Wednesday, April 11, 2012

On Attending a Taras Shevchenko Poetry Slam

I recently happened upon a Manhattan poetry slam in the East Village, at the Bowery Poetry Club, where I was amazed to hear a few works of the beloved Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko, read aloud in English translation. It occurred to me that this event, celebrating this former serf, was yet another milestone -- another sign that his work -- and that of Ukrainian literature -- was taking its rightful place after years of suppression (first by the Czarist regime, then by the Soviets) -- in the realm of world literature.

Taras Shevchenko Self-Portrait Oil

The reading sent me back to my long-ago days at my Ukrainian expatriate grammar school in New York City, where I learned some of Tara's Shevchenko's poems by rote. His poems – not to mention the language that I spoke -- were banned at the time in the Soviet Union.

As I listened to the selections, I found myself mulling over the vagaries inherent in translation. How, I wondered, does one begin to convey a language, with its subtleties in meaning, its sounds, its syntax, all things that define an entire culture? Perhaps the words of  19th century English linguist George Barrow said it all: "Translation is at best an echo." I also found myself wondering about the contrast between the dramatic manner of recitation -- with rhetorical flourishes in tone and gesture -- and the simple unassuming poems that I had long ago memorized that reflected the natural rhythms of the language in its purest form. Nonetheless, what was most significant here was the very act of translation that enabled these works to be shared with another culture. And what came through in all of the poems read aloud was their mood -- those all too familiar feelings of pervasive sadness and yearning, of displacement and loss, that for centuries and to this very day have articulated the sensibility of an entire nation, and its expatriate diaspora, of which I myself am considered a member.

I began to think back to a long-ago day in my expatriate school when I was eight years old and asked by my teacher to recite one of the poet's works on a Ukrainian radio program. The poem, "Na Velykden," or "On Easter Day," told the story of a group of children gathered together discussing their new holiday finery, with the exception of one orphan boy, who had nothing to display. I dutifully headed across the street to the recording studio -- wearing my navy-blue school jumper and with my hair braided into the traditional two plaits -- and unselfconsciously recited its words in my soft girlish voice, conveying my own excitement about an upcoming holiday celebration, tinged with the sadness I felt about the fate of the poor boy.

"Prekrasno!" my teacher had said when I finished the recording session. That is, "Well done."

However, still lost in meaning of the words and the mood the poem created, I did not respond to his praise with my usual bright smile of pleasure. "But why," I asked him, in all my childhood innocence, "is that little boy so alone? And why is that ending so sad?"

The obvious answer was that the poet was most likely was referring to himself, having been born into serfdom and orphaned when he was young.

But my teacher instead said gently to me, "Do not let me see that little cloud upon your face," in the language that is so evocative and lyrical that it is often difficult to convey in words. "It is just art," he continued. "Emotion is the nature of art." Then he distracted me, letting me listen to my voice on the tape, and when we were finished, he gave me a Ukrainian picture book. He inscribed it to "Sonechko," which means something like "little sunbeam." I ran off to meet my mother, having all but forgotten those flickering flashes of emotion that had crossed my face.

As though he were reading my thoughts, the speaker who presided over the poetry event brought me out of my reverie by commenting somewhat ruefully on the melancholy nature of Ukrainian art, as he then introduced a musical interlude that featured the plaintive strains of a ballad that was played on the bandura -- the national instrument.

The final poem at the reading was one that I recognized, and perhaps Shevchenko's best known one, "Yak Umru" or "When I die," which expressed his dying wish in exile to be buried in his native land, and is perhaps the most evocative of the sadness and uprootedness and pain that for so many centuries marked Ukraine's troubled heritage.

Shevchenko, who was exiled for his writing, for his use of the native language, for his gentle words of protest, died at the young age of 47, worn out from his ordeal. His fate was not all that dissimilar from that of many other persecuted Ukrainian artists and poets and thinkers.

Interestingly, however, during my time studying Comparative Literature in graduate school, I never heard any mention of Taras Shevchenko. At that time, Ukraine, and therefore its language and culture, did not officially exist.

The growing recognition of this 19th century poet's work, I am sure, is a result of the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union, and of Ukraine's becoming somewhat of an independent nation which, though still troubled, has increasingly found the eyes of the world upon it, and with this, has experienced a growing interest in its history and its culture.

In his sensibility and love for his native land, Shevchenko is now labeled as a Romantic Poet. In his concern for the fate of his people, he is considered a great Humanist.

His poetry is indeed sad and beautiful and its verses do resonate.

Why, I asked myself at the end of the reading, are Ukrainians so emotional as a nation? Why, I asked myself, do we as a people -- a nation of artists and poets and musicians -- always wear our hearts on our sleeves? 

It occurred to me right then that the measure of love is loss. How does one even begin to adjust to the loss of the country that one loves – to that yearning for the familiar features of its land, the musical rhythms of the language one speaks, the customs one shares with its warm and expressive people. Loss is the legacy of war -- with its unspeakable tragedies and its resulting upheavals and dislocations -- that even now at times leaves one isolated and alone in a new and often unfamiliar nation that provides one with limitless opportunities for reinvention. How is one to begin to construct or reconstruct a new self in this new place, yet preserve one's very identity? And that is the very dilemma of the uprooted expatriate.

One does this -- as Bob Holman, owner of the poetry club and a founder of the Alliance for Endangered Languages, pointed out at the end of the reading -- by continuing to practice one's language, by preserving one's culture. One does this by commemorating Taras Shevchenko at this hipster poetry locale.

And one does this, I realized, by forging a dual identity as a Ukrainian-American writer, by coming to a reading such as this one, by reconnecting with the diaspora, by sharing my culture with others, and by continuing to tell the story of my roots.


  1. I have enjoyed reading this. How exciting to hear Shevchenko at a poetry slam. I am also a Ukrainian American. i experienced an identity crisis as a child, because I grew up a neighborhood without other Ukrainians. Yet somehow that passion for the culture flourished inside me. I have since made 3 trips to Ukraine, the first at the tender age of 19, and I now belong to the local UNWLA.

    Look forward to your future posts.

    1. It is just a wonderful essay about Taras Shevchenko. I lived 30 years in Ukraine and read Shevchenko poem's since childhood. I am completely agree with your considerations about this great talented poet. Olya, you have really touched my heart. Thank you very much.

      Larisa Vashchenko from the Netherlands

    2. Barbara and Larisa, thank you for your comments. Your responses so well articulate the connection that Ukrainians and the diaspora feel with this most humble 19th century serf poet, who has the status of a national icon.

  2. Wonderful Olya!

    I hadn't heard about Tara earlier than now, and I think she is a wonderful poet. I guess feeling emotional is not bad and all of us do have those moments sometimes when we feel for some things in our lives.

    Thanks for sharing :)

    1. Thank you, Harleena! Yes, as you say, it is true one feels emotion. when one feels deeply for some things.

  3. Hello Olya - yes Shevchenko is a great poet, capturing what many Ukrainians (and others)feel in their hearts, and reminding us of the struggle to survive and re-invent when oppressed. It is sad that the Ukrainian culture and language mutated over the years in its struggle to survive. Sometimes change is good. It is wonderful to know that his words are still read and revered. Thank you for sharing your childhood memory.

  4. Eloquent. Though my grandparents and my mother were emigres from Eastern Europe, I was born in the U.S., so I have not experienced directly the dislocation you are speaking about here, but even if a poet is born and raised in the country s/he's writing in, even if it's a democratic nation like this one, s/he can still feel the kind of isolation and melancholy this artist writes about. Being invisible is also painful, and poetry is quite invisible in this country, except among a very small group.

  5. Cool to connect with you, Olya.

    I am a Canadian writer of Ukrainian descent. My 4 grandparents immigrated to Canada at the turn of the last century. So I'm a 2nd generation Canadian, but still proud of my Ukrainian heritage.

  6. Hi, my grandfather was Ukrainian and migrated to Western Australia after WWII. He never returned to Ukraine. He passed away last week and the only book on his reading desk was Kobzar by Taras Schevchenko.
    I am dedicating a trip to his homeland in November.

  7. Very nice! I always keep his work at hand.

    1. Thank you, Yurij Dobriansky! Let us stay in touch.

  8. Lovely, Doreen. I will be writng more about my (our) Ukrainian heritage. Perhaps you would like to sign in and follow my posts. Let us stay in touch.
    Kind regards,