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The Critical Corner - 02/28/2011

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Why we should read...

    `Selected Works' by Hovanness Hovannissian
    (392pp, Yerevan, Armenia, 1959)

					       Azat Yeghiazaryan and Family,
					    Always generous with hospitality
				  Always a fount of intellectual inspiration

Armenian News Network / Groong
February 28, 2011

by Eddie Arnavoudian

The Urgent Wisdom of Hovanness Hovannissian

In his own lifetime poet Hovanness Hovannissian (1864-1929) was
universally acclaimed. When his `lyre first sounded' writes fellow
poet Avetik Issahakian (1875-1957), `the youthful world was
stunned... His poetry brought us the freshness of spring, life and
authenticity.' Novelist Stepan Zorian (1889-1967) agreed. For him too,
Hovannissian was `fresh, authentic and seductive'. Beautiful poems in
the idiom of folk song also enchanted Komitas (1869-1935) that genius
of modern Armenian music. Doyen of Armenian literary history, Manouk
Abeghian (1865-1944) summarised that `to a sterile eastern Armenian
poetic stage... Hovannissian had brought a new, more perfectly
fashioned sensibility'.
Posthumous judgement however has not been generous. Acknowledged as a
pathfinder for his day, Hovannissian is today deemed secondary. Almost
forgotten, he is abandoned to histories, often denied accommodation
even in anthologies. This is both harsh and unjust. For all his limits
Hovannissian still takes us on a journey of realisation, tracing an
ordinary life with its private desires and personal turmoil, in times
of oppression, exploitation and war. He is not as are Charents or
Whitman, explosive, expansive or flamboyant. But at his own supreme
his poetry also has an urgent wisdom and particularly so for our own
days plagued by selfish individualism.
Credited with overriding patriotic poetic templates, Hovannissian was
greeted as revolutionary for an unprecedented embracing of personal
experience generally absent from eastern Armenian poetry, for touching
passions and sensibilities of love, loneliness, hope, mortality and
also moments of inner being that shape perception and expectation.
This he certainly did, and in the particular manner of his doing his
poetry retains a powerful resonance. Contrary to tenets of our
`post-modern' thought Hovannissian does not oppose private desire to
social dedication, hedonism to public duty. Embracing the private
individual he challenges also `the deprivation, the want, the
oppressive chains of servitude' that he cannot fail to see all around.
Authentic life requires a more complete form of being, a moulding of
private, individual ambition and social vision. Personal love cannot
be complete in isolation, when it shuns collective solidarity.  To be
truly human it is indeed necessary to `unearth and awaken, unabashed
and without reservation' those `slumbering senses', `glimmering gems'
and `infinite loves' that lie `buried beneath waves', `in the depths
our hearts.' But in the same measure it is necessary to `sound the
roaring trumpet' to `shake hearts, awaken the sleeping' and `give
fighting courage to the weak.'

I. `Two roads open before me'

Hovannissian possessed a precocious feel for life's finiteness, for
its frailty, for the rapidity of its wearing. Some fine passages alert
us to the hammer of time that wastes and crumbles all before it. But
equally sharp are the passions for pleasure and desire. To enjoy all
that life offers it must be lived in the fast lane:

    `Don't delay young friend, pay generously your dues to delight,
    To life's laughing, golden days, pay while Time's consuming hand
    Has yet to cut its grooves across your face (p22)
Seize the time for soon enthusiasms will fade, passions will cool and
`worn hearts' will only sound `a feeble moan' `before the final
storm.'  Yet even as one partakes of life's `laughing days' one
cannot, without betraying one's essential being look indifferently
upon this cruel and unjust world:

    `Where a single tree of happiness rises upon ten ruins
    Where a single sound of laughter blossoms from the tears of hundreds'
`Gazing ahead', the poet cannot fail to see `two opposing roads', one
of individual, self-gratification, the other of self-sacrificing
dedication to others. One is `blessed by the heavens' and `leads to a
glorious world of love in constant spring'. The other `comes out into
a desert' where the common people live in `evil dark' and `deprived by
thieving fortune' are crushed `like insects' `by gold-plated arms of
steel'. The poet is no cardboard hero. In deep thought' and of `unsure
step' he prevaricates. Not for him the inauthentic oppositions of
posturing patriotic or revolutionary declamation that valiantly
surrenders personal pleasures of love and desire to a self-sacrificing
social asceticism. In its stead Hovannissian offers a resolution of
these apparently irreconcilable oppositions into a higher, more
authentic human form of being.
Life cannot, without painful distortion, sacrifice personal love and
passion, and of these the poet dreams and sings with an original
mastery of the vitality, colour and easy flow of folk song, free of
rhetoric, affectation and forced imagery. The poet cannot but love and
love completely so that when `god chooses me to die':

    `Let me come close
    Embrace you,
    Kiss you one last time
    Then go hanged from your tangled silken hair.
    No life could ever match such death.
Yet pulled by the urgency of time and human essence to personal
fulfilment he cannot ignore social injustice. He will not passively:
`Bow before the powerful and glorious, Before these idols fed on
In a world `burnt by the flames of a thousand-tongued misery' the poet
cannot but retain a `corner of his heart's impossible depths' for
`another love', `a love of fellow men and women' before whom a
`stonehearted world has shut the gates of ease.' With tyranny and
oppression `laying waste the land worked by honest toil', genuine love
is not possible without collective dedication. In beautiful almost
biblical images the poet further appeals to his beloved, indeed urges
as a condition of genuine mutual love, to join her in struggle:

    `Give me your love untainted
    Let me take it to that valley of woe
    Perhaps there it will wipe away
    Tears from pained eyes and
    Grief from worn faces.
The bond of private love sealed thus by social dedication is beyond
fragmentation and compartmentalisation. It becomes a richer harmony of
life's journey. This insistence on the unity and oneness of individual
love and collective solidarity is more than an affirmation born of an
abstract moral sensibility. The `categorical imperative' of social
solidarity flows from a recognition that individuals even as
individuals remain integrally, organically bound to all other men and
In `Gently gurgling' that is a dialogue in traditional folk style,
between the river waters and trees on the river banks, the trees cry
out to the speeding waters `not to run beyond this wondrous point'.
`Halt, enjoy sweet hours whilst the sun smiles upon you.'  Standing
high, they see `beyond the hill', there where `river waters run
muddy'. There it is `another land..., a valley of blood.' The river is
not tempted. Personal love and pleasure that is blind to the suffering
of others is not an option. It is less than human for the springs on
the other side are of the river's own essence, its kith and kin, `my
very own brothers and sisters'. So clashing `against the banks, wave
upon wave' it moves on its way. To do otherwise, to abandon one's kith
and kin would be to sink to the level of the egotistical individualism
and cruel hedonism of the pampered elites whom Hovannissian lashed in
`They Say'.
Hovannissian was revolted by the privileged who `do not wish to see
tears or hear pain', who demand of the poet to cease `telling of a
sighing heart' and `endless suffering'. They `want only pleasures',
only `carefree hours and spirited song.' They spend their lives
`revelling in mindless pleasures' and possess `neither noble feeling,
nor even a glimmer of clear love.' Nothing decent in life can be
expected from such selfish men indifferent to `brothers and sisters
who have been offered no tenderness from life'. Against them the poet
puts his faith in `coming generations that will:

    `Ruthlessly judge and condemn the criminal and
    Burn the face of the privileged with shame'
They will:

    Come onto the stage of fatal battle
    Dip pens in poison and
    Without mercy judge the criminal.
Forceful as the indignant energy for battle is in these couplets they
reveal at the same time a notably undefined, too general and
rhetorical political vision that marks Hovannissian's poetry of social
protest. There is no urging to organisation, to the barricades, no
suggestion of social or national vision as one will find in Varoujean
and Charents. This does diminish impact, but as weakness it is at the
same time balanced by searing images of social and political injustice
and inequality that reappear through his poetry and even more so by a
striking delineation of a humanist Utopia constructed through
recollections of childhood and youth. More than just wistful
remembrance of `the clear blue skies of a past', these memories become
metaphors freedom and emancipation from unjust society. They signify
joy, ease and release from alienated life. In childhood and youth
there yet exists that untarnished beautiful human essence that is
later devastated by corrupt social and national relations. For as long
as men and women fail to recover this essence, to recreate as social
life the Utopia of Childhood, it is self-betrayal to abjure social
Even as he departed from the patriotic preoccupations of poets such as
Kamar Katiba, Shabaz and others Hovannissian was not indifferent to
the national struggle and to national culture. Both are scrutinised
with an original pen, with noteworthy takes on Armenian history and on
the Armenian artistic and cultural legacy. `The Prince of Syounik',
`On the shores of Dghmoud', `The Soldier's Death' are sharp with
criticism of the romantic idealisations of the ancient nobility.  The
first radically suggesting that the traditionally honoured Armenian
elites are as culpable for Armenian misfortunes as was the traitorous
Prince Vassak of Syounik. Besides, these poems also drive passionately
to shake Armenians out of that fatal passivity into which they have
been ground by centuries of foreign oppression.
On another level `Ruin' tells of `the bold remnants of our fore
fathers', of their `noble arts', of `royal glory'. But it does not do
this in the orthodox tradition, as a reminder of vanished glory to be
recovered. In the style of Shelly's Ozymandias, ancient ruins
represent a philosophical truth, testifying to the transitory nature
of all things and all lives. All and everything, just as have these
remnants, `will become `victim to heartless nature.' Likewise the myth
of `Ardavast' locked in a dark mountain dungeon with his dogs seeking
to gnaw away his chains, is used to subtly note that any struggle
against tyranny is of value only if it can be secured against abuse by
new elites. If it is not, then the tyrant may as well return to roam
and pillage. The point is not lost with Tunisia and Egypt in mind, and
of course modern Armenia too were post-Soviet `liberty' and
`emancipation' became slogans behind which new elites behaved little
differently to Mubarak and Ben Ali.

II. `Spread your blanket of gold across my field'

Love and passion bonded together with assaults on social injustice and
selfish egoism unfold impressively through Hovannissian's work. Indeed
to fully appreciate it, it is necessary to read his work in its
entirety, as an epic story travelling across heights but through
troughs too, touched by marvels of magic but also blocked in streams
of the commonplace. Nevertheless some seven or eight of Hovannissian's
finest - `The Troubador', `Autumn', `The Village Church', `The Grain
of Weat' among them - are almost perfect in construction and effect
and stand independent with a whole volume of substance and meaning.
Among these, `The Village Church' and `The Grain of Wheat' are in
brilliant brevity deeply realistic and defining portraits of the rural
Armenian social landscape with its hardy, impoverished and exploited
peasantry working arid land with scarce water. Recalling Toumanian's
`The Song of the Plough' and Varoujean's `Song of Bread' both are rich
with the drama of life and refreshing reaffirmations of human
dependence on land and on animal and of the centrality of human labour
in the realisation of social and individual hope and expectation.
Mother and daughter hurry to `The Village Church' to pray for release
from the grasping usurer who has already broken up the family forcing
its father to leave home in search of money to pay off debts. At risk
is a single cow that alone separates the family from hunger and
destitution. It helps to plough the field for their bread, it yields,
milk, butter and cheese for their table. It is this cow the greedy
usurer eyes `Quick, bring me the money! What! You haven't got it? So
bring out the cow from its shed.' In `The Grain of Wheat' a lone
peasant in silent communion with a single grain of wheat prepares to
`bury it beneath' land he has `torn open with his sharp hoe'. A whole
form and tone of being and expectation is opened up. Burying the grain
the peasant hopes that with it his woes `will disappear and die
beneath the ground'.  There `tended to by the land' the grain will,
`God willing' `bud, green and then `cover my field with the waves of a
golden sheet' so that `my shattered heart can gain an easy sleep'.
In Armenian literature there are not many such intense and precise
evocations of the dramas and sensibilities of the common people
completed in these poems with a measure of the peasant's pragmatic,
essentially secular, material attitude to religion and Church. On
hearing church bells chime mother and daughter speed away from their
field. It is time to pray `Hurry Nazlu' mother urges daughter, `let us
to Church, your voice god will hear' and so `will not leave us without
our cow and without our daily bread.' The peasant sowing his field
also prays for rains to fertilise fields that contain all his hope for
ease and rest. Some dull hacks saw in such images an uncritical
reproduction of peasants gripped by irrational prejudice. For them,
the mere noting of `god' and `Church' in literature called forth their
automatic bureaucratic denunciation.
For Hovannissian it would of course have been bizarre to ignore church
and religion so central to rural life. He does not however just
reproduce subjugation to mysticism. Religion and faith organised by
the official Church were indeed very powerful instruments of social
and ideological control whose dictates the masses did bend to. But for
the peasant faith and devotion was never just subjection to Church
authority or mere metaphysical vehicles on which they hoped to travel
to paradise. Faith and religion were also significant emotional
embodiments of their terrestrial hopes, of their own material efforts,
their own human labour. Mother and child speed to church to fortify
hopes born of their personal hard labour on their fields and of the
father's journey in search of work. The sewer prays to his god for
rain but simultaneously defies him with his own labour power, his own
potential to work and create.

    `If for my sins I prove undeserving'
    I shall transform into water
    The hot sweat of my sun beaten brow
    So that I do not leave you, my grain, thirsty.'
Beyond the bonds that tie men and women to land and nature `Autumn' in
its contemplation of nature's ever recurring seasonal cycles, is a
human dream for that palpable immortality with which nature appears
blessed. Sat gazing out upon mountains heights the poet is captivated
by drifting desiccated autumn leaves. Witness to `nature's silent rest
and grand mystery his heart `weeps uncomplainingly' as it grasps that
nature's death in autumn and winter followed by resurrection in spring
is `of another kind' of death to that of men and women's where once
`enfolded by the tomb we depart eternally never to return.'  Beholding
the view:

    `My blood warms within
    As I gaze upon a mournful autumn picture.
    I rejoice with visions of spring!
    Immortality is no illusion!
And so the urge for unity with the grandness beheld:

    Let me rest in your fold, my soul at ease
    I want to be one with you, mother nature'
In a later poem this desire for oneness becomes a Derianesque search
for refuge, as the poet `lonely, always, always alone' seeks out
nature as a safe harbour. Into it he wills to vanish, becoming `a
clear cloud in the sky drifting and `melting into its eternal blue'.
As Hovannissian's time goes by the gloom that forced retreat was to
become more intense, enduring and pervasive.

III. `Once a paradise now a wasteland... oh my heart!'

Even in earliest youth, Hovanness Hovannissian was afflicted by
painful unease in the face of his early premonitions of mortality. One
detects anxiousness, a fear of the damage, of the wounds and the
abysses that threaten him as he embarks on life.  As the years roll on
these accumulate and transform into an all engulfing nightmarish
desolation and pessimism. `My heart' he writes was `once a paradise.
Now it is wasteland!' Age and time have drained the reservoirs of
dreams, hope and energies. Vanished `the burning desires for
pleasures', vanished too the `heart's thrilling seductions' so
`generous in flower of youth.' By 1910 Hovannissian appears to us
enfolded in an unforgiving cloud of bitterness, regret, loss and
hopelessness. The Utopia of Childhood is never to be reached. It has
become salt that rubs itself into the wounds of life. Poetry, now with
art and technique more accomplished, takes us into the lonely core of
his being, into:

    `The four walls of my miserable room that
    Enclose me as in a dark coffin
In this `distant lonely tomb', he has `become a lifeless corpse'. Scant
data does not permit confident biographical explanations. But certainly
a part must have been played by the pain of personal tragedy following
the early death of his beloved sister in 1894.  So must have that
abiding sense of frustration and regret as time steadily wasted his
artistic and intellectual talents. A man of singular and outstanding
artistic and intellectual ability, a poet but also a dedicated
teacher, an expert on European literature, on Shakespeare and a
prolific translator he was unable to fulfil his creative potentials.
In 1882 he graduated from Moscow University and, dedicated to the
national good, returned to Armenia. For this he paid a heavy price. His
return was the beginning of a funeral procession for his artistic and
intellectual abilities and creativity. An 1892 letter tells of the
asphyxiating Armenian milieu:

    `In this terrible atmosphere, in this disgusting milieu, there is
    hardly a moment that I can lift my pen... yes my dear, though it is
    very, very late and of no consequence, I am nevertheless come to
    the view that for a writer, for a man of letters to remain in such
    stifling circles is akin to being buried alive.'
Some 24 years later, in 1916, he explains why he has not been as
prolific as his talents merited:

    `...for the 28 years after I finished my academic studies, day and
    night I have been compelled to worry about earning a crust of
    bread, that in our conditions cannot be obtained by writing. So
    unavoidably I engaged in literary creativity only in my spare
    time... as an amateur.'
Hovannissian's life was not eased during the First Armenian
Republic. In 1920 Vrtanness Papazian writes that, unable to feed his
family, the poet's pleas for help from Etchmiadizin, to which he had
devoted his life, were turned down despite the Church's `coffers being
full'. For having collaborated with Stepan Shaumyan during the 1918
Baku Commune Hovannissian was subjected to house arrest by the ARF
during its February Uprising against Soviet power. Though he welcomed
the eventual Soviet triumph greeted so enthusiastically by Charents,
Derian, Toumanian and others, it failed to lift Hovannissian's
creative spirits and in 1922, he writes:

    The cranes gathered
    Row upon row and flew off
    Oh my golden dreams
    My autumn has come - where have they flown.
During his last years the poet was however spared utter misery.
Granted a pension by the Soviet Armenian Republic he was able to tend
to his pigeons and garden whilst the new generation headed by Charents
took the literary lead. Hovannissian's poetic career had been short
with limited output in the later years. But despite his suffered
withdrawal, the best of his poetry always rose above the darkest pits
of his own melancholies and remains to offer us clear and powerful

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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