September 11, 2017 marks the 80th birthday of Tomas Venclova, a prominent Lithuanian poet, intellectual and Professor Emeritus at Yale University, US. While living in Soviet Lithuania, Venclova became a dissident. He left the Soviet Union in 1977. In the United States, Venclova formed a triumvirate with two other émigré poets from Eastern Europe, a Russian poet Joseph Brodsky and a Polish-Lithuanian poet Czesław Miłosz. Having lived in the US for decades, Venclova is still very involved in the intellectual life of Lithuania and Europe. In his writings and by his personal example, the poet encourages the cultural and historical dialogue and challenges prevailing stereotypes. Venclova’s poetry, which blends history and personal experiences, has been translated into over 20 languages.
Quotations from translations of Venclova’s poetry
Above all, though it’s hard, love language –
humbled in newspapers, obituaries saturated with lies,
in the bedroom’s close darkness, the informer’s confession,
in the cry at the bazaar, trenches, the stench of hospital wards,
in third-rate theatres, secret police offices, on lavatory walls.
In grey buildings where the stairwell’s shaft is guarded
by steel nets, so that it is not a man, but the century,
which selects the instant of his death
It was given so that we might be different from clay,
the palm, the thrush, perhaps even from angels,
so that by naming, we should grasp objects clearly.
From poem “Commentary”; translated by Ellen Hinsey
Although I won’t be able
To shake you, still I will,
I’ll put out every taper:
The tower and the bell,
The stony streets, the shore
Bedecked with tar, and even
My soul, though I’m not sure
It counts among the living.
Here, underneath my feet,
The shaky roadway crumbles.
The shooting range, unlit,
Conceals a dark-voiced rumble
Of waves, a vast expanse,
And, from the days of Noah,
Above the depths, the dance
Of Aquilon and Notus.
From “Ode to a City,” translated by Ellen Hinsey. According to Tomas Venclova, the poem was written as a farewell to Vilnius in 1974, when he decided to emigrate.