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Why we should read...                  

'Vahan Tekeyan' - A confession in poetry
Selected Works
(Library of Armenian Classics, pp239-364, 1981, Yerevan)

Armenian News Network / Groong
September 26, 2002

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Opening his autobiographical 'Confessions' Jean Jacques Rousseau
writes 'I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent and
which once complete will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to
my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall
portray will be my self'. With all the necessary qualifications Vahan
Tekeyan's (1897-1945) poetry is also a 'confession' of this order
marked by a similar intellectual and philosophical depth, emotional
honesty and an indisputable artistic excellence.

Tekeyan's poetic embrace is broad. He delves frankly and painfully
into the traumas of his personal life laying bare his most intimate
emotions and desires and revealing his ambitions, hopes, fears and
failures. He also reflects passionately on those national, social and
political concerns that drove this intensely private man into public
life. He touches besides on the role and function of memory and dream,
the problem of god and faith, human ideals, war and genocide.
Beautifully composed, the result is a vast poetic legacy every reading
of which unveils something new, a new vision or a refreshed perception
or insight.

(Note: A "DDH/MM" following an excerpt indicates translation by Diana
Der Hovannessian and Marzbed Margossian)


I. The poet's mission and his craft

In a poem 'To the Reader' Vahan Tekeyan qualifies the limits of his
confession:

    'My soul is mine alone and however much on every page I appear
    To bare it before unknown passers,
    My soul is mine and none can know it fully
    In all its brilliant lights and its awesome darkness.'

He ends however on a note of regret:

    'Was it necessary to open even so little of myself to so many
    When I wished to give myself completely only to a few.'

Much of Tekeyan's poetry is the story of this regret that tells of a
man rich with emotions and desires whose personal life is nevertheless
condemned to barrenness and unrelieved loneliness. While writing
essentially 'only for myself' Tekeyan was nevertheless 'comforted in
the thought that' these 'songs from my seared soul' could 'serve to
soothe another's heart.' But besides soothing private pains he also
wrote to fire and to inspire resistance to injustice and national
oppression. For this he drew on those 'brilliant lights' that
cohabited with the 'awesome darkness' within him. Lights that were
fuelled by the 'wonderful shining world of dreams' that alone held
'the keys to closed doors'. Lights that were sustained also by
memories of the past 'a single ray of which can light up the present.'

Memory and dream were refuges of hope which he would share with 'all
the wretched of the earth'. Death held no fear so long as 'the healthy
rays of his intellect served' to 'light up darker corners of people's
hearts'. A 'Balance Sheet' reveals his deep generosity of spirit.
Asking what he got from life he writes 'only what I gave away,
extraordinary, only that; what went to others returned sweetened and
strengthened to rest with me eternally.'  (DDH/MM)

Some poetry can be discussed in terms of its content - its ideas,
emotions and vision - without significant reference to poetic
technique. Not so with Vahan Tekeyan. Here form and content are an
integral, indivisible whole. The intellectual and emotional depth of
his best poetry derives from this almost matchless harmony of form and
content. Tekeyan communicates not through logical exposition of ideas
but through poetic form. His fine intellect, his vision and refined
sensitivity are sculpted with loving care and attention to language,
word, metaphor, synonym, image, rhyme and rhythm. Understanding the
power of the word, 'one often sufficient to open entire horizons', his
labour 'on each and every word and syllable consumed his being.'

The result is regularly remarkable. Fertility of imagination and
sophisticated craftsmanship gives the profusion of metaphors and
images an unusual richness and colour. Even well trodden themes
acquire an originality that enhances and refines them. Tekeyan evokes
emotion, sensation and feeling with an almost lived immediacy,
reproducing them as it were, unmediated, without filtering them
through the reason and logic of hindsight. He succeeds in seducing the
reader into a magical experience by rendering into language that which
seemed beyond expression or by making conscious what normally slumbers
in the subconscious.

The centrality of technique to Tekeyan's poetry makes a discussion in
English substantially unsatisfactory. For lack of adequate translation
it is almost impossible to demonstrate poetic accomplishment through
quotation. But persevere one must, for perhaps even a single spark
that survives even the poorest translation may serve to inspire some
to return to the originals. Or perhaps even inspire others to demand
from modern poets fitting renditions into English or other foreign
languages.


II. An extraordinary odyssey of personal pain

Vahan Tekeyan's private, personal life was scarred by immeasurable
loneliness and disillusionment. 'Vultures snatched my childhood
dreams/and all my beliefs sunk deep into the waters of the sea'. At
the core of his drama was a 'thirst for a love that remained forever
unquenched'. It was an impossible love, an impermissible love. So it
was love that only exhausted and wasted.

    'This infinite tragedy will endure
    And none will hear of it or see it
    And in my own darkness I shall slowly fade and waste.'

The speculation, sometimes sordid, on the nature of Tekeyan's love is
immaterial to the value of his poetry which tells of all noble love
forbidden through the ages for whatever reactionary social, moral or
religious reason. This love was 'like a secret garden concealed by
flowers'. Some may have seen its 'smoke upon the infinite sky' but
never did 'they see its flame.' Recording the lover's name, richly
re-created 'by your beauty and my love', is also imossible, even in a
coded language such as that used by Sayat Nova in similar straits. So
those who inspired his 'greatest joy and greatest grief' will never
know of it:

    'I have loved, but none of those I loved
    Knew how deeply I loved... who can fathom the heart?'

Occasionally this gentle, tender, almost wistfully resigned sufferance
bursts forth in a flood of frustrated agony and rage. Possessed by an
'unquenchable storm of destruction' the poet's love becomes as a
'wandering bird' that neither 'nests nor rests', a bird that endlessly
'claws away at the wounds of its shattered wings.' Love becomes a
hell, a 'dark, silent endless cave', whose floor is 'strewn with
skulls of countless lambs.' In 'So This Is It' the cup of life flows
over with bitterness and despair:

    'Now like a miserable beggar
    I am forced to plead for my daily nourishment of love
    And finding it none I scavenge through rubbish dumps
    For anything that will ease my need.
    ...
    Not even my own mother knew or asked
    How I managed to endure, how I managed to nourish my soul
    None have suffered divine cruelty like I have.'

Yet miraculously beyond this pain Tekeyan's poetry also grasps love in
its joyous fullness. He depicts universal love, dissolved down to its
defining elements. These he presents in images that seem to capture
irrefutable, self-evident truths we feel but have hitherto found no
words to express.  Whatever he reflects on, whether a lover's name,
eye, hair, Tekeyan's poems touch on and illuminate an essential
dimension of love's eternal wonder and delight.  The 'two syllables
alone' of the lover's name are like 'a whole scripture' that is
recited endlessly, but by him always 'behind closed doors'. The
lover's eyes and voice are like 'a chain which, ring by ring, encircle
me' and 'trembling I am enslaved.' In a beautiful image of blossoming
love:

    'my eyes are flooded with so much love, desire and tenderness
    that s/he is slowed in her approach
    as if before a flood of light.'

When in love physical attributes become at the same time
manifestations of emotion and spirit:

    'The dizzying aroma from your hair that touches my mouth
    Is like incense rising to me from your soul.'

Tekeyan's love poetry is not marked by overt sexuality. But some
resonate with the melancholy of unfulfilled passion. As the poet's
'every single thought' centres on his lover, his own blood 'freezes
at the thought that you only but think about me.' Physical desire is
however ephemeral, but:

    'Your soul, that I got to know so well,
    Lives within me concealed,
    It is my saint
    and in its honour my thoughts are endless celebrations.'

Beyond love in the silence of the endless 'Open Sea', as he leaves
behind the cluster of islands where he could have anchored, Tekeyan
creates a haunting metaphor for the loneliness in the wake of life's
failed relationships. The bitter regret of childlessness in 'The
Punishment' is echoed in 'To My Son'.  Denied the joy of experiencing
'my child rising as I bent' exhausted by life:

    'I now go from strangers' door to door
    ...
    searching the eyes of other people's children
    ...
    for those of my little boy.'  (DDH/MM)

But he never will find his little boy and will die alone 'unknown, a
stranger.' Meanwhile age grows upon him to become 'a vast tree whose
trunk/blocks behind it my entire horizon'.

Still Tekeyan never threw in the towel. In 'To Battle', a true
masterpiece, he summons 'old hopes abandoned by the wayside to return
to me one by one'.  These, his 'undecorated yet brave troops from
countless previous expeditions', he urges on once again 'into the
uneven battle... against evil, lies and hypocrisies.'


III. For Society and Nation

Despite unrelieved personal unhappiness Vahan Tekeyan's life was a
dedication to the enlightenment and liberation of the Armenian people.
To them in 'thought and in action he offered up the best yield of his
soul'. He raged against a god that allowed 'the weak, including (his)
own son, to always fall wounded, their nakedness covered with a cloak
of their own blood.' Reminding us directly of Rousseau he notes how
'The Battle for Gold' has 'transformed life's joys into pain and its
ambitions into wounds'. So the poet:

    'Like a flash of lightning hurls himself into the midst of the battle
    To seize the pile of gold and return it to nature.'

For Tekeyan the World War of 1914-1918 and the Armenian genocide
marked the death of 'man's great Dream' of 'love and brotherhood'; a
dream that expressed 'the godliness of humanity.' While his social
poems despite optimistically reflecting grand humanist sentiments lack
genuine poetic flight. His national poetry is of an altogether
different order. Poems such as 'Ode to the Armenian Language', 'The
Temple of Zvartnotz', 'Svedia', 'We Will Forget', 'The Orphans'
Hands', 'The Bridge' and many others are as fine and as profoundly
touching and enlightening as any of literature's best.

These poems are protests against injustice and celebrations of human
wisdom, culture, civilisation, language and resistance. Tekeyan's
intensely personal and intimate feeling for the march of Armenian
history makes his love of the Armenian nation a love of people. He
rarely refers to the reified 'nation'.  Contemplating revival and
recovery his focus is never the abstract 'people' but particular,
concrete living, suffering, struggling beings - orphans, fathers,
sons, mothers, babies. His imagery always concrete and fixed in
conditions of everyday life frees these poems of all rhetorical
sloganeering.


'In these dark times' Tekeyan's sought to 'be a bridge' to transmit
from ancient epochs those features of Armenian culture and
civilisation that could act as inspiration 'to save the nation'
today. In an ode to the pagan 'Temple of Zvartnotz' he etched the
terrible contrast between ancient pride and current servitude. It is
an urging to get off one's knees. Once in the temple whose ruins now
rest:

    'beneath centuries of dust
    Those who were free fathers to us today
    Knelt forth, side by side, humbling themselves,
    But still they never failed to each time stand erect.

    Yet today, around this ruined temple I see
    ...
    Their offspring, permanently bowed, always grim
    Lord, free them too, for the sake of their forefathers.'

This and other poems that look to the past consider the cultural and
moral heritage that can be drawn on in the struggle for national
liberation. The 1915 Armenian genocide dashed this dream and branded
Tekeyan's poetry with anger and a vengeful hatred. Calling for a
rejection of heavenly paradise as recompense he scolds God:

    'Keep your paradise for the Turk
    Us, return us again to hell
    The hell we know so well
    The hell you taught us to know so well.'

Man's crime against man has 'fashioned the orphan's hands into
swords.' Hands that 'hardly recall the warmth of a father's palm/that
once covered them both when still tiny paws' have become 'fists' and
'flags that race to a victory'..

Yet beyond the hatred and the revenge Tekeyan also sees the 'Day That
Will Come' when 'man will be equal to man, in pleasure and of course
in pain too/.../When the chain will be to transmit not to constrain'.
When that day arrives 'all those of my race dispersed across the
globe/who now sleep in graves and in cots / will awake to joyfully
proclaim / from roof to roof from grave to grave, father to son, son to
father / that one can rest in peace and the other bloom safely.'
This vision is well expressed in Victor Howe's foreword to an English
version of Vahan Tekeyan's poems translated by Diana Der Hovanessian
and Marzbed Margossian. Tekeyan's poetry he comments: 'is nourished by
the kind of millennial vision that nourishes the great apocalyptic
poets, the Miltions, the Shelleys, the Schillers, a vision of
tomorrow, when the Lord will send his wisdom and his kindness to the
legions of the tortured and the damned. Not in Heaven, not in
Paradise, but on earth.  Tekeyan dreams of the day when God will
'plant love in the eyes of today's/and tomorrow's mighty.../Let the
fortress of egos,/ that huge barricade crumble. And let every
treasure/ go to every man...'

    'Let every garden
    gate be open. But let no flower be crushed
    No single branch fall.'  (DDH/MM)

Vahan Tekeyan survived the genocide. Remaining true to his principle
that:

    'The saddest thing in life
    Because the most scornful
    Is not its passing but its
    Standing stationery in its old place.'

He continued as political activist and poet into old age and death in
1945.  'Ode to the Sun' a late poem, written in 1941, that seems to
revisit pagan themes popular among pre-Genocide western Armenian poets
is a fitting epitaph to one who never succumbed.

    'In the evening, in the shadows, I sing to the sun
    That has created the dark by its absence
    Like the face of God, Sun, you are far
    From touch, but near enough to feel.

    I sing to you from the dark of night
    that you make when you depart.
    Like god who also creates evil
    When he forgets us, you create the dark world.

    But I sing to you the new sun,
    From this deep night that engulfs
    A world of souls,

    As I wait for the strength and light
    That will break when you crack
    This harsh dark.' (DDH/MM)


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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.

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