Periphery versus Centre: The New York Group's Poetics of Exile

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ABSTRACT:This paper examines the New York Group's exilic position and delineates the spatial relationship between a centre, Ukraine, and its periphery, the emigre milieu. It argues that members of this group, despite their emigre status, were able to transcend their periphery by defining and pushing the aesthetic boundaries of Ukrainian literature. It also points to the shifting, if not reversible, character of the centre-periphery dichotomy, especially as it pertains to the issues of literary production. The group's poetic work does evince the exilic sensibility, even though the poets themselves, by and large, shunned the thematization of exile. A handful of poems dealing with exilic 'otherness' are presented in order to underscore the ambivalent (liminal) nature of the poets' creative situatedness.

The phenomenon of the New York Group, a circle of Ukrainian avant-garde emigre poets whose creative activity has its beginnings in the mid-1950s in New York City, constitutes a compelling case for studying various dimensions of the exilic sensibility, including its experiential, psychological and political aspects. By the early 1960s the label 'New York Group' stood for an innovative approach to Ukrainian poetry and referred to the oeuvre by Emma Andijewska, Bohdan Boychuk, Patricia Kylyna, Bohdan Rubchak, Yuriy Tarnawsky, Zhenia Vasyl'kivs'ka and Vira Vovk. With the exception of Kylyna,1 these poets experienced war and displacement as children and emigrated, primarily, to the United States,2 as teenagers or young adults. This relatively early emigration may explain why the group embraced its exilic condition as something stimulating rather than stifling-and turned to Western literary sources for inspiration. Understandably, their poetic personae were formed in the West. Yet, by choosing the Ukrainian language as their main-if not exclusive-medium for artistic expression, they cultivated a link with the literary past of their own country and, by doing so, necessarily placed themselves outside the mainstream cultural space of their adopted homelands. Forced to negotiate linguistic, transnational and transcultural issues in their creative endeavours, the poets unavoidably thrust themselves into liminal positions.

According to Victor Turner, the liminal condition is "necessarily ambiguous" because it eludes and slips through "the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space."3 In this investigation I use the term to delineate the New York Group's exilic location and to designate the spatial relationship between a centre (Ukraine) and its periphery (the emigre milieu), the dynamics of which define the very condition of exile. I also want to indicate the shifting, if not reversible, character of the centreperiphery dichotomy, especially as it pertains to the issues of literary production.

Exiles are necessarily considered marginal personae because they take up a position of 'ex-centricity' (to use Linda Hutcheon's coinage)4 vis-a-vis their respective countries of origin and a position of eccentricity in relation to their adopted homelands. Politically and socially they are cut off from their roots. Consequently, their impact on the centre is, by and large, negligible. Nevertheless, in the sphere of culture this impotence becomes less pronounced; it can even be transformed into a source of power. It is precisely in the province of aesthetic creativity that the centre-periphery assignation looses its fixity and stability. It is here, given the right set of circumstances, that the paradoxical reversals I already alluded to are not only conceivable but realizable. When a centre happens to be in the grips of totalitarianism, and artistic freedom is severely curtailed, then the exiled writer or poet has a unique opportunity to present a viable alternative.

Using the poetics of exile as a methodological tool, this paper analyzes the nature and significance of one such alternative, namely the one put forward by the New York Group. …


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