In Defence of Poetry

Here are some extracts from a talk given in Rotterdam in 1992 by Galsan Tschinag, a Mongolian poet and the spokesman for the traditions of the nomadic Tuvan people, whom he led back to their original home after the fall of Communism. It is foremost a defence of the poetic sensibility, but also a profound statement of human potential and, by implication, of the authentic experience that workshop practice tries to approach. Poetry provides it – workshop, too, can be ‘a spice in everyday life, a sting against habit’, capable of transforming lives outweighed by materialist consumption. To read Galsan Tschinag’s talk in full, visit

I come from a back pocket of the nomadic world of Central Asia, many of you present here might even considered it an ancient time, a different culture. The mountains of the High Altai in Mongolia are my home, and up to the present day they have kept the members of my tribe together with our history and with the traces of my childhood hidden away. The Turkic-speaking Mongol Tuva to which I belong are considered by some to be behind the times. And indeed there are a couple of things they do not have, such as their own script. Everything is handed on orally, history as well as stories, first of all the epics, which are considered sacred and powerful, so powerful that they can only be recited when the time of the thunderstorms is over.

From the beginning I knew that I would use a foreign language if destiny chose me to become the first writing poet of my people. In a roundabout way, via foreign languages and scripts, I had to get there. First it was Mongolian, recordable in a version of the Cyrillic alphabet which had been extended by two more letters; later two more languages and scripts were added.

We escaped time, as it were; what others consider behind the times is close to the roots, and, therefore, vital to us. For the primeval times in which we still live match with the concept of the world that we inherit from our grown-ups and which we, once grown-ups ourselves, will hand on to our children. This is a simple image: man is part of a complete whole fully pervaded by life, and as such he is kindred with all creatures; that is why he is equal in status with the smallest as well as the greatest before Father Heaven and Mother Earth. 

Since my early childhood my Self has been shaped by shamanism.

My first verses were shamanic chants, praises and pleas to the spirits of the rocks and trees and water that surrounded me. To create verses on the spot and to fit them into a suitable melody was the daily exercise I had to attend to as an apprentice of shamanism. Later when I became modern and learned how to write, this was very helpful. I was trained in making up verses, my senses were sharpened for the melodious sound of words and the proper order of things.

It is particular for the Tuva shamans that every one of them is a poet, a singer; hence everything is expressed in songs based on verse. To the shaman, a song is like tinder, he is enraptured by his own creation, he gets in top form, in trance, which is necessary for the dialogue with the spirits. Essential is the state in which the shaman as well as the poet need to be: they are inspired, enthusiastic. For this states of mind of both, our language has got one and the same word.

Shaman and poet are not particularly unassuming beings. They do not want to accept moderation, nor do they want to be tamed. Both suffer from megalomania, they compare themselves to great things, to the mountain, the sea, the sky, its thunder and lightning. They get dangerously close to madness when they start working.

And this illness is given, it has been enclosed in the bag of fortune that according to our belief every human being has been endowed with by the Creator. It has been given to them, and it is a gift indeed. It is highly vulnerable, it can be healed in the sense that it gets lost, blunted. But because in the world where I come from both shaman and poet still have a high reputation, everything is done so that this illness will not wane, that it becomes chronic and more persistent with every break-out, and gets refined.

Human relationships, which live on closeness and sharing and are thus based on the manifoldness of things, are most valuable to us Tuvans. We always tolerate the one who is different by regarding the different quality as extra-ordinary and by leaving the burden to the one to whom it belongs…

This tolerance is based on the knowledge: only the shaman, the poet, who competes with infinity, can achieve what is denied to others, but which will eventually be beneficial to everyone. It is above all and particularly these extra-ordinary people who give advice and live, because they have experienced the extra-ordinary and even rapturous side of life; this enables them to put things that have fallen apart or into dis-order back into their proper place.

It seems that with the advancement of civilization, people with an innate and active sensitivity are treated with less tolerance. Suddenly other measures are in force. As if the modern man with his second hand sensory devices now despises his human senses and also the innate feelers that he had been equipped with by Mother Nature, and does not trust them any more. He considers the malady of creativity futile and irritating. Hence he tends to ignore nature within himself and in everyone beside him, to suppress it, and does not to allow for man’s authenticity. Therefore it is one of the main problems of an artist today that sooner or later he has to hide his nature and adjust himself to society.

Defence of poetry thus means: defence of humanity, defence of authenticity, it means defence of the stone against plaster, defence of wood against plastic, defence of the word of the mother tongue against the foreign word, the technical jargon, defence of feeling against hypocrisy and finally defence of everything real and true against the fashion of the day and intentional lies.

Poetry is an enormous counter-force against the oppressing weight of the material world. It is a spice in everyday life, a sting against habit, it changes life, which is more and more outweighed by consumption.

Poetry, after all, belongs to the side of the heart in opposition to the stomach.

With those people who have an overfed stomach and an oppressed heart, poetry has a hard time. Like our inner parts, so are our thoughts. From disturbed, dulled thoughts springs disturbed, weakened poetry. The reduction of poetry to decoration, as part of consumption, chopped-up prose, the unimaginative, pathetic play with form, the shameless, shallow pomposity about truism, the stringing-together of sentences that are grammatically correct but cold and death in their structure – a pseudo poetry, produced on a massive scale almost like shoes, Hamburgers and non-returnable bottles, but with one decisive consequence: it annoys the readers and kills their feeling for poetry.

Barrenness prevails in the nomadic world, and life is still highly dependent on the times of day and year, it is subject to the laws of nature. Yet it seems as if the outer modesty necessarily provokes a counterbalance: inner abundance. The member of a kinship group is confined by tradition; he has to draw his intellectual and spiritual nourishment from the stony slopes of the barren, bleak mountains.

Yes, especially the mountains – they personify the very essence of nature. They are also grandfathers to us whom we address in verse several times a day and to whom we give offerings as well. This way the nomad has a strong bond with the earth, through and beyond the mountains he is rooted in the water, the woods and the dimensions of space. And likewisely with his own human roots and fruits, with his ancestors and future companions. With all of them, as well as with every single element of creation he feels akin, feels responsible for them, thus it is part of his daily life to deal with them like he deals with his fellow creatures. And the particularity about this is that one has to address the cult objects with a refined, clear and powerful poetic language in order to be heard.

In this world of nomadism and its shamanic spirits, essential elements could keep their integrity up to the present day. And the same is true for literature. Therefore poetry and prose are not clearly distinguishable, they merge into each other. Prose is the smooth, fertile ground from which poetry grows to the sublime.

When I set foot in written literature, I consciously clung to the broad and lively poetic narrative tradition of our heroic epics, which meant that I kept away from the style of socialist realism current in the East at that time, but also from the reserved, dissecting-mending writing technique of the modern time.

Poetry as the highest-developed organ in the body of human life had to protect its traditional position in nomadic literature up to today, and had succeeded in doing so. It is the interrelation between Nature and Man. It is the images that are passed on from the mother, nature, directly to us, one of her children. It is the elements that attract each other, rush towards each other and immediately form a unity, in what form soever.

Which are the elements that surround the shaman poet? It is the water, it is the wind, it is the fire, it is the earth. He is at their mercy, they blow and go through him. He accepts their challenge with devotion and wants to live on and with and in them. Nature herself provides his heroes. And because he is so devoted to her, goes to her, she is well-disposed towards him. So they, nature and the shamanic poet, are interwoven with each other. And in this fusion, in the mutual penetration, there lies the birthplace of poetry. Part of it is a quest that grows into an obsession and only ceases when a find is made; both are full with longing, it burns in the one and the other, sparks fly, flames flash, words are uttered. This is shamanic, this is the primaeval force at work.

Where nature and poet meet, a unity is formed. Something becomes whole, is healed. And what is healed and whole is holy, is powerful.

I know that words like sky, earth, holy, cause fear in the conquering man who turned his back on nature and placed himself above her. But in the nomadic world where the child has not yet conquered and enslaved his mother, they are still fresh and charged, sparkling vigorously. Probably because the things underlying these names are still elements of everyday life. Our sky does not only dome above us, it also lives within us. And one day when we transform into the condition that others call death and consider the end, we will turn into the sky entirely. Dying has many meanings in our language, to turn into the sky is probably one of the most beautiful ones…

In my point of view, the poetic I is nowadays more endangered than ever. It is quite possible that the inner parts of man shrink more and more, and that they become more impervious to the influences of great heat and hot flushes with the extension of the outer cover. Expressions in poetry collections become increasingly duller and more pathetic. Either the former wild and unpredictable nature of the poet has been infected by social norms and has taken cover in a warm, comfortable place in the house of order, and lets us know that we can rely on it. Or it is opposing every order, rejects everything conventional but also everything that proved to be worthwhile, and finally, unable to produce anything better, it makes a lot of fuss about nothing. Both have in common that they lack fire and impact. And the one like the other is afraid of pathos and incapable of passion. History tells us: lack of pathos and passion have always led to decline…

As far as I am concerned I treat my person in a quite relaxed way. I have a good reason for that. Because I am neither Galsan nor Tschinag. I do not consider the literature that I present far away from home to be my very own creation, but rather the collective work of a people that has never ever had the possibility to find its own language, or even its voice. In this sense I consider myself a necessity of our time, the swansong of a culture that has been overpowered by a predominator and forced to give way. I am not a poet in the sense that I have extraordinary talent, but that I am the messenger of an epoch that has been late. I was cast far away from my world and my people, I have been picked up as a find, was refined and handed back – to where I came from. From the European point of view I have in me a bit of Asian, a hint of nomadism and shamanism, a shadow of ancient times, and also a scrap of Europe, a trace of civilization and a fluff of present time, seen from the other, our point of view.

As much as I was born and sent by the archaic East, the modern Western world formed me and sent me back. I became a bridge between worlds and times, so to speak. Besides, I was granted the privilege to be witness to radical historical changes: I was born into primaeval times, into a primitive society, I grew up in socialism and now I stand face to face with capitalism. Each system has formed me, I profited from all of them. I was lucky, therefore, in the Goethean sense of the word…

Translated by Kathrin Lang