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The Critical Corner - 03/23/2009

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Armenian News Network / Groong
By Eddie Arnavoudian

March 23, 2009


The Armenian medieval poets were not prolific or if they were, little
appears to have survived from their work. (`Appears' is here
appropriate as there remain thousands of manuscripts still to be
researched for possible poetic discoveries) Together with the
smallness of the body of poetry, certain common features they share -
the underlined secularisation of content, the predominance of homage
to nature and love, and that in idioms that draw heavily on and are
even defined by aspects of commonly inherited popular folk song and
poetry - all these seem to dim the distinctions between the poets -
without of course reducing the pleasure in their reading.

Close reading does however reveal the unique in approaches,
appreciations and evaluations. In the case of Hovanness Tlgouratzi, a
singer and composer as well as poet individuality is striking and even
extraordinary. Soviet era commentators have noted one feature of this
distinctiveness in Tlgouratzi's explicitly secular poetry that, unlike
Gostantin Yerzengatzi's, does not deploy quasi religious or
allegorical forms to express his wonder in the colour and beauty of
nature and the human form. This perhaps puts Tlgouratzi at the head of
any register of artistic quality. But though deserving of this
position it does not yet say anything about the most exciting, and for
its times perhaps scandalous, dimension of his art.

Tlgouratzi sings the praises of nature's beauty and that of men and
women in energetic poetry that with its dancing rhythm certainly
equals the vitality and playfulness of Gostantin Yerzengatzi. But as
if to underline the strength of human passions, the magnetism of
physical beauty, the force of love, in one poem after another
Tlgouratzi shows men of the Church succumbing to sensual delights
despite their religious devotion. Verging on the blasphemous he writes
of `the hundred year old priest whose once white shining face, is now
jaundiced' and yet who `tears away from his robes for mass and wants
you before his cross.' Thus he affirms the force of a living, earthy
love that has the power to storm the bastions even of those searching
for heavenly delight and that breaks down all spiritual walls guarding
against carnal temptation. `He or she, who is visited by love, burns
brighter than fire.' At such moments `no prayer comes to mind, neither
does he/she wish to read the psalms or preach.' Here there is poetry
that shows that even the driest, hardest heart can yet be turned to
life through love. In this poetry there is additionally the implicit
criticism of Church servants who despite professions of godly devotion
were not averse to indulging in the pleasures of the flesh.

In their discussion of the emergence of Armenian secular poetry Soviet
era commentators sometimes revealed a shocking lack of imagination. An
instance is evident in E Bivasian, an otherwise honourable and
critically acute compiler and editor of Tlgouratzi's legacy. Bivazian
makes the amazing claim that there is nothing sensual or carnal in
Tlgouratzi's love poetry. This is belied by even the most cursory
reading of poetry where the lover urges the beloved `to consume my
heart with your kiss.' Throughout one encounters images, metaphors and
descriptions of the physical beauty of the human form and in
particular that of the woman's with a `body that drives one to
distraction', with her `rich mouth' and `breasts adorned with white
roses'. It is belied in the expression of delight felt in the human
embrace that is likened to a garden of immortality, in beauty that
opens itself up as a garden rich with plant and flower. Tlgouratzi's
poems further sing to love's capacity to rejuvenate even the aged and
it does so in unmistakeably sensual terms. `Whosoever embraces your
firm waist, will remain greener than the evergreen tree.'

Tlgouratzi is, one should add, unique in another respect too. He wrote
two epic poems devoted to Armenian Cilician prince Libarid and to
Narek that together with his love poetry and poetry of proper moral
conduct adds to the value of his legacy.


Though there is no need to, one could fruitfully remark on affinities
between Krikoris of Akhtamar and the great English metaphysical poet
John Donne. Both were men of the Church, Krikoris himself an
archbishop (Catholicos) who traced his ancestry to the ancient
Armenian Ardzrouni noble family. Like John Donne Kirkoris was also a
poet, with a marvelous and excitingly allegorical creativity that he
put to the service of the praise of nature and of love as well the
moral counsel of his readers. Kirkoris was in addition a noted scribe
and miniature painter. But his troubled times gave him no permanent
abode or rest and so he was forced to write and paint along the many
stops of a life of endless migration.

Krikoris strikes one as the most accomplished of Armenian medieval
poets, at least in one respect. He captures individual sensibility,
individual emotion, delight, despair, desire and expectation in a
manner singularly distinct from his predecessors. Prior to him we see
the unfolding of the world of nature, of human passions and of secular
and national experience in medieval poetry. But none did so with the
remarkably individual imaginative originality displayed by Krikoris,
an originality that creates a unique individual vision, constructs a
world and life with a unique individual angle and this with images and
metaphors, descriptions and narrative that are poetically magical.

Krikoris's beloved as she `walks and moves with steady pace, produces
a garden everywhere she halts'. The lover's look can melt it is
said...and Akhtamartzi in his own fashion tells of how `whosoever
looks at you, whosoever your eye catches with its glance becomes like
wax, never mind that he or she may be of steel or stone'.  When the
poet's beloved is remote or his love unrequited then even `the light
of the sun appears as darkness' and cannot warm the cold of his
heart. He is reduced to the state of an `owl among the ruins.' But
when filled with hope the poet is `drunk, in daytime with the sun, and
at night with my dreams.'

There is a simplicity and clarity to Krikoris's language and in his
accumulation of images that gives his poetry an enduring
freshness. The simplicity of context and significance allows flowers
and birds, the trees and the hills, the fruit and the root to shine
through in all their vitality. In the relations and dialogues that he
divines between the nightingale and the rose he reproduces human
passions, needs and longings as well as human love requited and
unrequited. These poems display dramatic development in a tense
journey as lover searches for beloved. They come with striking images
of fear that the beloved has fallen victim to disaster and angry
images of devastation to be visited upon those that seek to deny the
lovers' union.

Nazim Hikmet wrote that he wanted his poetry to express the lives and
experience of people of all ages, young or old. If not in intent,
certainly in their result Kirkoris's poetry is of a similar order.
Mayis Avtalbekian who has collected and published Akhtamartzi's legacy
notes the excellence of his allegorical verse that successfully
combines into an organic whole the ode to nature, the plea to a lover,
and the praise to his lord. In their perfect abstraction his poetry
can be read by the heartfelt lover, the struggling patriot, the
blighted emigrant or the devout beseecher of god and that without any
hint of incongruity or jarring.

Medieval poets generally issued a steady stream of warnings of divine
retribution for those who surrender to the pleasures of nature and
flesh. With some this is merely formal genuflection to the religious
spirit of the times, perhaps an attempt to avoid inviting official
condemnation, with others it can be seen as a challenge to the vision
of the Church that in their poetry appears as dark and grim compared
to depictions of life's delight. In Krikor of Akhtmar, Avtalbekian
notes, reference to divine punishment becomes a contemplation of
existential tragedy, of the finiteness of life, of the transitory
character of the pleasures of love and nature. So perhaps it is also
in the fashion of Pushkin or Toumanian counsel to enjoy life on earth
to the full.

Read Part One:

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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