By Edmond Y. Azadian
Sixty-five years have elapsed since his death and the recognition of his legacy is universally expanding and his vision is living. Indeed, poet Vahan Tekeyan passed away on April 4, 1945 in Cairo, Egypt.
He closed his one and only eye to the world, his other eye having fallen victim to his political adversaries. He was an early casualty for the cause of freedom of speech as thugs beat him to death in 1916 for an editorial he had written. But he survived with one eye blinded. Later on he composed one of the most disturbing and movingly tragic poems about his eye titled, “My Only One.”
He was a taciturn and bitter man, ahead of his time, and not fully understood by his contemporaries. He was a virtual recluse in the crowds, on whom a leadership role was thrust.
He was a poor man in terms of materials, however, despite his role in the community, he had left a will behind asking to be buried quietly; no eulogies, no fanfare, no special honors. Perhaps, deep in his heart he was convinced that no one could grasp his soul, his being, his vision to encapsulate in a eulogy.
His coffin was lowered into his grave, one flower dropped on his heart and a handful of soil from Armenia, where he longed to live his last years and be buried in the land of his ancestors.
But history had glory in store for him. Tekeyan is better known and respected today than during his lifetime. “My soul grows today and multiplies like an army marching to the battlefield,” he wrote in one of his poems; his reputation similarly “grows and multiplies” today for the young generation and for posterity.
Many people, who are not very familiar with Armenian literature (and that is not uncommon in these days when our values disintegrate) wonder why so many schools, organizations and cultural centers are named Tekeyan. The answer is brief — because not only he was a poet of universal standing, but also his persona embodied the suffering, the vision and the essence of his people; he symbolized the past, the present and the future of Armenia and the Armenian people.
He was a well-rounded person; a poet par excellence, a teacher, community leader, political activist and an organizational man. He has six volumes of poetry to his credit, fiction, essays and political commentary — although several volumes of poetry appeared after his death, but they mostly did not meet his standards nor his approval. He was a thorough and demanding writer and poet; he demanded more from himself than from others, that is why his austerity did not make many friends for him. He wrote poetry agonizing over each line and rhyme.
His poetry reminds the meticulous mastery and artistry of Benvenuto Cellini’s golden statues. His preferred form was the sonnet. He found so much affinity in Shakespeare’s poetry that he translated a collection of sonnets by the Bard. His literary schooling was with the French symbolists like Baudelaire, Varlaine, Rimbeau and others, but he internalized the spirit of the symbolists so much that he created his own school of Armenian symbolism, which drew many talented young poets.
During his lifetime, his published poetry volumes were Hoker (Anxieties, 1901), Hrashali Haroutioun (Glorious Resurrection, 1914), Guess Kisheren Minchev Arshaloys (From Midnight to Dawn, 1919), Ser (Love, 1933), Hayerkoutiun (Songs of Armenia and Armenians, 1943) and Dagharan (Song book, 1944).
These books contain a universe of poetry, emanating and radiating from the concentric form of self, then developing into tragedies and triumphs of his people, to end in a philosophical inquiry about God and the universe.
Thinking about Tekeyan’s destiny and legacy, one is reminded of one of his Greek contemporaries, in the same cities, but who has his solid place in the world literature, yet Tekeyan has to wait for his place in the sun. That contemporary is Constantin Cavafy, who revolutionized the Greek poetry of his time and transcended ethnic boundaries to become a world literary figure. The similarities are so much that it is almost tragic for Tekeyan to be compared. Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt (1863-1933); Tekeyan was born in Constantinople (1878-1945). They lived in the same cities at the same time — Constantinople, Liverpool, Alexandria, London and Paris. Cavafy, also a follower of the French symbolist school, was in European literary circles and he was born into an affluent business family. He was featured as one of the characters in British author Lawrence Durell’s Alexandria Quartet tetralogy of books. E.M. Forster published English translations of Cavafy as early as 1919, stating that Cavafy’s poetry had survived the translation: later on, his collected poems were published with a superb introduction by W.H. Auden. Subsequently, many translations made Cavafy a major figure in European literature. Like Tekeyan, he wrote sensual, historical and philosophical poems.
It would not be mere ethnic pride to rank Tekeyan’s genius on par with Cavafy, if not a little above.
The difference of these two poets lies in the fact that Cavafy was born into an affluent family and a stronger nation. He did not assume any social role in the Greek community, nor any other society, while Tekeyan had to struggle for his living, lead political delegations, train the next generation of poets and writers at Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus, manage orphanages in Corfu and edit the most prominent daily newspapers of his day.
We owe a debt to some head-strong translators who helped Tekeyan cross the language barrier — Marzbed Margossian, Diana Der Hovhannessian, Garig Basmadjian, Gerald Papasian and some others, although their translations are mostly addressed to non-Armenian-speaking Armenian audiences.
Tekeyan’s poetic legacy is so rich and diverse, so pure in its artistic craft that it will work its way to the world scene with solid steps.
What Tekeyan willed to his people — in addition to his poetry — was his vision for Armenia’s survival and the Armenian people’s continued existence around the world.
Today, the most topical issues on the political forum is the rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey, a process full of hurdles and pitfalls. The poet, deeply rooted in Armenian history has addressed the issue way back in 1930s, grudgingly acknowledging the need to overcome trauma and victimhood, to think clearly about the Armenian people’s political future. Recently, some essays by Tekeyan surfaced in the Armenian media, where a cautious but solid assessment was being made about Armenian-Turkish relations and an objective vision was being projected. Tekeyan knew the Turks better than anyone else; he had also witnessed the atrocity perpetrated against his people and fully reflected those scenes in his poetry. In one of his poems he revolted against God writing: “To hell, send us to hell which you made us know so well, and save your paradise for the Turks.”
Yet despite his occasional outburst and poetic hyperbola, he was somber and calculating when it came to charting the political future of his people.
Sixty-five years have passed since Tekeyan’s death and almost 80 years since his prophetic assessments. His ideas are still fresh and topical. His vision is alive.
Somewhere from the heavens he may be watching us with his keen single eye to see how well our people will preserve his legacy and realize his vision.