As civilisation advances, people suffering from the madness that is poetic sensibility are less and less tolerated, argues Galsan Tschinag. “Defence of poetry thus means: defence of humanity, defence of authenticity.”
Who am I, standing here in this place of honour, in front of so many select minds of our time from all over the world, and who is being expected to make some useful statements? It is true, though, that I, standing here with my Asian face, my nomadic national costume and shamanic way of thinking must be something special. Thirteen books of mine are available in the German-speaking countries at the moment; if you add the translations into other languages it would make two good herds of stallion according to the nomadic concept of quantity. The books could be my justification.
I come from a back pocket of the nomadic world of Central Asia, many of you present here might even considered it an ancient time, a different culture. The mountains of the High Altai in Mongolia are my home, and up to the present day they have kept the members of my tribe together with our history and with the traces of my childhood hidden away. The Turkic-speaking Mongol Tuva to which I belong are considered by some to be behind the times. And indeed there are a couple of things they do not have, such as their own script. Everything is handed on orally, history as well as stories, first of all the epics, which are considered sacred and powerful, so powerful that they can only be recited when the time of the thunderstorms is over.
From the beginning I knew that I would use a foreign language if destiny chose me to become the first writing poet of my people. In a roundabout way, via foreign languages and scripts, I had to get there. First it was Mongolian, recordable in a version of the Cyrillic alphabet which had been extended by two more letters; later two more languages and scripts were added.
We escaped time, as it were; what others consider behind the times is close to the roots, and, therefore, vital to us. For the primeval times in which we still live match with the concept of the world that we inherit from our grown-ups and which we, once grown-ups ourselves, will hand on to our children. This is a simple image: man is part of a complete whole fully pervaded by life, and as such he is kindred with all creatures; that is why he is equal in status with the smallest as well as the greatest before Father Heaven and Mother Earth.
Since my early childhood my Self has been shaped by shamanism. My first verses were shamanic chants, praises and pleas to the spirits of the rocks and trees and water that surrounded me. To create verses on the spot and to fit them into a suitable melody was the daily exercise I had to attend to as an apprentice of shamanism. Later when I became modern and learned how to write, this was very helpful. I was trained in making up verses, my senses were sharpened for the melodious sound of words and the proper order of things.
It is particular for the Tuva shamans that every one of them is a poet, a singer; hence everything is expressed in songs based on verse. To the shaman, a song is like tinder, he is enraptured by his own creation, he gets in top form, in trance, which is necessary for the dialogue with the spirits. Essential is the state in which the shaman as well as the poet need to be: they are inspired, enthusiastic. For this states of mind of both, our language has got one and the same word.
Shaman and poet are not particularly unassuming beings. They do not want to accept moderation, nor do they want to be tamed. Both suffer from megalomania, they compare themselves to great things, to the mountain, the sea, the sky, its thunder and lightning. They get dangerously close to madness when they start working.
And this illness is given, it has been enclosed in the bag of fortune that according to our belief every human being has been endowed with by the Creator. It has been given to them, and it is a gift indeed. It is highly vulnerable, it can be healed in the sense that it gets lost, blunted. But because in the world where I come from both shaman and poet still have a high reputation, everything is done so that this illness will not wane, that it becomes chronic and more persistent with every break-out, and gets refined.
Human relationships, which live on closeness and sharing and are thus based on the manifoldness of things, are most valuable to us Tuvans. We always tolerate the one who is different by regarding the different quality as extra-ordinary and by leaving the burden to the one to whom it belongs... This tolerance is based on the knowledge: only the shaman, the poet, who competes with infinity, can achieve what is denied to others, but which will eventually be beneficial to everyone. It is above all and particularly these extra-ordinary people who give advice and live, because they have experienced the extra-ordinary and even rapturous side of life; this enables them to put things that have fallen apart or into dis-order back into their proper place.
It seems that with the advancement of civilization, people with an innate and active sensitivity are treated with less tolerance. Suddenly other measures are in force. As if the modern man with his second hand sensory devices now despises his human senses and also the innate feelers that he had been equipped with by Mother Nature, and does not trust them any more. He considers the malady of creativity futile and irritating. Hence he tends to ignore nature within himself and in everyone beside him, to suppress it, and does not to allow for man's authenticity. Therefore it is one of the main problems of an artist today that sooner or later he has to hide his nature and adjust himself to society.
Defence of poetry thus means: defence of humanity, defence of authenticity, it means defence of the stone against plaster, defence of wood against plastic, defence of the word of the mother tongue against the foreign word, the technical jargon, defence of feeling against hypocrisy and finally defence of everything real and true against the fashion of the day and intentional lies.
When it comes to poetry, it is necessary to ask the essential questions of life. Which are these? They concern the beginning and the end: birth and death. And therefore I want to know: where do I come from? Where do I go? In nomadic terms: it is about the roots, and eventually the fruits. Roots can be geographical-spacial, historical-temporal and cultural-religious, but for us they are above all fateful, meant to be our destiny. Fruits can be children, deeds, words.
Which mountain's stone am I, which well's water, which steppe's grass? The sooner and more definitely I find an answer to that, the clearer will be the poetry that flows from within me.
In my life, too, there have been aberrations, here and there I stumbled on roundabout ways, wandered astray. It seems to me as if I once thought that I had to be like the Saxons and the Prussians, because the world to which I suddenly awoke was inhabited and formed by them, especially since these people fed me physically as well as intellectually in those times. Another time I probably believed that I could give my soul to Italy, which was so foreign to me, because on the search for everything beautiful I met some of its spirits, and I felt particularly strongly attracted to one of them, Robertino Loretti was his name, a young singer like me. And again another time I felt obliged to the last of the Indians who lived beyond the worlds I knew and I thought that in a niche of the fronts of the official cold war I could open a personal hot war against the pale-faced and soulless US demon. The results of my crazy ideas lie half digested inside me, they press heavily on my conscience, and the files that keep away these futily wasted emotions and times will remain tragic proof of my unusual life.
But this life has always been accompanied by good spirits. And they have always quickly pushed me from the side paths back to the main street of creation. The shaman enjoys the company of innumerable spirits. And each of them is known to him by a particular name. It has been like that on my ways and paths in the realm of poetry. And the spirits that I met and who often interfered with my life in a painful way, did not hide their names from me. Once they were called Erwin and Eva, came from two tribes, formed a single unit and then were called Strittmatter. Another one was named Yasunari Kawabata, another one Haldor Laxness, and again another one Chingiz Aitmatov - they became my permanent spirits and merged into inseparable triplets in the yurt of my heart. Then there were spirits who lost one of their halves on their way to me, and they reached me only with their first names.
I owe it to these and all the other ten thousand good spirits which a shaman addresses in his incantations night after night, that I have not lost the way that was given to me and which I have therefore always had the right of. And it is this way that every poet has to defend, because it leads him to his very own Self, as well as it leads the poet within him back to his poetry.
Poetry is an enormous counter-force against the oppressing weight of the material world. It is a spice in everyday life, a sting against habit, it changes life, which is more and more outweighed by consumption. Poetry, after all, belongs to the side of the heart in opposition to the stomach.
One of the most serious weaknesses of our time is the priority that is ascribed to the stomach. Gluttony is rephrased and praised as prosperity, and it has already got hold of other parts of the human being, most of all the body; that too has to carry a heavy weight, has to be over-decorated and overloaded. The spirit, too, is overfed - with an enormous amount of information waste, which it does not need, simply because it will never be able to digest it. The result is: body and spirit are stuffed and overburdened, the full stomach presses like a stone on the neighbouring vessels and debilitates circulation.
And all this happens while the heart is reduced to a mere pump that is dying of thirst.
With those people who have an overfed stomach and an oppressed heart, poetry has a hard time. Like our inner parts, so are our thoughts. From disturbed, dulled thoughts springs disturbed, weakened poetry. The reduction of poetry to decoration, as part of consumption, chopped-up prose, the unimaginative, pathetic play with form, the shameless, shallow pomposity about truism, the stringing-together of sentences that are grammatically correct but cold and death in their structure - a pseudo poetry, produced on a massive scale almost like shoes, Hamburgers and non-returnable bottles, but with one decisive consequence: it annoys the readers and kills their feeling for poetry.
Barrenness prevails in the nomadic world, and life is still highly dependent on the times of day and year, it is subject to the laws of nature. Yet it seems as if the outer modesty necessarily provokes a counterbalance: inner abundance. The member of a kinship group is confined by tradition; he has to draw his intellectual and spiritual nourishment from the stony slopes of the barren, bleak mountains.
Yes, especially the mountains - they personify the very essence of nature. They are also grandfathers to us whom we address in verse several times a day and to whom we give offerings as well. This way the nomad has a strong bond with the earth, through and beyond the mountains he is rooted in the water, the woods and the dimensions of space. And likewisely with his own human roots and fruits, with his ancestors and future companions. With all of them, as well as with every single element of creation he feels akin, feels responsible for them, thus it is part of his daily life to deal with them like he deals with his fellow creatures. And the particularity about this is that one has to address the cult objects with a refined, clear and powerful poetic language in order to be heard.
In this world of nomadism and its shamanic spirits, essential elements could keep their integrity up to the present day. And the same is true for literature. Therefore poetry and prose are not clearly distinguishable, they merge into each other. Prose is the smooth, fertile ground from which poetry grows to the sublime. Here follows an example to illustrate what I mean, an excerpt from the short story 'A Tuvan Story':
...Around noon the whole sky was overcast, and suddenly a storm arose from the Northwest. Sand filled the air, and the gravel that was whirled up by the hooves of the horses was caught by the wind and hurled at horse and rider. Cranes tottered in the air, trying in vain to fly against the storm, until finally they surrendered to its force and glided off, abandoned to their fate... The snowy mountains were out of sight, as were the steppe and the sky, and one saw nothing but the furious white roar. We turned to the left and let the horses run as fast as they could. Now the wind caught us from the side, crushed into us like a solid mass, hit our faces and took our breath away. The storm did not wane, the thunder broke. Because of the howling of the wind and the tapping of the hooves we first perceived the rain as a kind of humming, then as a stronger roaring, until it drummed down on us like a devastating wet blaze. We rode slowly again. Large bright drops coming from the side hit the gravel, bounced back, and it looked as if a sea of glistening round beetles skipped along over the steppe. The fire that flared up from all directions illuminated them brightly and the thunderclaps that followed the lightening made them quiver and shake. Crackling, blue flames flashed over the horses's manes, it smelled of singed hair. The animals snorted and shook their manes, we men pulled on the reigns to bring them under control, but the smell of burning had scared them and they reared. So we let them run free...
When I set foot in written literature with this story, I consciously clung to the broad and lively poetic narrative tradition of our heroic epics, which meant that I kept away from the style of socialist realism current in the East at that time, but also from the reserved, dissecting-mending writing technique of the modern time.
Poetry as the highest-developed organ in the body of human life had to protect its traditional position in nomadic literature up to today, and had succeeded in doing so. It is the interrelation between Nature and Man. It is the images that are passed on from the mother, nature, directly to us, one of her children. It is the elements that attract each other, rush towards each other and immediately form a unity, in what form soever.
Which are the elements that surround the shaman poet? It is the water, it is the wind, it is the fire, it is the earth. He is at their mercy, they blow and go through him. He accepts their challenge with devotion and wants to live on and with and in them. Nature herself provides his heroes. And because he is so devoted to her, goes to her, she is well-disposed towards him. So they, nature and the shamanic poet, are interwoven with each other. And in this fusion, in the mutual penetration, there lies the birthplace of poetry. Part of it is a quest that grows into an obsession and only ceases when a find is made; both are full with longing, it burns in the one and the other, sparks fly, flames flash, words are uttered. This is shamanic, this is the primeaval force at work.
Where nature and poet meet, a unity is formed. Something becomes whole, is healed. And what is healed and whole is holy, is powerful.
I know that words like sky, earth, holy, cause fear in the conquering man who turned his back on nature and placed himself above her. But in the nomadic world where the child has not yet conquered and enslaved his mother, they are still fresh and charged, sparkling vigorously. Probably because the things underlying these names are still elements of everyday life. Our sky does not only dome above us, it also lives within us. And one day when we transform into the condition that others call death and consider the end, we will turn into the sky entirely. Dying has many meanings in our language, to turn into the sky is probably one of the most beautiful ones.
Another one, two examples, which will blow some wind at what has been said so far, and will smooth the way for the things to come. Following the customs of the local culture, I have to ask you now, Ladies and Gentlemen, and the spirits that are with you, to forgive me quoting myself again. Further explanations will follow later on.
What is it like, then, when the poet wants to make known his love, for our sake? He does not need to plead, he does not need to use polite words. Like the wind brings the rain without asking the plain if it might rush down on it, so a poet is no supplicant, either. He himself is the wind who can grow into a storm, a fireblaze, or a snowstorm:
...Now I stood behind you within range
a load of storm your new hunter
with the first snow I came to you
and in your presence I swore to heaven
to blow away all the traces of foreign winds on you...
As part of a whole, the poet is never alone; even his most personal matters he likes to share with the other forces around him:
forests blow in the wind
crossways within me
Never will I be able
to tame you...
In my point of view, the poetic I is nowadays more endangered than ever. It is quite possible that the inner parts of man shrink more and more, and that they become more impervious to the influences of great heat and hot flushes with the extension of the outer cover. Expressions in poetry collections become increasingly duller and more pathetic. Either the former wild and unpredictable nature of the poet has been infected by social norms and has taken cover in a warm, comfortable place in the house of order, and lets us know that we can rely on it. Or it is opposing every order, rejects everything conventional but also everything that proved to be worthwhile, and finally, unable to produce anything better, it makes a lot of fuss about nothing. Both have in common that they lack fire and impact. And the one like the other is afraid of pathos and incapable of passion. History tells us: lacks of pathos and passion have always led to decline.
The poetic I needs, as everyone of us knows, more than our flat images. But also the experiences that one self, the people and the past era, this holy trinity, have had, are not sufficient to enable it to cope with life, in my point of view. It can and must absorb all the knowledge that mankind acquired throughout the ages, everything that is embraced by outer space and all the single elements that it offers. The form within us, which always, when it comes to poetry, has to rise up and above itself, has become more modest, tame, meager. It must be nourished, like the shaman nourishes his spirits. It is not only permitted but also necessary that in the house of etiquette, fear and the tyranny of order, into which the world has turned, some must break the ice of habit, eradicate the fat of self-satisfaction and slay the chains of cowardice. In this sense we poets would be a Nevertheless in view of what happened so far and what comes over us in even thicker, lower and darker clouds; we would, in shamanic terms, liberate this planet from the burden of a multiple dubiousness and heal mankind from a number of afflictions.
The life of the poet can or at least should be a poem itself. Only when he lives like that will he be a real one. Having the choice between the life of an unsuccessful, idealistic knight or that of a successful, materialist banker, again and again he should prefer quixotism to Rothschildism.
Now is the moment that I should come out with a thought that was touched upon earlier and which is essential for every poet who wants to be identified with his background and his time. It concerns the poet as person.
As far as I am concerned I treat my person in a quite relaxed way. I have a good reason for that. Because I am neither Galsan nor Tschinag. I do not consider the literature that I present far away from home to be my very own creation, but rather the collective work of a people that has never ever had the possibility to find its own language, or even its voice. In this sense I consider myself a necessity of our time, the swansong of a culture that has been overpowered by a predominator and forced to give way. I am not a poet in the sense that I have extraordinary talent, but that I am the messenger of an epoch that has been late. I was cast far away from my world and my people, I have been picked up as a find, was refined and handed back - to where I came from. From the European point of view I have in me a bit of Asian, a hint of nomadism and shamanism, a shadow of ancient times, and also a scrap of Europe, a trace of civilization and a fluff of present time, seen from the other, our point of view. As much as I was born and sent by the archaic East, the modern Western world formed me and sent me back. I became a bridge between worlds and times, so to speak. Besides, I was granted the privilege to be witness to radical historical changes: I was born into primeaval times, into a primitive society, I grew up in socialism and now I stand face to face with capitalism. Each system has formed me, I profited from all of them. I was lucky, therefore, in the Goethean sense of the word.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the last key word came to me by itself, as it were; by all means I wanted to include it at this honourable gathering of minds who belong, despite all, to one epoch and world: Goethe.
Indeed, all over the world the year 1999 stands in the light of the spirit of the highest-ranking German poet. As a student of German half a generation ago, I can admit today that I had quite some troubles with him. He wrote and achieved too much, lived too long, life had meant too well with him while others around him either had to leave early or had to suffer, but in any case had to leave behind their work unfinished. Probably I was also bothered, and I am still today, that he is quoted too often. Goethe and God are not only very similar to each other in the spelling of their names.
But I was not able, however, to hate or even despise him, as many of my fellow students did. Something united me and this man. Now I know what that is: it is the shamanic aspect in his work. It is also the human mountain into which the son of a patrician from Frankfurt on the Main knew how to grow. According to our sense of profundity, which is the word for philosophy in language, every man is on the way to the mountain.
If he makes full use of his possibilities, if he has reached his own peak, he has turned into a mountain.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe succeeded in climbing up and beyond his own peak as well as the peak of his people and to grow into the formula and measurement of the noble German mind which is willing and able to absorb the worlds and times and cultures and at the same time to pervade them.
The great spirit of Goethe be our guiding star.
And also all the other good spirits with and beside him may shine at the sky above and within us, free themselves from quotation boxes, decorated shields and protective padding and be our companions in life and fate!
I thank your for your patience that carried me a short half an hour of life.
And I want to assure every one of you: my world of spirits has been enriched by you!
Translated by Kathrin Lang
Galsan Tschinag whose name in his native Tuvan language is Irgit Shynykbai-oglu Dshurukuwaa, was born in as the youngest son of a nomadic cattle herder. From 1962 until 1966 he studied German at the university of Leipzig: German was to become the language of his literary work. He went back to teach at the university of Ulaanbaatar and worked for some time as a journalist.
Under an oppressive Communist regime he became a singer, story-teller and poet in the old tradition of the Tuvan people. With one leg in modern society and the other in an ancient nomadic past, he really is a man of two worlds. As chief of all Tuvans, Tschinag led his people, scattered under Communist rule, back in a huge caravan to their original home in the High Altai mountains on the border with Russia. He lives alternately in the Altai, Ulaanbaatar, and Europe.
Galsan Tschinag has published writes short stories, novels and poetry. His publications include: Ein tuwinische geschichte (A Tuvan Tale, novella, 1989); Der siebzehnte Tag (The Seventeenth Day, two stories, 1992); Alle Pfade um deine Jurte (All the Paths Around Your Yurt, poems, 1995); Zwanzig und ein Tag (Twenty and a Day, novel, 1995); Nimmer werd ich dich z?hmen k?nnen (I'll Never Be Able to Tame You, poems, 1996); Die Graue Erde (The Grey Earth, novel, 1999).
Galsan was awarded the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize in 1992.
Translated from Dutch by Ko Kooman
[Galsan Tschinag took part in the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam 1999.
This text was written on that occasion.]