Eighty Years of Sevak: A tribute to a poet
Last February when thousands demonstrated against presidential election violations, passionate speeches from politicians were followed by actor Vladimir Abajyan’s, who recited a poem: «People are different»
What he likes most of all,
Best of all in his life,
Is his… chair.
He loves it,
He woos it,
He creeps to proceed,
At all costs he crawls to it,
And thus he climbs up to sit
on the shoulders of the world.
The words belong to Paruir Sevak, and perhaps no others could be so in tune with speeches about seizure of power, fraud and injustices. And even if another such poem does exist it probably is one of Sevak’s.
January 26 marked the 80th anniversary of Paruir Sevak’s birth.
Conservatory teacher of Armenian language Biurakn Andreasyan says that for 20 years students have been naming Paruir Sevak and Vahan Teryan as their favorite poets and, without waiting for their tutor to give them homework, with great pleasure have recited Sevak by heart.
The poet died 33 years ago, but Sevakamania is still alive.
«Sevak makes you think. You cannot read his works just mechanically. After you read them you start thinking of people’s states of mind, hypocrisy, different expressions of love, faith and history of Armenia,» says 18 year old Gayane Melkomyan. «His comparisons are very unique, his works are both simple and complicated.»
Unlike the flowery, pastoral images and landscape metaphors of his contemporaries, Sevak’s Armenia is the modern city and urban spirit — calculators, trams, theatre and concert bills attached to walls, airplanes and so forth.
His poetry explains in a simple manner the unexplainable:
«First love is like first loaf, it always burns and you can’t help it.»
«I hate your name as you probably hate my hands that used to stroke you if I have a girl she will bear your name . . .»
«You — three letters, you — an ordinary pronoun but with these three letters I become an owner of this entire world.»
But coupled with this simplicity is a clever layering that reveals hidden possibilities from the Armenian language. Many poets wrote their first lines, influenced by Sevak’s catchy rhythms and precise words.
Later, though, some of those protégés criticized Sevak’s work as being too commercial, written with exaggerated civic pathos and overdone. (He is among the most wordy poets, as was evidenced by the publication of a two-volume glossary of words used by Sevak.)
Sevak’s obstinate spirit boils the blood of youth, captured in such phrases as:
«Without going mad nobody would win and words would never turn into songs if they didn’t go crazy I wish I were always crazy.»
«I would like to erase the word ‘cautious’ at the expense of life.»
«I would like to turn irregularity into a rule.»
If the Western youth movements of 1960s were reflected in Armenian poems, the epoch of that era would be Sevak’s poetry books «The Man in the Palm of Your Hand» and «Let There be Light», which are the wreath of his creative work. It is a poetry against bureaucracy, philistinism, moral dogmas and hypocrisy.
There was little or no dissident literature in Soviet Armenia. Through compromise during those years Armenian writers managed to publish their books and become «legitimate» creators. Sevak was one of four famous contemporary poets, who didn’t become a member of the Communist Party. People used to tell stories about his disobedience towards the authorities. For instance, once he was ordered to visit the Central Committee of the Communist Party and was told that he had said that members of the Central Committee are Turks. Sevak answered that «Turks» is normal as there are good people among them but you are worse than Turks as you are not people.
Sevak was not a «legitimate person» among all «legitimate persons», he was the rebel among the temperate. He was the one who could talk to the upper class of the Communist Party but he always was a clown, who tells the king all the truth:
You see, it is a child’s play for me
To provide a plank with brain folds,
To prepare chicken-feed from brain,
And then a public meal of that chicken-feed.
However, one day his disobedience ran afoul and the Central Committee prohibited publication of his «Let There be Light» and protests against his previously published poetry flooded the Kremlin.
Subtexts and symbols of poems from «Let There be Light» which secretaries of the Central Committee dug out and found between the lines, criticize Soviet methods. As it is written in «Source of Light»:
Our rear is a dark one indeed:
It’s from books that we learn of our past;
Yet our front is darker still:
The books declare our future.
Darkness in front of, darkness behind us,
We are caught in between.
«Let There be Light» was published in Beirut after Sevak’s death. It brought the times of nonconformist literature closer, but it was not until several years later that it was published in Yerevan. And even then, it had some abridgements.
A society looking for the personification of their protests against cruel methods and injustices, discovered Sevak. And in 1971, when he died (at age 47) in a car accident, hypotheses of Sevak’s death were spread. His death is still a mystery and still discussed: Accident or murder?
«Those days I was deader than Sevak,» says the poet’s first wife Maya Avagyan. «I couldn’t come to my senses and I didn’t ask whether he was killed or not. Later I was asking one of his friends, who was holding a high post in the Party, of only one thing: to find that truck, which was the cause of the accident, however, they never found it.»
She remembers Sevak sitting cross-legged on a sofa for many hours and writing in his notebook. She says he had only one weakness: women.
Sevak’s funeral turned into national sorrow. His body was taken from Yerevan to Sovetashen village, where he was born. For 100 kilometers those who loved him escorted his body, while fans came out of villages to stand at the roadside with lines from his poems written on posters.
Of his own art (in «The Birth of a Poet») Sevak says:
The poet’s «work is a bottle thrown into the sea by a drowning sailor asking for help. Will the Sea of Time ever bring the bottle ashore?»
A year ago waves of demonstrations brought ashore, next to the Matenadaran, the bottle he had thrown once.
To see the shores of verity,
To witness to the falsehood of the liar;
So that you will not be afraid
To unmask the face of injustice.
One has shouldered the world,
While the other is sitting on its shoulders.
(Poems translated by Marine Petrosyan)