Ukrainian Poetry from Another Era

March 18, 2022



Ukrainian poetry has been flourishing in English in recent years, but it’s worth revisiting volumes that appeared in the last three decades of the 20th century. Although most, if not all, are long out of print, they can still be accessed through public and university libraries or purchased at used bookstores. These titles present vibrant poetic voices, showcasing a wide array of techniques, forms, and themes, and their translators include a number of significant American poets.

 




Only one collection of poems featured on this list is by a poet who lived in the interwar period. The rest are by poets who wrote roughly between the late 1950s and early 1990s. Many of the poets were banned from publication in their native Ukraine throughout most of this period. Some were official, published poets who had to maneuver carefully in order to stay out of trouble. Two of the poets moved to the United States after World War II and worked in a totally different environment, with access to various traditions and canons that were completely off limits for Ukrainian Soviet poets. Taken together, they present a rich, varied picture of Ukrainian poetry and English poetic translation in the second half of the 20th century.

 



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Bohdan Ihor Antonych, Square of Angels, translated by Mark Rudman, Paul Nemser and Bohdan Boychuk, introduction by Bohdan Rubchak (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1977).


 

Bohdan Ihor Antonych (1909-1937), originally from what is now eastern Poland, spent the most fruitful years of his short life in Lviv, where he attended a local university and published his work. The three collections of his poems that appeared during his lifetime, as well as two published posthumously, show a self-made modernist as comfortable writing about nature and metaphysical questions as he was capturing the powerful rhythms of urban life.


 

Ivan Drach, Orchard Lamps, edited and introduced by Stanley Kunitz, translated by Daniel Halpern, Stanley Kunitz, Paul Nemser, Mark Rudman, Paula Schwartz, Gregory Orr, and Carol Muske (New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 1978).


 

Ivan Drach (1936-2018) was one of the key poets of the generation known as the shestydesiatnyky — the people of the ’60s. In this early period, Drach was known for his experimentation, vivid structural freshness, and thematic diversity. His poems manifested a radical quest for escape from the dominant official genre of socialist realism. This translation project was carried out under the auspices of Stanley Kunitz, who invited his MFA students to work on translations along with the emigre poet Bohdan Boychuk.


 




Yuriy Tarnawsky, This is How I Get Well, translated by the author (Suchasnist, 1978).




 

A member of the New York Group of poets, Yuriy Tarnawsky (b. 1934) has been zigzagging between Ukrainian and English in his writing throughout most of his literary career. This collection lays bare the linguistic bifurcation an exiled author frequently faces. Published in a dual-language format, it presents the poet as an avant-gardist in intensive dialogues with multiple European and South American traditions and in relentless pursuit of stylistic and formal innovation.

 




Vasyl Stus, Selected Poems, translated and edited by Jaropolk Lassowsky, introduction by George Y. Shevelov (Munich: Ukrainian Free University, 1987).




 

Born in Donbas, Vasyl Stus (1938-1985) was one of the most significant voices in 20th-century Ukrainian poetry. He took a political stance against aggressive Soviet cultural policies and was arrested during the 1968 crackdown on Ukrainian writers, spending much of the rest of his life in captivity. Yet his poems range widely and freely. As George Shevelov points out in his critical introduction, Stus’s work is “thoroughly human and humane[,] full of exaltation and abasement, of despair and joy, of malediction and compassion, of shouts of pain and gnashing teeth, and of retreats into one’s self and discoveries therein of the universe’s boundlessness.”

 




Bohdan Boychuk, Memories of Love: Selected Poems, translated by David Ignatow, Mark Rudman, and Bohdan Boychuk (New York: Sheep Meadow Press, 1989).




 

In his last major cooperation with American poets David Ignatow and Mark Rudman, Bohdan Boychuk (1927-2017), who moved to the United States in 1949 and settled in New York, served as an interlocutor for his own poetry. Translated as rhythmic prose poems and verse libre, these pieces are divided into four parts and convincingly convey, as one critic put it, the “testimony of a troubled survivor.” The poet’s voice is sharp and straightforward, yet emotionally deep — both when he talks about the destruction of the Jews in his hometown and when he deals with eternal questions of love, home, and displacement.

 




Lina Kostenko, Selected Poetry: Wanderings of the Heart, translated with an afterword by Michael Naydan (New York: Garland Publishing, 1990).




 

Lina Kostenko (b. 1930), another influential poet belonging to the generation of shestydesiatnyky, wrote most of the poems included in this collection during the two short periods of cultural “Thaw” after Stalin’s death. Featuring over 90 poems from the poet’s first three collections, and other poems written between the 1950s and 1960s, the book gives readers a sense of Kostenko’s impressive arsenal of themes and tones. The voice changes from one collection to another, but remains always vibrant and unexpected, free of the obligatory clichés that filled the official poetry of previous decades.

 




Ihor Kalynets, Crowning the Scarecrow: Appeals to Conscience in Lviv 1968-1969, translated by Marco Carynnyk (Toronto: Exile Editions, 1990).




 

When Ihor Kalynets (b. 1939) debuted in the 1960s, his verse was almost immediately censored. Officially silenced for many decades, he continued to write, and his poems were circulated in samizdat in Ukraine and published in tamizdat in the West. Quite heavily influenced by Bohdan Ihor Antonych, as well as by other modernists of the 1920s, Kalynets experiments formally yet shows a profound interest in cultural roots.

 




Vasyl Holoborodko, Icarus with Butterfly Wings, translated by Myrosia Stefaniuk (Toronto: Exile Editions, 1991).




 

Vasyl Holoborodko (b. 1945) is a representative of the 1970s generation and a poet who belonged to the unofficial Kyiv School of Poetry. His verse is melancholic, intellectual, hermeneutic, but, at the same time, radiates tranquility. One can read it as a sustained search for solace. Though he was able to publish between 1963 and 1969, Holoborodko then faced harsh Soviet censorship and didn’t see his work in print again until 1988.

 




Mykola Vorobiov, Wild Dog Rose Moon, translated by Myrosia Stefaniuk (Toronto: Exile Editions, 1991).




 

Mykola Vorobiov (b. 1941), a poet and artist, also belonged to the unofficial Kyiv School and is typically listed as a representative of the 1970s generation. Like other poets belonging to that generation, he was not officially accepted or published until perestroika. The driving element in his poetry is imagination, and his dense imagery and surreal metaphors are endlessly captivating.

 




Oksana Zabuzhko, A Kingdom of Fallen Statues: Poems and Essays, edited by Marco Carynnyk, translated by Marco Carynnyk, Askold Melnyczuk, Michael M. Naydan, Wana Phipps, Lisa Sapinkopf, Douglas Burnet Smith, and Virlana Tkacz (Toronto: Wellspring, 1996).




 

A major contemporary poet, and quite possibly the strongest feminist voice of her generation, Oksana Zabuzhko (b. 1960) is also a fiction writer, essayist, and translator. Although diverse in its themes, the poet’s first English-language collection questions the role and responsibility of Ukrainian authors, situating them in a broader cultural context. Some of the poems are direct responses to calamities and tragedies that happened in 20th-century Ukrainian history.

 




Oleh Lysheha, Selected Poems, translated by James Brasfield and the author, introduction by George Grabowicz (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 1999).


 

Oleh Lysheha (1949-2014) was often considered the “poets’ poet” of contemporary Ukraine. Not published until the late 1980s, Lysheha’s work is interesting for several reasons. It may appear direct and simple, easy to follow and engage with, but it builds peculiar effects over time. His strategy, the scholar George Grabowicz asserts, is “to weave his experiences, and feelings, and questions in patterns so subtle that they still remain as mysterious as when they were first written.”