For J.C.'s initial account of the Lithuanian International Poetry Festival

For J.C.'s Spring 2001 riverviews

For J.C.'s translations from the Spanish of Ivón Gordon Vailakis

For another review by J.C. Todd


J.C. Todd's work can be found online at:

"Why I Teach Poetry," an on-line supplement to the PBS special Fooling with Words with Bill Moyers, Fall, 1999 is located at


J.C. Todd is a Contributing Editor of The Drunken Boat


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riverviews At water's edge is how I locate my life: Great South Bay marshes and beaches of Long Island; peninsula of Pittsburgh narrowed by the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers; bank of the Susquehanna in Harrisburg; and now the Delaware's levee in Philadelphia, the Schuylkill at my back. As a poet, too, I've stood to the side of the mainstream, in the marshy detritus of language from which new language emerges, myself a river and reiver, splitting and splicing, plundering and rescuing, making a language of my mother tongue, being made by it. So, a river's view of riverviews, this column of musings on language and poetry.

Lilacs and a Resinous Will: Poetry Spring in Lithuania

By J.C. Todd

***** "More moderly I look on lithuanian poetry:" Reflections on the Poetry of Contemporary Lithuania Before traveling to Lithuania last Spring, I imagined the Lithuanian poet as a priest or seer, a shaman who spoke or sang the word that would bring into existence what had been named. Not just any word, but the word whose tonal configuration created by vibrating with the universe, my archaic and Romanticized version of an ancient Sanskrit principle that vibrations of vowel tones could cause changes in the physical world. Magical thinking? yet there is a linguistic and historical basis for this image. The Lithuanian language is one of the last two extant languages of the Indo-European branch most closely related to Sanskit. Pre-medieval pagan traditions have been carried into the present in dainos (folk songs), folk art and in the appropriation of pagan visual imagery by the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches. The most compelling image of the poet as priest came from the resistance to Soviet rule; in 1987-90, the Lithuanian people overturned almost fifty years of oppressive occupations (German, then Soviet) with the "Singing Revolution," whose anthem, a traditional folk song that begins "Upon a hill, the highest hill," prophesied the rise of Vilnius, then all of Lithuania against the Soviet occupation. At the time it was rumored that the KGB was frustrated with imprisoning revolutionaries because they could not arrest an entire nation. Laima Sruoginis, an American daughter of Lithuanian emigres, then a student at Vilnius University, gives this eye witness account in her essay, "A Nation Sings Out: Poetry, Politics, and Folk Song in Contemporary Lithuania." It was impossible to estimate how many people had gathered for the candlelight vigil, organized to mark the first conference of the Lithuanian grassroots reform movement, Sajudis. The Cathedral Square at that moment on October 23, 1988 held more people than it ever had in its five hundred-year history. Hundreds more packed themselves into the winding medieval streets that opened into the square--symbolically and actually the heart of the city of Vilnius. . . .The crowd listened as poets, philosophers, professors, and scientists. . . who made up the reform movement, formerly known as "The Philosophers' Club," demanded. . . .social reforms. A lean, middle aged man, his tousled gray hair interfering with his thick glasses, is pulled up onto the stage. . . .Then the crowd sees him. . . (and) a chant loosens into the crisp air: LIE-TU-VA, LIE-TU-VA (Lithuania, Lithuania). . . . Until now Lithuanians had led a double life--in their hearts they were Lithuanians but on paper they were Soviets. Their official language was a foreign one, linguistically different from their own. The poet shyly waves his hand and the crowd stills. . . , he speaks into the microphone: Spring And for you, spring--isn't it spring? And for you, spring, isn't it beautiful? When it's beautiful When it's spring. How beautiiful! How beautiful it is When its beautiful. Even for the not-beautiful It is beautiful When it's spring When the sun thaws In windowpanes. How beautiful it is to be grass Or smoke Over one's homeland. Even for the dead It's beautiful on earth. How beautiful it is for you, spring, When it's spring When it's beautiful When all of Lithuania returns After a long winter's exile To the fields With plows and hoes. The poet is Marcelijus Martinaitis. . . . The crowd recognizes the persona of the poem. . .Kukutis: a Stalin era farmer who is a pagan, a fool, a hopeless romantic. Kukutis can never learn to live by the New World Order. The crowd is Kukutis. . . ; they have lived to see the spring Martinaitis was hoping for when he wrote the poem just a few years earlier. This poem had led the people to the Cathedral Square that day. Kukutis is not an ideology, not an anthem, not a social justice organizer or a performer or personality. He is not a dead hero but a foolish human figure, spoken into existence by a poet, perhaps derived from figures in dainos, but a contemporary creation, nonetheless, who gives voice in the mother tongue to a people's desire to reclaim their language and nationhood. Since the late nineteenth century, Lithuania has had a tradition of poets who acted as populist leaders and whose poems helped to redefine the sense of nationhood. In his essay "About Modern Lithuanian Poetry," the contemporary poet Kornelijus Platelis identifies the poet/priest Maironis as the founder of this tradition because he ". . .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." This was the image I had, an image I soon discovered was too narrow to hold the dazzling range evident in the poems in this feature on contemporary Lithuanian poetry in translation. Although many poets of the Lithuanian diaspora continue to write in Lithuanian, only those living in that country are published here. All the translators are poets as well, a mix of well-known, bilingual translators from the Lithuanian-American community and newer, non-Lithuanian-speaking poets from the U. S. who have participated in Poetry Spring, the Lithuanian Writers' Union's international poetry festival. Of these, Kerry Shawn Keys is the only one who lives in Vilnius and has dual U. S.-Lithuanian citizenship. Represented here are a eleven of the many fine poets writing in Lithuania today, when the number of readers and the public stature of poets has declined since the heady time of the "Singing Revolution" and the early years of Independence. No longer central to their society's moral and spiritual life nor driven by revolutionary fervor, as they enter the twenty-first century, Lithuanians poets are engaged in the difficult and necessary work of forging a poetics and making poems for a nation focused on material pursuits and developing a globally viable economy. Lithuanian poetry seems to be retracting into the place poetry holds in the Western world, a diminishing of the power of poetry to move the people. Selections of poets and poems span the periods of the occupations through the Singing Revolution and Independence up to the present. The two senior poets, Vytautas Bloze and Sigitas Geda, began to publish in the 1960's. Bloze, a master of free verse, refused to conform to the ". . .complicated system of coercion and privilege (that) forced and enticed artists to serve Soviet ideology." (Platelis) Begun just prior to his forced hospitalization and completed more than ten years after, when the ban on his work was lifted, "Musa Domestica" suggests that the strength of tradition encoded in the dainos is a source of personal and national identity, while "The Three Wrights" is his reworking of a folk tale. Geda is a pantheistic poet whom Platelis describes as "singing in the junction of nature and culture." Readers interested in Lithuanian poetry during the occupations can read Platelis' essay and the chapters by Vytautas Kubilius in Lithuanian Literature. In the 1970's, Antanas A. Jonynas and Kornelijus Platelis debuted, part of a generation which, influenced by the ruins of Prague Spring, did not treat Soviet ideology as its own. Jonynas's "The Destruction of the Sawmill," first published in 1981, appraises the decline of the Soviet state. In contrast, the poems by Platelis are recent, their references extending far beyond Lithuania. "Aegean Wine" draws on his interest in the classical world; it uses Theseus' return as a foil to contrast the period of revolution and Independence with the "sober everyday routine" of post-Independence. "St. Elizabeth's Hospital" includes lines from a poetry fusion made by U. S. poet Craig Czury from the writing of hospital patients. Of the same spiritual generation are those who first published in the 1980's including Bloze's wife, Nijole Miliauskaite, whose intimate, unfettered style is similar to that of poets debuting now, and Eugenijus Alisanka, whose recent fragmented lyrics are published here. Platelis observes that the 1970's and 80's are the renaissance of Lithuanian poetry. Others included in the feature debuted in the 1990's, after the burst of renewal; their work often combines narrative (especially filmic), and lyric strategies in linguistically playful poems, some of which are notable for rapid tonal and associatives shifts. These younger poets are Laurynas Katkus, Marius Burokas, Neringa Abrutyte, Arturas Valiones and Giedre Kazlauskaite, whose "Antipoet" both interrogates and claims as lineage two Lithuanian poets born in the early twentieth century. In his poem "essay on lithuanian literature," Alisanka responds to the diminution of both the role of the poet and poetry itself: "more modestly I think about lithuanian poetry." Curious, I asked four Lithuanian poets, Sigitas Geda, Kornelijus Platelis, Laurynas Katkus and Giedre Kazlauskaite, and translator Laima Sruoginis for brief comments on directions or changes in Lithuanian poetry since Independence. In their insightful and surprizing responses and in the diversity and complexity of contemporary poetry, there is linguistic vigor and enlivening experimentation that I suspect will sustain the poets through the current period of settling in. As Osip Mandelstam wrote in exile, "The people need poetry that will be their own secret/ to keep them awake forever."