Bloody News from My Friend: Siamanto Foreshadowing the Violence of 1915 and Postmodernism in 1909


Peter Balakian

Peter Balakian

Siamanto

Siamanto

By Peter Balakian

Siamanto was arrested on April 24, 1915, in Constantinople/Istanbul along with the famous group of about 250 Armenian cultural leaders; he, along with one segment of that group, was sent to Ayash near Ankara, where he and most of the others were killed by the Turkish gendarmes in the summer of 1915, somewhere outside of Ankara. He was a poet whose identity and writing were an important part of an Armenian cultural renaissance in the first decade of the twentieth century and part of what was the beginning of Armenian literary modernism. He was a central voice in articulating poetry’s role in reclaiming history and myth in order to make a new language and a richer culture. In this sense, he is a poet whose cultural situation bears some resemblance to that of Yeats in Ireland, Neruda in Chile, or

Whitman in the United States, especially during the Civil War.

Although he wasn’t a polemical writer, he believed that poetry could not be entirely separated from the social sphere and, in this case, that meant the pressing conditions of the Armenian people under Ottoman rule. He would have agreed with Whitman’s insistence that “a bard is to be commensurate with a people.” And Siamanto was a poet of bardic affinities. He was a public poet who declaimed his poems before audiences and crowds and was popular in the café culture of Constantinople in those years before

1915.

For the reader unfamiliar with Armenian literary history, it is worth noting the context from which Siamanto emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. In the second half of the nineteenth century, both Eastern Armenia (in the Russian Empire) and Western Armenia (in the Ottoman Empire) were in the midst of a cultural revival. From the second half of the eighteenth century on, both Eastern and Western Armenia had absorbed different dimensions of intellectual tradition from Europe and Russia. The European Enlightenment and Romantic movements had impacts on Armenian writers and thinkers. Voltaire, Racine, Rousseau, and Hugo, for example, embodied ideas about civil liberties and human egalitarianism, and Armenian writers appropriated these ideas to help them address Armenia’s deplorable social and political conditions under Ottoman rule.

Although the impact of French culture on Armenian writers and thinkers seems to have been primary, Byron and Shelley, Swift, Milton, and Shakespeare also contributed their share to the Armenian cultural revival, as did the Italian Risorgimento by way of the Armenian monastery on the island of San Lazzaro in Venice. There, Mekhitarist monks — who had taken in Byron in 1816 for his year of studying classical Armenian — had been a bridge between Armenia and Italy since 1717. Dante, Manzoni and Leopardi were translated into Armenian from the middle of the nineteenth century. To Armenians, the democratic revolutions in France, Germany, and Italy in the middle and later parts of the nineteenth century were also signposts of progress and the ideals for liberty.

While nineteenth-century European influences helped shape Siamanto, so did a revival of interest among Armenians in their art and culture. Like various European cultures, Armenia in the late nineteenth century was involved in its own Romantic movement, and Armenian writers and artists were rediscovering their pre- and early- Christian poetry, such as the epic of David of Sassoun and the inventive mystical poems of Gregory of Nareg, as well as the ballad tradition of Sayat Nova and village folk music, which the priest and composer Gomidas Vartabed was collecting, arranging, and composing. There was also new excitement about the extraordinary medieval manuscript painters such as Toros Roslin and Sarkis Pidzak and the pioneering architectural achievements of early Christian and medieval Armenian churches, exemplified most dramatically by the uncovering of the lost medieval Armenian city of Ani by the Russian archeologist Nikolas Marr in the 1890s.

In this milieu, Siamanto came of age with a kind of cosmopolitanism that was new for Armenian intellectuals. Like other modern Western Armenian writers of his generation — Daniel

Varoujan, Vahan Tekeyan, Zabel Yessayan and Krikor Zohrab, to name a few — Siamanto absorbed European traditions into Armenian traditions. Looking back from the twenty- first century, the loss is hard to comprehend: an entire generation of Western Armenian writers were extinguished by the Ottoman government just at a moment when they were emerging into a generation that was bringing Armenian literature into modernism and into an international light. Fortunately, a solid body of their works survive, among them numerous fine translations of poetry into English, many of them done by the poet Diana Der

Hovanessian, which has given them another audience.

 

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There is nothing like Bloody News from My Friend that I know of in twentieth-century poetry. It is a book that was forged from certain salient late-nineteenth century literary modes, but somehow along the way turned into something startling and new. The Bloody News poems undermine traditional norms of genre and poetics that defined late- nineteenth- century poetry in Armenian literature as well as those in the Anglo-American tradition. Although Siamanto assumes certain late- nineteenth- century

Armenian conventions in creating dramatic monologues and narrative mimetic lines, the harsh violence that he sought to represent drew him into a language of such a raw, blunt, and stark nature that it subverted anything that might evoke, hint of, or imply a genteel aesthetic, or a pursuit of inspirational nature, or the sublime that much of fin-de-siècle poetry was defined by in American and British poetry.

In making a rougher language and a vernacular voice, Siamanto often dispensed with traditional notions of metaphor. His blunt realism strikes me as owing more to Whitman’s Civil War poems than to l’art pour l’art poetics of Malarmé or the pre-Raphaelites that defined much of the of the fin-de-siècle. As the

British World War I poets would, Siamanto found that the impact of mass violence veered him away from the more romantic aesthetic that had driven his earlier poems, in which he sought to reclaim a sublime Armenian past, to reinvent Armenian myth, and to capture transcendent forces.

Because the Bloody News poems wrestle with “raw evil,” to use his phrase, Siamanto is obsessed with Turkish Islamic culture and its modes and capacities to demonize the other. What happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire in 1909, and then in 1915, also happened in different forms to the Greeks of western Turkey and the Pontus and the Assyrians of southeast Anatolia during this period of genocide and ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Christians from 1915 through the burning of

Smyrna in 1922. Thus, the texture of these poems has broad implications about the dynamics of power and the demonizing of the other. In this sense, the Bloody News poems have an increasingly visible place in the ongoing interest in the dynamics of poetry in relation to situations of mass violence. The popularity of poems like “The Dance,” “The Cross,” and “Grief,” since their first appearance in Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth- Century Poetry of Witness, and then in the English translation of Bloody News from My Friend in 1996, strikes me as a barometer of a certain broadening of poetics in our current literary culture.

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The Bloody News poems might be noted as poems of witness, a term that’s been given visibility by Carolyn Forch’s anthology of 1992 and by an evolving genocide studies discourse. But I’m more inclined to reflect on Siamanto’s ability to ingest violence and setting the lyric poem the task of transforming and manipulating the event. By engaging conditions of extremity, torture, killing, and rape, Siamanto attempts to find a language capable of linguistic compression and lyric precision to allow the poems to create scenes, images, and dialogical voices. In most of the poems, Siamanto withholds a personal voice in order to create distance and detachment by setting up characters through the dramatic monologue and at times even a dialogue of voices. The poems have something of a playwright’s sensibility in this sense. The point of view and framing techniques in most of these poems are the poet’s way of conveying violence with some detachment that creates its own kind of irony.

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Looking back at Bloody News from My Friend from the end of the twentieth century, one can sense something postmodern about the disruptive strategies in these poems. In refusing to be ornamental, generic, metaphysical, Siamanto insisted on seeing in a clear way something about the impact of mass violence on the self, the fabric of social organization, and, of course, the imagination in aftermath. To read a simple line from a poem in the collection called “The Son” is to encounter a prophetic emblem written at the beginning of the twentieth century: “for miles, the cinders of farms, strewn corpses, and in his living room his wife, naked and stabbed.” Even before the British poets of World War I found themselves stuck in the trenches, Siamanto’s poems had ingested a kind of experience that would alter our idea of poetry’s reach and range.

Excerpted from Balakian’s Chapter 10 Siamanto’s Bloody News, in Vise and Shadow: Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art and Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

 

Peter Balakian is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor in Humanities and professor of English at Colgate University. He is the author of numerous books of prose and poetry, including The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, and the memoir Black Dog of Fate. He is the co-translator with Nevart Yaghlian of Siamanto’s Bloody News from My Friend.