: Poetry Today: Tomas Venclova :

Primary tabs

an excerpt by John Taylor


The Junction: Selected Poems by Tomas Venclova, translated by Ellen Hinsey, Constantine Rusanov, and Diana Senechal, Bloodaxe (distributed in the United States by Dufour), 168 pp., $23.95.


For readers who have wandered long and far among formally ambitious or eccentric kinds of contemporary poetry, the verse of Tomas Venclova (b. 1937) may resound like a solemn summons. No experimentation looms in the forefront. If the translations gathered in The Junction, a representative offering of the Lithuanian's output since the 1990s, accurately mirror the originals (as they surely do), then Venclova's craft is simply, and stunningly, accomplished in the traditional or historical sense of the term. One takes Ellen Hinsey at her word when she explains in her excellent introduction that the original “poems employ … variations on metrical schemes, intricate rhyme strategies and other resources from poetry's inheritance.” She and her fellow translators, Constantine Rusanov and Diana Senechal, who have signed their versions individually, not as co-translators, indeed fashion superb English poems. About half of the volume consists of uncollected renderings of Venclova's verse, while Senechal's translations, first gathered as Winter Dialogue (Northwestern University Press, 1997), are republished here in sometimes revised versions.

Venclova is an outstanding European poet, essayist, and travel writer in the tradition of Czeslaw Milosz (and other Poles) as well as Joseph Brodsky (who became his close friend) and other Russians descending, in literary spirit, from Anna Akhmatova. As an aspiring poet, he managed to meet the poet ofRequiem and recalls the “weeds beneath [her] balcony, which was / inscribed of old with gilded letters:Deus conservat omnia.” He became acquainted with Boris Pasternak as well. Venclova has himself rendered into Lithuanian the work of T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Charles Baudelaire, and Osip Mandelstam. As a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University since 1985, he has also penned criticism, notably a pioneering biography, in English, of the seminal Polish poet, novelist, and thinker Aleksander Wat, whose political lucidity can be likened to his own. Some of Venclova's essays are available in Forms of Hope (Sheep Meadow, 1999), and his book about his hometown, Vilnius, has also been issued by Sheep Meadow Press.