Marat Tarassov, Does our Century need poetry?

Marat Tarassov, f. 1930 i Ryska Karelen.

Century of pragmatism: whether it needs poetry?

If I had put this question this way in Russia 30-40 years ago, they would have laughed at me or they would have considered me to be mad. At that time crowds of people came to hear the poets at their performances, and their books were issued in mass circulations. The glory of Evgeny Evtushenko, Robert Rozhdestvensky, Andrey Voznesenski has gone far beyond the borders of Russia – in America, in France, in Germany halls were filled in with thousands of people, wanting to meet, the chiefs of many countries of the world considered it great honour to accept them. Such things never happened with native poets of these countries. It was a purely Russian phenomenon.

I frequently asked myself: what had promoted this miracle, which may be compared to “The Beatles” phenomenon. Why was it in Russia, that such an explosion of interest to poetry took place in the second part of the 20th century? Yes, we can surely remember the political thaw of the beginning of the 60’s, about the censorship, through which the oral poetic word broke. Yes, the thirst of Soviet people for the word of truth, which was prohibited etc. But even this can not explain the overcrowded squares and stadiums, mounted militia watching the order, the people’s longing for poetry. This Russian phenomenon emerged the interest to Russian poetry in many other countries of the world.

But the basic secret of this exotic thing, it seems to me, consists of the fact that the oral poetic tradition of country lives already thousand years. During this period such kinds of national creativity as Russian epics and wailings were born and publicly performed. In order to listen to them, village inhabitants usually gathered in the largest room of the house – gornitsa (living room) and listened to the chanted songs about Russian warriors, saving native principalities from the invasion of malicious forces, about feats of arms. By the end of the 19th century this national art was already dying away, but still existed. Russian epics’ collectors noted thousands of texts and issued in tens of volumes. And most talented storytellers were invited to Moscow and St.-Petersburg and performed these pieces in public places – theatres, in art galleries and salons. One of the storytellers Ivan Trofimovich Ryabinin, the son of the patriarch of the ancient storytellers’ kin, was even invited to perform in the capitals of all Slavic states of Eastern Europe at the end of the century. He performed his bylinas on the squares and at the largest halls of these cities. There was a great interest to the Slavic epos – by that time only Russia saved this epos splinters and remnants disappeared long time ago in other Slavic countries. And as for wailings (weepings), this genre of national poetry was also widely spread in Russia. Wailings were performed at funeral, before a vast concourse. The best weepers did not simply repeat some traditional texts – they improvised, composed them straight off, mentioning the deceased relatives’ names and the facts of his life in their wailings. So they did not simply follow the tradition – they created in front of the audience. The brightest representative of this genre was Irina Fedosova from Karelian village of Kuzaranda. The famous writer Maxim Gorky, having acquainted with her, was surprised, how she could remember 30 thousands of verses. He named her the great national poetess. She was invited to St.-Petersburg by the tsar’s family, who gave her gifts. The wailer demonstrated her surprising art at the salons of northern capital before the creative intelligentsia and imperial dignitaries. One of the eyewitnesses told that once one lady asked Inina to weep her daughter, who had recently died. Fedosova questioned her on the features of the girl’s life and character, about her relatives and then began to improvise. During the performance sobbings were heard in the hall, and soon both men and women cried. And this was the audience, that didn’t know much about the life of village, we can say, that these were the people from the other world. Such was the emotional impact of this kind of national poetry on human souls.

At the end of life the weeper’s glory became so great, that she received the invitation to perform in America. But she refused pleading illness.

This tradition of performances of the skilled reciters of oral national creativity before audience had been transmitted to the representatives of the Russian written literature – to the poets of the 20th century. And that is why it was taken as something natural, organic both by audience and performers. But for some reason nobody ever wrote about it, nobody studied such an interesting creative parallel that could be a good theme for thesis, about succession, about connections of oral and written poetry not only in the informative – figurative field, but also in methods of representing their art before the audience, interpretation of the written texts performance orally. About public speaking methods, intonation nuances and human psychology consideration etc.

What I want to say is that the poetic word, at least in Russia, was widely needed during many centuries. It was not only the literary phenomenon, but also a public one. It is no mere chance that the poem «Word on Igor’s regiment», created many centuries ago, became an important document of that time, the voice of all Russian people tending to consolidation. This is thanks to its public role, I think, that the wide popularity of poetry in our country can be explained, to my mind. Evgeny Evtushenko put this idea into words very precisely: «A Poet in Russia is more, than a poet». As a matter of fact this phrase repeats many Russian classical poets. Thus, at the beginning of the 19th century Mikhail Lermontov wrote, that a poet’s voice of all centuries «Sounded, as a bell on a tower, in days of celebrations and national troubles ».

In the West the situation was different – poetry was meant for a rather narrow circle of readers and practically had no audience. I explain it not only different traditions of oral and written creative work, but also by the difference of perception, psychological roots of the nations. If in Russia in the communal psychology and collectivism mentality predominated from the ancient times, egocentrism was cultivated as a rule in Western countries – it was the psychological basis of the public system. And that is the reason why the literary word did not have a large public resonance in such a person-centrated world. Unfortunately nowadays in our country, when egocentrism penetrates into the basis of every day’s philosophy, when one state formation is substituted by another, poetry begins to lose its force. If formerly the line from a popular song was considered to be true: «One should think first think of his native land, and then about himself», now this postulate is challenged by the life itself and the opposite idea begins to dominate. And for the first time the poets themselves began to doubt of vital necessity of the poetic word. For example, the known Russian poet Alexander Kushner, who was named «the best lyric poet of the 20th century» by the Nobel winner Iosif Brodsky, has recently written:

And third millennium is, probably, impossible

To see with iambs – what does it need them for?

It is true that now in Russia the interest to poetry has sharply diminished – it becomes, as in Western countries, destiny of the elected readers, ceases to be a bell, and turns into a silent little bell with a silver voice. And it shows the turn to pragmatism and preferring actual cares of life to flying in the clouds. And it is poetry that suffers the most from this sudden turn. Sometimes it is difficult to answer simple questions: what is it about? What is it for? People professing practicality cannot understand its contents, the meaning of its existence. They can not comprehend, that there is the other world apart from the rational one – life of spirit, world of unsteady sensations, volatile moods, which can not be explained logically. The terrestrial community, which becomes more and more egoistic, is praying for personal profit from everything – why do these people need that nuances of feelings, this absence of visible logic, word weaving. All this is seen by majority as eccentricity and empty forces spending. And such understanding eventually withdraws us from those spiritual origins, which are only human.

If pragmatism – is the antipode, absolutely opposite thing to poetry, then Russia is the most antipragmatic country. Even the majority of Russian sayings and proverbs on the subject of philosophic understanding of life is directed against gaining, against valid approach to material assets and planning of the future. For example: «Once we live! », «Will be a day – will be food» etc.

I have noticed, that generally the countries, where poetry plays a much more significant role are those where not the idea of enrichment rules but the spiritually high idea, let it be even false. Poetry there is similar to the paradise garden, where everyone tends to be and where grow the things one cannot find in ordinary life. But it doesn’t withdraw people from the real world, but opens the world of dream with the idea of high spiritual origin to them.

The person who doesn’t have poetry in his soul is deficient, though he doesn’t notice that. To devote one’s life to earthy cares, to gaining – means to have contact only with the material world, to break away from all other great things, that mankind have ever developed, such as: the ability to admire beauty, to enjoying watching sunrises and sunsets, to notice changes in the surrounding nature, richness and variety of your dear people’s feelings, and many others. And in fact all this is the poetry of life, which is the centre of poetry’s attention.

In our life everyday household activities and and aspiration for the high always exist in each others neighborhood. And in fact things should be this way, because this is the symbiosis that makes a personality out of a person. It is also important to extract something unusual and significant out of these ordinary things. Isn’t it the aim of the poetry itself? The known Russian poet Anna Ahmatova wrote:

If you knew, from what rubbishes
The verses grow, not knowing shame,
As this dandelion at fence,
As docks (burdocks) and goose-foot.

Poetry also teaches people to find the sublime even in the low-lying, to see the wonderful in the familiar, to notice the large in the small. It teaches us to speak the language of symbols, images, comparisons, to compare and bring into contact the non-comparable. And from this collision the gleam of poetry is born.

The poetic seeing of life is necessary for the person, without it like without some major vitamin, the spiritual organism can not be. And though this king of life perception seems to be unnecessary, superfluous, abstracting, from the point of view of worldly wisdom – in it appears to be vitally important. For otherwise everything – the wellbeing, material prosperity seem to be uninspired, aimless, too heavy – are not cemented by the winged idea.

Life is so intricately arranged, that two opposite origins two alternative moments in practice cannot life one without the other receiving – because they are a minus and a plus, they, like a magnet, are attracted to each other.

It seems, to me that poetry is close to religion: it is hard to explain, what they are necessary for, but an overwhelming number of globe’s inhabitants cannot live without them. May be a man was primary made with this need for the incomprehensible perfect, lifting one’s soul, calling to move from the real world to the other world, which is far, but internally inseparable from the first one, giving sensation of completeness and harmony. Not without reason in all countries poets are considered to be unworldly people.

The truth is that some consider it unnatural and far-fetched to use poetic sizes from amphibrach up to iamb, to write in a rhyme. But even one of the famous literary heroes once was surprised, having heard, that all his life he had been speaking in prose. And there are people, who consider the music of speech – their native land, and they accustom other people to hear the melodics of language, to see the brightness of images to feel the rhythm and rhyme. Thereby they enrich the person’s inner world of, bring him closer to the perfect, and turn the strangeness of the rhythmic speech into the subject of beauty, an aesthetic fact.

May be poetry is it less accessible, than prose, not only because human speech is being imprisoned into a poetic size, but also because you cannot find any logic in genuine original verses at once, despite the fact that it is there but it is absolutely different from the one in ordinary speech or in realistic prose. And the more unusual this logic is, the more original is the author, but also the more incomprehensible the poetic lines are to an unprepared reader. When, for example, poet Voznesensky says, that seagull is swimming trunks of god, it is necessary not only to grasp the idea, but also to think of this image visually. It is surely possible to argue on the legitimacy and ethical side of this image, but this is a different aspect. Someone will think it courageous and unexpected and someone far-fetched and even blasphemous. But in any case poetry develops imagination, paradoxical thinking. And any kind of creativity in any field of activity – designing, architecture, management – is impossible without imagination. If it depended on me, I would enter lessons of poetry at each school to develop these qualities in children, to push them to inventing exotic comparisons, metaphors, images. The trouble of school is that under the weight of educational loads and exact sciences children’s imagination, their desire to invent, to fly somewhere mentally dies. Not accidentally one from our Karelian writers has issued a book for children, titled «Lies text-book», where the kids are given the lessons of making things up. He attaches wings to ordinary things, makes boring things cheerful, difficult ones – easy. This is also a particular point of genuine poetry.

There is no didactics in poetry. Genuine poetry does not have the aim to educate, but its existence promotes self-perfecting, being itself an aesthetic category, a refined subject. When you hold in hands a jewelers thing, you are stroke with its harmonic unity. This way you receive a lesson of perfect. And there is a thirst for creativity – you become the creator of a small model of the great world, though it can be unlike this world. The person admiring unknown beauty, involuntarily tries to solve its secret, to create something himself, something appropriate to his ideal of perfect. This is the instant where the creator is born in the person.

In each one of us there is a natural quality of poetical comprehension of the seen: we search for a symbol in a fact, an image – in a subject, a whole thing – in details. Human is ready to solve the things around like a problem given to him, and to find thousand of answers to one question. It is true that poetry broadens the space of human spirit, opens the doors to little known, infinite, boundless, and acquaints the person with varieties of feelings and emotions.

Though there are different visions of literature, poetry, and various definitions of their role in society, each poet dreams, as the great Pushkin said, «to burn people’s hearts with a word». For poetry becomes poetry when it is not only the author who needs it, but also the readers. The thing is that sometimes not the contemporaries become readers, but the future generations – such happened too in the history of literature. But this does not frighten – poetry always aspired to the future.

Marat Tarasov.



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