Lithuanian Culture Institute
Lithuanian Culture Guide, Poetry

Tomas Venclova

Photo by Algimantas Aleksandravičius

Tomas Venclova (b. 1937) is Professor of Slavonic Literature at Yale University, and a famous Lithuanian poet, translator and essayist. He was awarded the Lithuanian National Prize in 2000. He participated in the dissident movement during the Soviet period; in 1977 he emigrated to the United States. Widely considered to be Lithuania’s greatest poet, Venclova is, as Joseph Brodsky points out in his introduction to Venclova’s Winter Dialogue, a poet who “has absorbed all the best to be found in the neighbouring territories”, i.e. Russia and Poland. 

Venclovas first book of verse, entitled Kalbos ženklas (The Sign of Language, 1972), was appraised by Algirdas Julius Greimas, a French proponent of semiotics who was of Lithuanian descent, as “the turning point in the Lithuanian lyrical tradition”. A particular precision of form, intertextuality, a Stoic posture of lyrical protagonist and vocal polyphony characterise his verse. A civil motif is recurrent as well as the theme of language-to-reality relationship. Venclovas poetry is marked by the motive of exile, of the world turning void and overcome by entropy.  

Venclova’s latest book of poetry, Eumenidžių giraitė (The Grove of the Eumenides, 2016), features his own original poems and translations of poetry. Eumenides translates from Greek as “the gracious ones”. This is a euphemism for the Erinyes (the Furies) who would pursue people who had done wrong, harrying and reminding them of the things they did. Therefore, memory, remembrance of poetic influences and personalities, forms, images and biographical details intentionally become the central point of both Venclova’s poems and the translations included in the collection. Oblivion, along with death, is defeated by an essential faith in language, which is the only resistance to the decay reigning over the whole material world: “But silence ends and sentence remains” (p. 32).