Gennady Aygi (1934-2006) is widely considered to be one of the great avant-garde poets from the former Soviet Union. He was born in Chuvashia, a territory located in the western part of Russia. In 1958 he was expelled from the Literary Institute in Moscow for his first book of poems, which was condemned by the censors as “hostile poetry” because it was written in Chuvash. Being an outsider in the Russian empire had a profound impact on his life and poetry. His poems are infused with an elemental sense of life, mortality, and humanity.
As scholar and translator Sarah Valentine explains in the introduction of her new book of Aygi translations, Into the Snow, “much of Aygi’s poetry is written against darkness, against institutionalized evil, against our tendency to constantly undermine our own humanity and the humanity of our fellows through violence, nationalism, propaganda, and war.”
“I came into contact with Aygi’s poetry in a contemporary poetry course in my PhD study program in Russian Literature at Princeton,” Valentine told me this week via email. “I was so enamored of his work – but also somewhat baffled by it – that I decided to write my dissertation on him and began translating many of his poems in the process.”
“He has a very unique aesthetic among 20th century Russian poets (and among Russian poets in general) and part of the challenge for me has been to articulate exactly how/why it is different and what implications that has for Russian and world poetry/literature.”
Aygi is “an important voice in the poetry of witness of the twentieth century,” says Valentine. “His status as a Chuvash writer writing in the Russian/European traditions, his blend of avant-gardism and spirituality, and his dedication to confronting institutionalized evil while refusing to play into easy dissident politics make him a critical and fascinating voice at the confluence of many traditions.”