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The Critical Corner - 12/07/2009

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BAROUYR SEVAK - PART ONE: THE POET AS POLITICAL  ACTIVIST

Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

December 7, 2009


BAROUYR  SEVAK
Part One: the poet as political activist

    `I am a postcard, addressed to the world! Do not envelope me, do
    not shut and seal me!'

Barouyr Sevak (1924-1972) has been acclaimed as one of the great
Armenian poets of the 20th century. But he has also been judged a mere
versifying propagandist and even a miserable plagiarist. Not
surprisingly partisan dispute continues well into the post-Soviet age.
A roaring celebration of human creativity and passions, Sevak's poetry
is at the same time a forthright assault on the moral corruption of
all social elites that distort the existences of men and women,
suppressing their creativity and reducing them to passivity. Sevak's
offensive that was so telling against the corrupt Soviet elite remains
as powerful against those of today whose immorality, greed, egoism and
indifference to the fate of the common man and woman often puts their
predecessors in the shade.

As with any prolific and socially committed poet Sevak is hugely
uneven.  But at his best he is a sort of Herbert Marcuse of poetry
devoting himself to the business of humanising a dehumanised world, to
the business of liberating alienated individuality and recovering a
lost sense of communal solidarity. He dreamt that we would one day
`return to ourselves, we...to ourselves' so that once again `humans
can be human to humans'. Announcing himself as `a builder of joy', a
`salesman of deep delights', a `corner shop of healthy laughter' and a
`half closed store of smiles' Sevak set about `smashing all the chains
that restrain the spirit'. Driven by the instinct to challenge and
risk he was ready to even `leap and dance upon even the wobbly
collapsing bridge'. `No lines of mine will imprison thought'. Even if
my `hand is denied a pen', it `makes no difference' `I will not stop
singing...  to refute the lie' so that `man and woman, with spirit
free, can nurture and cradle their hopes for the future'.

Sevak wrote primarily to contest the abuses of the Soviet elites. But
in poetry that has a remarkable capacity to focus essential human
relations free of all ephemeral detail his better poetry speaks to
21st century man/woman as effectively as it did to his own
contemporaries.  Propelled by an overwhelming love for his fellow man
and woman, by `love before everything, and love after everything,
always love' Sevak assails all that is inauthentic and the false.
Today above the racket of consumerism that threatens to silence the
music of the soul we can still hear his powerful call to arms. In
opposition to the contemporary transformation of emotion into
commodity, to the hypocrisies of our politicians, the deceits of
commercialism and the lies of its advertising agents Sevak's song of
authentic humanity is as beautiful and as wise as it ever was.


I.  BATTLE AGAINST THE USURPERS

Barouyr Sevak could hardly restrain from expressing his abhorrence for
the morally degenerate Soviet bureaucrat, the apparatchik, the
sycophant:

    `The thousand believers, all false believers
    The thousand believers, all lying believers'

Well before the post-Stalin Soviet thaw he had noted something amiss
in Armenian society, hinting clearly at the decay, the falsity and the
fraudulent that was afoot:

    `It was the same old monastery
    But it did not look saintly anymore
    It was the same bell that sounded
    But there was falsehood in the resonance.

Sevak was to thereafter devote himself to exposing those responsible -
the political elite, the party leadership and their henchmen all of
whom concealed ugly selfish ambition with the ideology and rhetoric of
those collective principles of life they were themselves destroying.
Their professions of socialist faith were nothing but self-legitimating
deceptions, `endlessly recited and calculated prayers learnt
off-by-heart to delude not themselves but you!'  Ideological
declarations were fabrications and slogans of social solidarity and
internationalism mere clouds that spread a `darkness that without
thread and needle has sewn up our eyes, and even mixed its colour into
our blood.' The men in power, at the head of the state, in control of
the media, publishing, industry, culture, education:

    Speak in the name of the sea of society
    But flow towards their private lake.

They are all `burdens upon the back of the world' removed from the
lives of the common people. They `never risk or sacrifice', and have
`never once experienced sleep on a damp floor'. Cruel and greedy
graspers they:

    `would wreck another's home
    for the for the sake of a single beam
    they want for themselves'.

To secure their own privilege they made of society a system of
`poisonous moulds in which men and women have been forced to live'.

As heartless and selfish as their masters are the army of fawning
sycophants ready to even interrupt and tell `a child mourning his
parent's death with some sorrowful tone' `that he sings out of
tune'. The lot of them, bureaucrats, opportunists, careerists and
sycophants are:

    Liars. They love neither their father nor their mother
    Neither child nor grandchild is valued
    More than anything and above all else
    He loves in love, his status/chair

Reserving the utmost contempt for those who remained passive in the
face of this abuse, for:

    `...the dog, who though
    Ceaselessly kicked by a vicious master
    Licks this master's  feet,
    Instead of biting the beating torturing limb
    He merely  moans

Sevak called on all to join him in `disputing the label that is not
appropriate but still sticks stubbornly and refuses to be removed'. He
urged all to challenge illicit privilege - that `legacy that has been
purchased not inherited', to expose fraudulent ideological
legitimisation - `the paint that merely covers but does not renew' and
to expose the self-appointed guardians of society - those `lookouts
that sleep instead of watch'. To live within the `moulds they have
fashioned' and `to buy their false goods' with `their false money' was
an insult to one's dignity and integrity. Sevak refused to `shut his
eyes endlessly, helplessly and simple-mindedly as if dead'. (76:12).

    I am no longer prepared to participate in this
    Not in the game
    Nor in the sacrificial offering
    If that which is being skinned
    Is humanity

For the health of the `sea of society' Sevak sought to eradicate the
egoisms of power, to put an end to secret selfish plots, to hypocrisy,
opportunist careerism and obsequious crawling. He prayed for the
elimination of this stratum:

    `If you are God
    Blow out all their candles
    Extinguish all their lanterns
    Put out all their fires
    So that there can be light!

Light, so that men and women can be free to flourish, so that from
`the heat of the light and from its silent beat, every dream yet to be
fired can burst forth to bloom'.

For all his angry criticism of the Soviet elite Sevak was not however
an anti-socialist dissident.  He did not question the political, the
economic or the ideological foundations of society. His focus is the
behaviour, the moral conduct, of the elite that he held responsible
for subverting the egalitarian principles that underpinned Soviet
society. Sevak's ambition was not revolutionary transformation of
existing structures and foundations but their cleansing.

    `Do not fear
    To scrape clean the rusted mug
    The mug will not be  destroyed.'

This rust is defined clearly as the pitting of the corrupt elite's
narrow, minority selfish interest against that of the broad collective
and common interest. Reminding us of the medieval Armenian poets,
Sevak's own moral passion represented a formidable threat to Soviet
officialdom, not only because he was not an anti-socialist and could
not therefore be dismissed and persecute Sevak as a counter-revolutionary
but because he wove in his poetry and persuasively so both a vision of
possibilities outside the `poisonous moulds' and an affirmation of
individual and collective potential and capacity to reach beyond.


II. THE POWER AND POTENTIAL OF THE HUMAN

Sevak had unshakeable `faith in men and women's dreams'. `Dreams are
called dreams and they are deemed impossible only because they are yet
to be realised.' With `no respect for resurrection that ends only with
ascension' to heaven rather than `with a return to life' he insisted
that:

    `Man/woman could feel the beauty and the delight with him/herself
    That was akin to the grand music in the cathedral
    That was like the light on a master painting
    Like the toy in a child's hand.

To the horror of the bureaucrat of his day Sevak communicated this
conviction contagiously and as unquestionable truth.

In the faith and the optimism there was nothing bookish. It was born
of witnessing those colossally creative and energetic efforts of men
and women rebuilding and celebrating life even as they crossed its
cruellest paths.  Witnessing human striving to surmount barbarism
enabled Sevak to see beyond the ugliness and the alienation, the
prostration and the defeat.

    I not only know
    I believe
    That it is impossible to imprison the sun

In his early poetry he registers the recovery of the Armenian people
from the 1915 Genocide and the recovery of the Soviet people from the
barbarism of Nazi invasion. Here Sevak brought freshness to subjects
dulled by mediocre handling and by the prevailing formulaic and turgid
didacticism. In characteristically unusual and catching images he
depicts the Soviet Armenian state as the `surviving and enduring
witness to slaughter', as the `sands that have absorbed' the `waters
of sorrow'. The new Armenian state in its strength and stability is a
rebuff to the Young Turks:

    A limpid eye when the crying has stopped, and
    The imposing testimony to justice

Though not old enough to fight at the front during World War II,
Sevak's reaction was poetically and politically sophisticated. `The
Fallen', with touches that recall Daniel Varoujan, echoes no arid
abstractions of national glory but the vital, immediate life
preserving dreams of the common man and woman. They fight the war not
for the glory of the abstract flag but so that:

    Henceforth there be not a single chair
    Either at tea-time or dinner
    In any family whatsoever
    That cries out its emptiness

They fell so that:

    Instead of the thunder of grenades
    Instead of the awesome flame of fires
    They would hear
    The sound of the sliver spade
    And the hot whisper of longing

The Genocide and World War II certainly registered the destructive and
the brutal in the contradictory structure of man/woman. But neither
could eradicate or fatally suppress an opposite potential for
grandeur. Genocide and Nazism had freed Sevak of illusions but they
did not cause him to `despair in human lapses'. However dark the past
and even the present, men and women by their very nature retain the
`potential to cleanse themselves the way the ocean cleanses itself'.
They have indeed shown that they `know how to destroy', but they have
also shown that they `know how to build'. `With one hand they will
extinguish the light of life, but with the other they will light the
camp fire'. `The same hand that thrust in the knife writes a novel'.
The `same hands that pen the notes of betrayal also produce the
richest of gifts' (57:6) for its neighbour.

Post-Genocide and post-Nazi recovery generated his `hope in human
nature' and his faith in the `endlessly repeated renewal of humanity
in the image of its children. They `armed' Sevak hope `in the living
man and woman and even more so in their child yet to be born'. In its
rich abstraction an early poem dedicated to the Armenian revival can
be read as his credo of the durability of intrinsic human nobility.

    `You are like your grapevines and your grapes.
    They have broken you up and buried you in the soil.
    But when the cold of winters passed
    Your buried roots have burst powerful shoots.
    Your bent branches are again erect
    And if you bent again, then
    With the weight of those diamond grapes
    That are cracked open from your sweetness
    Whilst your bitterness...has become wine.

The same conviction is registered in a later poem honouring the ones:

    Who have faltered and fallen
    Fallen, but never brought down to your knees
    But have crawled back to scramble from peak to peak


III.  POET OR PAMPHLETEER?

It is often argued that socially engaged, polemical and didactic
poetry, however brilliantly written, is condemned to remain meagre as
art having little purchase beyond the era of is composition. Sevak
himself gives encouragement to the aesthetic disqualification of
committed poetry in a comment on 19th century Armenian poets Smbat
Shahaziz and Kamar Katiba.  Noting their immensely valuable social and
patriotic contribution, he adds nevertheless, that given the
`publicist' character their poetry `it would be stupidity... to insist
that... it had any artistic merit.'

Whatever Sevak's qualifications, he himself however `could not reject
publicist poetry, even if I wished to.' He was after all first and
foremost a man of action and social being. He hurled himself with
unbridled enthusiasm into public life driven by a sense of duty to
community and society. For him the artist, the writer, the poet and
the person of exceptional talent could not remain indifferent to the
fate of his/her fellow beings. The poet he writes must be `a willing
servant of the people' ready to risk everything, even at the expense
of being `condemned to eternal darkness'. At the service of the people
the poet as `a new ambassador of the ancient gods working:

    `So that you attain sight of the shores of truth
    So that you realise the treachery of the concealed lie
    So that you do not fear nor falter
    And whip the face of injustice

In its essence poetry and literature in general is framed by terms of
social morality and social responsibility.

    That which is called literature
    Is not a diplomatic mission
    Where you feel and think one thing
    And say another.
    And if you are an ambassador
    Then an ambassador for life,
    To be sure for life today,
    But more so for life in the future

It is in the name of this future that the poet must be an eternal,
perpetual critic. The poet:

    Cannot, in any way what so ever love
    The kings of any and all ages
    Who seek to destroy them not only by exile and imprisonment
    But by inviting them to the palace
    And...declaring false love.

For Sevak such intervention and engagement is assumed in the very act
of creativity.  Even as the artist `sits alone, she/he talks with the
whole of humanity', helps `free ourselves from ourselves', `unites us
with ourselves ' and then `unites us with the grandeur of the
unknown.' Such views do not of course make Sevak's poetry popular with
intellectual and artist elites of our day who are not inclined to
challenge kings and quite the contrary happily rest in his royal court
consuming the rich crumbs from his table.

In our own times the poet as political activist has become rather
unfashionable, reflecting perhaps contemporary elite fear of, and
contempt for, the collective and public sphere. Yet the pubic, social
and collective sphere, despite claims of the elite's ideological
fashion designers, remains as central to human and individual
existence as that of the private. The fundamental reality of human
interdependence remains. To live genuinely demands an engagement with
the community in which one exists, with one's fellow men and women and
with the fortunes of society of which individuals are part. The world
of art would be that much poorer if literature and poetry are
disqualified from the battle to uphold collective, communal social
solidarity as a condition of all life.

Sevak, along with countless others walks in the tradition of Milton,
credited in a recent biography to have `almost single-handedly created
the identity of the writer as a political activist'.  A reviewer's
remark on this biography by Anna Beer could, with necessary
qualification, apply to the best of Sevak's as well, noting as it
does a:

    `...fully armed assault on corruption' characterised at its best
    with a ` peerless combination of imaginative reach and political
    analysis...and its marvellous organ-blast hymn to (and vigilant
    support of) liberty.'


IV.  SEVAK THE POET

Barouyr Sevak's particular achievement was to be simultaneously poet
and pamphleteer, artist and social critic.  He successfully removes
barriers between art and politics, between emotion and reason, between
the private and the social to produce poetry that, with its critical
edge, is also a glorification of all life - social, communal and
individual. This merging of the public, political and social polemic
with a celebration of life is thrilling because it draws its strength
not from some intellectual system, not from the desire to impose some
alternative political or social theory but by the impulses of passion,
creativity and pleasure. As he raged against suffocating oppressive
authority and its immorality, he insisted that `even with the coldest
fingers' he would continue playing:

    ...the ancient lyrics
    Of love and
    Of joy
    And lyrics in honour of the craziness of the spirit

There is in his best poetry nothing dry, rhetorical or formal. Sevak
called the bureaucrat and state official to account and denounced and
exposed them as heartless inhuman egoists not in the name of abstract
political principle but in the name of intellectual, creative and
emotional freedom.  Immorality and vice are not condemned for
contravening a finished formal system of moral law but for staining,
dulling and deforming the harmonious flourish of individual and social
creativity and passion. Political and social criticism was not
programmatic criticism but the affirmation of life and creativity.

Sevak's poetry has in addition a rich all-embracing abstraction. With
a single metaphor, simile or image he readily captures the
fundamentals of a corrupted social relation that gives his poetry a
resonance beyond the phenomena that first inspired it. Denunciations
of the bureaucrat, the censor, the crawling sycophant, the abuser of
power, the illegitimate pretender and the egoist capture the essential
substance that fashions even the villains of our own day.  Sevak's
poetry floods forth not just against Soviet bureaucratic socialism but
against all the ossification and corruption, the deception and
hypocrisy, the sycophancy and lack of integrity that we are witness to
in our own day. It exposes all forms of power that are beyond the
control of communities and individuals. It exposes as illegitimate, as
diminishing any form of power that is beyond authentic democratic and
collective determination.

Enhancing Sevak's poetry is his almost unrivalled mastery of the
Armenian language. His linguistic versatility and his capacity for
word creation adds a whole body of new images, metaphors, imaginative
constructs and forms to the Armenian poetic thesaurus. Halted in their
tracks by what at first sight appear as combinations of the utterly
inappropriate, extraordinary and even incongruous word constructions
readers are then delighted to travel fresh paths as extraordinary
writing hurls them into thinking upon and considering, evaluating and
judging possible meanings. In this there is nothing of the inauthentic
posturing that passes itself off as `higher order' art whose
complexity is but the pretence of wisdom and sensibility apparently
beyond the common person. Even in his almost unorthodox imagery Sevak
remains close to life. Where Medzarents draws from nature his richest
metaphors Sevak, enters the realm of the ordinary artefacts of life,
transforming the apparently mundane - the finger nails, tight shoes,
hearing rain - into images rich with meaning and significance.

It is in this poetic brilliance that Sevak's voice sounded so crisp
and fresh in his day of decaying bureaucratic socialism. For the same
reasons it echoes as distinctly in our own days of decaying democracy.
In the charade of our own parliamentary chambers, editorial and
executive offices and at the pulpit of public sermonising, we
encounter the same selfish grime, the same egotistic muck that Sevak
sought to cleanse in his time. Denouncing those who `force us all to
sing with the voice of another' he brings into sight the corrupt
messiahs of modern consumerism and advertising. It is poetry in which
we hear the hollow echoes of our own times and feel the passion to
resist. Be yourself his poetry cries out:

    Take off your masks
    So that you can breathe a little easier


--
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.

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