Bohdan Ihor Antonych


The Lemkos region (Ukrainian: “Лемківщина”), where Bohdan Ihor Antonych (1909 – 1937) was born, is situated among the Carpathians and consists of gently undulating pastures rising to fir-lined mountains and limestone escarpments. The Lemkos (Ukrainian: “Лемки”) were a Ukrainian mountain people whose culture and traditions were rooted in crop cycles and pagan mythology and, in Antonych’s poems, the boundaries between the narrator, the natural world and the music of the poems become blurred within an ecstatic pagan celebration of life. Antonych was only 27 when he died, but he seems to have lived several lives in one lifetime, producing six collections of poetry, reams of prose, an opera libretto, a novella, an unfinished novel, as well as editing a couple of journals.
Although he would have been surrounded by people speaking the Lemkos dialect in his childhood, he attended a Ukrainian language grammar school and, between 1928 and 1933, Lviv University. He wrote in literary Ukrainian, but his work was sprinkled with dialect terms and has a fevered energetic imagery reminiscent of Dylan Thomas. Moss warms “like cat fur”, and the nocturnal forest becomes an orchestra playing music that manifests itself as light. He uses many verse forms, ranging from sonnets comprising two quatrains and two tercets, to free verse, and numerous improvised stanza forms.
Antonych’s death deprived Europe of one of the greatest talents of his  generation. His work, with its mystic overtones, was ignored by the Soviets. Starting from the mid-1960s, interest in his writing has revived in the Ukrainian diaspora, but he remains relatively unknown. His poetry with its elemental power is a worthy introduction to a great and neglected national literature.
Stephen Komarnyckyj

Featured Reading Group Titles:

Antonych’s selected works, outlined here, are available online. One of the poems from The Green Gospel, ‘Duet‘, translated by Stephen Komarnyckyj, appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation.

Download Antonych’s poems translated by Stephen Komarnyckyj.

More information:

  • This title features as part of our Spring-Summer 2013 Russian and Ukrainian Reading Group

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  1. Anna Aslanyan says:

    The main strength of Antonych’s poetry lies in its imagery. ‘Spring’ – reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ – is but one example of a poem where the author grows together with young grass, the sky breaks into a multitude of glass shards and cuckoos peck away at the moon. Such wild energy, most notably seen in ‘Idolatrous Nights’, carries these poems far; when it runs out, as happens on a fair number of occasions, a poem falls flat.
    The best of Antonych’s collections is The Green Gospel with its pantheism and expressions of free spirit. Still, not all of it might be equally attractive for a potential English-language audience. The best way to publish Antonych would be to compile a special selection that would work for present-day readers with little or no knowledge of Ukrainian literature. One thing to be wary of is the kind of colonial approach that often mires people’s attitude to authors born somewhere they have never heard of. It would be a shame if Antonych’s love for his native land, manifested in his work, was perceived as an ethnic shtick.
    To put out a successful collection, one needs a good translator/editor duo. Stephen Komarnyckyj’s samples prove that Antonych’s poetry has found a passionate and talented translator. He has to be joined by a judicious editor if this project is to take off. Publishers interested in poetry would be well advised to give it some thought.

  2. Maria Ieshchenko says:

    I was rather disappointed with Antonych’s poetry. Rhymes seem artificial, metaphors shallow and themes rather bitty. I have a strong impression that the author’s writing is not led by emotions, mental states or phenomena that he wants to share with the reader, but by his search for words and rhymes that would «work», the task that he doesn’t seem to fulfil either, his verses being often meaningless. Moreover, in my opinion, his style is not representative for Ukrainian poetry of that period in general, the latter being a lot more powerful in terms of vocabulary and techniques. Even though there are some individual poems by Antonych that are well written and inspiring, I don’t see any value in translating all his work and dedicating a separate edition to it. However, selected examples of his poetry could be part of a larger edition, including other authors.

  3. Steve Komarnyckyj says:

    It is possible for one poet to evoke a range of reactions from enthusiasm to disdain. A particularly striking example is offered by Robert Lowell who was hugely admired by Seamus Heaney and many readers of English language poetry, while being regarded less favourably by John Ashbery. In the case of Antonych, however, his poetry is generally received enthusiastically by Ukrainians and non Ukrainians alike. The Russian translator Aleksandr Shapiro regards Antonych in high esteem, and his poetry was actually recommended by Ilma Rakusa. There are countless positive critical appreciations of Antonych, who led “modernist Ukrainian poetry into the aestrhetic territory of a wider Europe” (Drozdovskyi) , available from Ukraine- his place in the country’s literary canon is firmly established, because of his virtuosity and his passionate engagement with the human condition.

    By contract with most other Ukrainian writers during this period Antonych lived in the Western area, which was then within the Polish border. His colleagues in Soviet Ukraine were subject to a literary cull, with many writers being arrested, executed or otherwise removed from on specious pretexts. These include Oleksa Vlyzko (1908-34) shot on the basis of ludicrous accusations, Yevhen Pluzhnyk, Mykola Kulish, another ESA recommendation, both of whom died following their arrest and incarceration, and many others. These authors were part of generation that was opening up new possibilities for literature following the publication of Tychyna’s Solar Clarinets (1919) a volume on a par with any of the major modernist collections of European literature . His and their names should be as well known as those of Blok, Mayakovsky and Mandelstam. I would welcome any programme to raise awareness of these other Ukrainian writers, but the value of their work does not, in any way, detract from Antonych’s position as a major, and relatively unknown, European author.

    What would a book add given that there is already a selection of his verse available in English via an America University Press? My approach is a little different, I translate as someone who is, hopefully, developing a profile as a poet, and with an eye to making the translations work as poems- it would allow me to introduce Antonych to the English reader by place poems in journals, thus establishing the books credibility and generating readers in a time honoured fashion. I have a number of ideas as to where to present the book and how it can be publicised which are, I believe, worthy of further consideration. I know that this volume, which will be published at some point, would refute any suggestion of Antonych as, for the most part, a poetaster with only a few good poems to offer.

    I hope that the reading group is engaging with Antonych and discovering this crazy, pagan poet with the sun in his pocket for themselves.


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