Friday 20 July 2018

Student bookshelf: Exploring modern Mongolian poetry through a contemporary medium

Simon Wickham-Smith, author of
Modern Mongolian Literature in Seven Days
Aurelia Paul recently graduated from Boston University, where she was studying comparative literature and Chinese. In her column Student bookshelf, she shares responses to materials she has explored in her classes.
This week I read about literature from a digital source, a blog series on the Best American Poetry website. Simon Wickham-Smith created the blog series in 2009, with the aim of making modern Mongolian literary works more accessible for a global audience. One of the difficulties that students studying Mongolian literature in English often come across is that physical texts are hard to obtain and expensive to purchase because publishers use short run printing.  Digital genres such as blog posts and online articles, and PDFs of printed works can help counteract this problem. In addition to being published online, Modern Mongolian Literature in Seven Days is also free to read, and this promotes equal access to knowledge.

Although the series includes short stories, accounts, and extracts from novels, the large majority of pieces are poems. This is not simply because the blog is hosted by Best American Poetry, as Wickham-Smith explains: “Mongolia is a country of poets… a country where poetry is the default literary expression and where people sing and recite poems long into the night”. Therefore, I will also focus on the poetry of the authors included. It is possible to group the series into two sections: Days 1,2,3 and 4 discuss the poets of the “New Tendency” movement, B Yavuuhulan and his students. I will refer to these poets as the early poets. Days 5 and 6 and 7 discuss poets of a younger generation (they were all born around 1970) including the series’ only female poet. This group will be called the later poets.

The “New Tendency” movement was born when Khrushchev was the Frist Secretary of the Soviet Union. Khrushchev initiated the thaw, which lead to greater artistic freedom. Because Mongolia was under Soviet control at the time, Khrushchev’s thaw had a ripple effect on Russia’s neighbour. The main idea of B Yavuuhalan’s movement was evoke traditional Mongolian themes in order to break up the monotony of Mongolian socialist realist poetry. Thus, poets from this time strongly emphasized nature, a connection to the land, and spirituality.

I noticed that one element of the natural world that is more commonly written about by the early poets is horses. In his poem “The Sound of A Silver Bridle” (1959) Yavuuhalan writes: “I’m waiting for my lover to arrive / the sound of horses’ hooves pressed upon my heart.” Here, his lover is strongly identified with her horse, and the sounds of the horses’ steps have the power to evoke strong emotion. This merging of horses and humans also occurs in the poetry of D Nyamsüren, one of Yavuuhulan’s students. In “Around You”, Nyamsüren writes: “Around you, I am weak, like the horses who come running in the evenings of their lives.” This time, it is not his lover but the poet himself who is directly compared to horses. The plural choice of horses suggests that the poet feels a connection not just to one particular animal but to the species as a whole. Thus, the Mongolian relationship to horses as expressed in “New Tendency” Poetry goes beyond the typical bond between humans and domesticated animals.

Although there is a base of nature imagery that is shared between many of the early and late poets, some writers consistently return to a specific natural symbol. For example, the early poet Mend-Ooyo, who grew up as a nomad, has written innumerable poems about birds. His collection Nomadic Lyrics alone, contains the pomes “Paradise and Swallows,” “The Cranes,” “The Swallows,” and “The Ballad of Forty One Swans”, along with many other poems that take bird flight or other behaviour as their central theme. Similarly, the first of the later poets, Ts Bavuudorj, uses eastern grasses as a reoccurring symbol. His poetry is darker than that of the early poets, and the grasses are often presented as a companion in pain. In “The One”, he writes: “As I sit, suffering with the autumn grasses, there is someone leaving me.” However, in the first poem in his collection When Humans Become Grass, called “Grass is Growing in the East,” grass is presented as a refuge from suffering, something that can bring us hope. Mend- Ooyo writes of grass, “I place my aching head / upon its warm breast. / It strokes my brow / with its yellowing fingers.”

Another of the later poets, the only female poet who is included in the series, L Ölziitögs, has also written about grass, but in a totally different way. In an untitled poem, she says, “When I look at mountains, I am a MOUNTAIN / When I look at mist and haze, I am a CLOUD / After the rain has fallen, I am GRASS,” We can see that L Ölziitögs has a more experimental approach to literature, as she employs abrupt transitions and stylistic use of the upper case. Perhaps in this poem she is suggesting the speaker’s lack of a solid identity.

Although in the previous poem L Ölziitögs writes about nature, a traditional Mongolian subject for poetry, she has also written pieces about city life, which clearly mark her as part of a new generation of poets. In one such poem, also untitled, she remembers an urban disaster. She writes, “These cities, streets, shops inside of me, / These roads inside me leading to nowhere, / These people alive and dead wandering along these roads - / Why do they hide inside me? ” Here, the speaker has internalized the landscape of a city marred by a traumatic event. It has become aimless in the light of tragedy, with roads that lead “to nowhere”, and people who “wander” rather than walk along its streets. Here, she is commenting on recent history, which is something that the early poets avoided. She also includes a question, which is very atypical of traditional Mongolian poetry. Thus, we can see that L Ölziitögs’s poems have broken away from the past and the “New Tendency” movement, and she has created a style that is uniquely her own.

Details: Simon Wickham Smith's blog series is available to read here