Blesok no. 74, September-October, 2010
Closing Remarks On Ján Ondruš’ Poetry
Ján Ondruš has got a permanent and unique place in the body of Slovak poetry of the second half of the 20th century. His poems moved the domestic creative atmosphere and led to changes. Nevertheless, the movement of said poetry, in its extreme positions, could not have been accomplished without the immanent essential loss in its poetics. As a legitimate response to the pragmatic specialization of the function of poetry and as a defensive reaction against the leveling of creation, Ondruš’ poetry is associated with the establishment of a “new awareness in Slovak literature in the 1960s.” Ján Ondruš’ poetic results are evident in the field of “complex” departures of Slovak poetry from its forms theretofore that had a lasting effect on the overall character of the subsequent domestic poetic production. Ján Ondruš firmly believed that he must never serve the political purposes or public recommendations of the given age. He had to remain free, regardless of the fact that in his early stages one might note a certain level of “implicit engagement,” when in his poem he includes German soldiers (Prehĺtanie vlasu – Prvý mesiac, Nemecká prehliadka 1944, p. 29) and Auschwitz (Šialený mesiac, Osvienčimský oheň, Osvienčimský popol, pp. 65, 67, / Prvý mesiac, pp. 26, 27). Either way, “in Ján Ondruš’ debut collection – Crazy Moon (Šialený mesiac), searching for a relic of schematism, we find only two poems on Auschwitz, and even there one could barely speak of a certain conformism with the spirit of the age (perhaps only in the verses “and so/ life remained”); but it is primarily a question of meditation on life and death that is not usable for political purposes. It is therefore also true since “the author was denied certain rights during the totalitarian regime, and I understood that as a safeguarding protective shield for the sense of his poetry had always been remarkably anti-totalitarian, and in the end – the author expressed it through highly encrypted images.”
Certainly, Ondruš’ opus cannot be defined or assessed in a hurry and solely on the grounds of what at first look it has to offer, of what we may hold against him or what we cannot draw out of him. The character of this poetry is complex, above all, contradictory, dynamically conflicted, as poetry rousing disparate constellations can often be. The evocative movement of Ondruš’ poem allows for multiple interpretations whereby surpassing even the boldest prospects of the readers’ expectations. The Ondrušian poetic opus in its multifaceted and unbalanced forms, into which not only the outward semiotic shapes fall, but also the essential gestures and demeanours, the character of his lyrical self, his life in communion with himself, with things and people – allows for contradictory interpretations. Everything in it fluctuates, returns, and determinedly steers toward the other side of its boundary. Ján Ondruš’ output is difficult to understand, in its essence often and immediately quite inaccessible. We take the liberty to state that the predominant feature of his later poetry is the free word flow which incites the feeling of trust within the competence of the spirit. Ondruš’ poetry itself represents a spontaneous fulfilment of his creative manifesto: many associations, new syntagms, impossible metaphors, a clash of emotions, but also a clear creative awareness. Ján Ondruš knows that one of the greatest poetic routes is “to look outside, to find within.” The unity of an Ondrušian poem, however, is not based on the identity or on the proclivity of the poetic and logical principles, but primarily on the merger of the states of tension, on the balance of expression, demeanour, associations, images, sequences, well-founded thoughts and metaphors. It is not a union of the various elements into a homogenous mass of equalities, but a union by disguise, exclusion, simplification, reduction, mutual opposition of expression and demeanour, a union by employing the subtractive process. Hence, we are primarily dealing here with a specific unity of the dramatic process based on authenticity and incongruence, on the polysemy of its components.
The mark that Ján Ondruš left on the Slovak poetry of the second half of the 20th century is deep and quite visible. His insight is great and worth following. Before taking preference to any part of his opus as a model for analysis and interpretation, a global projection of his lyrics is due, whereby one should summarize and sublimate the heretofore positions and views on his inner evolution, his transformations, as well as his differentiations of the personal, specifically marked poetic models. Attention seems to have been shifted from the poet’s world to his poetic technique. That was the general direction, even though there were several exceptions worth noting. Ján Ondruš is a poet for whom a crucial source of poetry is the unique inner experience. His poetry “represents a paradoxically radical showdown with the traditional lyrical sentiment and the culturally high aestheticized dolorism, such as in Modernism at the beginning of the 20th century was continually cultivated by poetic symbolism and post-symbolism. Ondruš created a world of his own in which he could move freely, but also allow us to peep into it. That world is difficult to decipher from the outside since it is painted too individually. Hence, what connects the poet to the reader is the intimacy of feeling. The authorial subject – the self is bounded not merely against the reading public, but also against the multiple shapes of this self. The newer authorial self (the edited texts) is in opposition with the previous authorial self, but, at the same time, the resultant form of the newer self cannot exist without the previous self. The authorial self creates a concept of ideal experience, ideal existence. Ideal in this case would be fulfilled, that is, a full, dedicated, free way of life, but in Ján Ondruš it is important that this ideal being is sometimes finished, finite, immersed into its own self. Even though life itself brings to Ján Ondruš’ subject situations in which he “fosters defence instincts,” the experience is insufficient and puts obstacles on the path, frustrating his mission to finally know freedom. The author does not need this being for himself as man, but for himself as poet – it is a being in which choice appears in language. By using “absolutized” freedom, Ondruš chooses what he wants to present and the way he wants to present it in. He selects from the order of elements aimed at his individuality. He must constantly discover such element since he needs to have a prospect of invisible things even in things that are quite visible.
The thematic constraint of the poems does not count for much; it merely defines the spatial domain from which the waves of free, long, rich associations and bold metaphorical connections pulsate and spread. In the poems there is full use of rich vividness and suggestive metaphors that also involve synaesthetic relationships. With such artistic practices Ondruš reminds us of surrealism, whereas his subject matter is closest to existentialism. The epithet in Ondruš is metaphorized in various manners: synaesthesia (‘inaudible scream’, ‘yellow eye’), oxymoron (‘black snow’), or personification (‘the trees weeping’, ‘dead waters’, ‘silent egg’, etc.). It is metaphorized, therefore, in service to the overall analogy. In Ján Ondruš’ poetry the analogical perception on a semantic level predominates, which is then reflected in the syntax of what is said, as well as in the compositional elements of the poem. This platform is also employed in creating the independent epithets. Their inversion is still often functional and in the context of separating or blurring the lyrical subject, whose position is fluid. The lyrical subject appears once in an I-form, then in a you- or we-form, sometimes it registers, and other times it mentions. It is not merely an emotional, but also a rational subject. Certain narrativity is brought about by the very cyclic, continual and episodic order of description in the poems. Punctuation in this poetry is reduced to a minimum. By omitting punctuation, the partitioning is stopped; the segmentation of the marked complex is blocked. Predominant structural and stylistic elements and practices one encounters in Ondruš’ poems are: rhetoric apostrophe, repetition, asyndetic, elliptic and polysyndetic gradation, occasionally inversion and, certainly, ample metaphoricity. His poem is realized in a more universal and more symbolic (associative) world as the world of intimacy, that is, the world of the alienated individual, more universal than the decadent world. The aetiological perspective here is revealed through the subject’s viewpoint, but primarily through his “existential metaphors.” Thus, in Ondruš there occurs “a complete identification of poem and poet (…) that is, the view of man from a position of his substantiality, from a position of his inner scope, integrity or degradation.”
Ján Ondruš’ poem is filled with narcissism, but is also fertile and aesthetically eloquent. The lyrical subject here is at the same time a protagonist and an antagonist, bound between his own self and infinity, between his own self and light, loneliness, love and exile. He battles his own self, his inability of consistent communication not only with himself, but with others as well. Ján Ondruš unveiled the truth of the fact that a deep look into one’s self often also implies unveiling something dark and repressed within. For him, each image is a portrait of the spirit; each word represents the individual’s life. He has the power to hear the music of the growth of plants (seeds, grains), to go to a “vegetative direction” in order to decipher the cycle of the origins of the world. He carries within and feels the rhythm of the spirit and the word, as well as the great semantic power of his proto-symbols: water, earth, wood, fire, mirror, star, and the like. He often identifies with these proto-symbols of the world, which thus transform into symbols of the spirit. From an artistic aspect, the manner in which Ondruš “mentalized” his own life experience is highly effective. It is also effective how the author managed to establish a subtle proportional relation with life in his poetry. That is why his lyrical hero is firmly attached and calls in his aid the inner imaginative models. It is so because “Ondruš’ poetic report always aims toward the pivot, the core, the finest nerve, the bare bones of human existence, whereas for the author himself – the given poem acts somewhat as a surgical procedure, as well as catharsis tasting of other obsessions and depressions.”
Ján Ondruš is essentially concrete, meaningful – he allows the feelings hidden in the poems to circulate through the reader’s mind by using thought agents: colour / picturesqueness, description of the situation and using the metaphor as constituent part of the poem. His poems are perceived as great flashes of wondrous imagination. They do not surrender easily. But that is why the interpretive insubmission, as well as the observational frenzy of Ondruš’ poem have their deepest and most essential origins and grounds precisely in the poet’s personal and characteristic belief in the inherent relation of poetry with man’s existential forces, with the universe of human life. It is poetry with inner tension, with deep resonances and with complex metaphors. Ondruš’ path and his personal destiny are in no way easy, as is neither our reading experience of and with them. Hence “we as readers are forced to surrender from empathy to entropy if we are to understand Ondruš’ undertaking. Otherwise we do not stand a chance of entering his poem without feeling like an angry little beast. Since its very manner of dethronement provokes in the reader the familiar symptom of resistance. But, is that not, in fact, what the author wanted to accomplish? He does not ask questions bordering on discomfort and illegibility in order to humiliate us, but to raise us to a higher level. We believe that is the matter here; Ondruš has an unusual but appealing proposal – to anger us in the text, but to offer us knowledge in return: knowledge of ourselves as compared to others, to the knowledge of the other.”
Ján Ondruš is a poet-synthetist. Each of his poems is compact, establishes a dialogue with time and with the meaning of existence. His verses sound authentic, remarkably fresh, as a discovery or a revelation. The Ondrušian world is more turbulent and constantly in motion. Valér Mikula is right to state that “the possibility that Ondruš opened in Slovak poetry remains open since it has not been completely exhausted yet…” Hence, in accordance with Stanislava Repar’s view as well, it is really “no use to tabooize what has for years been associated with the appraisal of this poet and his poetry. It seems much more productive to return to him with complete openness, as well as with a view on the progressive movements in European thought in the last twenty-thirty years.”
One could therefore assume that no Slovak poet in more recent times has so intensely suffered from the disease of the everyday as has Ján Ondruš. Most likely in no other Slovak author “could one feel so profoundly and resoundingly that, which Ondruš in fact demonstrates in his work, the language of (personal) history, the unwaveringness of true human identity, operates beyond exile and where madness is portrayed. The poet essentially never crossed the line, never went over to the other side, where the inarticulate silence of exile reigns (“toward/ the carefree/ Lucia in the mirror”).” The poet thus becomes the searcher for the meaning of existence. With all his inner endeavours, he never attempts to cover everything at once, but only gradually reveals the individual levels of what man and his eternal experience mean. His language testifies to the fact that the image of cosmos is in fact the anthropo-cosmos. In his profound psychological projection the cosmos symbolizes the personal, the revealed, as well as the transcendental, enlightened by the subject – the self. Even when he feels the tragedy, when he is forced to struggle with human drama, and when he encounters sorrow, he gloriously and proudly rises above them and stoically speaks of them as of human truth, standing above pain and suffering. Ján Ondruš’ poetry is always searching for the origins of our internal, revealing in every poem what is to us the most intimate, thus considering that the most acceptable is one’s view of one’s self, with the hell within, with the deep abysses of the human mind.
In all of Ján Ondruš’ work it seems that the tragedy of life, on the one hand, and its beauty, on the other, as opposites are successfully incorporated into his poetry and become the essence of its structure, are in a state of continual impatience. Tragedy, in fact, keeps following the poet. It is his feeling, his spiritus movens and his spiritus agens. One would hence agree with Ján Štrasser’s view that “over Ján Ondruš’ poetry I even painfully realized – how unstable the phrase understanding poetry is. I do not know if we shall succeed in disclosing the rational nucleus in Ondruš’ poetry, but even that is not my greatest concern. I could nevertheless say that I identify with this poetry. It is primarily a voice speaking from me about me. His poetry affects me as a piece of fine art or music. In this identification the contact between me and the poet is established, regardless of the fact that I cannot exactly explain what that contact is based on.”
Individual motifs and images in Ondruš’ poetry are repeated and their quite intense frequency, that is, their periodical recurrence may be noted. That is underlined by the maxim that all of Ján Ondruš’ opus is marked by the sign of circling, by the circle. It is not, of course, a matter of its shape, but primarily its characteristics. It is a circle with no beginning and no end, an eternal recurrence; it is a question of what we find within the circle and outside, hence a question of cyclicity. Or as Zoltán Rédey states: “The Ondrušian subject, prone as he is to see threat, fist, danger, or potential violence in everything, is as prone to find in everything a source of enjoyment. As opposed to the often mentioned tragedy of Ondrušian loneliness we are hereby presented with a hedonistic aspect of Ondrušian loneliness as well.” Ján Ondruš is a poet of the profound, hence also tragic, life knowledge, as well as of the individual, therefore also universally resounding creative imagination. This is the style in which his lyricism is conceived, in which resignation, sadness and fatigue, preceding misery, predominate. In the end, nevertheless, the tragedy of participation in life increases, the poet proposes an application of the ontological view of human identity and establishes the omnipresence of disease which “he checks if it works both ways: could there be disease without man or man without disease? Is man the inevitable sufferer and bearer of the cross?” Disease and tragedy permeate the pores of all human activities, and Ondruš also finds them in the state of vis-à-vis with himself: he encounters them “in my place, in my time” (from V stave žlče). The tragedy of participation in life takes other shapes, but it never the form of self-pitying gloom or pathetic dolorism.
In Ján Ondruš’ poetry the contents of the notions of man and world are emptied. Man is lost, hidden behind the objects which are oftentimes smaller than him so that he becomes barely discernible:
… so many people placed under every cupboard, in every
Apple, in every bread oven,
In the noose of the proposal…
And they can no longer be seen, they hide under
The pot, in both slippers, behind the index finger […]
They all sit behind it, with a wide grin
Merging with light and impossible to see,
To recognize, to find their features
Look, the world is gone.
It is therefore also understandable that the cross as the predominant metaphorical element in that direction does not necessarily represent disease, but might also be seen as an idea beyond time, as a spiritual relation, as a metaphysical being frugal with its sovereignty. Hence with the help of the attributes of metaphorical separation and association of illness and man one arrives at the final allegory. With such a complex metaphor Ondruš also manifests the real ambivalent character of disease. Its intensity may create such a pressure so that illness is seen as an independent being governing another being. Nevertheless, the contrast that the cross triumphs, and the lie loses strengthens man’s strategic position in this mutual matching of strengths. If disease can be defeated, that is, lose, even if it only happens occasionally, it is not as absolute as the continual recurrence of its dominance is intended to assure us.
This poetry wants to remind us that regardless of how human civilization might be developed and improved, it could never disconnect from man since it is part of his being. This is poetry of life as experienced in all its multitude and width; hence the views of it filled with admiration and melancholy. In the foreground of Ondruš’ verses are the existential states of separation and contradiction of being resulting from the workings of annihilating forces. It is, after all, also poetry of the frustration transcending itself and becoming a superior expression, becoming art. Ondruš’ lyrics are in fact an expression of the endeavour to firmly grasp the complex situations of human existence. Thus, loneliness offers purity to Ondruš’ protagonist. He is for that reason the most authentic when he is alone, at home (a category which in all great poets acquires a universal, timelessly referential and more cosmopolitan position: meaning – everywhere and nowhere). Loneliness as a sickening feeling saves the Ondrušian protagonist from the emotional surges inevitably realized in communication with other people. Paradoxically, therefore, his own “homelessness,” his “exile – is his most personally, intimately experienced home.” Loneliness becomes a prerequisite, a necessity, and an escape for authorial uniqueness.
Hence it is undisputable that “despite all categories, in the timeless irritation of the poem, Ondruš places himself among the great twentieth-century modernists since he is able to absorb both conflicts – the modernist (the conflict between the world and the subject) and the postmodernist (the conflict between self and self) – he is postmodernist in the sense of the same extreme modernist, in the sense of the one who manages to crucify the modernist project (if such a project has ever exited) to its critical point, that is, he pushed it out in the margins, but left it standing, practically devastated, but not completely.” The whole poetic opus of Ján Ondruš is united by lyric subjectivity, primarily characterized by profound experience of the motif and its emotional charge. Ondruš is extremely emotional and sensitive, but not sentimental. He is an exceptionally creative individual with a sense of the important processes, of what is to come. His poetry is constructed so coherently that no image could be removed from its structure without disturbing its firm poetic architecture. But, above all, Ondruš’ poetry is characterized by a rich inner life that in turn is full of prolific poetic associativity in which the more we delve the more it spreads and appears as infinite in its deeply emotional polyphony.
The poet is taking a hard look at himself, he is in fact restlessly thinking, struggling with everything that decreases and threatens the value of human space in the human world. This may be the reason one does not find in this poetry the explicit subject of good and evil. It has been covered at a higher level at which the antagonisms create the process of reconsidering and perfecting. The Ondrušian picturesqueness wishes to stress human existence itself, to find the inner force binding things, not dividing or atomizing them. The individual metaphors in Ondruš would lose their meaning if they were not mutually related to the other metaphors. This meaning, even if its relevance is limited, represents a clipping, an excerpt from the totality of the world. Ondruš’s metaphors hence form a so-called “metaphorical network” operating as a whole and creating the mega-image of the world. The world consists of tiny little images, oftentimes mere flashes, but they functionally complement each other in the overall image of the position of things. This is also related to the problem of polysemy of Ondrušian metaphor and the problem of the reception of his poetry in general. Hence the validity Andrea Bokníková’s opinion, who claims that Ondruš is “a poet from the order of the magi, from the order of imaginative lyricists – perhaps the most original in Slovakia – who will always emphasize that it is not the beauty of the metaphor that matters, but the deep structure of the image.” It is a problem that the readers must resolve on their own for their reading of his poetry to be fulfilled and to accept as their own the world that the poet has created in his poems. It is so since Ondruš’ poetry forces the readers to cooperate, stimulates them, makes them form their own ideas, create their own interpretations of the observed images he offers and actively transfers into his inner world, into his version of being.
Certainly, our approach to Ján Ondruš’ poetry, which we labelled as poetry of exceptional and particular values, is not by far the only possible approach. This poetry has offered itself as one of the most interesting, as well as resulting from the most important breakthroughs of Slovak poetry in the second half of the twentieth century. It has, in effect, long been the fact that only the important breakthroughs bring lasting results.
The excerpt was originally published in Slovak in: TANESKI, Zvonko: Metaforické modely obraznosti v poézii Jána Ondruša. Nitra: LOGOS E. H, 2008, pp. 159-169.
Translated into English by Kalina Janeva
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