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YEGHISHE CHARENTS: POET OF LIFE AS PERMANENT REVOLUTION PART ONE: Of human potential, human solidarities and the loss of innocence [ Go to PART II | Go to PART III ] By Eddie Arnavoudian On the 11th of July 2005 and always, for Vahe Berberian human and humane, spirited and gifted, pained yet light, colour and laughter giving soul brother to all good people. 'I am everyone and what is in everyone, is in me also.' --Krikor of Narek `Ones self I sing, a simple separate person, Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse. ... Of Life immense in passion, pulse and power, Cheerful, for freest action formd under the laws divine, The Modern Man I sing.' --Walt Whitman YEGHISHE CHARENTS (1897-1937): a Pablo Neruda of Armenian poetry, a Nazim Hikmet unbridled, humanist, revolutionary and patriot. Nearly 70 years after his death the quality and the contemporary purchase of his poetry is testified to, at least indirectly, by the continued effort of critics to either appropriate his legacy or to destroy his artistic, and even his personal reputation. Some, such as Gostan Zarian, and in our own day, Ara Baliozian dismiss Charents as a hack, a degenerate drug addict, a gun-toting agent of Stalinist repression who only with Communist Party support was able to pass himself off as a poet of talent. But Charents's pedestal remains as solid as ever, built it appears of granite from many different mines. Today, whether considered or otherwise, discussion is dominated by applauding commentators, nationalist and communist, humanist and socialist and even the apolitical intellectual and post-modern theorist - all searching for a Charents of their particular persuasion. Charents's poetry, - his collected works amount to at least 8 substantial volumes, - is both a dramatic autobiography and a provocative socio-political history of his turbulent times. It is passionate and partisan. Charents communicates not through commentary one-step removed, but immediately, tempestuously, through poetry that flows as if directly from the core of his being. Poetry with him is almost instinctive, a very condition of his existence. `You must understand' he exclaims, `I sing to keep moving/I move to sing.' (DDH/MM p44 *) Charents's is an opus that exudes the revolutionary spirit, the intellect and the energy of an age of social revolution and national recovery. Committed to grand ambitions of human solidarity and liberation, this poetry is a monument of hope and expectation following the despair of World War One and the Armenian Genocide of 1915. If you want your song to be heard, he insisted, you must become the breath of your times. So he was: an artist of many voices directed by the storm of revolution to produce an enduring poetry of Whitman-like grandeur. Much of contemporary Charents criticism is poor quality partisanship, often a blatant attempt to temper or deflect the unruly Euphrates of his poetry. Criticism it seems follows the wishes of those `sober gentlemen' upon whom Goethes Young Werther poured such scorn: `Oh my dear friend... would you like to know why genius so rarely breaks its bonds, why it so seldom bursts upon us like a raging torrent to shatter our astounded souls? My friend it is because of the sober gentlemen who reside on either side of the river, whose precious little summer houses, tulip beds, and vegetable gardens would be ruined by it, and who know so well how to build dams and divert all such threatening danger in good time.' `Sober gentlemen' of any age cannot cope with vision and ambition that is propelled by dreams. They cannot tolerate the unorthodox, the combative, the questioning and the insurrectionary, even if it is poetry. For such gentlemen Charents poses a particular problem. His poetry is of life as a permanent revolution. It is a celebration of endless individual and social endeavour, of stubborn striving and overreaching, of ceaseless renovation and innovation. Charents's poetry shows little regard for pre-ordained boundaries or for ossified traditions however hallowed by the ages these may be. He curses arid philosophies and inane asceticism. He has no time for provincialism or vulgar nationalism. He rages against repression, social oppression and exploitation. There is also, throughout his work, a rush of utter contempt for the corruption and venality of the sober gentlemen of his own day. These attributes are all evident even in the most partisan editions of Charents's poetry that seek to show him in an exclusive light. I. A SHINING DISPENSER OF BLESSINGS `My door is open, it is open for you My friends and sisters from afar.' --Yeghishe Charents Charents bursts into the world of poetry young, blazing and impossibly energetic. With unflagging enthusiasm sustained by an unshakeable confidence in the legitimacy of his vision and ambition he addresses the present and the future, the men and women of his day as well as those `yet to be born'. The spirit is, in his futurist words: `A radio-station Broadcasting to the world and all its peoples. Stationed upon the highest peaks As high as Mount Ararat and as solid - Powerful, imposing' (Selected Works, 1973, p280) At 23, brimming to the hilt, Charents announced himself as a poet whose fame will fire high and mighty through the centuries. By 25 he declared himself great and dazzling, a shining dispenser of blessings who cries out: `To every passer by To share my crazy madness, And feel the breath Of my uncontrollable happiness.' Such was to be his poetic mission to share his enthusiasms and his zest, to inspire, to galvanise and urge on his fellow beings - in life, in love, in struggle and in revolution. So, even though amid the mountains of his ruined land, Charents resolved to stand firm and sing songs with stormy tunes that he could hurl to all corners of the earth, to all of suffering humanity. Charents's poetry swells with an enormous sense of self-pride and a sturdy self-confidence. It is a pride and a confidence that is enthralling and contagious, for what Charents proclaims for himself he proclaims for us all. When he sings in his own honour, and he does so frequently, Charents sings in honour of all. His poetry is addressed to all his fellow beings, beings as numberless as the stars and the grains of wheat. It reminds them of what they are and of what they are capable. In their passage through life they have as immortal fortune and fertile blessing that which the grain of wheat and the stars can never ever possess, the magnificent gift of creativity. `Do you not know That every unknown labourer Who wields steel in his hands Also has a thousand epics Within his awesome steely lungs!' (1973, p287) Charents's poetry is at one with people as numberless as the waves of the boundless ocean. It flows from a heart that feels: `As floods of the waves The blood of those who, rearing proud, Are moving forward to the life that is to come' Here is poetry of love that is a bridge, not a shore (1973, p190), a love that reaches out to embrace the world. It is poetry with a soul so large that everyone can find in it something of her/himself. `I was born in Kars, yet in my soul the sun of Iran Shone endless, like an inextinguishable longing But the homeland of my soul was ever the world as a whole.' So even in his explicitly political and patriotic writing Charents becomes a universal narrator and interpreter of all our capacities and dreams. His voice is yours and mine; it is the neighbour's voice and the strangers too, all singing together. To quote John Dryden, albeit terribly out of context, Charents was: `A man so various that he seemed to be Not one, but all mankinds epitome.' Masterpieces, among them the unmatched series of `Odes' and `Words of Advice', catch an echo of that which dwells within us all but rarely surfaces. They give definition to indistinctly felt powers and brace unsure steps with firmness and energy. They dispense to everyone a portion of self-esteem, verve and audacity so that they too can attempt a leap from lives so often hemmed in, so frequently dammed up and so repeatedly smothered. Charents's poetry offers everyone confidence to pace spring-touched fields with ease and puts into their step the weight to create a track for spring to always follow behind. It is noble medicine to help repair frail spirits and to generate the courage to seek for the distant unknown. The poet's words are words of inspiration to life's bold traveller with the promise that: `You will return with your feet bearing traces Of who knows what new pathways, Paths never before trodden by voyagers Paths that perhaps will bring you to nights Where the sun yet shines bright and undying.' (1973, p192) In its incessant flow the quality of Charents's poetry was inevitably uneven. The mountains and molehills of his legacy have been commented upon frequently. It has even been said that Barouyr Sevak prepared only a single volume of Charents's selected works, claiming that there didn't exist in his collected work poetry of sufficient shine to fill two. This is of no consequence, for what is of quality is of magnificent quality. More than this, Charents laboured hard, endlessly working and reworking, polishing and refining. So in addition to the magnificent we also have, albeit in verse that is not always poetry, an incisive and bold record of the ambitions of a universal man and the social, political and cultural contours of the world in which he fought to realise them. It is a rich record that provides broad and fertile territory for discussion not just of yesterday's literature, politics and life but of today's as well. II. NO BRIDGES BUT THE RIVERS RUN WILD `There is fire in my heart, fire.' --Yeghishe Charents Charents's earliest poetry has an unusually gentle, but still magnetic power, its mood frequently evocative of the fertile consciousness that accompanies the unfathomable loneliness of youth and the mysteries of its first and frequently lost loves. The best of these poems return to us in exuberant freshness elements of our youthful selves. They draw to the surface, still throbbing, those impulses, desires and hopes, as well as confusions and frustrations that lie buried beneath seams of emotion hardened by subsequent experience. The evocations acquire seductive form in refined language, rhythm, sound and harmony. The thrill of youth's spontaneous urges, of its expansive loves that echo like long lost lines of a love sonnet, its winged ambitions and fulsome generosity jump off the lines of even the shortest pieces: `For you all the warmth that is in my heart For you all the blazing fires of my enthusiasm All a gift to you let nothing rest with me Only that you do not freeze in the winter cold all for you.' (Selected Works 1985, p 49) But ominously dominating the spirit in this early poetry are the brooding uncertainties of an age when there seem to be: `Neither light nor dark. No fire, no snow. And in the mists, over our souls An invisible hovering bird Its wings spread and fluttering'. (1973, p9) Poems such as `On the Road', `The Dying Day' and `When Your Weeping Stopped' measure the pain of youth for whom life appeared without horizon, without sun or song, as if its journey is impossible and its destination forlorn, when there appear to be no bridges, yet the river runs wild. Flushed as he is with a Derianesque melancholy, Charents betrays no resignation. The spirit is simultaneously possessed of a yearning for harmony that is suggested by gentle evening skies: `Skies that are like dreams of the soul Skies that are like children's eyes.' One even hears early on the notes of human solidarity that were to define Charents's later work, notes reaching out for a community among strangers, for a bond among all living creatures, among the countless strangers who cross paths silently, without acknowledgement: `Traveller, halt! Halt! Let us look. Let us look at each other. Perhaps we shall suddenly smile on recognising a friend... ... You passed blindly. You did not look and vanished in the mist But I shall long remember your strange and foreign face.' (1985, p62) The bleaker chords in this early poetry are not borne solely from the inner, existential anguish of young life. Nor are they merely a product of decadent European influence, as Hrant Tamrazian suggests in his otherwise stimulating and sometimes masterly consideration of Charents's work. (Yeghishe Charents, Yerevan, 1987) The lure of dreamy skies that are like children's eyes contrast not just to turmoil within but to the social and material hardships without. Some of these early poems express an individual, private experience of a harsh childhood that: `...passed like a mist floating, grey, sunless, inconsolable.' (DDH/MM p81) Charents tells his own story in `Childhood' (1973, p135-142), a 1930 poetic polemic against Gourgen Mahari's conception of childhood as one of golden hues. Charents's was one of the `greyest of canvases'. It was `one simple story', and it `did not resonate with gentleness and charm'. Its core recollection is of stench, a stench symbolic of humiliation at the hands of the wealthier and more powerful. `Who among you' when a child failed to `feel that rush of delight on first walking the street in a fine new suit of clothes?' Charents's bliss was doused in stench. His landlord's jealous son from the balcony of his father's home urinates on the poet's brand new shirt. (1985, p371) `To this day when mention is made of the word childhood/I dont know why, but I recall that odour.' Throughout his `entire childhood' from `on high such tenderness rained.' `Yet when I rose to resist My mother reprimanded me, terrified, And insisted that I accept all odours wafting from above Humbly and silently...' This was no childhood. This was a stinking past that held only humiliation and death. Death here is no poetic exaggeration. Charents's views were based on personal experience - his own and that of the youngsters he taught in a school in Kars. Daily they would report to him of friends dying helpless and abandoned, victim to the many ravages of war. Retorting that it is not he who is guilty for having failed to weave childhood in colours of blue that shimmer like visions of paradise, Charents concludes with a plea: `Gourgen, instead of refurbishing a grey grim childhood Better that we sing for brighter days in our older age.' Charents did not bend to his mother's beseeching and set out for the promise of dreamy skies, a journey that was to demand of him endless resistance and revolt. Before rejoining him it is worth drawing attention to an affinity between Charents's Childhood and Leon Trotsky's views of childhood, the recollection of which opens interesting avenues for thought. Leon Trotsky was an arch rival to Stalin to whose purges Charents fell victim. In opening his autobiography `My Life', Trotsky remarks that: `Childhood is looked upon as the happiest time of life. Is that always true? No, only a few have a happy childhood... The majority of the people, if it looks back at all, sees, on the contrary, a childhood of darkness, hunger and dependence. Life strikes the weak and who is weaker than a child?' Juxtaposing Charents and Trotsky is not intended to lend credence to the fabricated charges of Trotskyism that were used against the poet by the `sober gentlemen' of the Stalinist purges. The broad similarity of their perception of childhood is either coincidental or express elements of a commonly held Marxist outlook. Nevertheless bringing Trotsky into the picture this early can contribute a little to clearing the air of malicious claims that Charents was a Stalinist hack. It also affords an opportunity to put into perspective unfortunate affirmations such as one by Marc Nshanian that: `With Charents too (as with Ossip Mandelstam), poetry became sheer resistance, but only at the end of his life, when it was certain that he was to die. This is no small difference.' (Writers of Disaster p27) In his exposition Marc Nshanian equates `sheer resistance' not with opposition to Stalin but only with opposition to communism as such. Why he does so, particularly in Charents's case, is not at all clear, but it certainly lacks generosity. Charents never ceased to be a communist. But his resistance to Stalinism was sheer enough to lead directly to his death. And it was resistance that he was engaged in well before his last days. At one important point in this battle Trotsky featured centrally, if not explicitly. In `Achilles or Piero?' a long dramatic poem that he began writing in 1929, a full 7 years before his death, Trotsky in the form of Achilles is pitted against what Charents considered Stalins appropriation and corruption of the legacy of the 1917 Revolution. Charents's 1930 `Epic Dawn' and his last volume the 1933 `Book of the Road' also contain scores of uncompromising challenges to corrupted ideals, abused power and illegitimate authority. Charents did make concessions to Stalin and the powers that prevailed. But these retreats, if they are to be judged correctly, must be evaluated with a degree of generosity. Victor Serge, an anarchist and an uncompromising opponent of Stalinism had first hand experience of the regime. He was closer to truth when writing that: `From the outside it is impossible to imagine the terrible pressures to which a man of ideas is subjected to by totalitarian regimes: if you know this, then you no longer have the heart to condemn the small retreats, the little acts of pusillanimity, and even the low tricks which the regime succeeds in forcing on those who strive to maintain, even silently, hidden and disguised, a conscience that is at least slightly free.' (Collected Writings on Literature and Revolution) To these issues we will return later. But for the moment... III. EXTINGUISHING THE STARS IN MY SOUL Charents's first revolt was against parental authority and the stifling provincial education he was subjected to. It is recorded in `Homo Sapiens' (1973, p122) another 1930 autobiographical poem that is simultaneously an open invitation to strive for heights beyond the everyday of bowed imaginations. Taking his story to 1913 when he was sixteen it registers the clash between immediate reality and the urge to always go beyond that was to drive Charents on through life. The city of Kars, where he grew up, had `nothing with which to seduce him.' Its main street was but a `cart track', `narrow', `hot, dusty' and almost `always empty'. It was, as he wrote elsewhere, `a city with no colour' where `the days die sickly and tremblingly anxious' and `the night is given over to shame and the lie.' School in Kars was as uninviting as life in general was uninspiring. Charents preferred the local park. There he could retreat and delve into one of his favourite books that, on its cover had imprinted `Homo Sapiens'. Father and son were rapidly estranged. The son `did not like his father' and to `the father the son had become a puzzle'. Neither his father nor his teachers could understand the kind of books Charents devoured. These books, to which Charents dedicated his `Ode to Books' (1973, p196), held for him a special place. True, many were like `fabled mansions/that when you turn inside/turn out to be but a dusty emptiness'. But countless others: `...fill our hearts slowly and silently with elegiac passions we did not know we had.' (DDH/MM, p200) Books are a `boundless universe' that preserves `many-coloured fires, the voices of nature and the fragrances of human life'. They form a `noble cavalry of thought' with which to wage the battle of life. `Homo Sapiens' was an actual title by a Polish author. Whatever its literary merits (for a critical comment see Tamrazian's `Yeghishe Charents') in Charents's poem it becomes the summation of the book of life. Reading it `this miserable boy from the provinces' `soared high above his surroundings just as Mt Elbrouz rises over its marshes.' Charents's `Homo Sapiens' serenades the blooming of confidence in human capacity. It celebrates the flourishing of the inner drive to push beyond the narrowness of everyday circumstance. It is a poem of intellect and emotion become conscious of its own worth. From its pages a `gigantic hand hurled lightning that set soul... and passion ablaze' and convinced the reader that s/he too could be a `titan, with spirit, intellect and desires' capable of `vanquishing all obstacles before it', `capable of reaching beyond all deadening borders'. So inspired, Charents, a mere provincial boy, `with movement befitting talent' `brushed his forehead' and `decided that he was to become in life/A great poet.' But first Charents had to free himself from mystical snares that alienated him from his own self and from nature. `Marie: Bird-Woman' (1985, p18), written before he was twenty, records his personal revolt against Christianity and its promise of eternal life as true destiny. Eternity for Charents is a dungeon. Once he too `buried his soul... in its lifeless plains' where `there are no sparkles from lanterns aflame', where `there are no flowers or spring'. It was in these `misty fields' of a promised eternity that he had `lost the ancient terrestrial paths of joy'. `Oh what a heavy, heavy burden upon my shoulders This weight of the eternal.' In opposition is an insistence on fulfilment in the here and now, free of any notions of a beyond: `I want myself, myself, do you hear me woman? Myself, myself who is and will never be again!' Though a theme well worn, Charents's presentation has a youthful vigour and simplicity that echoes well hedonist and materialist traditions running consistently through human history and culture. Charents was impatient to set out for the `shimmering gold drenched roads of the limitless milky way' (DDH/MM, p81). So the ever-intrepid traveller bids goodbye to his birthplace and his family home `built of rough stone on a river's bank'. But beyond Kars, as he `passes through the streets of foreign cities' Charents `sees around him a world that is rowdy and human life that is unequal'. This world is a lonely place where no one asks: `who are you or what have you achieved?' In `Words of Farewell' from Moscow addressed to his beloved Karine Kotanjian, Charents bitterly recalls: `I have put out so many fires in my eyes And extinguished so many stars in my disconsolate soul.' (1985, p63) Worse than his own personal woe was the calamity being visited upon the Armenian people and indeed the entire world, the calamity of genocide and World War One. IV. `ENTERING THE GRAVES OF EACH OTHERS' SOULS' At 18, almost unexpectedly: `Even I do not understand How from the park in Kars Near the end of 1915 I woke among soldiers A volunteer. The Armenian Army.' Charents and his comrades had enlisted to save the Armenian population of Ottoman occupied Van from genocide by the Young Turk government. >From the front he wrote `A Danteesque Legend' (1973, p235-255), a harrowing witness to war and genocide. Its descriptions and images of gruesome death, of habitual cruelty, of emotion's adjustment to violence and of the mutilation of youthful innocence are sufficient to place this epic among the finest war poetry and among the most shattering depictions of the slaughter of innocent civilians. Truths of wars, whether just or unjust ones, unfold in a series of admonishing contrasts, including those of images of an unwittingly serene and beautiful nature providing the stage for savage violence of human upon human. The protagonists are, like the poet, young idealistic soldiers. They may be Armenian soldiers but their mood is universal, recalling the enthusiastic cheer in countless European cities in 1914 when young men first departed for war and killing. They set off on horseback with spirits held upright by glorified notions of armed battle. Nothing troubles them, neither `those confused emotions when taking leave/nor any suspicion of death'. They have not the slightest idea of what military combat actually entails and have no premonition of the horrors of mass murder: `Our gait, a dance; we sang, delighted by the glint of weapons. Everything seemed innocent of finality or death as if in a blue and childish dream.' (DDH/MM, p64) Only incidentally, almost casually does innocence begin to crumble. Along their way: `By the side of the road we saw a corpse We halted and for a moment looked at each other. Beneath the rains it had already rotted The driving rain had washed away every Memory of its life.' The corpse they encounter could have been Armenian, Turkish, even Kurdish or Assyrian. Who `could tell of what race?' asks the poet. Yet it too was once `like us, in love with life'. But in the early days of heady enthusiasm such encounters are brushed aside as transient, ephemeral aberrations. As the battalion resumes its march on a morning of glorious sunshine rising from beyond the mountain peaks: `I forgot that grotesque, disfigured corpse I breathed deep the fragrance of the earth So once again the world appeared new and fresh To my full and open heart.' But reality steadily shakes the gloss off slogans of war: `Here, a few more bodies And there, a braid of female hair And here again beneath some bloodied blankets Crumbs of bloodied putrid bread. Who could leave this place stone hearted, silently or without a tear?' As the repeated encounter with `unburied, distorted corpses became for us routine', `youthful spirits' that were once `fired by a thousand dreams' were ` maimed'. Burying a woman who dies before their eyes: `We took to the road, dead men walking There also burying our useless conscience.' Witness to such previously unimagined barbarisms, young soldiers: `With speechless glances buried each other and entered the grave of each others souls.' (DDH/MM, p78) Thereafter open the doors of Dante's inferno. Emotion, feeling, psyche are all traumatised. Men are transformed into `executioners and victims'. To live they `kill and maim', they `trample even upon their comrades' corpses' and `use them as barricades'. In this `whirlpool of fear and blood' both friend and foe `are no different to savage beasts.' The grandiose promise of `Homo Sapiens' now appears as little more than a grotesque fraud, a deception and a lie. Yet `we must walk' and `walk stubbornly' for within us still, despite all the horror and death, we continue to carry a `gigantic passion to live.' But the journey cannot proceed without fundamental questioning: `Why this world destroying dream Hanging blindly over our heads? Why this heavy blanket of pain and ruin? These deadly storms, when will they cease And who is it that conspires To transform life into this cursed inferno?' Seeking answers Charents turned to Communism and supported the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. After the butchery of World War One and the Genocide they were for him `a lifesaving, life giving hurricane' that `washed our mountainous land like a running river in spring'. Here, before moving on, it is again of value to remark on another affinity with another great figure of international import, one that this time draws attention to the creative substance of Charents's poetry in his communist period, a period that lasted to the end of his life. Railing against communism, conceived of as a soulless force cold to the breath, and breadth of life, the Turkish communist poet Nazim Hikmet insisted that a Marxist is not a `mechanical man, a robot' but a `concrete, historical social human being with flesh and blood, nerves, head and heart.' Hikmet wanted his poems to `address all my readers' problems'. `A communist writer' he insisted `has to reflect all human feelings.' In similar vein, Charents in a critique of vulgar revolutionary literature wrote: `In this century of ceaseless motion In this ocean of mountainous waves ... ... People live as they did before Rich with emotion With passions as powerful as hurtling waves And a thousand emotions in the heart.' (1973, p97) `Sing to such people' Charents challenged, `if you can', sing to these people with `all their countless emotions grand and small'. Charents could `never, never forget' that: `I have not only been gifted a human heart Human loves, desires and passions,' But that, in addition, there is also in the world...a `mad, mad moon.' So he `cannot fail to love life in all its fullness, in its fecund totality'. His poetry in the age of Armenian communism and the Russian Revolution was to amply demonstrate this. As he charted his own poetic map of communism Charents felt the need to close accounts with the dominant forces of Armenian nationalism, not with patriotism, not with his love of homeland and its civilisation, but with those political forces and ideologies that had in his judgement proved to be disastrous for the Armenian people. * (DDH/MM following an excerpt indicates translation by Diana Der Hovannessian and Marzbed Margossian from their `Eghishe Charents: Land of Fire - Selected Poems', Ardis,1986). End of Part One. [Continue to PART II] -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.