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.”


Scholar, poet, and translator Sarah Valentine

Valentine’s artful translations are an excellent introduction to the Russian poet, and her informative preface sheds light on Aygi’s role as a writer within the larger Soviet culture. I found Valentine’s analysis of poetry written in America versus poetry produced in totalitarian societies particularly insightful:

“Though Aygi was a committed experimentalist in his relationship to language, canon, and convention, he was deeply connected to a fully humanist understanding of the purpose and value of poetry. His work bears the mark of deep spirituality in which the poetic process becomes a space for meditation and worship—of our human capacity for creation as much as for otherworldly divinities. Thus the creative force of language is always linked in his work to creation on a cosmic scale.

I think many poets in the United States today struggle with a feeling of irrelevance, of impotence in the face of global-scale crisis. Sidelined in a mass-media, technology-driven culture, the American poet seems to have a slim chance of connecting with an audience, and even less of a chance to effect large-scale change through poetry. But elsewhere in the world many poets, like Aygi in the Soviet Union, wrote and continue to write poetry at the risk of losing their lives and livelihoods. For them poetry is an ethical act, an act of humanity, regardless of the cost. Many of Aygi’s poems confront the political and social crises of his age, but many others are small poems about the beauty of fields and flowers,the birth of a child. Some consist of only a few lines,  few words, or a single word, or a single letter.

Why bother? What difference