In memoriam of Dr. Bohdan Rubchak

Bohdan Rubchak

(March 6, 1935 – September 23, 2018)


Bohdan Rubchak, an eminent poet, literary critic, and professor of comparative literature at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and one of the founders of the New York Group of Poets, passed away on September 23, 2018. He taught at UIC from 1973 until his retirement in 2005.

Rubchak won two Ivan Franko literary awards (US) for his poetry and essays, and the Pavlo Tychyna Poetry Prize (Ukraine) in 1993. In 2003, Mayor Richard M. Daley presented him with an award for his contributions to the culture of the city of Chicago.

Among his many publications are six collections of poetry, approximately 300 poems published in separate collections, four edited anthologies of Ukrainian poetry. More recently, his selected essays on literature and a collection of short stories were translated from English to Ukrainian. Rubchak’s verse has been translated into English, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Polish, Bulgarian, Romanian, and Serbian.

For many years, Rubchak collaborated with the Ukrainian literary magazine Suchasnist’ (Contemporary Era), edited multiple collections and anthologies of Ukrainian literature, translated W. S. Merwin, Robert Bly, G. Kuzma, E. Montale, S. Qasimodo, and J. Supervielle into Ukrainian, and Charles Baudelaire into English. He is regarded as one of the finest poets of the Ukrainian diaspora, a scholar with an Enlightenment breadth of academic interests, and is justly considered to have been one of the leading scholars of modern Western European and Ukrainian poetry.

He was born on March 6, 1935, in Kalush, Ukraine (in what is today the Ivano-Frankivsk region). In 1943, two years after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, he and his family were taken to Germany, where Bohdan eventually lost his father.

After the war, he lived for a time in the Kaufbeuren Displaced Persons Camp in Germany, after which the family was billeted in a German household in Dilligen. Owing to hazardous working conditions that aggravated a medical condition his father died in Germany in 1947. With his mother twelve-year-old Bohdan went to New York in 1948, resided there for a few months, then relocated to Chicago, where Rubchak graduated from Harrison High School. He continued his education at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, followed by Roosevelt University, studying languages, comparative literature, and philosophy. As soon as he began his studies Rubchak worked long hours after school, on weekends and during the summer months to supplement his numerous scholarship, fellowships; etc., which soon made it possible to give up his various jobs.

At the age of 21, Rubchak published his first collection of poetry, Kaminnyi sad (The Stone Orchard (1956). After returning from military service in Korea in 1958 he published his second collection of poetry, Promenysta zrada (Bright Betrayal, 1960).

He also resumed his studies, first at Roosevelt University, then at the University of Chicago. In 1963 Rubchak published his third collection of poetry, Divchyni bez Kkrainy (For the Girl Without a Country, 1963)

From September 1963 to May 1964, Rubchak taught Ukrainian language and literatures at the University of Manitoba, Canada. On January 22, 1965, he and Mar’iana were married and with their four daughters, relocated to Chicago.

In 1967 Bohdan moved to New York with his family and became the director of the Ukrainian sector of Radio Svoboda (Liberty). He also published his fourth collection of poetry, Osobysta Klio (Personal Clio) that year. From 1969 to 1973, Rubchak taught Russian literature at Rutgers University, New Jersey, and pursued his graduate studies simultaneously. In 1973 Bohdan Rubchak returned to Chicago with his family, where he became a Professor of Ukrainian and Russian literatures at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He also taught Ukrainian Language at the University of Chicago and Literature at Northwestern University. In 1977 he defended his doctoral dissertation in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University — Metaphor: Poetic Knowledge as Grounded in Perception, Imagination, and Languagetitled Metaphor: Poetic Knowledge as Grounded in Perception, Imagination, and Language. Rubchak retired from the University of Illinois as Professor Emeritus in 2005. For the first time in his 32 years of selfless service at the university he gave a reading of selections from his last collection, Krylo Ikarove (The Wing of Icarus), Munich, 1983; Kyiv, 1991) as a farewell gift to his students and colleagues.

During the course of his long years of teaching at the University of Illinois, Bohdan Rubchak designed and offered, among others, courses in Comparative Literature, Contemporary Slavic Poetry, Experimental Slavic Drama, Slavic Science Fiction, and the Romantic poetry of Pushkin, Mickiewicz, and Shevchenko. Among his most loved courses were Dostoevsky’s novel, and Slavic Mythology.  For the latter Rubchak collected material from diverse sources: folk tales, songs, spells, and rituals. This class was a series of fascinating lectures, all of which left indelible impressions on his students. His advanced undergraduate seminars included Slavic literary theory, a course on Mikhail Bakhtin, and one on Yuri Lotman, as well as structuralism and semiotics. Several of his graduate seminars were in nineteenth and twentieth century Ukrainian poetry and novels.

Bohdan was “a writer of a unique type of melodic verse in Ukrainian poetry, a connoisseur of literature, an erudite person, and simply my old friend, whom I knew for almost a decade. This friendship was my honor. In recent years, Bohdan and his wife lived in Boonton, New Jersey. His home and heart were open to the whole world. He knew the value of words and breathed life into them like a magician” – Vasyl’ Makhno, a New-York based poet, essayist and translator, wrote in his Facebook post (passage translation by M. Slager).

“Bohdan taught us that words carry weight. They have the power either to vilify or to uplift people, and that we all bear responsibility for the consequences of what we write, no matter how seemingly insignificant. These observations should be perfectly obvious; however, they are lost on many, especially in today’s climate. He knew about being at the receiving end of language that paints others in stereotypes for political gain. For all of the trauma of his early years, Bohdan was optimistic, and his sense of humor was infectious. He told me that writing poetry and living with and in words have the power to rescue people; they can keep those who struggle above water. He was proof that language creates joy and a sense of play. His passion, generosity, and humor were not only assertions of life and decisions to live fully but also the gifts he shared with us.” – Michael Slager, Ph.D., a former student

“Obituary does not become a happier genre even when its subject had introduced you to the carnival laughter of Bakhtin; or to the sly smile of Gogol (“through the tears invisible to the world”); or to the subtle, compassionate, and highly religious humor of Dostoevsky; or to the powerful, abysmally gaping, and ever-laboring womb of the Mother Damp Earth; or when he had guided you through the file of the Forgotten Ancestors’ Shadows from Parajanov’s cinematic masterpiece. Rather than carnival, another concept comes to mind, the one Dr. Rubchak cherished in Bakhtin’s philosophy and promoted in the generations of his own students – the concept of answerability, of responding (answering) with one’s entire life to everything one had experienced and understood in art, including literature. His own life experiences, far from idyllic, incessantly bore fruit, which Dr. Rubchak readily shared with others.” –   Yelena Zotova, Ph.D., a former student

“Professor Rubchak had a unique gift for teaching; his syllabi were compiled in such a way as to allow for the introduction of new material as the class progressed. His lectures may have taken more time than he planned, but it was participation in the dialogue that mattered for him. His literary discoveries were brilliant: he could discern hidden mythologies and subtle patterns coming together in a text, as he discovered them for Kotsiubynsky’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, and for Parajanov’s film based on that novel. Honest and meticulous in his research he expected the same of his students.

He had a large circle of friends that included writers, artists, fellow poets from Ukraine, and students.  He and his wife Mar’iana hosted them in their home in Ravenswood Manor in Chicago. In the relaxed atmosphere of such meetings his humor, often  directed toward his own circle of the Ukrainian diaspora. sparkled–pointy and funny.” – Anna Bohoniuk-Golash, Ph.D., a former student

Alexander Fraze-Frazenko’s film An Aquarium in the Sea, was a subtle and profound tribute to the New York Group of poets Bohdan Rubchak, together with his colleagues Bohdan Boychuk and Yury Tarnawsky.

Bohdan Rubchak is survived by his wife Mar’iana and their four daughters.

Sources used:

Compiled by Yelena Zotova, Anna Golash, Michael Slager.

Corrections to the post-publication original contributed by Mar’iana Rubchak