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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.