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A TASTE OF MEDIEVAL ARMENIAN POETRY - PART TWO Armenian News Network / Groong By Eddie Arnavoudian March 23, 2009 I. HOVANNESS TLGOURATZI (ca 1360-1440) - POET OF LOVE THAT IS FLESH AND BLOOD The Armenian medieval poets were not prolific or if they were, little appears to have survived from their work. (`Appears' is here appropriate as there remain thousands of manuscripts still to be researched for possible poetic discoveries) Together with the smallness of the body of poetry, certain common features they share - the underlined secularisation of content, the predominance of homage to nature and love, and that in idioms that draw heavily on and are even defined by aspects of commonly inherited popular folk song and poetry - all these seem to dim the distinctions between the poets - without of course reducing the pleasure in their reading. Close reading does however reveal the unique in approaches, appreciations and evaluations. In the case of Hovanness Tlgouratzi, a singer and composer as well as poet individuality is striking and even extraordinary. Soviet era commentators have noted one feature of this distinctiveness in Tlgouratzi's explicitly secular poetry that, unlike Gostantin Yerzengatzi's, does not deploy quasi religious or allegorical forms to express his wonder in the colour and beauty of nature and the human form. This perhaps puts Tlgouratzi at the head of any register of artistic quality. But though deserving of this position it does not yet say anything about the most exciting, and for its times perhaps scandalous, dimension of his art. Tlgouratzi sings the praises of nature's beauty and that of men and women in energetic poetry that with its dancing rhythm certainly equals the vitality and playfulness of Gostantin Yerzengatzi. But as if to underline the strength of human passions, the magnetism of physical beauty, the force of love, in one poem after another Tlgouratzi shows men of the Church succumbing to sensual delights despite their religious devotion. Verging on the blasphemous he writes of `the hundred year old priest whose once white shining face, is now jaundiced' and yet who `tears away from his robes for mass and wants you before his cross.' Thus he affirms the force of a living, earthy love that has the power to storm the bastions even of those searching for heavenly delight and that breaks down all spiritual walls guarding against carnal temptation. `He or she, who is visited by love, burns brighter than fire.' At such moments `no prayer comes to mind, neither does he/she wish to read the psalms or preach.' Here there is poetry that shows that even the driest, hardest heart can yet be turned to life through love. In this poetry there is additionally the implicit criticism of Church servants who despite professions of godly devotion were not averse to indulging in the pleasures of the flesh. In their discussion of the emergence of Armenian secular poetry Soviet era commentators sometimes revealed a shocking lack of imagination. An instance is evident in E Bivasian, an otherwise honourable and critically acute compiler and editor of Tlgouratzi's legacy. Bivazian makes the amazing claim that there is nothing sensual or carnal in Tlgouratzi's love poetry. This is belied by even the most cursory reading of poetry where the lover urges the beloved `to consume my heart with your kiss.' Throughout one encounters images, metaphors and descriptions of the physical beauty of the human form and in particular that of the woman's with a `body that drives one to distraction', with her `rich mouth' and `breasts adorned with white roses'. It is belied in the expression of delight felt in the human embrace that is likened to a garden of immortality, in beauty that opens itself up as a garden rich with plant and flower. Tlgouratzi's poems further sing to love's capacity to rejuvenate even the aged and it does so in unmistakeably sensual terms. `Whosoever embraces your firm waist, will remain greener than the evergreen tree.' Tlgouratzi is, one should add, unique in another respect too. He wrote two epic poems devoted to Armenian Cilician prince Libarid and to Narek that together with his love poetry and poetry of proper moral conduct adds to the value of his legacy. II. KIRKORIS OF AKKTAMAR (1484-1544) Though there is no need to, one could fruitfully remark on affinities between Krikoris of Akhtamar and the great English metaphysical poet John Donne. Both were men of the Church, Krikoris himself an archbishop (Catholicos) who traced his ancestry to the ancient Armenian Ardzrouni noble family. Like John Donne Kirkoris was also a poet, with a marvelous and excitingly allegorical creativity that he put to the service of the praise of nature and of love as well the moral counsel of his readers. Kirkoris was in addition a noted scribe and miniature painter. But his troubled times gave him no permanent abode or rest and so he was forced to write and paint along the many stops of a life of endless migration. Krikoris strikes one as the most accomplished of Armenian medieval poets, at least in one respect. He captures individual sensibility, individual emotion, delight, despair, desire and expectation in a manner singularly distinct from his predecessors. Prior to him we see the unfolding of the world of nature, of human passions and of secular and national experience in medieval poetry. But none did so with the remarkably individual imaginative originality displayed by Krikoris, an originality that creates a unique individual vision, constructs a world and life with a unique individual angle and this with images and metaphors, descriptions and narrative that are poetically magical. Krikoris's beloved as she `walks and moves with steady pace, produces a garden everywhere she halts'. The lover's look can melt it is said...and Akhtamartzi in his own fashion tells of how `whosoever looks at you, whosoever your eye catches with its glance becomes like wax, never mind that he or she may be of steel or stone'. When the poet's beloved is remote or his love unrequited then even `the light of the sun appears as darkness' and cannot warm the cold of his heart. He is reduced to the state of an `owl among the ruins.' But when filled with hope the poet is `drunk, in daytime with the sun, and at night with my dreams.' There is a simplicity and clarity to Krikoris's language and in his accumulation of images that gives his poetry an enduring freshness. The simplicity of context and significance allows flowers and birds, the trees and the hills, the fruit and the root to shine through in all their vitality. In the relations and dialogues that he divines between the nightingale and the rose he reproduces human passions, needs and longings as well as human love requited and unrequited. These poems display dramatic development in a tense journey as lover searches for beloved. They come with striking images of fear that the beloved has fallen victim to disaster and angry images of devastation to be visited upon those that seek to deny the lovers' union. Nazim Hikmet wrote that he wanted his poetry to express the lives and experience of people of all ages, young or old. If not in intent, certainly in their result Kirkoris's poetry is of a similar order. Mayis Avtalbekian who has collected and published Akhtamartzi's legacy notes the excellence of his allegorical verse that successfully combines into an organic whole the ode to nature, the plea to a lover, and the praise to his lord. In their perfect abstraction his poetry can be read by the heartfelt lover, the struggling patriot, the blighted emigrant or the devout beseecher of god and that without any hint of incongruity or jarring. Medieval poets generally issued a steady stream of warnings of divine retribution for those who surrender to the pleasures of nature and flesh. With some this is merely formal genuflection to the religious spirit of the times, perhaps an attempt to avoid inviting official condemnation, with others it can be seen as a challenge to the vision of the Church that in their poetry appears as dark and grim compared to depictions of life's delight. In Krikor of Akhtmar, Avtalbekian notes, reference to divine punishment becomes a contemplation of existential tragedy, of the finiteness of life, of the transitory character of the pleasures of love and nature. So perhaps it is also in the fashion of Pushkin or Toumanian counsel to enjoy life on earth to the full.Read Part One:
-- 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.