Site icon ELA Brave and True by Marilyn Yung

Ukrainian Poetry: Words for War

Videos and texts for poetry from Ukraine

I’m old enough to remember the waning days of the Cold War. Unfortunately, with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine about ten days ago, it feels as if “everything old is new again.” The uneasiness and apprehension has returned and I find myself checking my Associated Press news app much more often than I should for the latest from Eastern Europe.

It goes without saying that students are also aware of the invasion. I even overheard students last week discussing the draft and how it works. (Here’s a good article for that, by the way.)

However, I don’t want students to worry. I want them to instead feel fully informed.

Could poetry help students in this regard?

It reminds me of when I was in high school forty years ago. As a young person, I remember feeling very uninformed about the USSR. So, I took control and educated myself by reading and writing about it. I researched Russian and Soviet history, the structure of the Communist Party, and the Politburo.

This was around 1984 — WAY before the Internet — and I didn’t have a lot of sources at my disposal. However, I did have a set of World Book encyclopedias in our home, so that was my teacher. I read, took notes, and typed those notes onto about ten pages of typing paper. Then I bound those pages into a three-ring binder. It was my own little project and learning about the USSR gave me power and control. (I wish I still had it, but it has since disappeared.)

Photo by Katie Godowski on Pexels.com

Flash forward to Feb. 23 and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Yes, students are reading, watching, and hearing news from myriad news sources… and unfortunately, not all of them are accurate or reliable. So, as far as news goes, students are saturated with it.

But poetry is another story.

Might poetry help students better understand the Ukrainian people and the conflict… even just a little? Can reading the poems written by those directly involved with the war empower us to feel more educated about or more in control of the conflict? If nothing else, can Ukrainian poetry — such as that in Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine — be a unifying and empowering force as we watch events unfold?

Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine is published by Academic Studies Press, described by the ASP website as a “scholarly publisher devoted to advancing knowledge and understanding in the humanities and social sciences, with an emphasis on Jewish Studies and Slavic Studies. Find the book at ASP or on Amazon.com.

Last week, I purchased Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine. Published in 2017, the book shows the emergence of a new poetry genre: war poems.

According to the publisher, Academic Studies Press, “The armed conflict in the east of Ukraine brought about an emergence of a distinctive trend in contemporary Ukrainian poetry: the poetry of war. Directly and indirectly, the poems collected in this volume engage with the events and experiences of war, reflecting on the themes of alienation, loss, dislocation, and disability; as well as justice, heroism, courage, resilience, generosity, and forgiveness. In addressing these themes, the poems also raise questions about art, politics, citizenship, and moral responsibility. The anthology brings together some of the most compelling poetic voices from different regions of Ukraine. Young and old, female and male, somber and ironic, tragic and playful, filled with extraordinary terror and ordinary human delights, the voices recreate the human sounds of war in its tragic complexity.”

While the anthology recorded the experiences of Ukraine’s eastern troubles in 2014 (learn more here on vox.com), the poems within the book resonate and can be applied to the situation today.

…people carry explosives around the city in plastic shopping bags…
The anthology Words for War includes sections with poetry from sixteen Ukrainian writers.

Here’s one poem from Words for War written by the Russian-language poet Boris Khersonsky:

people carry explosives around the city
in plastic shopping bags and little suitcases
they trample the cobblestone we learn their secrets
only the day after and even then it's just checking the facts

how many windows shattered how many collapsed balconies
did anyone die or is everyone alive and kicking
only frightened that there is no more peaceful life perhaps
war happens and the laws of war are a cruel thing

or perhaps there are no more laws and explosions are now the norm
we don't get up from the table just shiver and shed some hope
an enemy chooses weapons as a thief finds the pick for a door
when in fact the door is already open

-Translated from the Russian by Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco

Words are not needed to follow up Khersonky’s verse, and videos on the publisher’s website clearly add an immediacy to the works.

Videos add another dimension to poems

Visit YouTube or the publisher, Academic Studies Press, to find these videos and other resources.

A poem a day

As a runup to National Poetry Month in April, (and because I’m falling more in love with good poetry by the day!), I’ve been reading a poem just about every other day as a bell-ringer in my junior American Literature classes. Next week, I plan to read a poem from the Words for War anthology.

The poems in #WordsforWar tell the stories of Ukraine. Students needs to experience these poems. #Ukraine #poetry

As a result of the daily readings, my students are becoming more comfortable with experiencing poems. To be sure, I have heard some resistance; some students have told me they tire of having to “figure out” what poems mean. However, I counter that idea by explaining poetry doesn’t have to be understood, just felt.

Photo: Nati Melnychuk on Unsplash

I do have a little bit of help with immersing kids in poetry, though, from the Internet. Thanks to social media such as Instagram, students are exposed to contemporary poetry like never before. With their near daily posts, Insta-poets (think atticus, r.c. Perez, and Rupi Kaur) profess the power of poetry to celebrate and strengthen our lives.

And that power is present in their lives and in the lives of Ukrainians. To order Words for War, click here. If you’re needing other sources for Ukrainian poetry (including poems written in late 2021), check out the articles and excerpts below from LitHub.



Thanks for reading my ruminations on poetry, connection, and the crisis in Ukraine.

As I continue to teach more and more poetry, I am beginning to understand its power in our lives. What are your thoughts about poetry and how it can be a real source of affirmation and strength in the lives of students? Feel free to leave a comment below or on my Contact Page.



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