Ivars Šteinbergs

The Song of Decline: Aspects of Contemporary Latvian Poetry

September in Riga, the capital of Latvia, is usually a time of concurrent cultural events, the annual literary festival ‘Poetry Days’ taking up a noticeable part of the month by gathering hundreds of readers and dozens of authors together in bars, coffee shops, concert halls, and the floating art centre ‘Noass’ (i.e., Noah), towed to an artificial bank alongside the river Daugava. A time for celebration for many, in 2023, an established Latvian poet, Liāna Langa, who also happens to be a radically conservative activist, took to the stage in one of the readings, charmingly entitled ‘Classical Poetry Evening’, and earnestly stated: ‘I think, contemporary poetry is very much in decline, because we mostly read poems in free verse.’ Were it a person with no social or symbolic capital, I’d forget what I had just heard, but Langa has worked very hard to garner an audience who will listen to her – sure, most of her followers care little about poetry, but to me, nevertheless, seeing a woman in a position of relative power make categorical generalisations about literature seemed somehow, in ways I will explain, troubling and exposing.

Of course, neither vers libre, nor its critics are new. However, there is the nagging feeling that what Langa said represents a wider dialogue, and that parts of the seemingly unstructured verse in Latvia today are by no means a result of the unskillfulness of poets. It can be seen instead as a decentralized movement that merits engaged reflection. What annoys me personally, though, is not just that the remark is outright factually inaccurate (since we do, in fact, have a plethora of rhyming poetry), but just how oblivious Langa is to being part of the long lineage of gate keeping disguised as dooms-day prophecies. There is a ‘tradition’ of declaring the decline of a culture, of a language, a school of poetry, and it stretches as far back as one has time to use a search engine. In the 1980’s Latvian critic Anda Kubuliņa wrote about how ‘most poetry collections of recent years’ are modest and, as such, are not comparable to earlier masterworks, ‘not because of stylistic monotony, lack of poetic innovations […], but because most of the poets have lost their golden threads that feed and direct the movement of experience, the source of the poem’s energy.’ A ‘lost thread’ is metaphorically a motif that occurs throughout criticism during the Soviet period – a new one for every generation! – sometimes it’s the local poets who are not good enough for the ‘heights’ of social realism, sometimes it is the threatening ‘rot of imperialist capitalism’, sometimes – the whole world, life itself, and ‘the ethical and moral attitudes are slipping downward, humanity is degenerating’. The list goes on – be it the bile- infused criticism of Andrejs Upītis or the scathing satire of Edvarts Virza – our poetry, as well as our culture, it turns out, has been ‘in decline’ at least since the late nineteenth century.

The reason I find such sentiments pertinent to Latvian poetry now is because they are symptomatic of a larger set of ideas that are not to be taken lightly when discussing attitudes towards creative work. This is also by no means a purely local discourse – the great T. S. Eliot wrote, in the mid-twentieth century: ‘We can assert with some confidence that our period is one of decline, that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago, and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.’ The reference to lost standards is part of safeguarding values that are immanent in Western poetics: purity and discipline in metre, phonetically pleasant rhyme, purposeful stylistic figures, dense imagery (just not too dense), capacious metaphors, originality in ideas, in short – masterful form and deep thoughts. Adhering to such values means accepting that, since a poem consists of multiple elements and functions on multiple levels (style, simile, cadence, aptness et al.), the perfect poem must be one that achieves excellence on all of them. Therefore, the poems that fail to reach greatness in every aspect are to be considered artistically weaker, hierarchically lower.

One might suspect that at this point my argument will be that ‘the perfect poem doesn’t exist’, but – that’s just the thing – it does! Several do. Each list of ‘1001 poems to read before you die’ and so on regularly contains multiple benchmarks. Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, if we take it to be one long poem, is a substantial example. It is aesthetically flawless, filled to the brim with poignant comparisons, uses the tools of poetic language to the author’s advantage and delivers a message that is intellectually and emotionally stimulating, theologically significant, politically charged; it is, above all, grand in artistic ambition. So it would make sense that anything aiming lower than the bar set by such poetic heavyweights will inevitably be insufficient. If we are to renounce, say, the strict rhythm or pedantic schemes, we must, or so the thought goes, compensate for the lack of these elements… at least, according to those maintaining standards. My claim is this: the most exciting poetry being written in Latvia today, far from being ‘in decline’, doesn’t just reveal how historically contingent on socially constructed norms the demands for good poetry are, but it comes about from within an entirely different structure of knowledge – materialist, feminist, object-oriented, interdisciplinarity based – and therefore marks a paradigm shift all together.

The European concept of creative writing has historically been rooted in male-dominated practices, and those related to intellectual work, in turn, have much to do with metaphysical idealism. This means that the masculine understanding of a finely written poem will position it as one that lays claim to universality, timelessness, and – in many cases – sovereignty as an artifact. The poetry I enjoy reading daily most in Latvia, on the other hand, greatly deviates away from universality. Furthermore, it does not pretend to be timeless, above time or any of that nonsense. It even, sometimes, refuses to present itself as an artefact that exists outside of a context (a performance, an exhibition, a multi-media project). When Ojārs Vācietis, one of the most well-known Latvian poets of the Soviet period, writes ‘A Piano Concert’ (1971), he does not specify which arrangement is being played; it is, so to speak, the piano concert, the poem tries to be applicable to anyone anywhere, itself a linguistic enactment of the galactic symphony for a solo artist – the reader. Artis Ostups, a contemporary poet who published his latest book, ‘Variations on the Theme of the Moon’ (Neputns) in 2022, writes about Sviatoslav Richter – a unique composer who, according to the press, had ‘the hands of a working man’. Reading Ostups’ poem, I can’t help but think that the only thing missing is a literal hyperlink to the column in which he read about the hero of his lines.

Latvian poetry is steadily moving away from an imagined universality, choosing instead to focus on the particular and the ephemeral. This might be a key difference between Soviet-era writing and today’s. There were, of course, instances of cultivating extreme linguistic specificity, as in the poetry of Juris Kunnoss (1948–1999) or Uldis Bērziņš (1944–2021), but those born after 1985 tend to retain simple and clear vocabulary, developing instead original imagery systems. When I was discussing a stanza by a young and talented poet, within which she used the phrase ‘she is wind’, I asked, ‘how many metres per second?’ In other words, there is a widespread tendency to super-specify: we will rarely see poetry mention a river without explaining which water body exactly, there are no longer any ‘moons’ without describing if it’s a blood moon, blue moon, or harvest moon; no more ‘hearts’ without a medical history. Marts Pujāts, perhaps the most celebrated Latvian poet currently, devoted his entire book of poems, Lady in White Jeans (Neputns 2023), to very concrete geographical locations in Latvia – not just small towns such as Ovīši, Omuļi or Kurmene, but even intersections on highways (as in poems like ‘V1350’, ‘V1398’, ‘V557’ etc.). To me, this suggests a very democratic world view where all of us can interact with each other, and we are all together, but we are never the same, and we can never be ontologically exhausted by our relations. We do, however, try, through poetry, but it does take maximal localisation.

A related tendency is the fusion of genres. For some, poetry no longer exists as a separate form of expression in Latvia, it is in the process of merging with criticism, journalism, and – quite thrillingly – research. Katrīna Rudzīte, also an active feminist critic, recently published a long and heart-breaking poem called ‘tired of political correctness?’, which explores the inaccessibility of both urban and mental infrastructure (i.e. attitude) from the perspective of a visually impaired person, shifting the ending of the poem to broader themes while resounding the refrain ‘I’m tired of…’:

I’m tired of art (that includes feminist and socially active art)
with which I cannot identify
I’m tired of being in my body as an endlessly lonely experience
from the endless whining of intellectuals
about the scourge of political
correctness from the whining of critics that equality
has lowered the bar of aesthetic quality
and brought boring bad art
which is actually not art but social work
I’m tired of the advice to try harder to understand the other side and
…….not take it personally
grow thicker skin
I’m tired of the advice to not be so sensitive and improve your
…….attitude (go to hell)

Rudzīte’s poem uses metaphorical language sparingly, being more akin to an essay or an article; it nevertheless retains poetic rhetoric – repetitions and the occasional idiom, all the while conjuring a striking portrait of modern exhaustion in the face of inequality. But it is not just that she chooses direct language over metaphor to create an intimate conversation with the reader or that she ‘compensates’ for the lack of other elements by being literal. Instead, the poem is, to begin with, written from a position that does not burden the author with the task of comprehensive formal mastery. The ‘task’, if it can be called that, has much more to do with being in between (to use a term borrowed from meta-modernism theoreticians) – between modes and modalities; this also means being cognisant of her language as both an aesthetically autonomous occurrence (as in, say, a romantic sonnet) and political tool (as in, say, a manifesto). These two are not mutually exclusive here.

A stylistically similar publication by Agnese Radziņa encompasses many of the qualities I see in Riga’s poetic vista. They move poetry closer to gonzo-style reviews of their personal and social space through a list of phenomena that moves away from the universal, opting instead for a narrow, subjective slice of non-binarity:

be authentic, Bereal user, I’m not interested in your parties, cause then I
…….want to cry!
be authentic, Bolt app, you always say that the driver will arrive in seven
…….minutes, but he is only in Ķīpsala!
be authentic, one hundred and thirty gram packaging of noodles Maggi
…….fried in Teriyaki sauce, you don’t have two damn portions in you!
be authentic, professor in email, we both know that I submitted
…….the Kandinsky paper three hours after the deadline, the absence of
…….analysis of one work of art is not the only thing wrong with this text!

Here, again, the choice of free verse is not ‘a lesser alternative’ to formally complex writing, it is the default register of the kind of outlook that dismisses heteronormative and patriarchal means of text production. Let’s call this outlook cultural materialism, as opposed to cultural idealism. Cultural material exists in lived experience, it can be proven quantitatively and qualitatively, it is based in empirics, it is diverse. The cultural ideal exists in imagination, it can be proven discursively, it is based in tradition, it is uniform. Cultural matter is factual and practical, the way poverty or discrimination are factual and practical, the ideal is theoretical and abstract, the way a pure national identity is theoretical and abstract. It is the value assigned to embodiment that is at stake in the conversation about current Latvian poetry.

I find that what I would call cultural materialists are writing from a position of inclusion, whereas those whom I would call cultural idealists are, somewhere along the line, exclusionary (speaking of exclusion: my gut tells me that in this deliciously ironic way certain Latvian nationalists have more in common with Soviet Marxists than the modern-day leftists that they emphatically accuse of communism). Rudzīte’s and Radziņa’s examples show that there is a minor wave of poetry that is keenly aware of the need for new and compassionate starting points. Ones that would be concerned with social and tangible reality and what people feel and sense (ah, fingers, greasy from noodles!), and not be concerned with constructing barriers. A materialistic approach to poetry entails the aforementioned super-specificity in representing diverse bodily experience, which leads to there being different perspectives in literature, which leads to more lively and meaningful connections, which leads to – what a surprise! – healthy diversity in both society and, again, poetry.

To speak of ‘decline’ in this context, then, is not just to lament or dislike the use of free verse, it is a cry to stay in power; it is a dismissal of the non-hierarchising nature I see in the creative work of many young poets; it is an endeavour to limit and harness an ever-changing continuum in forced relation to old-fashioned contentions. The new voices emerging in periodicals, readings and book manuscripts, on the other hand, are bringing with them a liberal – a liberating – understanding of what poetry is, can be and will do. In fact, they’re less preoccupied with definitions (if it improves on the blankness of the page, you’re doing it right – that’s all you need to know) and more interested in whether we are generous when decorating the transitory with words.

Consider, in conclusion, a fragment from Patrīcija M. Keiša’s poem ‘true love waits’, published in the June 2022 issue of Newspaper Title, an avant-garde monthly in Riga. The poem was later given a Poem of the Year award, handed out by the editors:

true love waits while in the 5th grade you call your classmate every day
…….for a week to ask what the homework was
true love waits while you won’t have such thin lips compared to your
…….sexy classmate who has thick lips
true love waits while you play erotic online games with your girlfriends
…….at the age of twelve in the family computer room “as a joke” on
true love waits when once on a cloudy summer’s day the sea will
…….somehow seem arousing (and this feeling will never pass)

As Keiša pointed out in our correspondence, the examples I choose to share all make use of an anaphora and all of them flip it on its head by reacting passionately to what the repeated phrase suggests: Katrīna Rudzīte’s retort – ‘if you’re tired of political correctness, then I’m tired of you’; Agnese Radziņa parodies the self-help industry by pointing out the unauthenticity of, well, everything around us; and finally, Keiša responds to the promise of love we are given at childhood by erupting a list of details that are ever so characteristic of her generation and portray the inescapability of coming-of-age banality. But these poets are not just resisting oppressive patriarchy or capitalism semantically, they’re also resisting dated aesthetics through their syntax and style. And in Keiša’s case, as with any good poem, the thematic subject eventually becomes entwined with the very fabric of the artwork itself. In other words, there is a love that waits, and it has been and is being published in Latvia – as well as elsewhere – right now, before our eyes.
Ivars Šteinbergs Ph.D. is a poet, critic and translator from Riga, Latvia. His second book of poetry, Jaunība (Youth, 2022), published by Neputns, received the Annual Latvian Literature Award in 2023. He is a Fulbright grantee (2017–2018), a researcher at the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art of the University of Latvia, and a lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Culture, as well as the recipient of the Normunds Naumanis Annual Award for Criticism (2024) and one of the editors of the literary magazine Strāva (Current). He has translated various foreign poets into Latvian, including Louise Glück, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds and Jan Wagner. His own poetry has appeared in English, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Finnish.

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