The Golden Age of Armenian Poetry
Armenian News Network / Groong
February 1, 2021
By Eddie Arnavoudian
Remarks on early 20th century Armenian poetry
For all interested in Armenian and international poetry and in the artistic inquiry into social and individual life, Azat Yeghiazaryan’s ‘The Golden Age of Armenian Poetry’ (176pp, 2019, Yerevan, Armenia) is vitalising reading. We grasp almost immediately why the author chose this particular title for a volume subtitled ‘Remarks on Early 20th Century Armenian Poetry’.
In contrast to the narrower focus of earlier ‘poetic periods’ albeit also marked by artistic excellence, the scope and diversity of late 19th and early 20th century Armenian poetry is unprecedented. With equal weight it touches on almost every aspect of individual and social life – love of course, but also the revolt against national oppression, questions of class and the struggle for emancipation, the bitterness of the isolated individual in alienated urban life, the evocation of the universal human in the dramas of rural Armenia’s common people, nature, the universe and infinity, as well as fundamental existential questions of life and death. Azat Yeghiazaryan with plentiful quotation shows all these appearing in authentic, vital form, nuanced and complex, born of the endlessly variable and contradictory experience of real life itself.
In an overview embedded with rich insight and acute individual and comparative commentary we encounter the greats of late 19th and early 20th century Armen poetry - Hovhanness Toumanian, Daniel Varoujean, Bedros Tourian, Avedik Issahakian, Rouben Sevak, Vahan Derian, Vahan Tekeyan, Yeghishe Charents, Siamanto and Missak Medzarents. These architects of the modern golden age of Armenian poetry each have their very individual quality, their specific style and their own philosophic outlook, often differing sharply and irreconcilably from the others. But they represent a notable totality too. Discussing their poetic output, affirming the reality of a common national literature that encompasses eastern and western Armenian traditions, Azat Yeghiazaryan also presents them as a single mirror on life’s major dramas. Throughout, his commentary underlines not just the scope of poetic preoccupation but its national and universal resonance, a resonance that makes them genuine international poets.
In light of the harsh realities of our menacing 21st century it is worth drawing attention to the socio-critical dimension of this early 20th century Armenian poetry brought alive by Azat Yeghiazaryan in his treatment of western Armenian Daniel Varoujean and eastern Armenian Yeghishe Charents. Though remote in their geographic, social and educational experience their poetry displays a ‘remarkable affinity’ in their angry ‘rejection of the elites, of the rich and the secure’. They had ‘deep empathy for the impoverished, for the fallen, for the homeless’. Their poetry was ‘a powerful expression of the working class’s struggle’ for human emancipation. Together with this critique ‘influenced by the socialist sensibilities of the age’ both poets also took up the cudgels against the dehumanisation of individual life, against the intolerable alienation of urban life. Clearly in both its social and individual dimension their poetry extends beyond their own times and beyond Armenian horizons too.
The rejection of an unjust social order as one defining feature of the poetic output of the period is asserted in another significant comparative reference this time to the work of Hovhanness Toumanian and Rouben Sevak. Both were admirers of Western European culture. But they saw in the popular culture of east, and its still extant collective sensibilities of human solidarity evident in the lives of the common people of the east, an antidote to the corrupt, alienated and money-grubbing bourgeois West.
Yeghiazaryan brings much else to life in a volume with plenty of material to spark discussion on scores of other issues besides. He touches on Hovhanness Toumanian’s distinctive appreciation of nature, an appreciation never to be emulated or his impossibly powerful evocation of the spirit and life of the common people. He engages with Vahan Derian’s melancholic, almost resigned focus on the loneliness, isolation and alienation of the individual in poetry that appears as a refuge from the blight modern urban life. He notes Issahakian’s individual rejection and retreat from what he experienced as a brutal world. He contrasts Toumanian’s and Issahakian’s attitudes to death and much else.
With an erudite, sensitive, and humanist touch Azat Yeghiazaryan enables us to appreciate these early 20th century Armenian poets in our hard early 21st century. We feel them urging us on in our own confrontations with our troubled times. Go read this book! It is an invaluable introduction to a truly grand poetic world.
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is ANN/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.