Generous soul hidden under powerful penname
[b]This year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of People’s Poet of Belarus Maxim Tank[/b] A military tank’s most important feature is probably its armour and there’s no doubt that the young poet and Komsomol member certainly needed powerful armour in his struggle for high ideals. He dreamt of uniting his native Western Belarus with its eastern part - divided through historical circumstances. He first called himself Maxim Tank, before the age of 20, in Vilnya (now Lithuanian Vilnius, which was once a Belarusian town). In October 1932, he used the pen name to sign his poem dedicated to the Polish miners’ strike. He had already been a member of the underground movement for three years and was co-operating with Communist editions, for which he had been sent to prison three times, spending almost two years incarcerated (with small breaks). By September 17th, 1939, on his 27th birthday, he saw the release of three collections of his poetry. Moreover, that day also saw the reuniting of Belarus.
A military tank’s most important feature is probably its armour and there’s no doubt that the young poet and Komsomol member certainly needed powerful armour in his struggle for high ideals. He dreamt of uniting his native Western Belarus with its eastern part - divided through historical circumstances.
He first called himself Maxim Tank, before the age of 20, in Vilnya (now Lithuanian Vilnius, which was once a Belarusian town). In October 1932, he used the pen name to sign his poem dedicated to the Polish miners’ strike. He had already been a member of the underground movement for three years and was co-operating with Communist editions, for which he had been sent to prison three times, spending almost two years incarcerated (with small breaks). By September 17th, 1939, on his 27th birthday, he saw the release of three collections of his poetry. Moreover, that day also saw the reuniting of Belarus.
The youngster selected Belarusian verses as his armour in struggling for Belarusian unity, native language and Communist ideals. However, he always highly appreciated and respected Polish and Russian culture, admitting that some of his first verses and a ‘young poem’ were written under the influence of Mikhail Lermontov. From his recollections, we know that he read books in Polish as a small boy in Pilkovshchina village (now the Minsk Region’s Myadel District, not far from Lake Naroch) rather than in his native language. It is understandable as, at that time, this was a Polish territory. He began to study at home and continued at a Polish primary school, where it was forbidden to speak Belarusian or Russian. Books by Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Sienkiewicz, Kraszewski, Orzeszkowa and Konopnicka opened his eyes to the world of literature.
As to his penname, in an interview, he recollected: ‘Maxim comes from Gorky, under whose influence we all were at that time. As far as Tank is concerned, I can’t explain it. Like many young poets, it seemed to me that literary success depended on a high-sounding penname. The world of ‘plant’ names had been exhausted: Kolas, Charot, Pushcha and Vasilek… I wanted something strong and found Tank…’
Unfortunately, Soviet society favoured ‘fighting’ and patriotic verse, much to his disappointment. He wrote: ‘Our poetry is heavy, like a stone taken from a cobbled pavement during a street fight. It is discordant, like a groan and a shout, and red, like shed blood.’ He spent many years also struggling against fascism but was always keen to unlock the soul’s secrets: his own and those of others — near and far. Many of his poems are dedicated to women and love. In his famous Earrings (put to Vladimir Mulyavin’s music), he wrote: ‘Oh, how many times did I ask for a date’. Like others, it lives on through song even today.
At 36, he became editor-in-chief of Polymya — the most important literary magazine of the BSSR. As a member of various delegations, he visited Western Europe, the USA, Chile, China and Japan. Three times, he represented the country’s interests at the UN. Moreover, he was a participant of the 1st World Congress of the Supporters of Peace (his Parisian Diary poem is dedicated to the forum); he took part in several similar.
He drew on the traditions of various cultures in his poems: In Paris, Flight over Icebergs, Bridge of Eternal Calm, Wind of the Homeland, Cosmology, Near the Bottom of the Ojos del Salado, At Hiroshima Museum and Splinter from Shakespeare’s House… According to Tank’s son, during foreign trips, his father would always try to go to the local market, to watch local people and feel their routines.
He would bring back unusual souvenirs, such as a piece of copper ore from Chile and a splinter of wood from the house where Shakespeare lived in England. In 1991, at the end of his life (he died in 1994) a book of his translations appeared: On Starry Roads. His Fatherland was always close to his heart and it was probably there that he wrote his best verse: ‘As a travelling artist, I always bring with me the landscapes of my homeland…’
For almost a quarter of a century, from 1966 to 1990, Maxim Tank headed the Union of Writers of Belarus, strengthening inter-literary ties. He translated into Belarusian the works of an impressive 160 poets and had his own works released in Russian, Ukrainian, Lithuania, Latvian, Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, Polish, Bulgarian, Korean and other languages. Translators clearly returned his favour.
He rarely used rhyme or rhythm, focusing on thoughts, images and impulses of the soul: ‘A porch taken from recollections/ Stays with me/ Doors on hinges/ of the cricket’s song/ Stay with me/ Windows glazed with eyes of my relatives/ Stay with me/ How can I not look back even if I freeze like a pillar of salt?’
Maxim Tank released dozens of collections of verse, allowing fans to enter a wonderful world of delicate poetry, light yet deeply meaningful.
On September 15th, on the eve of the anniversary, Myadel hosted a Republican holiday of poetry and song dedicated to Maxim Tank: I Wrote Each Song with My Heart. It was widely covered by various media. The Institute of Language and Literature (named after Yakub Kolas and Yanka Kupala) at the National Academy of Sciences, prepared a collection of Tank’s works in 13 volumes — released by the Belaruskaya Navuka Publishing House. During the presentation of the edition at the State Museum of Belarusian Literary History, it was noted that researchers had worked hard on the edition for over 15 years. The volumes contain verse and poetry by the classical writer, as well as his stories, essays, satirical articles, notes, articles, reviews, speeches and many other materials. Many archive documents have been published for the first time.
The Mastatskaya Litaratura Publishing House has released Maxim Tank: Stone, Iron and Gold — containing recollections, essays and dedications. It continues The Life of Outstanding People of Belarus series. During its presentation at the Literary Museum, much was spoken of the People’s Poet of Belarus, who was an academician of the National Academy of Sciences, a Hero of Socialist Labour and a laureate of numerous awards and prizes. Those present warmly recollected the man they called Uncle Maxim, Grandfather Maxim and generous friend Yevgeny Ivanovich. Reading the recollections of his friends and fellow writers, we come to understand him as a person in whom philosophical magnificence and earthly beauty harmoniously co-existed. All those who knew him noted his charm and kindness, his talent and his philosophical nature. He continues to live in the hearts of his descendants.
Maxim Tank: Stone, Iron and Gold was launched with the attendance of writers and researchers; many spoke, including those connected with the release of the book. Famous literary expert Vyacheslav Rogoisha expressed his desire to see the book expanded, adding his family tree and other items of interest. For those potentially involved, I refer to my article: Ears Harvesting: Maxim Tank in his Home Interior — published by Rodnae Slova magazine (#9/1992).
I met and spoke with Yevgeny Ivanovich, claiming his autograph on the eve of his 80th birthday, just as independent Belarus was appearing on the map. I carefully kept his signed book and Tank’s ‘legacy’ to literary society. During our leisurely chat, he told me that, once, his younger colleagues came to him for his ‘blessing’ for their participation in an election campaign. The former undergrounder advised them ‘not to become engaged in politics’, rather writing, if they had the talent.
By Ivan Zhdanovich