Some two decades ago, two heavyweight Ukrainian modernists, Bohdan Boychuk and Yuriy Tarnawsky, clashed in the pages of the Kyiv-based journal Krytyka. The reason for this was the ever-lasting question: what connects the scattered and fractured phenomenon of Ukrainian modernism with its global progenitor, Modernism with the upper case “M”? Both writers matured, as individuals and literati, in the post-World War II United States, and had full access to all full-fledged European, American, and Latin American modernist canons. In other words, the two writers were nourished by modernist traditions explicitly different from those of pre-revolutionary and early Soviet modernism in Ukraine.

In their essays, both maintained that a set of features are essential to call a modernism a modernism. For instance, an author had to express deep existential needs; an author should offer a radical novelty of themes, form, and language and should have a need to ruin the previously established ones; elitism is part of this deal; so is intellectualism; there must also be a need to return to the sources of the past (i.e. to tradition); and, finally, an author needs to maintain the individuality of their style. There was, however, a major gulf that divided their views: the poet Volodymyr Svidzinsky (1885–1941) and the question of form in a literary work.

Boychuk maintained that for Svidzinsky any kind of disintegration and radicalism was alien and uncommon: the poet worked in the frames of traditional poetics. The essayist believed Svidzinsky should probably not be included into the circles of modernists only because he developed an irrational worldview hitherto unknown in Ukrainian literature; this apparently does not suffice. Therefore, can you consider a poet a modernist if they opt for traditionally accepted poetic forms and versification? Svidzinsky, for one, expressed himself using a traditional form. His very privately established poetic system closely relied on the well-tuned virtuosity of his lyrics that effectively bridged ancient tradition with contemporary poetic traditions. Tarnawsky asserted that Svidzinsky was quite traditional in his poetics although some of his verses were rooted in an irrational worldview. Additionally, the poet didn’t rely much on imagery structures common for Western literatures at that time, though some instances could have influenced him.

The scholar Eleonora Solovey asserted that the poet “transfers the metric equivalent of hexameter and alexandrines to the Ukrainian poetic landscape in perfectly sculpted miniatures modeled by the ancient lyrical epigram” and he “also has a penchant for subtle stylization of ancient realia employed to attest to the immortality of cultural heritage, the longevity of the classical elegy, the irrevocability of ‘eternal values.’” The poet made a successful effort to create a language that, much later, resonated so strongly with Ukrainian poets living in the Soviet Union as well as in the West, in the diaspora, and was instantly conceived as a novel approach within the frames of interwar modernism in Soviet Ukraine.

Indeed, such path-setting poets as Pavlo Tychyna, Mykola Bazhan, and Mykhail Semenko, all exemplars of Ukraine’s burgeoning modernist tradition in the 1920s and 1930s, thought about changes, revolutions, rapture, and novelty. Modernism, especially in Ukraine, consists of a variety of features, and it’s not necessarily just about such methods as pastiche, poster, collage, and montage. For many practitioners of modernism, its disconnection from tradition is essential, although, paradoxically, in its Ukrainian embodiment it also actively supports and recycles past traditions. 

Svidzinsky kept a low profile during his life and seemed to have remained distanced from the literary process, despite the fact that he was a card-carrying member of a union of writers and worked for various literary magazines. The reviews of his infrequent collections — he published only three books which aggregated a total of nine reviews — were mostly neutral, and even occasionally mocking (one critic joked that the poet’s second collection, which appeared ten years after the October revolution, was titled September, not October). On the eve of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, the poet spent time working at the offices of journals as an editor; he helped others with their works but also actively translated a variety of pieces from several languages, including poetry, short stories, novels, and nonfiction.

When World War II broke out, he was one of the last among those whom Soviet special services arrested in Kharkiv in late September 1941, shortly before the Nazis captured the city. The arrested were convoyed eastward, into the mainland. According to eyewitness accounts, the poet, along with many others, was burned alive in the barn in which these prisoners were kept.

Svidzinsky’s corpus of manuscripts, some of which appeared in the newspaper during the war and shortly thereafter, was brought to the United States by a fellow poet following the end of World War II. In 1974, a collection of his poems was published here to great critical acclaim, albeit mostly among the emigre community, as such books rarely reached the audience in Ukraine. In the States, some of his poems were translated by Bohdan Boychuk and Katha Pollitt in the 1970s. Some four decades later, a selection of Svidzinsky’s poems from all of his collections, both published during his life and posthumously, was brought out in an English translation by Bohdan Boychuk and Bohdan Rubchak.

Svidzinsky’s modernism is reactionary, one would think, but it simultaneously holds to tradition. Most if not all of his works include no favored themes of that time period — there is no urbanization, no illumination, no electrification, no revolution in his verse. It’s a poetry of reaction, but of a moderate, mellow, tradition-based one. It’s not about breaking a language, as preferred by futurism, and it has no revolutionary, nor any other, slogans. “The modernism I’ve been practicing here,” the poet could have said, “is based on some old tricks — they’re eternal tricks but, at the same time, contemporary.”   

Cool silence. Fractured moon,
be with me and sanctify my sorrow,
which settled like snow on branches,
like snow from branches it will fall.
I have three inseparable joys:
loneliness, work, and silence. No more
malicious longing. Fractured moon,
I bear grapes of rebirth into the night.
I will stop to pray in the dead field,
and the stars will fall all around me.

1932

Poem translated from the Ukrainian
by Bohdan Boychuk and Bohdan Rubchak
(available in Evasive Shadow of Life,
edited by Eleonora Solovey)