Contemporary Lithuanian poetry and its contexts
By Virginija Cibarauskė
It is impossible to speak about contemporary Lithuanian poetry – an umbrella term for texts written over the past few decades – without looking back to the past and the authors whose works have inspired us or given us a direction or an excuse to rebel. Regarding the present, we cannot overlook our poetic parents who are indeed an important part of the poetry canon. The trends that emerged in the late 20th century are particularly important – some literary critics refer to the last decade of the 20th century in Lithuania as a watershed which witnessed a new generation of poets starting to speak in a characteristic language. I will, therefore, start this article with a short journey back in time to the late 20th century. I will then go on to discuss the nuances of contemporary poetry.
The discussion of trends in poetry would be missing an important component if we didn’t consider the forms and hierarchies of the literary world; literary awards play a very important role here. I will discuss the nuances of poetry awards briefly in the last section of the article.
Poetry of the late 20th century – poetic parents
During the Soviet occupation, the position of a poet – and an artist in general – was quite extraordinary. It was the official strategy to create the status of a writer who was also a teacher of the people and a spokesperson of the ideology. Every work published was censored. Works that didn’t accord with the guidelines of socialist realism were edited or simply buried. Naturally, writers had their ways of outwitting the censors. On the other hand, a writer was expected, even by those who didn’t support the official ideological position, to assume the role of a national leader, and to perform the function of reviving the memory of Lithuanian culture. To achieve this, poets and prose writers would invoke so-called Aesopian language – polysemous symbols, elements of myths and fairy tales, indirect hints, and parallels between historical events and current happenings. Often, less educated censors would overlook or misunderstand their subtexts. This strategy was employed by the canonical Lithuanian poets who made their debut in the ’60s: Vytautas P. Bložė (1930–2016, debut in 1961), Marcelijus Martinaitis (1936–2013, debut in 1962) and Sigitas Geda (1943–2008, debut in 1966). Their main sources of inspiration were folklore, mythology and Lithuanian poetry from the interwar period (especially avant-gardism) which was slowly recovering its cultural influence.
While the debutants of the ’60s are still inspired by myths and archetypal situations, the ’70s often focuses on the inner world of the subject – feelings, emotions, impressions. The origins of this trend can be found in Lithuanian neo-romanticism and the Silver Age of Russian poetry (especially the Acmeists), and also in modern literature, jazz and blues. Judita Vaičiūnaitė (1937– 2001, debut in 1960) can be considered the pioneer of the jazzed-up poem that declared the autonomy of the inner world. Nevertheless, Antanas A. Jonynas (b. 1953, debut in 1977) is the most striking representative of this trend. Literary critics associate this artist with hippies, blues and aesthetic feeling, Vilnius, Western culture, wine, and a characteristic combination of melancholy and irony. The autonomy of the inner world and the attempt to aestheticize everyday life are typical of the works by Aidas Marčėnas (b. 1960, debut in 1988) and Kęstutis Navakas (1964 ̶ 2020, debut in 1988). Contemporary poets regard these authors as the paragons of poetry.
The ’80s are also associated with the so-called intellectual poetry, inspired by high modernism. The intellectual Lithuanian poetry feeds on existentialism and various literary theories; Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas (1919–2015, debut in 1946) is usually referred to as its initiator. Niliūnas, an expatriate poet, translator, essayist and literary critic, studied Romance languages and philosophy at Lithuanian universities. He moved to Germany in 1944 to escape the Soviet repression and moved to the USA in 1949. His first collection of poems, Praradimo Simfonijos (Symphonies of Loss), was published in Germany. Reflections of Lithuanian symbolism and neo-romanticism are particularly vivid in these poems. In Nyka-Niliūnas’ later poems, exile is interpreted as an existential state of the human experience of the world. A variety of cultural allusions, grammatical and philosophical terms can be found in his work. He especially admired French existentialist poetry; he attempted to touch upon the common constituents of nature, language and human existence. Tomas Venclova, who emigrated to the USA in 1977 (b. 1937, debut in 1972) and Kornelijus Platelis (b. 1951, debut in 1980) are other significant representatives of intellectual poetry. Venclova’s poetry combines traditional verse structures, plots of ancient myths and autobiographical references. Platelis’ poetry is described by the critics as a linguistic fusion of mind and passion. In his characteristic way, Platelis rediscovers neoclassical tradition, incorporating Eastern, ancient and Christian cultures and their references. In contemporary Lithuanian poetry, intellectualism is represented by Eugenijus Ališanka (b. 1960, debut in 1991) and Donatas Petrošius (b. 1979, debut in 2004). Their poems are heavily based on deep knowledge of literary theory and playful intertextuality.
Poems by Donaldas Kajokas (b. 1953, debut in 1980) and Nijolė Miliauskaitė (1950–2002, debut in 1985) are considered the epitomes of a poetry of things, or poetic minimalism. Both authors aim at clean, laconic expression. Their poems are much like poetic pictures or short stories inhabited by characters created by deft strokes. Nevertheless, the works of these poets feed on different contexts. Miliauskaitė focuses on 19th century women’s literature (primarily Charlotte Brontë and especially her novel Jane Eyre), as well as Gothic and modernist literature, such as Franz Kafka. Her later works offer more references to Eastern culture – the poet was interested in Krishnaism at the time. Kajokas bases his poetic minimalism on the idea of naïve wisdom. The traditions of Eastern and Western poetry are authentically combined – the melody of the neo–romantics, and the sparsity and specific imagery of haiku. Often, a “little wise man” appears in the poems, the figure of a child, a fool or a naïve countryman observing everything that’s happening.
The watershed: the ’90s
The late ’80s and ’90s, that is to say, the period of time around the restoration of independence in 1991, mark an extraordinary phase of rebellion and search for new means of expression in Lithuanian literature, art and theatre. The poetry of the time experiences a characteristic shift: both debut and established authors strive to withdraw from mainstream trends, entering bold disputes with their poetic parents. Literary critics link this shift with the changing sociocultural situation which determined the reshaped discourse of poetry as well as the self-image of a poet.
During the Soviet occupation, the figure of a poet was regarded as especially significant, while poetry, due to its polysemy, was considered to be the only space for speaking truth – artistic expression actually functioned as truth, despite the censorship, as other discourses were censored even more. The young generation of the ’90s, represented firstly by poets Aidas Marčėnas, Sigitas Parulskis (b. 1965, debut in 1990) and Neringa Abrutytė (b. 1972, debut in 1995), debate the concept of a poet as a teacher and a leader of the nation. The autonomy of poetry and poets and their detachment from society are emphasized. Much like the cursed prophet who was worshipped in Romantic literature, poets speak in their own nonconformist language of their experiences which are borderline, exceptional and at the same time subjective. This kind of self-image was boosted by the postmodern theories declaring the end of an era and the need to establish a new expression that would deconstruct high modernism. These ideas were explored by Eugenijus Ališanka both theoretically, in his articles and interviews, and practically, in his poems.
The concept of poetry as beautiful (aesthetic) speech about elated experiences is rejected. Poetry turns to what is abject or base. Poetic clichés, such as singing praises to a lover or admiring nature, are often deliberately made ugly and deconstructed: according to Parulskis, a lover’s hair in a bowl of sorrel soup is prettier than the emeralds on her fingers. Marčėnas wrote sonnets about poets binge drinking, while Abrutytė provides the lover with chthonic features – he’s not a romantic boy but a lecherous old man. Critics have referred to this kind of poetry as the aestheticism of ugliness (and even excremental poetry), as well as signs of postmodernism.
In the late 20th century, young poets attempt to deconstruct the agricultural world view and its mythological, folkloric and Christian imagery, as well as the literary topoi in Lithuanian literature and culture as a whole, on the grounds of self-identity. Both the traditional country house and traditional family are depicted as a repressive system that stifles the subject’s individuality. In Parulskis’ poetry, idolisation of parenthood switches to filicide, while the ritualistic topos of building a house turns to building a latrine. A similar thing happens in the poems by Gytis Norvilas (b. 1976, debut in 2002): the archetypal situation of climbing a mountain is turned upside down; imagery of rising and growth is swapped for that of sinking earthward, penetrating deep into the catacombs. Agnė Žagrakalytė (b. 1979, debut in 2003) playfully deconstructs the archetypal image of a virgin – while employing the folkloric situation of a young girl and boy meeting, she shows the maiden to be a sensual, erotic seducer. This kind of woman is usually punished in the canonical Lithuanian literary texts (her reputation is ruined, she is banished from society), but in Žagrakalytė’s poems, she gets the boy and everything else she wants.
With the exception of the witty and provocative interwar avant-garde, Lithuanian poetry is serious and filled with elated or sentimental, lyrical intonations. The late 20th century brings laughter and an unassuming playfulness back to poetry. Daiva Čepauskaitė (b. 1967, debut in 1992) plays with the traditional quatrain, searching for humorous rhymes, often drawing parallels between lyrical topoi and trivial everyday situations. Gintaras Grajauskas (b. 1966, debut in 1993) structures his short, prosaic poems according to the anecdotal logic; his characters are common individuals one meets every day, whose “philosophy” of life strikes the reader with both humour and naïve wisdom.
But most importantly, poetry is becoming more and more personal, full of autobiographical elements which link the poet with their texts. Being openly autobiographical is a rather novel phenomenon in Lithuanian poetry. This phenomenon is associated with the aforementioned concept of a prophetic poet announcing universal, topical truths – autobiography and personalism used to denote smallness, something one would write in a diary. Moreover, any kind of uncomfortable, negative topics were unacceptable during the Soviet period, which are precisely what confessional poetry explores. Thus, the repressed, censored subjectivity bursts open after the restoration of independence: writing poetry is recognized firstly as an opportunity for a specific individual to express their unique experience and opinion. Often, personal traumatic experiences (e.g. serving in the Soviet army, dysfunctional parent-child relationships, lust, homosexuality), as well as the negative relationship with tradition and society in general, are turned into poetic themes. While, therefore, during the ’60s and ’70s poets aimed to speak for their nation, and to search for the cultural base, myths and sources of the archetypes, after the restoration of independence they tend to speak for themselves. Poets are now the ones writing in blood – they’re open, unafraid of being straightforward or disgusting, and unafraid of taking their clothes off.
If I had to describe briefly the trends of Lithuanian poetry of the last two decades, the best definition that comes to mind is – nothing new. In other words, the most remarkable books that have appeared in this time frame don’t set new trends. Canonical authors (J. Vaičiūnaitė, S. Geda, V. P. Bložė, N. Miliauskaitė), as well as “modern classics” and the writers of the older generation who have debuted in the late 20th century, are eagerly regarded as role models.
Confessional poetry, which is becoming more and more open and direct, has lately received a lot of attention. The most prominent representative of confessional poetry today is Giedrė Kazlauskaitė (b. 1980, debut in 2008). Within the general context, the writer and critic stands out for her openness and confidence in her poetic voice and its importance: in her poems, she analyses the relevant inner dramas and comedies of a female writer, mother, homosexual woman and young researcher without a thesis to her name (the poet is a former doctoral student at the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore). Characteristically, Kazlauskaitė’s prosaic stories are based on associative logic, with clear metaphors contrasting with the general context. Avoiding the self-pity that’s typical of Lithuanian poetry, she uses plenty of cultural references, literary allusions and irony. The trend of confessional poetry is also represented the collection of poems Bendratis (Infinitive, 2018) by Mindaugas Nastaravičius (b. 1984, debut in 2010) that has received a lot of attention from critics and readers alike. Nastaravičius returns to adolescence, analysing a complicated father-son relationship. Other examples are poems by Vitalija Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė (b. 1981, debut 2015), which reveal the dark side of women’s psychology and physiology, and Lina Buividavičiūtė (b. 1986, debut in 2017).
Lately, the poetry of things, or minimalist poetry, has been inspired more by modernist tradition than Eastern poetry. Inner states and feelings are revealed in spare but detailed imagery or combinations of images. This strategy is similar to the objective correlate – personal matters are discussed while constructing an effect of distance. This trend is best represented by the collection Švaraus Buvimo (Of Clean Existence, 2018) by Marius Burokas (b. 1977, debut in 1999) and the first chapters of Kornelijus Platelis’ poetry book Įtrūkusios Mėnesienos (Cracked Moonlights, 2018). The title of Burokas’ collection reflects both a declaration that the poems witness and represent a clean existence and an expectation that writing poetry is a condition of clean existence, a certain purification. Thus, existence and aesthetics, that is, aims in life and the ways of writing about them, are closely related. The laconic, reserved poems of Platelis depict situations that illustrate the impossibility of establishing a direct connection with the outer world. A glass, or a plastic screen, is one of the most important images – the speaker of the poems is simultaneously with others, close to the others, but separated from everyone by an invisible wall.
The so-called visionary poems today increasingly focus on subjective experiences rather than mythological contexts or cosmic visions. Unlike the poetry of things or confessional poetry, they seek maximum conditionality and strangeness. The main literary device is thus a network of metaphors that establishes a fantastic, apocalyptic, surrealist atmosphere. In Gytis Norvilas’ most recent book, Grimzdimas (Sinking, 2017), archetypal situations are experienced as awkward, threatening and bringing a strange sinking feeling. In Kęstutis Navakas’ last collection Net Ne (Not Even, 2018) the strange and alogical nuances are related to the subject and the never-ending playing of their consciousness as well the polysemy of the surrounding world – nothing is fixed, everything is changing. The poets Ernestas Noreika (b. 1989, debut in 2012) and Mantas Balakauskas (b. 1989, debut in 2016) explore the atmosphere and aesthetic of catastrophism in their poems. In her debut collection of poems Trapūs Daiktai (Fragile Things, 2018), the winner of the poetry book of the year, Greta Ambrazaitė (b. 1993), uses a dense network of metaphors and intertextual references to reveal the experiences of a subject who is looking for an authentic connection with other people and the environment in a world that has become unstable. Critics emphasize the Gothic quality of Ambrazaitė’s poems, but the aesthetic she uses is closer to a nocturne.
The poets who are follow (or form) the (post–) avant-garde tradition transform the systems of conventional imagery, searching for new poetic registers. For example, in the debut collection Gorilos Archyvai (The Gorilla Archives, 2019) of Vaiva Grainytė (b. 1984) the so-called poem of things is pushed over the edge by hyperrealism. Agnė Žagrakalytė playfully depicts the process of poetry being born from seemingly banal everyday domestic activities. Aušra Kaziliūnaitė (b. 1987, debut in 2007) builds her poem as a paradox that doesn’t accumulate its meaning in metaphors, but instead revealing it as an interaction, a game that requires the reader and the text to enter into a dialogue. Fantastic poetics of a paradox are used to deconstruct cultural stereotypes and conventional practices, for instance, to reveal the conditional disconnections between the subject and the surrounding landscape, between a man and a woman. In the debut collection Triukšmo Gyvatė (The Snake of Noise, 2017) of Tomas Petrulis (b. 1987), the metaphysical experiences and structures of visionary poetry are enriched by obscene, pornographic and abject details. Their radical nature is neutralized by the playful tone of various consonances, rhymes and diminutives.
Sociocultural excursion: forming the scene of contemporary poetry
Lithuanian poetry awards are particularly seasonal. Spring is the time of the international poetry festival Poezijos Pavasaris (Poetry Spring), held annually since 1965. The event is organised by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union and Writers’ Club. The festival promotes poetry, provides opportunities for poets to meet their readers (including those living out of town), and creates the hierarchies of the poetry scene. A number of poetry awards are given out during the festival. The most important of them is the Maironis award. Its winner is accorded the title of the Poetry Spring Laureate. In the fall, another significant poetry festival takes place – Poetinis Druskininkų Ruduo (the Druskininkai Poetic Fall). The festival was launched in 1990 by the Lithuanian PEN Center, which was taken over by the public organisation Poetinis Druskininkų Ruduo in 2001. The winners of the Jotvingiai and Young Jotvingis awards are announced during the festival.
The winners of the Poetry Spring and Druskininkai Poetic Fall awards are selected by committees consisting of the previous winners. The awards therefore primarily represent recognition by the poets’ community. In general, Lithuanian poetry tends to mistrust literary critics as well as readers’ comments – it’s the acclaim and acknowledgment of their peers that matters most. Both awards have other things in common. First of all, a person can only receive an award once; therefore, both awards are essentially meant to honour the personalities, that is, the poets themselves, rather than specific books. Books published by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union publishing house dominate the lists of both of the awards’ winners. The majority of the winners are male poets. For instance, only three female poets have received the Jotvingiai award, which has been presented annually since 1985. The Lithuanian literary canon is just as “manly”. For example, in XX Amžiaus Literatūra (XX Century Literature, 1995), a study/textbook by the literary critic Vytautas Kubilius, the section called “Poetry: From Thaw to Independence” lists 24 poets, only 4 of whom are women: Janina Degutytė, Judita Vaičiūnaitė, Nijolė Miliauskaitė and Gražina Cieškaitė.
This trend received a lot of attention at the 2017 Druskininkai Poetic Fall conference. Every year, the festival hosts a discussion of issues topical for the poets’ community. In 2017, the chosen topic was “Men and women in poetry: boundaries of the imagination”. The organisers didn’t anticipate that the discussion would involve more than the specific representations of men and women in poetry. The female participants at the conference suggested discussing the fact that there were very few women poets among the winners of the poetry awards. The discussion was eagerly joined by the guests of the festival – poets (both men and women) from abroad. Meanwhile, the Lithuanian poets’ community’s reaction was defensive – the female participants who had raised the problem were accused of holding personal grudges.
Interestingly, it was precisely this discussion that catapulted the Druskininkai Poetic Fall into the most popular newspapers. As it happens, in keeping with the current style of journalism, the articles did not aim to analyse the situation, but instead generated a general scandal with shocking headlines such as “Jotvingiai Committee accused of sexism.”
Poetry awards don’t normally receive a lot of attention – their relevance is generally limited to the poetic scene and changes in the hierarchy of the community. No surprise there: poetry book circulation is low right now in Lithuania – such books are hardly advertised. Poetry collections are mostly reviewed by professional critics in small cultural publications – influencers, popular bloggers and instabookers are not interested in poetry. Thus, the aim of the late 20th century debutants was fulfilled – the aim of separating poetic from social discourse, presenting the poet as a loner who doesn’t lead or teach the nation, but instead revealing the deep layers of subjective consciousness and the world with the help of metaphors. Contemporary Lithuanian poetry speaks to a circle of readers that might be exclusive but which has an understanding of poetic discourse and the ability to appreciate it.