Latvian poetry - preserving lifelines to cultural identity

LATVIANS like poetry. If there were an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the greatest number of folk songs and poems, Latvia would surely win, says Imants Auzins, a 50-year-old poet living in Riga. Like a number of other Latvian writers, Mr. Auzins is preoccupied with preserving Latvia's poetic wealth and sharing it with the outside world. Today, he believes, Latvian poetry is stronger than Russian and can compete on a European level.

In an introduction to one of the collections of his work, Auzins writes that, for his generation - Latvians whose childhood was spent in war - ``poetry was and remained the main source of beauty and the major art.'' His was also almost the last generation of Latvians to grow up in the rural milieu that created folk songs, he points out.

Now ``a new interest is being shown in public poetry readings,'' he said when interviewed in his Riga apartment late last year. On Latvia's ``day of poetry,'' held every year in September, large crowds gather to hear their poets read.

Latvian is a dense language full of wordplay. Its rhythms are difficult to translate, the poet explains. But a group of translators in the Latvian Union of Writers is working to produce Russian-language collections of several major poets.

A collection of long-suppressed poems and ballads by free-verse practitioner Alexander Chaks is to be issued this year, first in Latvian and later in Russian. Chaks, who has been compared by his translators to Paul Eluard and Pablo Neruda, began writing about urban themes in the 1930s, when Latvia was an independent republic. The poems that remained unpublished are, ironically, about the Latvian riflemen who fought on the side of the Bolsheviks in 1917. They form one of Chaks's major works, according to Auzins.

Auzins says that a two-volume collection of Latvian poetry in Russian was issued in a printing of 5,000 copies in 1984. Now out of print, it has become a rarity. Even the printing plates were thrown out.

``We can't even give any away from our translators union,'' he apologizes. (Literaturnaya Gazeta announced early this year that the Latvian Writers' Union will soon have its own printing house.)

Maintaining their cultural identity is especially important to Latvians, who as a result of heavy Russian migration into the republic during the '60s and '70s, now form about three-fifths of its population. Numbering in all about 1.5 million, the Latvians started earlier than the Russians to publish some of their writers in exile.

Even before glasnost became the style, for example, the poet Velta Toma, who left for Canada at the time of World War II, was published in Riga. Janis Jaunsudrabins, described as a Latvian Bunin, who like Chaks wrote about Riga in the '30s, was an 'emigr'e to Germany who died in 1962. His works, too, are now available in Latvia.

For Auzins, poetry appears to be a way to reunify and reconcile Latvians. Many families had sons fighting on both sides during World War II, he says. By the time the war was over, he claims, one-third of the prewar Latvian population had disappeared. Many had emigrated, many were killed or died in prison camps.

``If you went to a funeral in the countryside during the '60s,'' he explains, ``you could always meet people who had been in the German camps, and others who had been deported to Soviet camps.''

A poem he wrote about these scars in Latvian society was finally published last May (and in Russian last October). He had finished writing it in 1970, but since it speaks about the deportations of Latvians to Siberia on the eve of, and after, the war, it remained in his drawer.

Titled ``Sunday: a Poem with Songs, Old and New,'' it uses the voices of peasants - dead and living - to recall the tragedies that befell their village. Krish, for example, who joined up with the German Army as a young man, reminisces about his trial after the war, when Latvia had become a Soviet republic:

``Betrayal of the homeland. Maybe it was clearer to those judges than to me then.... Just try to figure out who was against the homeland and who was with her. You remember? We had half-a-dozen of these same homelands....'' His monologue ends with this folk refrain: ``The millstones of my fate grind, grind, grind....''

Auzins' father and several other relatives were imprisoned by the Germans during the war. His uncle was shot. His father had worked in a Soviet organization but was not a member of the Communist Party or a professional revolutionary, the poet claims. His hope is that Latvians from different pasts will eventually be reconciled.

``But I think it will take another 50 years,'' he says.

Sophie Quinn-Judge is a free-lance writer living in the Soviet Union.

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