem "In the Eye of the Storm":
The reinstatement of Lithuanian statehood freed Lithuanian poets from the shackles of censorship, but at the same time robbed them of an infinite topic - resistance. Some poets have had difficulty adjusting to new conditions; others have always managed to pull their subject matter from their own inner lives and have continued writing uninterruptedly in the same vein. The poet Nijole Miliauskaite focuses her poetry on the details of everyday life. Married to Vytautas Bloze, Miliauskaite has been able to draw from her husband's poetic experience while developing a voice uniquely her own. Miliauskaite's work is highly valued in Lithuania, and she is the recipient of many literary awards. After years of being pursued by the KGB, Miliauskaite and Bloze settled down to a life of self-imposed isolation in the tiny village of Druskininkai, separated from the capitol by miles of abundant forests. Miliauskaite turns the daily events of her life, such as sewing dolls for a living, canning fruits for the winter, or drying herbs into poetry. Miliauskaite's poetry focuses on detail. When she finds a butterfly mixed in with her sack of dried herbs and tea leaves she exclaims:
Miliauskaite's strength lies in her power of observation and her ability to transform a landscape, no matter how seemingly bleak, into a subtle range of emotions.
The link between spirituality and poetry in Lithuania has a long and complicated history. Throughout the Soviet period when open religious worship, although guaranteed by the Soviet constitution, could lead to loss of livelihood, loss of shelter, or imprisonment, poets took on the role of priests. When Lithuania became independent, the once forbidden fruit of religion became increasingly more alluring, especially for young people. A number of religious groups and foreign sects have found their way to Lithuania; however, the three traditional religions of the country, Catholicism, Judaism, and Russian-Orthodoxy, have remained the most popular. With ninety percent of the population officially Catholic, charismatic masses, pilgrimages, and exhalation in ancient cathedrals have replaced the popularity poets once enjoyed. Initially, in the early nineties, the displaced poet-priests were reluctant to tromp down the Cathedral aisles along with the masses. Then an interesting shift occurred. More and more poets, writers, and artists embraced the teachings of the Catholic Church. Some contented themselves with the outward trappings - the mysticism, the passion, and the pathos - while others went through wholehearted conversions. In the midst of the economic, political, and moral crises of the nineties a few poets emerged who were able to tap into the spiritual energy of the Lithuanian Catholic Church and successfully transfer it to their poetry. The human soul and the vast depths of the New and Old Testaments provided material for a type of expression new to post-soviet Lithuanians. Folkloric influences combined with an intense spirituality drive the work of the poet Sigitas Parulskis. The poems in his second book, The Dead, address a human father with all his failings who at the same time represents the heavenly father. The poem "Clean Earth" describes a commonplace scene in rural Lithuania. The poet is home on his parents' patch of land harvesting beets. Lacking modern farming equipment, the family must dig the potatoes and prepare the beets by hand. Parulskis's earthly father, a farmer bent from years of labor and drink, leads the family through their work. Soon this earthly labor is transformed into a holy ritual under the open skies. The poet equates the close contact of the peasant with the earth to a death that is also "clean":
In 1989, before severe paper shortages and the economic blockade of the
1990's, a popular statistic, not grounded in concrete research, floated
Lithuania. For a country with a population of three million, 900,000 of
population claimed their sole occupation was "poet". Whether this
fictionalized or not is irrelevant; at the time Lithuanians needed to
themselves as a nation of poets. While presses were still subsidized by
in the last few years of occupation and censorship had been relaxed, it
relatively easy to be published. Publishers were willing to take risks
talent and dozens of poetry books appeared in bookstores. The economic
that inevitably occurred after Lithuania became independent brought
financial restrictions. Editors were forced to become more selective.
it is still far easier for a young poet to publish a first book in
than in many Western countries. Publishers are willing to take risks
talent because, for better or worse, Lithuanian poetry has a readership
poets and literary critics are willing to either tear apart or praise
emerging poet in the popular press. Poets in Lithuania tend to publish
first books while still in their early twenties. If a poet is well
is not difficult to find a publisher willing to publish his or her
Although this may seem like utopia for many Western poets, it is not
Lithuanians. For a poet who a decade ago could look forward to a
apartment, a dacha in the country, and a sufficient stipend (as long as
she kept his work within the boundaries of what the censors allowed)
ragged poet's lifestyle takes some adjusting. Economic hardships, which
arts and humanities particularly hard, make it extremely difficult for
make a living. Eastern Europe lacks the traditions that make it
a poet to labor in another field and write on the side. If you are a
write for your bread. Poets tend to work as newspaper editors, teach,
for the thriving theater scene - all poorly paid professions in
A young Lithuanian poet who became extremely popular when he was not
remarked when Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize for Literature,
like me, he draws from his experience of rural life." It is precisely
of Lithuania-Centric worldview that makes the poetry so interesting and
elusive to the Western world. Closed off from the literary trends of
the world, Lithuanian poetry during the Soviet era had no choice but to
material from close to home. Foreign languages were dangerous, travel
banned, so poets had to look for inspiration within themselves and each
work. It was a very small circle of influence and one that to this day
its own company. Despite Vilnius' trendy Internet Cafes and high
post-modernism remains obscure to most Lithuanian intellectuals.
Lithuanian poets are now offered opportunities to travel, study, and
their work abroad, few allow themselves to be influenced by the poetry
Martinaitis, Marcelijus. "Kukutis's Swallows Hymn." Trans. Laima Sruoginis.
Two Worlds Walking. Ed. Glancy, Diane, Truesdale, C.W: Minneapolis: New Rivers Press. 1994. 134
Silbarojis, Rimvydas. Brief Survey of Lithuanian Literature. Perfection of Exile. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970. 22
Sruoginis, Laima, ed. Lithuania: In Her Own Words. Vilnius, Tyto Alba, 1997.
Bloze, Vytautas. "Bird in Freedom." Trans. L. Sruoginis. Sruoginis: 36-45.
Bloze, V. "The Jewish Cemetery." Trans. L. Sruoginis. Sruoginis: 46.
Miliauskaite, Nijole. "summer enclosed within a semi-dark cup". Trans. L. Sruoginis. Sruoginis: 85-86.
Miliauskaite, N., "The Poet's Grave". Trans.L. Sruoginis. Sruoginis: 87.
Parulskis, Sigitas. "Clean Earth." Trans. L. Sruoginis. Sruoginis: 107.
Platelis, Kornelijus. "About Modern Lithuanian Poetry." Trans. Jonas Zdanys. Sruoginis: 33-35.