Poeten are scammers. Marcel Reich-Ranicki wrote about poets in a similar way: They are those “who have nothing to say but absolutely want to be heard, who want to sing because they can’t think, who have to write poetry because writing presents them with insurmountable difficulties prepared”. But that was of course a very polemical beginning of his very big “plea in poetry”. Because Reich-Ranicki knew that poetry, “the most radical genre” of literature, was the most likely answer to people “in the midst of threat and danger”. He wrote that in 1980.
And now? Now – in the midst of menace and danger – sits a poet in a basement restaurant. In Lviv. In a country at war. drinking tea And answers. Grigory Semenchuk is 31 years old, but looks younger. Although he has three or four tight wrinkles on his forehead, he still has children’s eyes – they look way too questioning. Has a dark blond beard, almost transparent, light above the lips, but thicker, darker, longer and more mature on his chin.
About the three saints
He has only written six poems since the war Thursday in February. “At first I had difficulties with writing. But after two months I finally started. Wrote then because I didn’t want to forget my feelings,” says the poet, stroking his beard in what now seems like a poet’s cliché. Then he tells about the fact that there are many poets in Ukraine: writers, directors, musicians and managers. But why do so many Ukrainians write poetry?
“It’s up to the three saints,” says the poet: “Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Lesya Ukrainka!” And gently taps his left hand on the wooden table at each name, so that the list itself suddenly sounds like a poem. “They are the three who founded modern Ukrainian literature. And because they were very well known as poets, we have become a country of poetry.” He is still tapping on the table, but the rhythm is now slower, now tough: “In addition, I also think that this love of the Ukrainians for poetry is still because of something else entirely,” he says, pausing.
“Ukraine is a very religious country, with a deep religious history. Every Sunday you went to church and some guy read his sermon there. I’m talking about that atmosphere now. In the end it sounds like someone is reciting poetry.”
The answer of this radical genre of poetry
When Grigory Semenchuk recites his poems, there is nothing that promises to save people. His poems – always sober, clear – do not pretend, therefore do not cheat. Order but life and the world. Are an answer of this radical genre of poetry, about which Reich-Ranicki wrote forty years ago: It is the order that people need, especially in times of threat in which life and the world fall apart anew and every day. Grigory Semenchuk then sorts the chaos in a poem like this: “war is a morning alarm / traffic jams in front of ATMs / draft offices / in your yard / the neighbor in war uniform / on a dog walk / ‘who has the key to the bomb cellar?’ / ,I do not know'”.
The last time Semenchuk read this poem – it was two or three months ago and in the Paul Celan city of Chernivtsi – there were a lot of 20-year-olds in the audience, as well as younger people with skin problems that had just started to appear. But not only in the city of Celan, not only in this reading by Semenchuk, in many other cities in the Ukraine, in many other readings by young and half-young Ukrainian poets, those who listen to them are almost children. But why? Why do boys in Ukraine fall in love with poetry?
“Perhaps young people find it easier to believe in a poet than in a politician, in a bureaucrat. And poetry is rebellion, it’s provocation and it’s protest,” says the poet – and then: “Shall we?”
We walk the streets of Lviv, which are strangely crowded; strange because earlier, in the morning, sirens were wailing and nobody was going anywhere. Just two or three street dogs that seemed to lazily walk to unimportant appointments.
His poems shine, they are beautiful
Do people in Lviv actually sometimes fear death? Has Semenchuk ever been scared to death?
“No,” the poet replies so quickly, as if his voice were a jackknife whose blade suddenly goes out with a “click”. But then, very slowly, he says, “But I got it – and that sounds banal, yes, sounds like some sort of wisdom from some hipster – to live life in the moment.”
And a moment later we are in the center. The poet has a reading soon – online. farewell therefore. In the room in the hotel, Semenchuk’s poems, which he sent after “Goodbye”, shine on the smartphone. And the sirens wail again. And again the poet puts life in order, for his lines go like this: “the war drags on for centuries / but you are not yet ready for / war out of habit / not dying out of habit / surviving out of habit”.
Semenchuk’s words about habit are words against indifference. They do not comfort, redeem anyone. But they are useful – at night in the war. They shine, they are beautiful. “And we’ve probably never needed beauty more than we do today,” wrote Marcel Reich-Ranicki in his “Plädoyer im Sache Poetry” in 1980. And he didn’t know that he was writing about the coming century, about a war that would tear everything apart, that Poets then have to put together. Ukrainian poet Grigory Semenchuk did just that today.