Saying what you mean: trends in recent Latvian poetry
Author of the Week: Latvia
Poetry and metamodernism
The sheer variety of poetry published in Latvia in recent years, ranging from conceptual experiments to impenetrable works reminiscent of high modernism to direct and forceful lyric poetry (incidentally, some poets have written in all these styles), makes it an exciting time to partake in poetic activity. The poets’ daring and nerve goes against the perceived reserve and aloofness of Eastern Europe, and the literary community is periodically replenished with new and surprising arrivals.
While the talk of trends and generations often misleads, subsuming vastly different writers under an arbitrary concept, there is nevertheless a particular kind of sincere or heartfelt poem that has recently become primus inter pares in Latvian letters and can be linked to the cultural phenomenon called metamodernism.
Conceptualised by Dutch philosophers Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker, the metamodern ‘oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naiveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.’ It is not a ‘movement’ but rather a cultural moment and a ‘structure of feeling’ that incorporates aspects of both modernism and postmodernism while being distinct from both.
Preferred by, but not limited to the younger generation of Latvian writers, what I will call metamodern poetry is characterised by a simple and direct expression, an exploration of (unrealised) modernist and Romantic possibilities, a complex attitude towards irony, and, more often than not, the use of autobiographical elements.
What follows is an essayistic endeavour on the ‘situation’ of many, but definitely not all of the younger poets writing in Latvia, presenting an admittedly partial picture that should nevertheless bridge the locally specific with general (Western) cultural trends. The use of metamodernist theory in these considerations is not intended to impose an admittedly loose concept on these writers, who possess a remarkable range and, on their own, are often better understood through other conceptual means. I instead hope to show how poets in general can be seen to be responding to the ongoing and significant shifts in culture.
Adorable parents, imposing grandparents
It has been remarked that the youngest generation of Latvia’s poets doesn’t have a score to settle with their forebears. There is little anxiety of influence and the ambivalence that comes with it in the way young writers approach, for example, the texts of Anna Auziņa, Kārlis Vērdiņš, and others who made their debut in the late 1990s or mid-2000s and can be said to represent the generation currently at the height of their powers. The poet and critic Artis Ostups has explicitly linked some of Auziņa’s poetry to the metamodern, and Vērdiņš’s works, the recent ones at any rate, would likewise seem to be part of this particular cultural moment.
The two are also among the best-known living Latvian poets, and for a good reason: Vērdiņš’s striking, culturally informed lyricism and Auziņa’s spiritually inflected and intimate musings on love, family and daily life not only engage in a dialogue with tradition, helping readers better understand where they’re at (see e.g. Auziņa’s Identity, inspired by Lev Rubinstein, and Vērdiņš’s numerous forays into Latvian folk heritage), but are also beautifully clear, fit to be shared on social media and whispered into the ear of a lover.
Auziņa and Vērdiņš have affected the younger generation in many ways. A touch of Auziņa is palpable, for example, in Veranda, Anna Belkovska’s excellent 2021 debut collection which Auziņa, incidentally, edited. Lines such as ‘know / that you have a place in this veranda’ share more than a passing affinity to Auziņa’s ‘I want to be a hole for love’, though what sets Belkovska’s work apart is consciousness of her roots in Latgale, a cultural region in Eastern Latvia, and a stronger concern for the social function.
Attitudes towards tradition can also assume a directly affirmative form. Ivars Šteinbergs’s 2020 rich and convincing debut Strops [The Hive] is a striking example, featuring a number of poems written in the style of established Latvian poets, including Vērdiņš. Šteinbergs is thoughtful and considerate towards his forebears, much like the cultural moment of metamodernism eschews parody and pastiche characteristic of postmodernism, opting for a more sensitive appropriation and contextualization of tradition instead.
While many of the younger poets simply adore their immediate predecessors, they can be seen to be ambivalent towards the grand poets of the Soviet era, such as Imants Ziedonis, Ojārs Vācietis and Vizma Belševica, towering figures who became prominent in the 1960s and 1970s. As their work is taught in schools, these outspoken and socially-orientated writers still shape public perceptions of what it means to be a poet.
Conversely, the younger generation, in general, avoids assuming the role of speaking for the nation or serving as the voice of its conscience, a function that writers were expected to fulfil, and often did during the Soviet occupation. As a young Šteinbergs put it in 2012: ‘Nowadays, a poet is neither something mystical nor holy.’
When younger writers do speak to or on behalf of an ‘us’ or ‘the public’, they’re playful about it. In her witty poem ‘The Manifesto’, Belkovska addresses a group of people, quite likely the speaker’s circle of friends, declaring: ‘proletarians of the world, topple over / for mine will be a clumsy revolution’. The voice is both sincere and ironic, reminiscent of someone shaking up a party at 3 a.m. with an impromptu soliloquy delivered standing on the bed, affirming and disavowing her qualifications to speak for a multitude at the same time.
Further in the poem, Belkovska goes on to profess a desire to become more politically involved, while admitting not being exactly fit for the task: ‘mine will be a sleepy revolution / I was late for the protest, as I hit snooze thrice / why do these things always start so early?’ While Belkovska does stand out from most of her peers in that elsewhere she depicts the sensitive subject of domestic violence, it is presented as a particular, not universal experience, and the ambivalence towards social involvement distances her from the aforementioned grand poets. Apart from self-conscious gestures such as ‘The Manifesto’, the newcomers generally stick to the first-person singular and do not presume to speak for somebody else.
To summarize, the up-and-coming in Latvia seem to feel an anxiety of influence towards grandparental, not parental figures, and they react not so much to what these hugely popular ancestors wrote but rather to the figure of a poet that they cut in the popular imagination. Somewhat surprisingly, this seems to condition the way the younger generation write.
Utopias in the face of social pressure
Vermeulen and van den Akker likewise note the atopic and atemporal character of the metamodern, its ‘deliberate being out of time, intentional being out of place, and the pretense that desired atemporality and displacement are actually possible even though they are not’. Their wording is suggestive of alternate realities, and it is therefore appropriate to look at the different kinds of utopias that have recently been produced in Latvian culture, keeping in mind that the ‘u’ in “utopia” can make the word mean ‘outopia’ (non-place), ‘eutopia’ (good-place), or, why not, both.
Artist Ance Eikena’s 2022 show Dusi pieglaudies man klāt (Sleep, Huddled Next to Me) at the LOOK gallery made use of tiny premises to create an emotionally charged place outside time and space. Somewhat haphazardly decorating the space with childhood drawings, soil, birch boughs and barks, as well as playing back a recording of a lullaby in the room, Eikena’s exhibition centred around a hummock-bed in which a visitor could lie down to forget about and suspend outside reality – a reality which, with two-plus years of COVID-19 and the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, has pushed many to the brink. Eikena’s work can be called metamodern in that its sheer emotional impetus actually makes the pretence of such a utopia credible, even if for a brief moment, and seems to invite visitors to look for salvation outside the gallery walls, too.
Similarly, Henriks Zēgners’s ballsy and vulnerable poetry collection Paradīze (Paradise, 2020), his second, is utopic both in title and in ambition. In lieu of evoking religious imagery, Zēgners strives to create a place of radical openness and pure expression found on this side of the grave. To him, paradise means ‘making love while looking into the other’s eyes, / kissing at the movies and when the only fear, / is whether you’ll like me tonight, if I’m not too fat, / and your mouth takes it all away’. Zēgners’ direct and unapologetic verse seems to avoid irony altogether and tries to put things as plainly as possible.
Indebted to the Beat poets and strains of modernism including Baudelaire and Rimbaud, there are moments when Paradīze hovers between representing social phenomena (in lines such as ‘It’s all about the money!’) and imagining a ‘non-place’, or the ghost of a lost cultural future. Zēgners can’t seem to decide between suspending reality in order to pretend that one can, in fact, carve out a timeless paradise for oneself, and saying, somewhat didactically, that it is already available to the ones who know where to look.
As such, his work lacks the ‘as if’ element, or a metamodern awareness of the impossibility of the task one has nevertheless set out to accomplish, though the force of his delivery and acknowledgment of tradition does suggest that his poems know that ‘saying exactly what you mean’ is never simple.
In a timely manner
As the editor-in-chief of the Satori culture magazine, Zēgners is also one of the very few people in Latvia who have recently voiced strong opinions about literary trends. Odd as it might sound, this is almost as rare an occurrence in the docile milieu of Latvian literature as stumbling upon the mythical fern flower.
On the occasion of the publication of Mīlestības grāmata (The Book of Love), an anthology of texts dedicated to the topic of love and released by Satori’s publishing arm in late 2020, Zēgners wrote: ‘The era of cynicism is over. New Sincerity has superseded it. And even if someone calls me a naive romantic for saying this, I have never known anything more important than love.’
Zēgners’ ambition is admirable and well-intentioned, striving as it does for clarity and purity at a time of extreme social pressure linked, among other things, to social distancing measures. However, it’s not naiveté that makes such statements problematic. In fact, naiveté as a strategy is re-emerging across different levels of Latvian culture, like in Eikena’s installations and artist Kaspars Groševs’s beautiful romantic paintings displayed at the 2022 Cēsis Art Festival, invoking images of couples situated in dreamy landscapes in a style bordering on that of the artwork that you’d expect to see at trade fairs.
It is rather that, in order to be taken seriously at this point in time, naiveté is usually accompanied by a kind of gesture that both affirms and negates the possibility of plainly stating what you mean and feel, adding a complex and contemporary emotional attitude and a deeper level of self-consciousness to artistic endeavors. In Groševs’s paintings, for example, one can perceive a self-deprecating sigh: ‘I know that what I am doing seems silly and my art might look sloppy, but what other way can one paint nowadays.’ I would opine that such art doesn’t try to cancel out the postmodern, but rather suspends it, acknowledging its continued presence in contemporary culture.
The attitude of cancelling out the (post)modern can be linked to ‘pseudo-modernism’, a term first defined by the British philosopher Alain Kirby. In an impressive and far-reaching piece on modernist influences in Latvian poetry from 2007 to 2015, Ostups quotes a number of poems that can be subsumed under this label, upbraiding one author for professing his belief in God and another for plainly stating motherly feelings towards her daughter. Ostups associates such poetry with the ‘trendy fascination with a simple and, most importantly, believable way of stating things’ and says that such poems ‘strive to facilitate a simple form of belief in the real’.
While Ostups is right as concerns taste – the poems he discusses are by no means fine works of art – the way he puts it these poets express the wrong kind of content. But this is plainly false, because few things are off-limits in literature, and certainly not expressing religious beliefs or tender feelings.
One could instead say that nowadays it’s nigh impossible to confess subjective states in literature without an objective correlate, whereas ‘pseudo-modernism’ is more often an honest slip-up, such as in Lote Vilma Vītiņa’s otherwise elegant and charming 2020 debut meitene (girl), where the narrator writes that swimming with her little brother was a ‘very good / and happy moment’. One could hardly express emotions in a more direct manner, but then that’s the problem.
The continued importance of being earnest
At the very outset, I pointed out that what I have called metamodern poetry coexists with conceptual experiments and the occasional variation on the modernist canon. It is, however, expected that this kind of poetry will consolidate itself as the leading force in Latvian literature, even if its definition is loose enough to allow for great inner variation.
The reason for this lies outside literature. With socioeconomic and geopolitical tension linked to the war in Ukraine, this is a time when it’s important to ‘say what you mean and mean what you say’. Provided it is distinguished from its lesser contemporaries, the metamodern poem is particularly well-suited to address broader concerns. As Artis Ostups put it in a recent interview: ‘Writing about the war, you have to be rather plainspoken. You can’t say things in too obscure of a manner.’
Being direct can take many forms, and I note here in passing that Russian Latvian poets like Artūrs Punte and Jeļena Glazova – Punte being concerned with the unexplored potentialities of language, similarly to other members of the stunning Orbīta group of Russian Latvian poets, and Glazova having been called a classic postmodern author – have made an unmistakable statement by switching to Latvian.
Punte has been writing in Latvian since the 2014 invasion of Crimea, while Glazova, who has occasionally written Latvian poems but mostly writes in Russian, recently produced a stunning existential poem in the language. As such, even authors who are far from being ‘plain and simple’ appear to acknowledge that, at this point in time, one has to be very clear about their meaning.
Ostups, too, after having produced superb if notoriously difficult modernist-inflected verse, has recently added such a poem to his oeuvre. Written after the outbreak of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, The Clouds of March weighs in on a poet’s supposed task in the face of barbarity: ‘[...] let us, the protected ones, / tell the truth, so that the clouds still remain clouds in the sky.’
 Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker: ‘Notes on metamodernism’. Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 2010, p. 4–5.
 Artis Ostups: ‘Modernisma ietekme mūsdienu dzejā’ (The Influence of Modernism in Contemporary Poetry) In: Vērdiņš, K. Latviešu literatūra 2007–2015. Rīga: LU LFMI, 2018, p. 185.
 Available in English at https://modernpoetryintranslation.com/poem/identity-anna-auzina/.
 The ‘metamodern’ doesn’t exhaust their range, of course. On its own terms, Vērdiņš’s work is best seen through the prism of queerness and tradition, indeed Vērdiņš often “queerifies” Latvian folk motifs, whereas Auziņa is a markedly feminine and feminist writer. Both have recently turned to writing conceptual poems, too, see e.g. Vērdiņš’s book Ready-Made Poetry (Neputns, 2020).
 Anna Belkovska: Veranda. Rīga: Valters Dakša, 2021, p. 51.
 Anna Auziņa: Annas pūra govs. Rīga: Neputns, 2017, p. 65.
 Due to space constraints, this piece will not discuss the authors writing in the Latgalian language, closely related to Latvian, such as Ligija Purinaša and Raibys, and will only incidentally address the Russian Latvian writers, despite the fact that both groups are definitely a poetic force to be reckoned with.
 Anna Belkovska: Veranda. Rīga: Valters Dakša, 2021, p. 10.
 In the case of Ziedonis and especially Vācietis, there is also unease about the exact nature of their political views and attitudes towards the Soviet authorities.
 Henriks Zēgners: Paradīze. Rīga: Neputns, 2020, p. 6.
 Ibid, p. 15.
 One should note that Anna Auziņa was the first to introduce the term jaunā sirsnība (New Sincerity) in Latvian literary criticism. In a 2015 review of a book of stories, she was careful to distinguish the Western meaning of New Sincerity, popularized by David Foster Wallace and seen as a reaction towards postmodern cynicism, from its meaning in Latvia, where jaunā sirsnība is instead seen as a reaction towards mannerist writing. See Anna Auziņa: Bez Zīda Pūkas & co. Punctum magazine, 2015.
 Artis Ostups: ‘Modernisma ietekme mūsdienu dzejā’ (The Influence of Modernism in Contemporary Poetry) In: Vērdiņš, K. Latviešu literatūra 2007–2015. Rīga: LU LFMI, 2018, p. 174.
 Lote Vilma Vītiņa: meitene. Rīga: Neputns, 2020, p. 63.
 I say this with apologies to Glazova, who I know detests being linked to politics.
 Artis Ostups: Marta mākoņi. Strāva #3, 2022, p. 160.
Lauris Veips (1992) is a poet and translator based in Rīga, Latvia. His first collection, Interesantās dienas (‘Interesting Days’) was published in 2020 by Orbīta. 2021 saw the publication of Levitācijas (‘Levitations’), his second collection of poems, co-written with Raimonds Ķirķis. Currently, Veips is an editor at the Žoklis literary magazine.
Photo by Krišjānis Zeļģis