One of the most controversial figures in modern Russian poetry, Gennadi Aygi is often considered a difficult poet. Some readers and critics admire his works; more than once he has been nominated for the Nobel prize; and his books have been published in more than 20 languages. Others blame Aygi for poetic illiteracy.
Aygi, born in Chuvashia on the Volga in 1934, studied at teacher training college and then at the Literary Institute in Moscow from which he was expelled for his friendship with Pasternak. His first poems were written in Chuvash, a Turkic language completely different from Russian. Pasternak persuaded him to write in Russian.
After his expulsion from the institute and the Komsomol, he joined the Moscow creative underground during the Khrushchev "thaw" and thus earned a reputation as a nonconformist poet, writing in a nonacademic, nontraditional manner. Aygi did not publish his works in the Soviet Union but, from the early 1960s, his poems began to appear in foreign publications. While this could not win him the approval of Soviet officials, it contributed to Aygi's reputation as a dissident, especially after the publication of his poems in the emigre journal Kontinent in 1975.
With the coming of perestroika, his works began to appear in Russia. In the 1990s, several bilingual editions of his poetry, including Polish, German and French ones, appeared abroad. Veronica's Book, translated by Peter France, was published in Britain in 1989, followed in 1995 by an English-Russian bilingual edition of Salute to Singing.
The latest book, Selected Poems: 1954-94, also translated by French, is considerably different from previous publications in covering a long period of creative work. It gives the reader a vivid picture of the development of Aygi's poetic forms on the one hand and their remarkable continuity on the other.
Aygi's poetry cannot be placed in the mainstream of Russian poetic tradition with such glorious names as Pushkin, Lermontov, Blok, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Brodsky. He belongs, rather, to a separate branch of the Russian poetic tree along with the early 20th-century modernists and futurists, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Velimir Khlebnikov, Vasili Kamensky and Aleksey Kruchonykh.
In his 1962 poem, "Kazimir Malevich", Aygi pays tribute to Malevich, Khlebnikov and Daniil Kharms, a Russian avant-garde poet of the 1920s, all of whom were a source of inspiration. The Russian avant-garde in general influenced Aygi's outlook and style greatly; colours in his verse resemble colour studies by Malevich, with white being dominant. In 1962, Aygi wrote: "praise to the colour white - god's presence." And in 1978 he wrote this short poem for the centenary of Malevich: "with knowledge of white
of a man far off
over whiteness of snow
as with an invisible banner".
The image of the whiteness, as well as images of quietness, silk, snow, roses and fields, which in Chuvash folk tradition symbolises freedom, are paramount in Aygi's poetry, showing that its roots are not only in European modernism but in Chuvash culture too.
No one can read Aygi for the first time without being struck by the strangeness of his style. His vocabulary is very limited, he disregards all norms of Russian syntax and many metaphors are trite. Aygi appears to ignore traditional Russian prosodic patterns - and yet he manages to create remarkably vivid poetic images. In his free verse, rhythmical patterns formed by words and combination of vowels and consonants become extremely important. His layout, using a lot of white space on every page, serves to emphasise the all-permeating images of "whiteness".
Aygi is often compared with Gerard Manley Hopkins, but such comparisons seem to be only partly true. Like Hopkins he is a "nature poet" who experiments with language, sometimes violating its norms. But Hopkins makes greater use of different elements of European poetic tradition.
To call Aygi a great poet, as some scholars and critics do, would be unjust to Russian poetic tradition. But he is definitely an outstanding and original poet, and an interesting event in modern Russian and European poetry.
A word of congratulation to Peter France on his very good translations, which recreate in English all the subtleties of this difficult verse. Accompanying articles help the reader to understand better the peculiarity of Aygi's style. This book should not remain unnoticed by lovers of modern poetry.
Dmitri Antonov is director of studies, Russian Language Experience, London.
Selected Poems: 1954-94
Author - Gennady Aygi
ISBN - 0 946162 59 X
Publisher - Angel Books
Price - £11.95
Pages - 238