Celebrating Tomas Venclova’s 80th birthday

Tomas Venclova – the poet whom Josif Brodsky called "a son of three literatures": Lithuanian, Polish and Russian, essayist, literature researcher, translator, dissident, one of the last citizens of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and a borderlander.

He is the man we know from our readings and debates. We also know him as our good neighbour.  It is a rare skill in the world suffering from the loss of connective tissue. It is good that Poles may have such a Lithuanian neighbour. Wasn’t it this type of neighbourhood that Jerzy Giedroyć and his Parisian "Kultura” struggled for? Easy to say, but so hard to do.....

In 2017, the celebrations of Venclova’s 80th birthday took place in his native Lithuania. The Borderland Centre also honoured as their master and friend, a borderlander and citizen of the Miłosz's native realm. The festive ceremony took place on December 10, 2017 in the White Synagogue in Sejny, and gathered like-minded citizens of the world borderlands as well as his closest neighbours from the Lithuanian-Polish borderlands: eminent intellectuals, people of culture and fans of his work. Among those participating were: Beata Kalęba, Andrzej Strumiłło, and Dominik Wilczewski. Read were letters with congratulations from Timothy Snyder, and Marci Shore, Barbara Toruńczyk, Alina Kuzborska and Irena Grudzińska-Gross. It was a time of conversation, singing songs and readings of poetry  in several languages, and a time to give birthday presents to our honoured guest.

We all owe a huge neighbourhood debt to Tomas Venclova, a man who did a lot to make the Polish-Lithuanian borderlands a truly good neighbourhood. It is very rarely that you can meet a man like him - an artist able to extend the boundaries of our world and build a common spiritual space between bordering communities - said Krzysztof Czyżewski during the event.

He also added that the presence of Tomas Venclova and Andrzej Strumiłło, who have both witnessed the madness and tragedies of the twentieth century, reminds us that peace is not given forever, and we have to laboriously strive towards a good neighbourhood,  doing the homework that we all have been assigned, grain by grain.

Tomas Venclova commented on the read poems, remembering various themes from his biography and that of his friends, intellectuals and scholars: Czesław Miłosz and Leonidas Donskis. When asked about the heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, he said that it was a country different than today’s Lithuania  -  the Duchy was a large and diverse state, one which was behind its times because it was the last pagan country in Europe, and one that preserved its ancient language used until today. It was famous for religious tolerance, its citizens including Catholics, Orthodox, Pagans, Karaites, Muslims and Jews, but also tolerant in its national sense, a country were several languages were and still are in use. This diversity is the most interesting feature that remains the legacy of the Grand Duchy.

Tomas Venclova was born on September 11, 1937, in Klaipeda. He graduated in philology at the University of Vilnius, and then semiotics and Russian literature at the University of Tartu. In the 1970s, he was involved in the activities of the Lithuanian and Russian anti-communist opposition. He participated in the Lithuanian human rights movement and  co-founded the Lithuanian branch of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights. Fearing persecution, he emigrated in 1977 permanently to the United States, for which he was deprived of the USSR citizenship. While in the USA, he lectured at the Universities of Berkeley and Yale.

As an important figure in the world of literature and culture, he received many international awards, including the Two Nations Award (received together with Czesław Miłosz) and The Person of The Tolerance Award granted by the Sugihara Foundation. In 2001, he received the honorary title of the Borderlander granted by the Borderland Center. The Borderlander Award is granted to eminent Europeans who have contributed to the popularization of the borderland ethos with their lives and works.

Tomas Venclova has authored numerous publications translated into many languages including translations of Polish poetry into Lithuanian. He translates such poets as Herbert, Miłosz, Norwid and Szymborska. His poetry has been translated into Polish by: S. Barańczak, C. Miłosz, W. Woroszylski, A. Rybałko, and A. Kuzborska.

Tomas Venclova’s books published by Pogranicze Publishers include:

Tomas Venclova, Eseje. Publicystyka. Sejny 2001, Pogranicze.
Tomas Venclova, 
Niezniszczalny rytm. Eseje o literaturze. Sejny 2002, Pogranicze.
Tomas Venclova, 
Wiersze sejneńskie. Sejny 2008, Pogranicze.


Books written in English

·         Ellen Hinsey, Magnetic North: Conversations with Tomas Venclova: Rochester University Press, 2017.

·         Aleksander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996.

Books in English translation

·         Vilnius. A Personal History. The Sheep Meadow Press, 2009.

·         The Junction: Selected Poems. Edited by Ellen Hinsey. Bloodaxe Books, 2008.

·         Vilnius. Vilnius. R. Paknio leidykla, 2001.

·         Forms of Hope: Essays. The Sheep Meadow Press, 1999.

·         Winter Dialogue. Northwestern University Press, 1997.


A Word by Krzysztof Czyżewski


Do you know an anecdote about a motorcyclist and sparrow?  Tomas Venclova was about to pack up and return to Vilnius, but since we did not know the story, he asked us to stay a bit longer at the table in Krasnogruda ... "So there was this motorcyclist riding, and suddenly a sparrow hit his helmet. He stopped, picked it up from the ground, put it inside his warm jacket and rode home, put it in a cage, gave it some crumbs, and poured some water into a cup. After some time the sparrow woke up, looked around and sighed: They locked me in a cage with dry bread and water, certainly I must have killed this motorcyclist.“ We said our goodbyes laughing, and waving to him I had this thought that it often happens in our lives that we get deceived by our misconceptions concerning bona fide actions of others.  Tomas himself has suffered a lot because of presumptions of others judging him different than he really was which made him feel as if trapped in a cage -  presuming him to be a cosmopolitan in contempt of his own cradle or otherwise making him a nationalist obsessive about Lithuanianization, or accusing him of not caring about his poetry and himself being just a bore ... Even recently, a remark written by someone who claimed he got stiff bored during a meeting with him flashed before my eyes on FB. I thought that might actually be true, but the inconceivable thing for me was to run a meeting with Tomas Venclova in a way that somebody could get bored! Yesterday,  we feasted until late at night listening to his story of an old love that he would not let go helped by Natalia Gorbaniewska; about Russian dissidents and the Herbert’s  "Return of the Proconsul", translated by him into Lithuanian and Russian, though he could also recite this poem from memory in the original. At this table, which you wouldn’t like to leave, there were also students who came here "playing it by ear" from Warsaw just to meet him, not knowing how they might return or where they would spend the night; there were also young Ukrainians from Odessa and Lviv. And earlier, in the White Synagogue, we had read poems by Tomas, appended with the author's comments. The earlier translations by Miłosz, Barańczak and Woroszylski, known from 'A Conversation in Winter’ were supplemented by new ones by Beata Kalęba, Alina Kuzborska, Zbigniew Dmitroca and Adam Pomorski, collected in the volume 'Obrócone na ciszę' published recently by Zeszyty Literackie. They were read  in Lithuanian and Polish by residents of Sejny, Puńsk and Krasnogruda. We hardly noticed  it when the clock struck three. The word moved, built bonds, strived to continue the traditions of the last citizens of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania personified by Andrzej Strumiłło and Tomas Venclova, it brought out humanity from the Pole and the Lithuanian --"nice people” as Krzysztof Gedroyć once asserted... And it might as well, though, have become a cage of hostility, its prisoners fed just dry boredom and irrelevance.

Foto. Wiesław Szumiński


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