Young Romanian Poets Now
By Adam J. Sorkin
The fall of Romanian communism with the overthrow of the Ceaușescu regime in December 1989 simultaneously became the fall of Romania’s poetry culture, or what it had become during four decades of censorship and state control. This is not to say that poetry died in front of the wall when the firing squad dispatched the former dictator on December 25 – it’s just that well-honed strategies lost their context, their edge, what must have seemed at moments nothing less than their intrinsic significance. No doubt, by the end of 1980s, the harsh, final, cold decade of state suppression of ideas, poetry as a political and cultural weapon had already come to be futile and superfluous, especially for the younger writers of the time, who were thoroughly disaffected. Moreover, for the new, not yet formed, subsequent generations, all this literary history, unfortunate as it was, must now appear as dry history, irrelevant to their current situation. Their problem was what to do next, is what to do now.
At the beginning of the transition period, the early 1990s, even mid-career Romanian poets told of a similar dilemma when I asked them about changes in the landscape: they had a kind of sense of being lost (that’s my phrase, not theirs), that their poetry, though free to say anything, had not only been stripped of an essential raison d’être but also deprived of its implied audience, readers with whom they always had shared purpose and expectation. By the former, they meant a rich cult of resistance through writing – in poetry, a kind of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t game of creating and decoding every possible indirect, camouflaged, risky between-the-lines parabolic meaning or image that could as it were speak, or at least imply, the officially unspeakable. These quick-as-the-eye references got to be known as “lizards,” for their seeming to disappear into some crevice of the deadpan or the insignificant no sooner than a ray of the sun made them glimmer. And by the latter, well, they meant exactly what it says: poetry’s audience largely fell away. What before the revolution couldn’t be published – e.g., criticism of the official ideology and the accompanying machinery of control, banned words (there were lists of them, often silly and absurd, subject to Ceaușescu’s petty whims) – could now be shouted out loud.
Although prominent, heroically dissident writers and intellectuals were chosen to be the first to announce Ceaușescu’s flight from Bucharest on December 22, 1989, and the end of communism, the new free market was no longer kind to a mode of writing that just like that had morphed into the elite and esoteric. Publishers instead flocked to produce prose both domestic and foreign, memoirs and novels, especially hitherto forbidden voices of Romanian émigrés and never-before translated books. No longer would readers line up on the sidewalk outside one or another bookshop on a frigid winter morning to buy the latest book of promising poetical work (that is, a volume that promised, indeed could be counted on, to hint subversively at the difficulties of daily life and absence of freedoms and rights). In fact, poetry had existed in a kind of tolerated, privileged limbo, perhaps as a window into the attitudes of the intelligentsia, and in the 1980s, such books would sell out fairly sizable editions of thousands, not just hundreds, before the end of the first day on the market, never to be reprinted.
Instead, not only criticism of the government and its leaders, social-political commentary, factual observation, individual complaint, and communism’s taboos according to its prurient standards, sex, scatology, the porn of the body rather than the porn of rhetoric aimed at ravishing the body politic – these took over the newsstands and bookshops. Nudes stared back at prudes, weighty tomes crushed poems. Now, not a few writers lost their willpower along with their sense of cultural utility and drifted into journalism or media or the social sciences or politics. Serious poetry also lost state support of its production, the salaries of the editorial staff, rent, and so on; a number of venerable literary and cultural journals failed, respected publishing houses went belly up. Publishing was free to fail; it was a bit of a shock that the open market had its own mechanism of interdiction, based not on ideological principles but profits and losses.
The poetry void became filled with new, small presses, cheap editions, self-publishing (although censorship disappeared, nonetheless, as one poet explained to me, she gladly paid to publish her next book because then no one could restrict what she wrote). I don’t want to leave the impression that for the younger poets, or even the older generations, publication became impossible. In fact, the quantity of poetry seemed astounding; poetry writing had an old-fashioned prestige, and many wannabe Romanian poets (should I say poetasters?) could now put into print the books of verse they’d always dreamt they had been destined to write. However, this is not meant to disparage career writers or the younger voices set on achieving a literary career.
A parade of literary movements has come and gone in the quarter-century since then. In writers’ attempt to find a sort of personal authenticity in a society in which, despite theories of commonality and national purpose having been undermined by a megalomaniacal figure, use of the first-person singular became fraught. The dictator was fetishized, the sole first-person to represent the self-proclaimed Golden Age of Socialism, its progressive peak. “Our leader,” people would say in the summer of 1989 when I spent three months in Bucharest on a Fulbright grant, or a slightly emphatic, derisive pronoun one just knew was a capitalized “He” or “She” – Elena Ceaușescu was possibly more deeply despised than her husband – never naming them. Meanwhile, the realm of the direct, private emotion and individual conscience had festered, maintaining itself in secret as an ironic, inward double-life. Not surprisingly, then, among the post-communist literary movements, to cite a few from the 1990s, there was a resuscitation of family history or the family romance, “autobiographism,” not seldom as a comically distorted confessionalism that, on the other side of the coin, descended into the “miserabilism” of equally hyperbolic angst and alienation, the anti-progressive and darkly unsocial(ist). “Fracturism,” a programmatically anti-lyrical tendency, emphasized distrust of stylized or rhetorical utterance or formal poetic elements as corrosive of genuine sensations and human emotions.
In short, it can be said that for young writers after the turn of the century, in the words of David Morley’s and Leonard Aldea’s introduction to their dual-language anthology of the first important groups of poet-communist generation, No Longer Poetry: New Romanian Poetry (Heaventree Press, 2007), “poetry had to re-create itself, almost to re-name itself. It was no longer poetry; it became what has been called poetry after poetry.” And if not poetry? Another way recent analysts have characterized the new post-poetics is with the notion that “poetry became hyper-real in Romania.” This is the way that Paul Doru Mugur, in his introduction to The Vanishing Point That Whistles: An Anthology of Contemporary Romanian Poetry (Talisman House, 2011 – a book in the making of which I played a major role as one of the secondary editors and a main translator), spoke of as a shift in the literary climate so as to cut through these various isms. Reality (whatever that might be said to be) became conceived of as a kind of special effect expressive of the banality, the tedium, the quality-less quality of everyday life “defined not only by uncertainty and fears, social inequities and misery, but also,” certainly at the end of the 1990s, an overly eager optimism about change, “an enthusiasm and a hope for the future” that in retrospect look impossible. To cite a minor instance of how this colored the perspective of otherwise reasonable people, I recall the despairing urgency with which a friend, a poet, co-translator and novelist who was driving me in his used car imported from Germany in the summer of 1993, lamented to me that nothing had changed since communism fell. I had to point out, Hey, glance in your rearview mirror, are we being trailed by the Securitate? Are you driving a Romanian Dacia sedan that everyone knew, if you were lucky enough to get one, would fall apart as soon as it left the factory gates? Aren’t we talking freely, a Romanian and a foreigner together in a private space, without official permission? Peoples’ hopes were indeed excessive, idealistic, hence disappointments great and small felt palpable to so many.
Of course, for many poets and other writers, whose styles, themes and literary ambitions were well established, perhaps insulated by the oneiric or a private mythology, certainly less dependent upon the vicissitudes of the diurnal, the social, the historical, the transition period was mainly an opportunity to continue what they had been developing, to write not only with authority but a new frankness.
By and large, the young poets in this group of younger post-2000 voices gathered here in Paragraphiti had barely begun school by the early 1990s. While they had not grown up with the lived, childhood experience of the vivid contradictions between the indoctrinating state apparatus and actual values and attitudes – even to children, for instance, being future comrades in the Young Pioneers was, early on, only a game, an ideological farce, though they wouldn’t have had that vocabulary – to this group of poets, distrust of big ideas still seems native. Marius Conkan, to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude as co-editor and impresario for this selection, and who is the only one among the poets here I had translated previously (his work came out in Exquisite Corpse as well as in The Vanishing Point That Whistles), echoed salient features that I myself had picked up, in an email he sent me this past fall. For instance, these writers are not (as the Romanian literary establishment tends to like to pigeonhole their writers), a generation (although his email falls into the shorthand of this notion), a cohort of coevals linked by similar styles and techniques, maybe in part as a result of their diverse European and American examples. Likewise, they reveal a disparate “imaginary,” one “marked by the rhythm of Facebook/virtual realities…or, paradoxically, by rural spaces and life.” Social opposition is now a personal, or emotional, stance, rather than political. Conkan added: “If the Generation 2000 regained the possibility to speak freely about things that were taboo in (post)communist Romania, the young poets live naturally this freedom and they do not have now to write in a militant manner.”
Along the same lines, Gene Tanta, in a recent, thoughtful review-essay, “Learning to Mourn Better: Reading Postcommunist Romanian Poetry in Translation,” in response to The Vanishing Point That Whistles, emphasized the new importance of what I might as well call the “simple, separate Person… Democratic,… En-masse,” to swipe familiar phrases from Walt Whitman, the American master of both the singular self and the representative self, but never the captive self, “the captive mind” of communism (this well-known phrase is Miłosz’s). Tanta remarked, “Throughout the postcommunist Romanian experience, this ‘local I’ may be seen as a rebuttal to the totalitarian ‘we.’… Poets’ deployment of this ‘local I’ may be seen as a shift toward intimacy, privacy, subjectivity, sociality, self-regard, or body consciousness simply because Ceaușescu’s mythology of socialist science demanded—and attempted to enforce—comradeship, objectivity, and a general devaluation of individual self-determination.”
These perspectives are refracted in the comments and poems here, although not in a pure or dogmatic form. The autobiographical or “local I” is insufficient as an interpretation of the world, it can come across as contradictory, solipsistic, transgressive, and it appears to exist in a tension with what can only call or think of as the real world, whether an objective one existing out there, one that infiltrates the means of expression, one that forms itself in self-expression, performing and/or creating itself. Thus the reader encounters assertions such as, “I don’t use masks, make-up, in poetry…. I define myself with every word I write, and I want to capture the word’s authority to speak out loud and clearly about itself…. I love the errors, the defects of poems,…” or “My poetry is inspired by everyday life in its typicality…. There is no social or political message; I just enjoy the act of writing as a constructive and sometimes a performative way of self-mockery…. the poem performs.” A sense of “anti” segues into stances of rebellion or prescript: “I don’t like all the reverence and bows and flattery young poets offer to older poets…. I like punk…. Poetry is not bigger than life. Poetry is honest, or else!” Yet the reader recognizes that unaugmented reality has to be raised into something more involving than austere representation: “months go by without my writing even a single verse, while I forget that I am a poet but I soak up reality as the best poetry. After a long silence, first images and verses emerge…. Whether a poet is a minimalist, hyperrealist, visionary or anything else, he or she cannot be boring.” Or in contrast, from more or less the same starting point of the distinct, integral self, different patterns emerge: “I see my poetry as a puzzle piece…. Autobiographic at the beginning, drowned in intimate details about my childhood and youth spent in my hometown…. My empathy drags me into the most terrible, dark moments in our past and present days. Because this is what I’ve started to do: investigative poetry, narrative poetic journalism….”
The impulse to write can grant an impression of self-liberation, something dynamic, mind and feeling in motion: “I’m fed up with literature’s book and self fetish, the way it stares at its own crotch and feels up its three missing pairs of ribs. I’m fed up with avoidance of tropes, fear of going beyond intimacy and confession…. I’m fed up with the quest for a higher, hidden meaning. Poetry is not Shrek, poetry is not an onion – so why force layers on it? Poetry does not necessarily mean to say anything deeper… a text can sometimes be just an action flick I want my poetry not to be about me, but about the movie I’m directing in my head.” Yet, in a final, contrasting example, the local, intimate “I” – perhaps despite itself – reaches a sort of apotheosis of the hyper-real in what must be seen as a familiar metaphor suggesting poetic transcendence. It may be a kind of romantic or lyrical predilection in me, but in its modest surprise, this is the most optimistic of the poets’ self-descriptions: “I don’t know what to say about my poetry…. I would like you to imagine the movements of a child in a small town, always mistaken for his fellows, as he is the commonest lad in the group, still as quiet as a mouse. Usually, in this sort of town, everybody gets to know everybody else, but the child you imagine is lost in an interval of confusion where nobody recognizes him. One day, walking home from school, he is encircled by a warm light that lifts him four inches from the ground. It’s all a matter of seconds.”
Like us on Facebook.
Did you like this?
Give us a +.