Hyper-realism in Contemporary Romanian Poetry              


                                                                                                                  by Paul Doru Mugur



The so-called “transition” period of the last twenty five years in Romania from the beginning of the post-communist period in 1990 to the close of the first decade of the twenty-first century is a period of alienation and crisis of communication brought. This twenty five-year span was defined not only by uncertainty and fears, social inequities and misery, but also by both an enthusiasm and a hope for the future that the recent inclusion of Romania in the European Union made real..


The revolution of December 1989 brought the communist regime in Romania to a violent end, and, after that, everything in this country changed. Historical vicissitudes leave long and deep scars on people memories. Teodor Adorno, whose work is constantly quoted in relation to various ideologies that inform society and art, famously stated that writing a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric; after such an experience, it becomes impossible to write poetry. Maintaining the analogy, we may also say that after the experience of communist in Romania, writing poetry and, making art in traditional formats, have turned increasingly difficult. Writers sought new forms of expression capable of reflecting not only the trauma of the past but also the brutal transition to a new socio-economic reality. After almost half a century of tension between the wooden language and hypocrisy of the communist propaganda and the elaborate literary devices used by Romanian writers to conceal subversive political innuendos and disguise their true feelings, people grew suspicious of art and accused it of lack of sincerity. This may explain why the poetic discourse of post-communist literary groups has begun to mimic reality to the point of abolishing the borders between art and life. In order to continue to be meaningful, poetry became hyper-real in Romania. The new forms of poetry amplified the banality and dreariness of everyday life experience and sensations to the point of making the real appear overwhelmingly flat or abject, super-boring or, on the opposite, horriblein a word, excessively real, hyper-real. A clarification is needed from the start to avoid confusions. The meaning of hyper-reality in the texts of Baudrillard, Eco and other cultural critics, and the meaning of hyper-reality I am discussing here are different. I am not referring either to hyper-reality as "the simulation of something which never really existed" (Jean Baudrillard) or as “the authentic fake" (Umberto Eco). Hyper-reality in the context of Romanian contemporary culture simply means the use of reality as a special effect.


This obsession for the real and for authenticity, the rejection of any form of compromise and the contamination of esthetic by ethic, are the main characteristics of contemporary Romanian poetry. A similar neo-realistic trend is present also in the recent Romanian theater and in the new wave of Romanian cinema.


To discuss this pattern, I need to introduce Harold Bloom’s concept of the anxiety of influence; it invites us to read the history of poetry as a sort of stylistic chain reaction wherein each poet carries on a hidden dialogue with his or her peers and predecessors. On one side, Bloom’s theory explains the non-linear sequence of generations and schools of poets within a certain culture, whereas on the other, it accounts for the occurrence of similar stylistic patterns in temporally or spatially remote cultures.


A brief introduction in the history of the recent Romanian poetry will help, I hope, the foreign reader to understand better the historic origins of this obsessive quest for the Real in post-communist Romanian poetry, as opposed to the poetry of the preceding decade under communist hegemony.


The story of contemporary Romanian poetic attitudes begins in the final decade before the fall of the Iron Curtain. Separated from the American Beatnik momentum by more than twenty years, a similar literary orientation had its debut in Romania with the 1982 anthology, Air with Diamonds (Aer cu diamante), which included texts by four young poets; its fresh wind ruffled the Romanian “esthetics of poetry.” In opposition to the carefully constructed, highbrow linguistic towers erected by their predecessors who regarded themselves (in high modernist fashion) as sort of priests serving the mass on the altars of Saint Poetry, the Generation ’80 poets wrote playful, colloquial, often anecdotal or narrative texts. They countered the modernist’s mysticosophical syndrome of arcane revelation with an ironic, inherently mocking deconstructive postmodernist laughter.


Bloom coined his syntagm of the anxiety of influence not only to define some kind of antagonism but also to explain the so-called imitation of the predecessors. Thus, it appears that the American 60’s and the Romanian 80’s stylistic revolutions may be linked in more than one way. The Romanian poets of the Generation ‘80 owe a great deal to the Beat poetry, from Ginsberg’s Howl and Kaddish, to the poetic accomplishments of Corso, Ferlinghetti and Snyder; this has been formally acknowledged by Mircea Cãrtãrescu, himself one of the most gifted contemporary Romanian writers and a member of the Generation ’80. In ”Romanian Postmodernism”, a critical monograph dedicated to this movement, he states that some of his colleagues, including he himself, borrowed aspects of “literary techniques” from the Beats:

„-“the pouring never-ending, almost epical aspect of the poems, the agglutination and distortion of reality, etc. He adds, „-“But, the anti-capitalistic and, sometimes, too simplistic populist ideology of the Beatniks was strange to the Romanian 80’s poets.”- The Romanian poets focus on the hedonistic aspects of art is very different from the Beatniks’ politically engaged public performances. Romanian postmodernist poetry published before December 1989 lacks in any form of implied political engagement.


In fact, it can be argued that the postmodernism made in Romania under the gloomiest years of Ceauºescu’s dictatorship was not so much a type of belated import, an exotic western friandise, as it was a form of spiritual resistance, a declaration of inner freedom against an oppressive regime. It might have been a form of escapism, too; if so, it was a healthy form of escape, a natural immune reaction against an alienating reality. It seems to me that in Romania, the Beat generation style was grafted on an autochthonous sensitivity shift that was not fed by any kind of foreign literary influences; more likely, this was the outcome of the struggle carried on by a number of poets who kept the fire of their imagination burning, despite the communist censorship. It can be also argued that within the closed borders and controlled media, all the Western, pop-culture and literary references had an unavoidable, though never explicit, political dimension.


The postmodernist worldview was brutally challenged by the political and socio-economical mutations that appeared in post-communist Romanian society after 1989. This was soon reflected by a change in the poetic tone also. The apocalyptic visions of Ioan Es. Pop and the fantastic, dark-humored family myth of Cristian Popescu’s prose poems mark not only a change of tone but, more importantly, a change of attitude: if in Romanian postmodernism, baroque accumulations and inter-textualist playfulness were the norm, poets of the Generation 90 introduced various form of autobiographism and a preoccupation with authenticity, preparing the ground for the paradigm shift brought by the Generation 2000 poets.


In September 1998, two Romanian poets, Dumitru Crudu and Marius Ianuº, wrote “The Fracturist Manifesto” declaring that “fracturism is the first model of a radical break from postmodernism” and that “fracturism is a movement developed by writers who live as they write, excluding social lies from their poetry; the writers who adhere to this movement have no career expectations and ambitions, they do not perceive art as a form of business from which one can draw any profit.” This manifesto marks the beginning of a decade in which authenticity and directness became a kind of esthetic Fata Morgana; capturing the evanescent reality of feelings and sensations, this “vanishing point that whistles” of the Real, became a quixotic quest not only in literature but also in Romanian art in general. The point was reinforced by Dumitru Crudu in an article that followed: “in order for literature to be truthful, believable and irreducible to the fireworks of a superficial non-conformism, it should have an existential and biographical motivation.(…) The fracturist proposal was to move the accent from the object to the one who writes. Only the reactions of the one who writes are important and not the object he/she describes. (…) Only thus can we reinvent emotion, only thus can we reinvent the primary thrill of the Real.”


Ironically, in Romania, the Beat generation influenced both the Generation ’80 poets and the Generation 2000 poets who rebelled against the perceived Romanian postmodernist frivolity and lack of social commitment. Marius Ianuº, co-founder with Dumitru Crudu of the Fracturist Movement, wrote an infamous poem that can be read almost as a karaoke hiphop version of Ginsberg’s Howl”, that Ianuº had translated into Romanian.


Born a decade later than the American literary movement of postmodernism, Romanian postmodernism was a combination of an imported set of perspectives and a game of double entendre with the communist censorship. This esthetic temporal gap disappeared at the beginning of the third millennium. Today, Romanian hyper-realism is in perfect sync with the neo-realism of the brand new glocal world. The postmodern worldview is quickly becoming ineffective and Romanian poets may have not only understood this but moved on to experience other forms of poetic expression before most others did. Nicolas Bourriaud, the curator of Tate Britain 2009 exhibition, introduced in the “Altermodern Manifesto”essay the idea that that “postmodernism is coming to an end, and we are experiencing the emergence of a global altermodernity.” Many Romanian poets abandoned the postmodernist agenda more than a decade ago and can be read today as altermoderns avant la lettre. Clearly, now, contemporary Romanian poetry has an unprecedented urgency and a truly world-wide relevance.


Hyper-realism is the strategy used by Romanian poets to coax, lure, imitate, capture, tame, exorcise Reality in their texts.


First of all I want to make a clear distinction between hyper-realism as a stylistic strategy and as interrogating on a personal level what Reality is, a questioning that leads to at least as many answers as inhabitants of the planet Earth. Instinctively human beings try to find or create meaning in their lives and in the world, and, for most people, this search for meaning is their Reality. Postmodernist authors declared any meaning relative because it can be manipulated; according to the postmodernist credo, every text can be deconstructed/reconstructed ad nauseam according to the whims or interest of the critic/reader. The only solution for young poets, the only honest way out of the verbal games and intellectual vertigo of their postmodernist predecessors, was to drop any pretention to a distinct and privileged poetic discourse, that is, metaphors, tropes, rhythms and rhymes, was to break altogether the distorting mirror of poetic language and contemplate the banality of day to day life. They did this by turning their attention to the squalor, triviality but also to the myriads of little pleasures and miracles of human existence and by using an unadorned language that oscillates between violence and miserabilism, on one hand, and a minimalistic “langue des enfants et des anges,, on the other hand. In fact, the only solution was to completely let go of Poetry; miraculously, as in the Phoenix myth, by means of the identical gesture, poetry became livelier than ever.


If a preoccupation for authenticity is a common trend in the Romanian poetry of the last decade, the ways of expressing it have been far from being homogeneous. Thus, another feature of this poetry, has been its extremely protean presentation, ranging from variations of a down-in-the-gutter autobiographism (e.g., Dan Sociu) to more or less grotesque forms of neo-expressionism (e.g., Dan Coman and Teodor Dunã). The reader of this anthology will traverse very different landscapes of lyrical expression, also, we hope, stopping to explore them closely on his way, and doing so more than one time.


In another twist, after the juvenile enthusiasm of discovering new poetic horizons and after all the battles fought under the banner of the hyper-real, some of the poets decided that this was not enough for them and turned to religion in order to find better answers to their queries and worries; others, for example a young poet who specifically asked us to keep his name anonymous, declared his entire output of poems “public property” and simply stopped writing poetry and moved to more prosaic activities.


Now, almost a decade after “fracturism” brought forward its preoccupation with authenticity and the real, after the storms of every possible excesses have passed, after using (and abusing!) shock, scatology and pleasure as fundamental esthetic principles, the tone of the Romanian poetry has again changed. Young poets post their texts online on various blogs and build internet communities similar to the Flarf and other movements in U.S. Some of them write directly in English or post translations of their poems on the web. Today, discussion on poetry can no longer be carried on in terms of generation or style. In the digital age, the medium itself of Romanian poetry became hyper-real. Likewise, styles and poetic agendas vary with the speed of one’s modem connection and the intensity of the number of links found by your search engine. But even at this fast-forward pace of cultures made of bits and bytes, reading a poem remains one of the most intimate, and time-resistant, acts. In the end, what abides beyond generations and manifestos, beyond what may be real or merely another linguistic game, is the pure joy of experiencing a poem, passing again and again over this fragile bridge of words where our souls meet in silent communion.    


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