The history of Ukrainian poetry can be divided into three major periods, made all the more distinct by sharp discontinuities between them. Underlying and producing these discontinuities are profound shifts in Ukrainian society; not only do basic political and social structures disappear, to be replaced by entirely new ones, but, at least until the modern period, Ukrainian literary and historical consciousness does not succeed in bridging these changes.
The first period, from the beginnings in the 10th-11th c. to roughly the 14th c., coincides largely with the lit. of Kievan Rus’, which by general consensus is taken as the common patrimony of the East Slavs—the Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and Russians. The second, middle period, from the late 16th to the late 18th cs., reflects primarily the poetics of the baroque and witnesses a flowering of U. lit. and culture, even though later the bookish and church-dominated character of this lit. came to be seen as a fatal flaw, given 19th-c. U. sociopolitical development, and the entire period underestimated or even dismissed from the canon. The third period, from the beginning of the 19th c. to the present, coincides with the birth of the modern U. nation and the emergence of contemp. literary U. based on the vernacular. Because of the strong populist current underlying this political and cultural revival, the idea and content of “U. lit.” was often identified, throughout the 19th and even into the 20th c., with this third period alone.
(Skip very, very far forward to the 19th c.)
Generally, poetry in the latter half of the 19th c was strained by the weight of perceived realist obligations and, more concretely, by official Rus. edicts of 1863 and 1876 banning the publication and importation of U. books...
The period of modernism, generally from the 1890s to World War I, witnessed the differentiation of the U. literary marketplace and the emergence of poetry for a more select public. One of the first to turn to European and universal historical and philosophical themes was Larysa Kosac-Kvitka (pen name, Lesja Ukrajinka; 1872–1913); her drama (much more than her lyric poetry) serves to establish these concerns in U. p. Her masterpiece, The Forest Song, draws its inspiration from folklore and psychological introspection.
On the eve of World War I there appeared the symbolist poetry of Oleksandr Oles’ (1878–1944), Mykola Voronyj (1871–1942), and Mykola Filjan-s’kyj (1873–1938), an anticipation of the outstanding poet of the 20th c—Pavlo Tychyna (1891–1967). At first a symbolist and spirited supporter of the U. national revolution, and at the end of his life an orthodox spokesman for the Soviet system, Tychyna underwent a complex evolution, but in his early and mature poetry, at least, remains the most innovative and influential poetic voice of his time.
In the 1920s, with the establishment of Soviet rule in Ukraine and esp. the official policy of “Ukrainization”, U. lit. for the first time since the 17th c enjoyed the support of a state; its growth and energy were spectacular, as manifested in the proliferation of separate movements, particularly the neoclassicists...; and the futurists... Adding to the variety, ferment, and sheer breadth of expression of U. p. in the 1920s and early ‘30s were the constructivists (e.g. Valerjan Polishchuk), neoro-mantics (e.g. Oleksa Vlyz’ko), and others who belonged to no formal organization or movement—such as Jevhen Pluzhnyk or esp. Volo-dymyr Svidzins’kyj (1885–1941), master of lyrical, almost mystical introspection.
But by the 1930s the Stalinist terror had crushed the national and cultural revival, and hundreds of writers perished in camps and purges. With Soviet U. p. reduced to silence or the empty rhet. of paeans to Stalin and the Party..., the poetic scene shifted to western Ukraine, then under Poland, or to Poland itself, and Czechoslovakia, where various poets and writers had emigrated, fleeing the Bolsheviks...
Immediately after World War II, U. p. had a short period of intense activity in the emigration, beginning with the Displaced Person camps in Germany, where long-repressed energies came to fruition in a multitude of publications. ...The highpoint of U. emigré poetry, however, was the informal “New York Group” that arose in the late 1950s and lasted to the early 1970s.
Most significantly, however, the liberalization of Soviet society then political collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s had a profound and positive effect on the general climate of U. p.—in its rehabilitation of victims of repression and of historical memory as such, in its galvanization of various established poets, in its reassertion of the social and historical role of U. p., and above all in its facilitation of the emergence of a new generation of poets in the U. republic.
- A 4-year-old reads a very brief, very beautiful poem in Ukrainian.
- Viktor Neborak reads in a very animated style his poetry at Penn State, which his translator then hilariously attempts to approximate while reading in English.
- A large collection of Ukranian Poetica can be found on this online library.
- Oksana Zabuzhko has her own fancy schmancy website, and she can write in all genres.
- Oksana Zabuzko also gives a very helpful talk about the evolution of Ukrainian literature and her own book of prose, starting with pointing out the Ukraine on the map.
Points to Ponder for the Poems this Week:
- Drinking seems to be a heavily recurring theme amongst the poems of the Ukraine ("Alcohaiku," "Jamaica the Cossack," "Alcohol"). In what ways might these poems be read as about intoxication? As ars poeticas (arses poetica?) on the intoxicating nature of writing poetry?
- The Belarus and especially Ukrainian poetry seem particularly interested in poetry establishing place. Think of the wide range of settings occuring in the Ukrainian section alone (Hotel Central, Kreschchatyk Boulevard, Cafe Francois, subways, rivers). Some of these locations are literal, others may be read as figurative. As foreign readers, do these place names and location discussions help to ground us in the culture or distance us from our ability to read the poems as universal?
- The body has always been a popular theme of poetry, and the Ukraine references blood, shit (no bloody bat shit, though), tears, drinking, spasms, death, laughter, vomit, birth and a flying severed head. How do we respond to these very human presentations of the body? Are they merely advancing the literary grotesque? Are we humbled or exhalted for these functions our bodies can perform? Is the body, in other words, being celebrated or critiqued?