Russian Vers Libre and the Poetry of Ilya Semenenko-Basin

IlyaRussian vers libre remains one of the most contradictory and unacknowledged genres of contemporary Russian poetry. Even though Russian free verse has existed since the 19th century, and some critics consider Slovo o Polku Igoreve* as the first known prototype of Russian vers libre (see V. Kupriaianov,, there are countless arguments among critics about the exact definition of this poetic genre.

T.S. Eliot described it in his famous essay “Reflections on Vers-libre:” “Vers libre has not even the excuse of a polemic; it is a battle-cry of freedom, and there is no freedom in art. And as the so-called vers libre, which is good is anything but ‘free’, it can better be defended under some other label. Particular types of vers libre may be supported on the choice of content, or on the method of handling the content…If vers libre is a genuine verse-form it will have a positive definition. And I can define it only in negatives: (1) absence of pattern, (2) absence of rhyme, (3) absence of metre.”

Paradoxically, he concluded that the charm of free versification “is not defined by absence of pattern or absence of rhyme, for other verse is without these; that it is not defined by non-existence of metre, since even the worst verse can be scanned; and we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.”

The fact that numerous literary journals in Russia, such as Deti Ra, AKT, Slovoslov, Novyi Mir, and others are publishing vers libre today reveals a high demand for this kind of poetry in modern Russian society. And indeed, behind the apparent simplicity of verses free from the limits of rules of traditional versification, there sometimes hides a refined psychology and the ability to express profound meaning through an original system of images and metaphors. Even non-traditional strophes add to the magic of the free conversation of the poet with his or her reader. Even though there cannot be found the traditional metric structure, vers libre is a poetic genre which allows for the expression of the natural music of the poetry. Even more, it expresses modern reality with the most accuracy and truthfulness because it follows the logic of the constantly changing language registers.

The origins of vers libre, or free poetry, in Russian literature can be traced back to the 19th century, following the European poetic trends. Afanassii Fet, Ivan Turgenev, and M. Mikhailov were among the first Russian authors who experimented with verses outside of traditional poetic forms. The poets of the Silver Age also paid tribute to this trend. Among them stands out Marina Tvetaeva’s masterpiece:

Я бы хотела жить с Вами в маленьком городе,
Где вечные сумерки, и вечные колокола.
И в маленькой деревенской гостинице
Тонкий звон старинных часов – словно капельки времени.
И иногда, по вечерам, из какой-нибудь мансарды –
И сам флейтист в окне,
И большие тюльпаны на окнах.
И, может быть, Вы бы даже меня не любили…

Посреди комнаты — огромная изразцовая печка,
На каждом изразце — картинка:
Роза — сердце — корабль. —
А в единственном окне —
Снег, снег, снег.


I’d like to live with You
In a small town,
Where there are eternal twilights
And eternal bells.
And in a small village inn—
The faint chime
Of ancient clocks—like droplets of time.
And sometimes, in the evenings, from some garret—
A flute,
And the flautist himself in the window.
And big tulips in the window-sills.
And maybe, You would not even love me…
In the middle of the room—a huge tiled oven,
On each tile—a small picture:
A rose—a heart—a ship.—
And in the one window—
Snow, snow, snow.

You would lie—thus I love You: idle,
Indifferent, carefree.
Now and then the sharp strike
Of a match.
The cigarette glows and burns down,
And trembles for a long, long time on its edge
In a gray brief pillar—of ash.
You’re too lazy even to flick it—
And the whole cigarette flies into the fire.
— Marina Tsvetaeva

In Soviet Russia, vers libre was excluded from the official literary scene and not published. Only the great talent and perseverance of poets such as Ksenia Nekrasova (1912-58),  Gennady Aygi, Sergei Biriukov, Vladimir Burich  and others allowed this tradition to survive in the underground and then flourish in the 21st century. This is the amazingly expanding sphere of Russian poetry today.

We are glad to introduce to readers the poetry of Ilya Semenenko-Basin, who writes in the genre of vers libre. Following the traditions of earlier poets, notably Gennady Aygi, Vsevolod Nekrasov, Akhmetiev and Arkady Dragomoschenko, Semenenko-Basin nevertheless stands out with his own original voice and poetic manner.

Ilya was born in 1966 in Moscow. He graduated from Moscow State University and has a Ph.D. in History and Religious Studies. He is currently a professor at the Center of Religious Studies at the University of Humanities and a prominent scholar in the field of history of the Russian Orthodox Church. He began writing poetry very early in his adolescent years, but his first book of poetry, By the Streams of Silver, was published only in 2012. It was shortlisted for the Russian Gulliver’s Poetry Prize in 2014. His book of micro-prose, Nachalo Veka, was published in Moscow in 2015. It describes the particular circumstances of the beginning of the 21st century in Russia and other countries, but with attention to the past.

Semenenko-Basin’s poetry is often laconic, but full of philosophical insight. His verses are characterized by short, sometimes one-phrase lines, almost like maxims. It is always a thought clothed in the verse form, sometimes a sketch of the world around him – momentary and concise, a miniature in itself. The poet’s immersion into his inner world projects dramatic events from the Russian past on the contemporary world around him.

Semenenko-Basin defined his new book The Lire for the Wild Animals (Lira dlya dikih zverey. Moscow: 2016) with the words of Andrei Bely; he “wrote what the air uttered to consciousness.” And indeed, with the clear view of the scholar, he sees the spiritual dissociation of society as one of the central problems in the post-modern world. His poetic talent, however, suggests his own vision of the way out of human alienation, where the poetic voice is like an “Orpheum lire,” which influences the depths of human consciousness. As a hundred years before, poetry could help the individual to overcome desolation and connect to the world. Paraphrasing Joseph Brodsky’s famous words, if it could not change the world to be a better, happier, and sunnier place, it “could still save the individual”.

Several translated poems from The Lire for the Wild Animals open a window into the poet’s vision of the world around him and also appeal to the reader’s imagination. These verses bring with them the sharp austerity of the 21st century minimalist poetry and its refined psychological messages.

March 20th

A bright ray of sunshine illuminated
girls’ faces, girls who were bent over their papers
at a long table
in a room on the ninth floor of the ugly ancient house.
And there was nothing, nothing
that I could call my own,
the center of my little universe
where my interests and rights reign.
But only the sun
the sun reminded me of myself by unsettling me
with its too early spring warmth.

  *       *      *

there’s  a point on the horizon,
that I’m interested in
or rather, it’s interested in me
and perhaps I’m not the center of the universe
and maybe the center is not here, where I’m standing
but at this point on the horizon
in that hardly visible dot
is the center that attracts me

      *       *       *

where were we  going?

                                                                          *       *       *


Morning coffee

in the one thousand nine hundred thirty ninth year
my grandfather wrote to his relatives

“With great satisfaction I now drink my morning coffee
every day since I received that one small tin of condensed coffee in the mail.”

the letter was sent from the nine hundred fourth kilometer
of the Northern railroad
the first sector
fourth division
of the Onega gulag

  *        *       *

“Our grandfathers heard: the war has begun,
They quit their jobs, got ready for battle… “
Old wartime song

In the steppe, armored vehicles are moving
uniformly alternated.
they move
like thoughts, gripping the three-dimensional air.
In the ole’ ancestors’ song the brave man
raised his right hand like a hero:
the undefeated

                   *         *        *

In the twilight we were walking on the bridge
in the village where the old ladies swear like sailors
all the babushkas there swear
but not your grandmother
not your granny, Zhenya,
the decrepit bridge did not collapse behind us
you glanced behind you
to see it was still there

                                            *         *         *

I listen and watch

Linguists  proclaim:
God is sound and the word of God is hiding
Dikt rampages like a round street light
it burns behind the apple grove
on its heels it crouches in the snow

                                   *         *         *

the sun
curled up on your ring like a snake
the moon watched
giving away days and months and ages
how well you were saying the sound er

                                                          *          *         *


Translated by Elena Dimov


* The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, (Russian Slovo o polku Igoreve), masterpiece of Old Russian literature, written about the unsuccessful campaign of Prince Igor’ of Novgorod-Seversky against the polovtsy . Slovo was written anonymously in  1185–87 and preserved in a single manuscript, which was discovered in 1795 by A.I. Musin-Pushkin, published in 1800, and lost again during Napoleon’s invasion in 1812.

** The gulag is the acronym of government agency that administered and controlled the  Soviet forced-labor camp system during the period of J. Stalin’s rule over the country.

Featured picture by Alexander Borisenko


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