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Poetry, Power, and Enlightenment
Conviction and Irony in Timur Kibirov's Religious "Songs and Nursery Rhymes"
Jamie Olson, English Department, Saint Martin's University
A Comparison of Form and Content of Two Peoms by Russian Orthodox priest/poets
Lee Scheingold, Slavic Department, UW
The Representation of Soviet Poetry in Postwar Decade in the Literary Journal "Oktyabr"
Ekaterina Zamataeva, German and Russian Studies Department, University of Missouri, Columbia
Critics have often claimed that Russian conceptualist poet Timur Kibirov’s style provides plenty of room for both irony and sincerity, and his most recent volume of theological poems, "Greek and Roman Catholic Songs and Nursery Rhymes" ("Греко- и римско-кафолические песенки и потешки"), is no exception: he treads a fine line in the book between conviction and skepticism. In my presentation, I aim to trace this line in order to discover how Kibirov pursues enlightenment through humor. Naturally, Kibirov is not alone in this endeavor: Søren Kierkegaard, for instance, believed that “humor is the last stage of existential inwardness before faith.” For Kibirov, however, humor and faith coexist, and his poetics of skepticism enact a believer’s active, self-empowering questioning of his own convictions.
Kibirov could not have publicly taken up the topic of religious faith during the Soviet years, but times have clearly changed. As Orthodox priest and literary critic Mikhail Ardov explains, the appearance of Kibirov’s "Songs" means that Russian poetry has now “occupied religious ground.” For good or ill, major Russian poets rarely lay bare their religious beliefs, and thankfully, Kibirov takes on this deadly serious matter with a keen sense of humor, just as he had previously done with his pastiches of Marxist and canonical literary texts. In his poem “Dog,” for instance, he draws a spiritual analogy between canines and humans, and the former comes off looking pretty good: a dog feels “steadfast love for his master” and manages to “comprehend God’s work” just about as well as we do. Yet no sooner does Kibirov set up the metaphysical framework of the poem than he brings us suddenly back down to the corporeal, describing a moment when his own “dear, departed Tom” ignored his commands and raced off towards “a bitch in heat.” The male dog’s lustiness, writes the poet, “reminded me … vividly of myself.” Such contrasts and sudden deflations are Kibirov’s modus operandi.
As the title of his collection suggests, many of Kibirov’s religious poems depend on forms more akin to worship songs than to traditional literary verse. (His title is also a nod to Dorothy Sayers’ 1918 collection of poems, "Catholic Tales and Christian Songs.") Kibirov’s poems seem to invite the reader to take part in prayer-like incantation, and they beg to be read aloud. For example, the repeated ‘O’ sounds in “Ballad,” with its regularly alternating anapests and iambs, involve the reader in a chant whose function is to resurrect the poet’s “glorious King.” As we read through the poem, at least on the first pass, we feel the sincerity of Kibirov’s faith.
At the same time, Kibirov undermines the power of his forms even as he capitalizes on it. In “Ballad,” the poet’s hope and longing for God’s return shifts to doubt and irony by the final lines, even though the form of each stanza remains unchanged. In some poems, however, Kibirov reverses the usual contrast between form and tone. For example, he peppers “Text-Message Conversation” with smiley faces, and each of them arrives at precisely the proper moment to underscore the disjunction between the weighty theological content of the dialogue and its frivolous digital medium. One cannot miss Kibirov’s idiosyncratic, ironic stamp: he is a believer with a sense of humor, one who never makes the mistake of taking his beliefs too seriously.
Two Russian poets whose work has caught my eye recently are men of the cloth, the Orthodox mystic Sergei Averintsev (1937-2004) and Orthodox priest Sergei Kruglov, who is living in the Siberian city of Minusinsk.
This paper will be a comparison of a single poem by each poet. Averintsev’s poem bears a specifically religious theme – The Annunciation (Благовещение – Blagoveshchenie), and Kruglov’s poem is about the effect of a childhood spent in an orphanage and about poetic creativity itself - The Natural Views of Slavs on Poetry (Природные воззрения славян на поэзию – Prirodnye vozzreniia slavian na poeziiu). The latter title is an allusion to Aleksandr Afanas’ev’s master work The Poetic Views of Slavic Peoples on Nature, published in three volumes in 1865–9. It is also politically relevant to recent events related to Russian orphans.
Averintsev’s quiet poem is about the simplicity of the physical surroundings in which the Angel Gabriel finds and approaches Mary, and, as important, it is about the simplicity and one-pointed concentration of Mary’s state of mind as she prays. This is what allows the annunciation to take place. The first two lines are the exact description that Tibetan Buddhist monks use to describe what happens during meditation: “Вода, отстаиваясь, отдает/осадок дну, и глубина яснеет—Voda, otstaivaias, otdaet/osadok dnu, i glubina iasneet.” “The water, settling, delivers its sediment to the bottom, and the depths sparkle.” Other words repeat throughout the poem like a mantra. Mary’s calm equanimity is reflected in these repetitions, and even in the word order.
Kruglov’s poem also includes repetition, particularly in the first part of the poem in which the word “children” ( дети – deti ) is repeated at the beginning of five lines, and modified by various words referring to physical “defects”, children for whom “the night light has suddenly gone out” ( вдруг погас ночник – vdrug pogas nochnik ). The poet refers to the dark themes which the poet must look at in order to be a poet, for the act of writing is to enter the darkness. Pushing forward through the darkness in the second half of the poem, a grandfather watches his grandchildren play on a sunny day. He is the man who was in an orphanage as a child, and the writing of the text is to conquer the darkness by becoming it ( победить тьму, самому став ею – pobedit’ t’mu, samomu stav eiu).
Both poems are about internal affective states: their form as well as their content describe and mirror strong emotions. I will show how a spacious tolerance and loving acceptance occurs in the beautiful and condensed language and form of each of our poems, despite their very different themes. This is what I receive, and I am thinking of poetry these days as Mandel’shtam’s message in a bottle: poetry sent is also poetry received, the lyric is addressed to the very one who finds the poem on the beach. We are meant. This is what interests me about poetry: we need the poem, but the poem also needs to be found by us.
To read the full paper click here.
“Administrating literature! Administrating poetry! It is forbidden to administer poetry, one can only create the appropriate conditions for it, and then it flourishes. But one can put strait jacket on poetry and then it turns into what is published in our journals. Into a governmental penny whistle!” – that is how the poet Joseph Utkin described the role of poetry before the end of the Second World war.
Attitude to the poetry in postwar Soviet Union was not univocal. On one hand, at the Xth Plenary Session of the Union of Soviet Poets poetry was proclaimed the forward of Soviet literature and was assigned to be the first in achieving the main goals of postwar Soviet literature, such as “the presentation of full and severe facts of life”, “the ultimate closeness to the human’s inner world”, “the multiplicity of artistic solutions” and “civic consciousness”. Thus lyrical poetry gained remarkable importance. On the other hand, the whole image of poetry was significantly degressed as the result of Communist party control.
Of course, Utkin’s opinion remained unnoticed. The image of poetry in Soviet Union was formed not by single opinions, but by official instruments of party influence in literature. And those instruments were, in the first place, literary magazines that announced the official point of view in critical essays and artificially created the official model of Soviet literary life.
Evidently, Soviet literary criticism is considered to be totally subdued to the needs of Communist party policy. And the postwar period of “late Stalinism” is believed to be one of the hardest for Soviet literature. However, it is connected with two main inspiring events: 1) the sudden revival of poetry caused by the war time, and 2) the new tendencies in literary criticism.
The purpose of this paper is to analyze the critical essays and poetic publications in postwar “Oktyabr” and to reveal the real attitude to Soviet poetry in that dramatic period.
In postwar decade “Oktyabr” was among the most pro-governmental literary magazines that formed the image of Soviet poetry. On one hand, the majority of publications in “Oktyabr” belonged to the officially recognized poets whose creations were mostly the fruit of propaganda than of art. On the other hand, “Oktyabr” was one of the rare magazines that dared to publish the poets that were out of favor while the others were trying to eliminate their existence in Soviet literary situation.
This paper argues the statement of total monody and scarcity of Soviet poetry in journal publications and analyzes the real guidelines of literary criticism and editorial policy in “Oktyabr” in forming the image of Soviet poetry in postwar decade.
To read the full paper click here.
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