Discussing the “New Epic” in Contemporary Russian Poetry
In an interview with “Vrijj Nederlands” in 1982 describing Russian poetry, Joseph Brodsky mentioned that in his opinion, there were only two outstanding poets left (Eugenii Rein and Yurii Kublanovsky – E.D.): “but whatever will happen with Russia in the future, it will always have new literature, simply because of the Russian language. Russian is that kind of language, that it’s impossible to cease the existence of literature in this language. Literature continues regardless of what people do” (1).
Some thirty years later, with the situation being one of an ongoing crisis of individual lyric expression, we are indeed seeing a notable new tendency in contemporary Russian literature: a growing interest in non-lyric poetry (non-linear expression) that critics have called a “revival of narrative poetry” or epic narrative. Often it is described as a “new epic,” which has become a new literary phenomenon in the 21st century (2).
(c) Alexander Borisenko
What is a “new epic” and how does it differ from an “old epic’?
One of the founders and the creator of the term “new epic,” Feodor Svarovsky, assesses the current state of Russian poetry as a continuous crisis of first-person lyric expression (or linear poetic reflection). In his opinion, the long line of Russian lyric poets that originated in the Silver Age was focused mostly on the inner world of their heroes. Svarovsky argued that it is simply not enough for modern literature and described it as a crisis of traditional direct lyric expression, evident also in European literature in general. It coincided with Ilya Kikulkin’s opinion that the “’poetic I’ appeared infantile and vulnerable and had lost any vestiges of the heroic” (3). Svarovsky pointed out a way out of this crisis: a new paradigm of poetic utterance – a narrative poetry without the author’s presence or emotional reflection. According to Svarovsky, “the author of the new epic poem recounts not his own, but other people’s experiences, words, actions and circumstances” (4).
In his notable “New Epic” manifesto in 2007, Feodor Svarovsky explained: “I have long felt the impossibility of writing in the modernist paradigm of the 20th century predetermined by the authors of Silver Age and then continued by the authors of the beginning-mid 20th century as direct lyric expression…I don’t believe in a crisis of meaning… It is simply that after the secularization, after the crisis of humanism and establishment of the postmodernist approach to culture that took place in the 20th century, the personal linear expression (by which I mean the author’s expression of individual’s feelings, thoughts and experiences) is not effective anymore for the achievement any significant aesthetic effect… What needs to be done for words to acquire their previous importance? I think we need to change the type of author expression” (5).
By this Svarovsky suggests a change of focus from the lyric hero to “whatever is organizing the existence outside the author’s personal experience, feelings, etc. But what is it? The answer depends on the author’s and readers’ religious and philosophical views. It could be Fate, Providence, Destiny, unknown powers or even well known powers that govern life”.
In his opinion, the difference between the “new epic” and the “old” is that the traditional epic narrative described heroic events that occurred in the past and influenced lives, which could be real events. But the “new epic” suggests that what lies beneath all these events is always an unknown power, and it could happen anywhere (in space, in the past, in the future, in the imagination). An author’s goal is to cause an emotional, aesthetic, intellectual contemplation “on these transcendental powers” by describing these events without interpretation
Svetlana Gudkova described several distinct features of “new epic” work: the synthesis of prose and poetry for the sake of creating an enthralling plot with many acting heroes, whose fate depends on some transcendent power; the absence of the author’s presence or his or her narrative voice; the occurrence of supernatural powers; the marginal and trivial heroes; incorporation in the poetic text of many cultural symbols and clichés from traditional ballads, folklore, classical literature, and even borrowing storylines from famous serials (6).
All of this sound like complete phantasmagoria, and indeed the new epical forms often are rhymed long stories (poems or ballads) with a fascinating and constantly developing plot or series of bizarre events. The authors’ presumption of the poetic story as life itself is beyond readers’ comprehension, which shifts the focus to more complicated, metaphysical processes. Readers can only guess at the nature of these processes, or what powers are behind the heroic actions of marginal heroes.
The “new epic” is flourishing and developing into a leading tendency in Russian poetry
According to Svarovsky and Rovinsky, a large group of contemporary Russian poets can be considered as contributing to the “new epic” movement. Among them Linor Goralik, Sergei Kruglov, Maria Stepanova, Andrei Rodionov, Arsenii Rovincky, Boris Khersonsky, Pavel Goldin and others (7). This group of unambiguously talented authors is diverse and uses differing poetic tools, from quasi-folklore to historical chronicles to create enthralling stories in verse.
This short essay introduces in particular the works of two popular poets: Sergei Kruglov (Narodnie pesni) and Maria Stepanova ( Proza Ivana Sidorova). Both poets are widely read in Russia. Their poetry shows the distinctive features of a new epic movement, even though their poetic personalities are different.
Sergei Kruglov represents a rare combination: a poet-priest. After graduating from Krasnoyarsk University, he worked as a reporter for the local newspaper in Siberia. In 1999, Kruglov was ordained as a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church. His first Live Journal publications caught the interest of the public by their combination of great poetic gift and his strong Orthodox spirituality. In 2008 he won the Andrei Bely Prize for The Mirror (Зеркальце, 2007) and The Typist (Переписчик, 2008). The echo of Orthodox Christian philosophical thinking is evident in his work:
The smoke of prayers
Rising here and there over Russia!
Crawling, blending into a dark storm cloud,
They sprout lightning, they thunder, they howl fearsomely
Clash powerfully —
What a battle of prayers raging
Above the country! How it swirls,
No worse than the sparkling juicy battles of Uccello!
No, the Lord sighs bitterly, the analogy with a painting is inappropriate —
These are real people after all,
Here they squabble in such a non-picturesque fashion,
Pushing each other aside, trying to climb closer to Me,
Heads and hands seething
In the cauldron of this perpetually boiling country!
Excerpt from Nathan and the Elections of the Ruler.
Tr. by Vitally Chernetsky (8)
Kruglov’s Folk Songs (Народные песни, 2010) are variations on traditional Russian folk stories and songs and introduce well known (for Russians) personages. What makes his narrative poems unusual is the ability to bring both the “tragic” and “beautiful co-existence of God and our neighbors”(ближние) into his poetic expression. Kruglov is well aware of his mission. In his hypostasis of a priest, Fr. Sergei is concerned with the “low, rejected, smoky, sore sky of/our life” flowing into “oblivion”. He believes that “transformation in lives is always the manifestation of the mercy of the Lord, incomprehensible to humans “(9). The poet Sergei Kruglov successfully brings his sacred knowledge to readers through vibrant polyphonic narrative.
Re-telling the folk stories in his own words, Kruglov masterfully incorporates motifs of Russian folklore in verses. One of them is Russian Fairy Tale (Русская Сkазка) – a quasi-folklore poem with classical Russian fairy-tale characters: Sirin-Bird (Птица Сирин), Nav-Morevna (Навь Моревна ( 10) etc.
In the poem, the story describes how the evil personages of Russian fairy tales from a book that is forgotten on the rainy terrace intrude into the imagination of a little girl. They threaten to conquer the beautiful August night and destroy the peaceful world around her. Even it is only in the child’s imagination, an almighty power stands as a protector. The epic confrontation between good and evil may be real or just in the imagination of the little girl – the author does not make a distinction. For the author, it is important that the final triumph of goodness over evil spirits is a manifestation of the inconceivable love of the Lord.
Птицу Сирин в небесах молнией сразило,
Пала – и течёт
Мёдом лета позднего.
Костяные лики лет щелку отворили,
Смотрят: не пора ли? –
Цепи ржавы, гроб хрустальный
Кровью вытечет на дно
Голубое наше злато, дымное, берёзовое! –
Милая, не плачь, не бойся –
Костяная навь морочит,
В чёрных гранях душной ночи
На террасе деревянной, в сад, распахнутый дождём,
Среди туч – забыта книга,
Колокольный звон берёз
Осень-Волхв пояла, скрыла
В кладях памяти, в пещерах, в тридесятых тронных залах, -
Навь-Моревна торжествует, яблоки роняет сад!..
Спи, не бойся, доченька!
Помнишь, как там в сказке дальше:
«Жила-была мертвая царевна…» -
Дождь стихает, гроб висит,
Август-Зеркальце разбилось: нет
На свете краше, выше, глубже, постоянней,
Нет страшней и безысходней, слёзней, обречённей
Этой ночи в августе,
Этих мест и этой речи,
Страшно мёртвой вживе, сказочной, последней, -
Спи. Выходят семеро,
На руках несут царевну; плывет месяц-кладенец;
Серебро течёт и тает; небо любит нас;
Спи, моя хорошая.
( Sirin-bird was struck by lightning in the skies
She fell down and flowed
Like late summer honey.
The bony faces of years opened a crack
looked: was it their time?
Rusty chains, a crystal coffin
would clap and crack,
they would flow to the bottom like blood.
Our gold is blue, it’s smoky birch!
Dear, do not cry, and do not worry.
In the black edges of sweltering nights
evil spirits would fool us.
On a wooden terrace in a garden washed
by rain under the clouds
a book was left forgotten.
Birches were ringing as bells.
Fall-Magus sang, and hid
in its memory’s treasures as in a cave.
Do you hear the laughter? –
It’s in a far away kingdom’s chambers
The garden drops its apples!
Sleep, fear not, my little daughter!
Remember how the story continues:
“There once was a dead princess…” –
The rain subsides, the coffin hangs
August-Mirror shatters – there is
no other night in the world more beautiful, higher, deeper, permanent
terrible, hopeless, tearful, or doomed
than this August night,
than this place and these words. /
The frightening and marvelous dead is now alive
Go to sleep. Seven come out,
in their arms they carry the princess.
Silver flows and melts; heaven loves us.
Sleep, my darling.)
Translated by Elena Dimov
A Hero, the Black Hen, and a Sleeping Girl in a Russian Provincial City
By Dmitrii Kuzmin.gallery.vavilon.ru
Maria Stepanova is a prominent author and an editor of web-portal Colta.ru. Her acclaimed The Prose of Ivan Sidorov also includes the activity of quite different powers that bore resemblance to Bulgakov’s devilry. In 2007, Stepanova published The Prose of Ivan Sidorov (Проза Ивана Сидорова) on her blog in Live Journal under the name of Ivan Sidorov – hence the title (12). It immediately caused a stir among Russian critics and readers alike. Her poem became a hit and was staged in theatre in November 2007. One year later it was published and has since then become the representative example of “new epic” poetry.
Its title “Prose” indicates that it is a story-in-verses, or the synthesis of prose and poetic text. Mark Lipovetsky call it a “verse narrative” (13) and described it as a “roundelay” (хоровод) of a modern phantasmagoria. Ghouls-criminals, the Black Hen from Pogorelsky’s story Tale of the Black Hen and Bulgakov’s motifs, as well as a mystic-cop series merge into “one muddy lump”(14) in a story where the undertone is the agonizing guilt of the main character Aleosha.
So what is it about this story that attracts the attention of readers? The story is at first too incredible to take seriously.
In a small provincial Russian city, the phantasmagoria starts one winter night with a half-drunk man coming off the train into the train station. The quiet, dreamy life of a provincial town is transformed when the main hero appears, the marginal Aleosha. Readers do not know anything about his prior life, but it is clear that some traumatic experience has brought him there.
“In the provincial town, so to speak,
but in a low-minded way
with white steep cliffs,
with on-shore over the giant strides,
with the tubes of heavy industry,
with women, similar to the touch
like bottles with tight tops, arrives a drunken man.
The city, say, under the Snowy Shroud. The lights are off.
Carefully-painted, fences are dark, and even in the square there are no cops”.
The adventures start when the drunken Aleosha finds a sleeping girl and the black hen in a waiting room, and brings them to a small hut: “ In a waiting room a screaming hen runs across./In the glass doors emerges a night patrol./ A sleeping girl – below the steering medium-sized adult bike –/and where is her mother? and who is she, trash?’
During the course of events in the poem, Aleosha becomes the central point of bizarre events involving a gang of supernatural criminals and the police. The following events describe the violent clashes between the supernatural criminal powers led by the Black Hen, and the Moscow police forces (МУР). The modern day setting is suddenly interrupted by powers beyond the comprehension of the heroes or readers. The personages become mere elements in unpredictable processes, real or imaginary, and the narrative moves into a metaphysical space.
Aleosha is by no means a true hero: when the police forces arrive in the small house to arrest a band of supernatural criminals led by the Black Hen, all of its inhabitants are hiding under the bed. By the will of an unnamed power, Aleosha transforms into a cockerel, but he bravely protects the Black Hen in prison. All of heroes are saved at the end, but during the supernatural gang’s party with their leader, the Black Hen, there is the appearance of the beautiful Major Kantariya from the Moscow police forces looking for her lost daughter:
“Rocking on black, smartly styled heels,
a beauty comes out of the shadows, with a gun in her hands,
and holding two targets in one sight,
she says: “Whoa, gangsters!
I am Major Kantariya from the Moscow MUR,
it’s done, and I reached my goal.
Hands behind your back, stay facing the wall.
I have a special price for your lives,
but I put them to an end
if those who are here
will not return to me here and now
At the end, Aleosha was saved from evil spirits and had a final chance to talk to his dead wife, who was incarnated as the Black Hen. Their conversation gives a final closure for Aleosha’s guilt and grief. The Black Hen then ascends to heaven, leaving Aleosha on this earth to proceed with his life.
The synopsis of this story reveals a modern ballad (it was even compared to a popular TV series “Место встречи изменить нельзя “). But behind the post-modernist absurdity is a story about lost love and guilt, as well as about all conquering mother’s love for her child. The tragic person of Major Kantariya in a search of lost child became one unforgettable symbol in the poem:
“They left in a hurry like this: in front there was
a beauty with her daughter pressed to her chest,
and wrapped in a warm cloth.
Behind them left an angry man,
and the hen looked away from the basket
like a nail, not packed to the cap.
They wandered on white, and then went through the blue,
and from the hill they looked back, like a single soul:
at inanimate cops near abandoned house,
who were standing in the winter dusk,
without breathing in the snow dust”
The transformation of the Black Hen into Aleosha’s dead wife, her asking supernatural forces to return the girl to Kantariya, the tragic and magnificent monologue of the “invisible power’ at the end of the poem completely change our perception of the poem. We understand that at this moment the girl by her mother’s love is returned from another world.
© Alexander Borisenko
Stepanova synthesizes timeless emotions and ideas of human fate with symbols of pop culture and modern folklore. Through the appeal to readers’ imagination and using recognizable cultural symbols and the surroundings of the Russian provincial city, Stepanova succeeds in creating a modern day epic story about the eternal search for happiness and forgiveness. Like a hundred years before, provincial Russia continues to be a place where the idea of humanity grows through chaos and despair.
1. Yosif Brodsky. Bol’shaia kniga interv’yu. M.: Zakharov, 2000, p. 199
2. Svarovsky F. Neskol’ko slov o novom epose. Zhurnal RETs: Novyi epos, 44 (June 2007), http://www.polutona.ru/rets/rets44.pdf
3. Kukulkin Ilya, NLO, 2002, p.275.
4. Svarovsky F., Neskol’ko slov o novom epose. Zhurnal RETs: Novyi epos, 44 (June 2007), http://www.polutona.ru/rets/rets44.pdf
6. Gudkova S. New Tendencies in Contemporary Poetry: Artistic Species of M.Stepanovs’s Book “The Prose of Ivan Sidorov”. Izvestiia Rossiiskogo Gosudarstvennogo Pedagogicheskogo Universiteta im.Gertsena. 2009, n.118, pp.12-15.
7.Svarovsky F. Ibid.
8. Sergei Kruglov.Tr. by Vitaly Chernetsky. Jacket 36. Late 2008. A free internet literary magazine http://jacketmagazine.com/36/rus-kruglov-trb-chernetsky.shtml
9. Viazmitinova l. Ipostasi Sergeia Kruglova. NLO., 2011, n.110. http://www.litkarta.ru/dossier/o-knige-devushki-pojut/dossier_4278/view_print/
10. Навь Моревна ( or прекрасная Марья Моревна - пленница Кащея ) is one of the most ancient and mythic goddesses in traditional Slavic beliefs. Sometimes she is a pagan-goddess in the image of tall woman with long hair, sometimes a beautiful girl in white. She is not only a nightmare from the palace of Kaschei, but the personification of fate, responsible for changes in human lives.
11. Kruglov S. Narodnye pesni. M.:Zentr sovremennoi literatury. 2010. 116 p.
12. Stepanova M. Proza Ivana Sidorova. M.2008. 74 p. http://www.vavilon.ru/texts/stepanova6.html
13. Lipovetsky M. Roodina-zhut’: o “Proze Ivana Sidorova” Marii Stepanovoi. NLO, 2008.n.89, pp.248-256.
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©We are grateful to Alexander Borisenko for kindly allowing us use his pictures on this website.