Some time back I discovered the poetry of Gennady Aygi, a Chuvash who (at the suggestion of Boris Pasternak) began writing in Russian in the late 1950s. His poetry is very strange, not Russian-seeming at all; it was only when I realized that he was more of a French poet who happened to write in Russian (as he says in this excellent interview, when asked if he is a European, “Да, я европеец и – так по судьбе вышло – француз” [Yes, I’m a European and – as fate would have it – a Frenchman]) that I began to get a handle on him. His combination of simple, everyday words into mysterious, allusive stanzas reminds me of one of my favorites, Yves Bonnefoy. So I sent off for a bilingual collection, Selected Poems 1954-94, and today it finally arrived from Amazon. And when I started googling up links for this post, I discovered that he’d died in February; here‘s the Guardian obituary by his friend and translator Peter France:
His friendship with Pasternak, at that time being harassed by the authorities, and his own innovative poetics made him persona non grata in Chuvashia. Even so, the fields and forests of his native land permeate his work, and he remained deeply attached to his ancestral culture, striving to give it a place among the cultures of the world. He translated poetry from many languages into Chuvash and produced an Anthology of Chuvash Poetry (published in English by Forest Books in 1991). Eventually, after the perestroika of the late 1980s, his work was acclaimed in his homeland and he became the Chuvash national poet.
His main home, however, was in Moscow, where in the 1960s he found a much-needed support system among “underground” writers, artists and musicians, who together were discovering the forbidden fruits of western culture. For 10 years he worked at the Mayakovsky Museum, acquiring a deep knowledge of the Russian avant garde of the early 20th century. Modern French poetry (above all Baudelaire) was another essential influence…
I’d love to read that Chuvash anthology; Chuvash is the most divergent of the Turkic languages, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot available on it (though there is a 17-volume Словарь чувашского языка = Thesaurus linguae tchuvaschorum [1928-50] by N. I. Ashmarin, not to mention a Chuvash Wikipedia).
At any rate, I agree with Aygi that (pace his translator) he doesn’t write free verse; he says “То, что я делаю, – не верлибр и не свободная поэзия. Она просто без рифм, и поэтому вопрос ритма становится необычайно важным” [What I do isn’t vers libre and it isn’t free poetry. It’s simply unrhymed, and therefore the question of rhythm becomes unusually important]; as Eliot said, “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” Here‘s a long and interesting interview in English (“The city is a book itself. Not every city, I mean. I went to Paris a while ago. It is a really big book…”), here are a lot of his poems in Russian, and here are eight poems translated by France. I’ll quote a tiny poem from 1994:
клонит – такое легкое
klónit – takóye lyógkoye
is the wind
bending – so light