Language as Art (no. 2)

Chris McNab | 4 March 2019

In my previous blog, I committed myself to describing what I think are the key ingredients in the ‘voice’ behind Kazakh poetry, as diverse as that body of work is. Having given my rationale, here are what I see as the core elements.

1) Nature – Poetical reflections on nature are global, but Kazakhstan’s vast expanses of steppe, often bordered by towering mountain ranges or cut through with thundering rivers, provide a highly specific space for reflection, analogy and metaphor. Frequent references to the steppe, especially in connection with Kazakhstan’s nomadic traditions, give an airy and expansive thematic space at the heart of many of the poems.

2) History – Kazakhstan’s tribal conflicts and its cultural oppression under the Russian then the Soviet regimes are frequent landmarks within the verse. The upheaval, bravery and trauma represented by this history ground the poetry in a sense of collective memory, although more modern references, such as to the Soviet–Afghan War, show that Kazakh history is still in play.

3) Traditions – Cultural traditions, journeying down across the centuries, appear in most of the poets’ work, whether those traditions be embedded in objects, such as the musical kobyz or the shanyrak of a yurt, or in practices such as hunting or courting. The traditions are not indulged as nostalgia, however, but as living practices that still bind the Kazakhs. Many of these traditions are also family-centred, threads sewing together not only the nuclear family but the extended family also, and spreading out to incorporate welcomed guests.

4) National identity – The Kazakhs are, from my experience, unashamedly proud of their nation, and the poetry celebrates that fact implicitly and explicitly. Yet the pride is not aggressive, posturing or alienating, but open and gentle, based upon kindness and inclusivity.

None of the elements described here work in isolation of each together, but rather as an integrated whole, creating a recognizable stage on which the poetry is enacted. It is this poetical landscape that makes Kazakh poetry such a rewarding experience for non-Kazakh readers. Particularly in the West, a region sadly troubled by fractional politics, the sense of Kazakhstan’s holistic family and national identity offers an alternative vista. Personally, I find the Kazakh voice uplifting and clarifying. You may have a different response, but you’ll only discover that by reading the work itself.

About the author

Dr Chris McNab is an author, editor and publishing consultant, who has a long-standing relationship with both Cambridge University Press and with Kazakhstan. Chris is working as the editor of the poetry anthology for this project.

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