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Why we should read... `Selected Works' by Hovanness Hovannissian (392pp, Yerevan, Armenia, 1959) For Azat Yeghiazaryan and Family, Always generous with hospitality Always a fount of intellectual inspiration Armenian News Network / Groong February 28, 2011 by Eddie Arnavoudian The Urgent Wisdom of Hovanness Hovannissian In his own lifetime poet Hovanness Hovannissian (1864-1929) was universally acclaimed. When his `lyre first sounded' writes fellow poet Avetik Issahakian (1875-1957), `the youthful world was stunned... His poetry brought us the freshness of spring, life and authenticity.' Novelist Stepan Zorian (1889-1967) agreed. For him too, Hovannissian was `fresh, authentic and seductive'. Beautiful poems in the idiom of folk song also enchanted Komitas (1869-1935) that genius of modern Armenian music. Doyen of Armenian literary history, Manouk Abeghian (1865-1944) summarised that `to a sterile eastern Armenian poetic stage... Hovannissian had brought a new, more perfectly fashioned sensibility'. Posthumous judgement however has not been generous. Acknowledged as a pathfinder for his day, Hovannissian is today deemed secondary. Almost forgotten, he is abandoned to histories, often denied accommodation even in anthologies. This is both harsh and unjust. For all his limits Hovannissian still takes us on a journey of realisation, tracing an ordinary life with its private desires and personal turmoil, in times of oppression, exploitation and war. He is not as are Charents or Whitman, explosive, expansive or flamboyant. But at his own supreme his poetry also has an urgent wisdom and particularly so for our own days plagued by selfish individualism. Credited with overriding patriotic poetic templates, Hovannissian was greeted as revolutionary for an unprecedented embracing of personal experience generally absent from eastern Armenian poetry, for touching passions and sensibilities of love, loneliness, hope, mortality and also moments of inner being that shape perception and expectation. This he certainly did, and in the particular manner of his doing his poetry retains a powerful resonance. Contrary to tenets of our `post-modern' thought Hovannissian does not oppose private desire to social dedication, hedonism to public duty. Embracing the private individual he challenges also `the deprivation, the want, the oppressive chains of servitude' that he cannot fail to see all around. Authentic life requires a more complete form of being, a moulding of private, individual ambition and social vision. Personal love cannot be complete in isolation, when it shuns collective solidarity. To be truly human it is indeed necessary to `unearth and awaken, unabashed and without reservation' those `slumbering senses', `glimmering gems' and `infinite loves' that lie `buried beneath waves', `in the depths our hearts.' But in the same measure it is necessary to `sound the roaring trumpet' to `shake hearts, awaken the sleeping' and `give fighting courage to the weak.' I. `Two roads open before me' Hovannissian possessed a precocious feel for life's finiteness, for its frailty, for the rapidity of its wearing. Some fine passages alert us to the hammer of time that wastes and crumbles all before it. But equally sharp are the passions for pleasure and desire. To enjoy all that life offers it must be lived in the fast lane: `Don't delay young friend, pay generously your dues to delight, To life's laughing, golden days, pay while Time's consuming hand Has yet to cut its grooves across your face (p22) Seize the time for soon enthusiasms will fade, passions will cool and `worn hearts' will only sound `a feeble moan' `before the final storm.' Yet even as one partakes of life's `laughing days' one cannot, without betraying one's essential being look indifferently upon this cruel and unjust world: `Where a single tree of happiness rises upon ten ruins Where a single sound of laughter blossoms from the tears of hundreds' `Gazing ahead', the poet cannot fail to see `two opposing roads', one of individual, self-gratification, the other of self-sacrificing dedication to others. One is `blessed by the heavens' and `leads to a glorious world of love in constant spring'. The other `comes out into a desert' where the common people live in `evil dark' and `deprived by thieving fortune' are crushed `like insects' `by gold-plated arms of steel'. The poet is no cardboard hero. In deep thought' and of `unsure step' he prevaricates. Not for him the inauthentic oppositions of posturing patriotic or revolutionary declamation that valiantly surrenders personal pleasures of love and desire to a self-sacrificing social asceticism. In its stead Hovannissian offers a resolution of these apparently irreconcilable oppositions into a higher, more authentic human form of being. Life cannot, without painful distortion, sacrifice personal love and passion, and of these the poet dreams and sings with an original mastery of the vitality, colour and easy flow of folk song, free of rhetoric, affectation and forced imagery. The poet cannot but love and love completely so that when `god chooses me to die': `Let me come close Embrace you, Kiss you one last time Then go hanged from your tangled silken hair. No life could ever match such death. Yet pulled by the urgency of time and human essence to personal fulfilment he cannot ignore social injustice. He will not passively: `Bow before the powerful and glorious, Before these idols fed on blood' In a world `burnt by the flames of a thousand-tongued misery' the poet cannot but retain a `corner of his heart's impossible depths' for `another love', `a love of fellow men and women' before whom a `stonehearted world has shut the gates of ease.' With tyranny and oppression `laying waste the land worked by honest toil', genuine love is not possible without collective dedication. In beautiful almost biblical images the poet further appeals to his beloved, indeed urges as a condition of genuine mutual love, to join her in struggle: `Give me your love untainted Let me take it to that valley of woe Perhaps there it will wipe away Tears from pained eyes and Grief from worn faces. The bond of private love sealed thus by social dedication is beyond fragmentation and compartmentalisation. It becomes a richer harmony of life's journey. This insistence on the unity and oneness of individual love and collective solidarity is more than an affirmation born of an abstract moral sensibility. The `categorical imperative' of social solidarity flows from a recognition that individuals even as individuals remain integrally, organically bound to all other men and women. In `Gently gurgling' that is a dialogue in traditional folk style, between the river waters and trees on the river banks, the trees cry out to the speeding waters `not to run beyond this wondrous point'. `Halt, enjoy sweet hours whilst the sun smiles upon you.' Standing high, they see `beyond the hill', there where `river waters run muddy'. There it is `another land..., a valley of blood.' The river is not tempted. Personal love and pleasure that is blind to the suffering of others is not an option. It is less than human for the springs on the other side are of the river's own essence, its kith and kin, `my very own brothers and sisters'. So clashing `against the banks, wave upon wave' it moves on its way. To do otherwise, to abandon one's kith and kin would be to sink to the level of the egotistical individualism and cruel hedonism of the pampered elites whom Hovannissian lashed in `They Say'. Hovannissian was revolted by the privileged who `do not wish to see tears or hear pain', who demand of the poet to cease `telling of a sighing heart' and `endless suffering'. They `want only pleasures', only `carefree hours and spirited song.' They spend their lives `revelling in mindless pleasures' and possess `neither noble feeling, nor even a glimmer of clear love.' Nothing decent in life can be expected from such selfish men indifferent to `brothers and sisters who have been offered no tenderness from life'. Against them the poet puts his faith in `coming generations that will: `Ruthlessly judge and condemn the criminal and Burn the face of the privileged with shame' They will: Come onto the stage of fatal battle Dip pens in poison and Without mercy judge the criminal. Forceful as the indignant energy for battle is in these couplets they reveal at the same time a notably undefined, too general and rhetorical political vision that marks Hovannissian's poetry of social protest. There is no urging to organisation, to the barricades, no suggestion of social or national vision as one will find in Varoujean and Charents. This does diminish impact, but as weakness it is at the same time balanced by searing images of social and political injustice and inequality that reappear through his poetry and even more so by a striking delineation of a humanist Utopia constructed through recollections of childhood and youth. More than just wistful remembrance of `the clear blue skies of a past', these memories become metaphors freedom and emancipation from unjust society. They signify joy, ease and release from alienated life. In childhood and youth there yet exists that untarnished beautiful human essence that is later devastated by corrupt social and national relations. For as long as men and women fail to recover this essence, to recreate as social life the Utopia of Childhood, it is self-betrayal to abjure social struggle. .... Even as he departed from the patriotic preoccupations of poets such as Kamar Katiba, Shabaz and others Hovannissian was not indifferent to the national struggle and to national culture. Both are scrutinised with an original pen, with noteworthy takes on Armenian history and on the Armenian artistic and cultural legacy. `The Prince of Syounik', `On the shores of Dghmoud', `The Soldier's Death' are sharp with criticism of the romantic idealisations of the ancient nobility. The first radically suggesting that the traditionally honoured Armenian elites are as culpable for Armenian misfortunes as was the traitorous Prince Vassak of Syounik. Besides, these poems also drive passionately to shake Armenians out of that fatal passivity into which they have been ground by centuries of foreign oppression. On another level `Ruin' tells of `the bold remnants of our fore fathers', of their `noble arts', of `royal glory'. But it does not do this in the orthodox tradition, as a reminder of vanished glory to be recovered. In the style of Shelly's Ozymandias, ancient ruins represent a philosophical truth, testifying to the transitory nature of all things and all lives. All and everything, just as have these remnants, `will become `victim to heartless nature.' Likewise the myth of `Ardavast' locked in a dark mountain dungeon with his dogs seeking to gnaw away his chains, is used to subtly note that any struggle against tyranny is of value only if it can be secured against abuse by new elites. If it is not, then the tyrant may as well return to roam and pillage. The point is not lost with Tunisia and Egypt in mind, and of course modern Armenia too were post-Soviet `liberty' and `emancipation' became slogans behind which new elites behaved little differently to Mubarak and Ben Ali. II. `Spread your blanket of gold across my field' Love and passion bonded together with assaults on social injustice and selfish egoism unfold impressively through Hovannissian's work. Indeed to fully appreciate it, it is necessary to read his work in its entirety, as an epic story travelling across heights but through troughs too, touched by marvels of magic but also blocked in streams of the commonplace. Nevertheless some seven or eight of Hovannissian's finest - `The Troubador', `Autumn', `The Village Church', `The Grain of Weat' among them - are almost perfect in construction and effect and stand independent with a whole volume of substance and meaning. Among these, `The Village Church' and `The Grain of Wheat' are in brilliant brevity deeply realistic and defining portraits of the rural Armenian social landscape with its hardy, impoverished and exploited peasantry working arid land with scarce water. Recalling Toumanian's `The Song of the Plough' and Varoujean's `Song of Bread' both are rich with the drama of life and refreshing reaffirmations of human dependence on land and on animal and of the centrality of human labour in the realisation of social and individual hope and expectation. Mother and daughter hurry to `The Village Church' to pray for release from the grasping usurer who has already broken up the family forcing its father to leave home in search of money to pay off debts. At risk is a single cow that alone separates the family from hunger and destitution. It helps to plough the field for their bread, it yields, milk, butter and cheese for their table. It is this cow the greedy usurer eyes `Quick, bring me the money! What! You haven't got it? So bring out the cow from its shed.' In `The Grain of Wheat' a lone peasant in silent communion with a single grain of wheat prepares to `bury it beneath' land he has `torn open with his sharp hoe'. A whole form and tone of being and expectation is opened up. Burying the grain the peasant hopes that with it his woes `will disappear and die beneath the ground'. There `tended to by the land' the grain will, `God willing' `bud, green and then `cover my field with the waves of a golden sheet' so that `my shattered heart can gain an easy sleep'. In Armenian literature there are not many such intense and precise evocations of the dramas and sensibilities of the common people completed in these poems with a measure of the peasant's pragmatic, essentially secular, material attitude to religion and Church. On hearing church bells chime mother and daughter speed away from their field. It is time to pray `Hurry Nazlu' mother urges daughter, `let us to Church, your voice god will hear' and so `will not leave us without our cow and without our daily bread.' The peasant sowing his field also prays for rains to fertilise fields that contain all his hope for ease and rest. Some dull hacks saw in such images an uncritical reproduction of peasants gripped by irrational prejudice. For them, the mere noting of `god' and `Church' in literature called forth their automatic bureaucratic denunciation. For Hovannissian it would of course have been bizarre to ignore church and religion so central to rural life. He does not however just reproduce subjugation to mysticism. Religion and faith organised by the official Church were indeed very powerful instruments of social and ideological control whose dictates the masses did bend to. But for the peasant faith and devotion was never just subjection to Church authority or mere metaphysical vehicles on which they hoped to travel to paradise. Faith and religion were also significant emotional embodiments of their terrestrial hopes, of their own material efforts, their own human labour. Mother and child speed to church to fortify hopes born of their personal hard labour on their fields and of the father's journey in search of work. The sewer prays to his god for rain but simultaneously defies him with his own labour power, his own potential to work and create. `If for my sins I prove undeserving' I shall transform into water The hot sweat of my sun beaten brow So that I do not leave you, my grain, thirsty.' Beyond the bonds that tie men and women to land and nature `Autumn' in its contemplation of nature's ever recurring seasonal cycles, is a human dream for that palpable immortality with which nature appears blessed. Sat gazing out upon mountains heights the poet is captivated by drifting desiccated autumn leaves. Witness to `nature's silent rest and grand mystery his heart `weeps uncomplainingly' as it grasps that nature's death in autumn and winter followed by resurrection in spring is `of another kind' of death to that of men and women's where once `enfolded by the tomb we depart eternally never to return.' Beholding the view: `My blood warms within As I gaze upon a mournful autumn picture. I rejoice with visions of spring! Immortality is no illusion! And so the urge for unity with the grandness beheld: Let me rest in your fold, my soul at ease I want to be one with you, mother nature' In a later poem this desire for oneness becomes a Derianesque search for refuge, as the poet `lonely, always, always alone' seeks out nature as a safe harbour. Into it he wills to vanish, becoming `a clear cloud in the sky drifting and `melting into its eternal blue'. As Hovannissian's time goes by the gloom that forced retreat was to become more intense, enduring and pervasive. III. `Once a paradise now a wasteland... oh my heart!' Even in earliest youth, Hovanness Hovannissian was afflicted by painful unease in the face of his early premonitions of mortality. One detects anxiousness, a fear of the damage, of the wounds and the abysses that threaten him as he embarks on life. As the years roll on these accumulate and transform into an all engulfing nightmarish desolation and pessimism. `My heart' he writes was `once a paradise. Now it is wasteland!' Age and time have drained the reservoirs of dreams, hope and energies. Vanished `the burning desires for pleasures', vanished too the `heart's thrilling seductions' so `generous in flower of youth.' By 1910 Hovannissian appears to us enfolded in an unforgiving cloud of bitterness, regret, loss and hopelessness. The Utopia of Childhood is never to be reached. It has become salt that rubs itself into the wounds of life. Poetry, now with art and technique more accomplished, takes us into the lonely core of his being, into: `The four walls of my miserable room that Enclose me as in a dark coffin In this `distant lonely tomb', he has `become a lifeless corpse'. Scant data does not permit confident biographical explanations. But certainly a part must have been played by the pain of personal tragedy following the early death of his beloved sister in 1894. So must have that abiding sense of frustration and regret as time steadily wasted his artistic and intellectual talents. A man of singular and outstanding artistic and intellectual ability, a poet but also a dedicated teacher, an expert on European literature, on Shakespeare and a prolific translator he was unable to fulfil his creative potentials. In 1882 he graduated from Moscow University and, dedicated to the national good, returned to Armenia. For this he paid a heavy price. His return was the beginning of a funeral procession for his artistic and intellectual abilities and creativity. An 1892 letter tells of the asphyxiating Armenian milieu: `In this terrible atmosphere, in this disgusting milieu, there is hardly a moment that I can lift my pen... yes my dear, though it is very, very late and of no consequence, I am nevertheless come to the view that for a writer, for a man of letters to remain in such stifling circles is akin to being buried alive.' Some 24 years later, in 1916, he explains why he has not been as prolific as his talents merited: `...for the 28 years after I finished my academic studies, day and night I have been compelled to worry about earning a crust of bread, that in our conditions cannot be obtained by writing. So unavoidably I engaged in literary creativity only in my spare time... as an amateur.' Hovannissian's life was not eased during the First Armenian Republic. In 1920 Vrtanness Papazian writes that, unable to feed his family, the poet's pleas for help from Etchmiadizin, to which he had devoted his life, were turned down despite the Church's `coffers being full'. For having collaborated with Stepan Shaumyan during the 1918 Baku Commune Hovannissian was subjected to house arrest by the ARF during its February Uprising against Soviet power. Though he welcomed the eventual Soviet triumph greeted so enthusiastically by Charents, Derian, Toumanian and others, it failed to lift Hovannissian's creative spirits and in 1922, he writes: The cranes gathered Row upon row and flew off Oh my golden dreams My autumn has come - where have they flown. During his last years the poet was however spared utter misery. Granted a pension by the Soviet Armenian Republic he was able to tend to his pigeons and garden whilst the new generation headed by Charents took the literary lead. Hovannissian's poetic career had been short with limited output in the later years. But despite his suffered withdrawal, the best of his poetry always rose above the darkest pits of his own melancholies and remains to offer us clear and powerful light. -- 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.