Armenian News Network / Groong
The Critical Corner
December 31, 2019
By Eddie Arnavoudian
PART FIVE: the uncollected dreams
When turning to a poet’s work that, for whatever reason, remained unpublished or uncollected during her or his lifetime, one hesitates almost inevitably. Do they really enhance or cast a new aspect on the poet’s legacy? Or are they but loose ends, oddities, valuable for academic specialists or enthusiastic biographers alone? Daniel Varoujean’s ‘Uncollected and Unpublished Poems’, 73 in all, leave the question marks in place. But at the last fear of drudge turns into wonderful adventure.
Varoujean was exceedingly meticulous in selecting the pieces he arranged for three collections he was able to prepare for publication before his 1915 murder. The ‘Song of Bread’ that was virtually ready, was published posthumously. What we have left therefore are those that he perhaps condemned as lower order verse or incompatible with the design of the volume in hand. There are in addition early forays he could not or did not care to send to print, drafts, cast-offs or forgotten pieces, but also later verse he did not live to publish. Hugely uneven with the odd master piece, these are without exaggeration amazing revelations of genius budding in impossible conditions.
Not yet 21 and even as a 16 year old novice, uninitiated to the world, constrained in conservative rural Armenia, then in reactionary Istanbul, cloistered in ascetic Mekhitarist schools there and in Venice, Varoujean’s earliest verse still succeeds in touch all-embracing human experience and that with passion. Images of hope as the very substance of life, of abiding human will, resistance and determination to reach beyond the bitterness of experience, of the brutality and inhumanity of social, national and individual relations, of individual remorse and contrition that remind of Narekatzi, all these abound amidst much that would interest only the scrutinizing biographer.
Most striking is the weighty authority of the young poet. In an age when writing was the craze, life’s dramas, indeed felt genuinely, rarely found adequate _expression_ among most young poets, collapsing readily into the trite and the clichéd. Not so with Varoujean whose best early efforts, assisted by the fact that his individual life in major ways reflected the life of the Armenian people under late 19th and early 20th century Ottoman barbarism, are fired with an impressive authenticity, a revealing clarity and a telling intensity of feeling and thought sifted through and shaped by a precocious intellect and imagination, potently leaping barriers of age and experience.
‘A Bouquet or Songs from Brknik’, Varoujean’s native village, written when he was between 16 and 18, do not, for all their technical accomplishment, suggest the future poet. With some exceptions, it is not poetic inspiration but the idea of poetry that moves the pen. Varoujean speaks not with his own voice but instead emulates. Whether a feature of a yet underdeveloped modern literary Armenian burdened with the rapidly ossifying classical Armenian Mekhitarist influence, Varoujean’s language, in the false belief that it gives verse poetic flight, is laden with archaic classicism.
But amidst a faded first batch, ‘Hapless Lilac’ stands out, whilst another two ‘The Poor’ and ‘Goodbye’ together with a string of couplets for all their shortcomings touch and unearth with some force life’s individual and social dramas – disappointment, deceit, hypocrisy and unrequited love, mass poverty, forced migration and longing for home, anxieties of exile, existential pessimism and much else that all together are revealing of the precocious core and early structure of Varoujean’s humanist vision.
Composed in the style and tradition of folk poetry ‘Hapless Lilac’ is a perfect, many layered social and philosophical drama that takes the form of a tragic encounter between ‘a flattering spring breeze’ and a beautiful lilac ‘whose lips had yet to be smeared with bitter mould of life’s deceits’. A tale for any time and any place, the tragedy of young women abused by men with privilege is caught in pristine simplicity of language, narrative flow, structure and image.
The poem is all the more moving for being at the same time a moral denunciation and an urging to remain true to one’s essential self and to the community upon which one rests. In this aspect it is an affirmation of the unity of the individual and the collective that defines us all, an ontological truth oft forgotten today but of which we are reminded by all art.
Before the morning dew has vanished the breeze brashly sets about the seduction of the lilac with flamboyant speech and the promise of unimagined adventure.
‘Why live a miserable stationery life
Fixed to unmoving wood
Futilely bound to the soil
In contrast to existence dismissed as dull constraint the breeze affecting airs of spectacular freedom tempts with the promise of ‘an unending’ ‘happier life’ in the skies. ‘Come with me’ it urges. Together ‘we can reach the edge of the heavens’ there to ‘gaze at the stars’ and ‘drink eternal love’. Initially the lilac resist:
I am content with my condition, where:
In the coolness of my orchard
With my friends
With laughter and with smile
Where with our aroma
We suffuse the butterfly and bee
And the sparrow offers me its beautiful song.
Alas experienced hypocrisy, deceit and manipulation triumph. But after just a few ‘wild and enthusiastic turns’ in the blue skies:
‘Bored by the pleasure,
The heartless breeze dropped
The lilac to the mud’
For the lilac nothing is left. Its life has been devastated, dishonoured, disintegrated and hurled into the social gutter. In the last verse appears the poet telling us of finding the flower ‘at his feet, withered and closed in eternal sleep’.
‘Ah, just as I gently, tenderly picked it up
It crumbled through my fingers.
The poem could of course be misread as a conservative censure against ambition and flight beyond the immediate, beyond familiar borders. But this would be an error. The lilac is not a breeze. In striving one cannot without falling victim to destructive hubris, abandon one’s essence, one’s organic truth, one's roots and one’s existence in an organic community. The breeze’s contempt for the lilac’s apparently narrow existence is but a trick to satisfy its selfish lust. In fact the lilac in its own milieu does not suffer a lonely outcast existence. Quite the contrary, it flourishes and is fulfilled.
‘Hapless Lilac’ of course remains a social and philosophical metaphor even if such an idea never occurred to Varoujean. Writing in a folk tradition he is also in a sense being pagan. He invests nature and natural phenomena with human dimension and relations. To be given this substance, the lilac, a thing of beauty, being torn up, whirled around and then cast aside by the breeze will almost inevitably assume social forms that Varoujean, despite his young age, has noted and been moved by.
Varoujean’s poetic genius was in an important respect defined by a remarkable alertness to every stream and every detail of both social and individual life that he encounters and by an appreciation of these that is inspired and framed by a profound sense of human empathy and solidarity. So beyond the individual drama of the lilac, the harsh poverty that he witnessed in Istanbul is registered in ‘The Poor’. Though essentially a naturalistic depiction it encompasses with genuine feeling the cycle of life suffered by the impoverished masses, from babyhood bereft of ‘cot or clothes’ to old age and lonely death with none but ‘two peasants to bear a coffin and a the priest and his superior’ to say a prayer. Social ills here appear as an existential condition, as destiny with no suggestion of its eradication. But later he was to reach out to the movements of national liberation and socialism that offered a path beyond terrestrial suffering that Christian religion acquiesced men and women to.
Vaourjean’s was never limited even in his earliest writing. With direct experience of poverty that had driven his father to Istanbul in search of work with him following when but twelve; he would have witnessed not just humiliating poverty suffered by thousands of Armenian migrant laborers but also their longing for home from which they too had been forced. The emotion born of his experience and what he gathered from others is noted ‘Goodbye’. It was perhaps the bitterness of such feelings early on as inescapable destiny that reinforced a certain Christian asceticism in ‘What is Happiness’ that reeks of the unwillingness to aspire, dream and reach for ‘to drink to the full the cup of nectar’ is to discover that its base here always is the ‘sediment that will poison.’
Yet for all this Varoujean as a young poet also navigated the sea of love where:
‘My heart is shot with arrows, a wretched spring swallow
That drags itself through thorn and branch
Fallen now beneath the shade of its beloved rose
There cries in love, near its end.’
Desperate, Varoujean with the promise of more beautifully etched imagery, cries out:
‘I have become the last moan
But were I to be loved at least once
In the vast oceans of love
I would be the storm.
The best of this first batch emerge from moulds of popular poetry – ‘Hapless Lilac’ of course, ‘Gem’, ‘What is Happiness’, ‘Farewell’ and ‘Roses’ – with some superb verses and couplets in addition unquestionable evidence of Vaorujean’s revolutionary imagination (p374, 377, 378, 383). Though following a train of tradition, they remain freshly alive, imbued with moral sense and existential sensibility compelling attention as moments of human experience. Traced back to medieval Armenian poetry, to this tradition Varoujean, together with a phalanx of Armenian writers, was to return in later years, deploying it, as a constituent element of a genuine national literature. There are fine samples in this collection of what would have been possible. Alas it was an ambition cut short by the process of uprooting, destruction and forced migration that was to end in the 1915 Genocide.
The second batch of uncollected poems, ‘Grooves of Thorns – 1902-1905’, marks a decisive step on Varoujean’s way to becoming what he genuinely was – a poet of the Armenian people, their voice and the keeper of their dream of freedom. Preparing to study philosophy at Belgium’s University of Ghent that abounded with socialist enthusiasms, Varoujean begins to assert artistic and intellectual independence. Releasing himself from the limits of folk tradition, he also discards the aridity of Mekhitarist education to burst forth with typically colourful, profoundly designed and sculpted verse that begins to tell enduring truths about national and social life.
Albeit inchoate, ‘The Orphan Girl’, ‘To Myself’ and ‘Laughter and Rage’ articulate Varoujean’s early vision of resistance premised on egalitarian, humanistic principles. Formulating these whilst still confined to backward Istanbul and Mekhitarist Venice speaks perhaps of Varoujean’s own, personal elemental sense of empathy and solidarity for the other living beings, that was in turn fueled by enlightenment and progressive thought that despite all was already penetrating the decaying Ottoman body politic seeping through and into a flourishing Armenian literary-cultural life.
It is here that we perhaps can locate the source of those violent contradictions clearly displayed in the first two batches of these uncollected poems, that mixture of ascetic Christianity and humanist desire, that battle between the commands of Christian theology and man/woman’s nobler sensibilities, but also the propounding and secular development of those Christian notions of charity, generosity and solidarity. Thus poetic terrain remains rife with contradiction with a revolutionary Varoujean seeking escape from the clasp of ascetic, life-denying Christian ideology marked by self-denial, political passivity and an awful misogyny too.
The transition can be noted in a number of poems in which there is the imprint of inauthentic religiosity, manifestations of obeisance and devotion undertaken not from conviction but convenience, as a display to silence censure. Nevertheless amidst the prevarications before life’s terrestrial possibilities and riches, its existential truths, its finiteness, its ageing, diminishing and passing and all this as tiny elements of a vast universe of eternally cyclical movement is noted and keenly so. But most impressive is the encounter with palpable rage against all that cuts down, wastes and squanders life.
Speaking now with his own unique voice, his language and style already shaped by his own vision and poetic ambition there is as he rallies intellect and emotion to target the structures of social injustice a sudden qualitative transition from the unsure steps in batch one. Without inveighing, without tedious acerbic imprecation but with art, imagery, metaphor and narrative his poetry affirms beyond any rational challenge the immorality, inhumanity and the sordid social order in which:
The luckless and innocent are victims
To the perverted needs of one part of humanity
Here in palatial grounds ‘expensive chalices’ ‘emptied at the feasting’ of the rich and ‘washed up, outside, in the tears of the poor.’ The very conditions of privileged existence are premised on barbarism against the common people. The privileged
To attain triumphant heights
Use the rib cages of the fallen as stairway.
Such imagery stands with the best of international poetry. Varoujean is not yet as powerful when touching on the horrors of Ottoman oppression. But ‘The Orphan’ stands out not just for its staccato images of villages ‘clawed by want, ‘burnt out fields’, ‘blackened hills’, ‘ruins of chapels and homes’ where ‘buried skulls sleep long’ and ‘cold corpses’ ‘washed about on the blackened foams’ of the ‘tearful Araxes’. This is but a backdrop to tell of the emotional and psychological savagery of Ottoman rule here in the tale of a young girl’s desperate search for her mother’s tomb.
It was to the elimination of these conditions that wrecked millions of lives across the globe that Varoujean as a young man was to dedicate his art and his poetry. The challenge to selfishness Գութ p3 (9):
‘I want from my hours spent
With the colour of my blood and the shine of by forehead
Enable a new unselfish bloom
A bloom of compassion, of solidarity bathed in love.’
Indeed later he was to confess that in his poetic efforts he had withdrawn from delving into his private, his personal experience for the sake of the grand idea of liberation, for the sake of engagement with the monster that was chewing up the lives of the Armenian people. Conscious of the collective, the social, the community foundations of life Varoujean grasps well that individual existence cannot turn its face away from social and community life. Refusal to engage with the strife that afflicted nation and class was for him tantamount to the surrender of one’s humanity, to its negation, it was a rejection of life:
‘An unstirred life for me is a tomb
A head with no thought, a rotting skull.’
The agents that will carry the movement forward remains yet unclear in this volume, still built by god, by heroic individuals or by forces not yet properly defined. In later years this same ambition of freedom is driven to its realisation on the chariots of national liberation and socialist movements. Whilst agency may not be defined ‘To the Ideal’ with more brilliant imagery underlines the hardships of the road ahead. There is no easy journey to freedom. It is a ‘long, stony and thorny’ journey during which ‘land will drink of the wine of human will’, in which those who strive must ‘carry hope in their soul and in their heart a will as sturdy and as powerful as steel.’ The effort will be rewarded and when arriving at the ‘grand ideal’:
‘There, his wounds will give birth to roses
And the sweat of his brows to wreaths of honour
The third batch of uncollected poems here presented, written while Varoujean was at the University of Ghent have less to recommend them. Four in number they suggest drafts and scraps from ‘The Heart of the Nation’ and ‘Pagan Songs’ published . Here the patriotism, even as it is propelled by a concrete sense of popular grievance and tyrannical oppression has in its summoning of the spirit to battle little more than abstract bombast, an effort perhaps in the style of Siamanto, but mere proclamation, grandiose declamation devoid of substance. As for the poetry of desire and sensual delights, the items here are tarnished, indeed ugly distortions of humanist tradition. The contempt for women, a unpleasant misogyny is classic with women appearing as ‘nature’s heart’ whilst men are ‘its brains’. Kept only for the record.
Perhaps it speaks to Varoujean’s critical approach to his own work that much of this and of batch four could have been but were excluded from volumes he himself published. Indeed in the last batch besides the fine honouring of motherhood and the blessing for peace and plenty that reminds of Bob Marley, little startles though there are some passingly pleasing images in ‘The Oak’, ‘After the Swim’ and ‘Dedicatio.’
Social themes in this batch withdraw to the background except for ‘Oh Century’ that is in its flamboyant optimism of 1914 a grand delusion felled by War, Genocide and murder. Did European artists share such utopian escapades, this cocooning from the real world of imperialist rivalries and nationalist animosities? Or was it a feature of the Armenian intelligentsia with its blind trust in Europe, in the Young Turks, in anyone but the people, a weakness that alas was Varoujean’s too.
Yet oddly enough, it is also in these very weaknesses that Varoujean emerges as a genuine poet of the people, someone whose vision expressed the truth, however bitter, of an entire people, even those truths that were to lead to destruction in 1915.
Even in this early teenage outpouring the poet’s vocation is asserted as a refuge and harbour of love, thought, music, smile and perfume that stands in opposition to the deceit, treachery, hypocrisy, poverty, pain and disillusionment that the experience of life offers. In ‘Tribute’ written near the end of his life he writes:
‘You wished for a voice – let that be my song
That flows to me from god
That is sun, heart, light
And that gives you dreams
Daniel Varoujean was born in rural Armenia in 1884, was 11 years old during the 1895-96 Ottoman massacre of over a quarter of a million Armenians. Poverty drove his father to Istanbul in search of work. Daniel followed in 1896. In Istanbul, when a pupil at the local Armenian Catholic Mekhitarist’s school, he witnessed the humiliating poverty suffered by thousands of Armenian migrant labours like his father driven from their homes in hopes of feeding their families. In 1902, the Mekhitarists sent this promising student to the prestigious Murat-Rafael College in Venice from whence in 1905 he went to the University of Ghent in Belgium. Having absorbed the artistic triumphs of Italy and the socialist fervour of the working class in Europe and Belgium, Varoujean returned home in 1909 with six years left to live.
Yet even at this stage a Varoujean registers a significant departure from mainstream Armenian political tradition that sought to sail to freedom in European promises. Varoujean rejects Europe, Europe that:
‘Changes face to suit its profit
And deceives itself that it acts with noble conscience.’
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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