A Suspect in the Eyes of Super-Patriots

Charles Simic

  • Collected Poems of Vasko Popa translated by Anne Pennington
    Anvil, 464 pp, £12.95, January 1998, ISBN 0 85646 268 3

It may well be that the most interesting literature of this century cannot be subsumed under the broad label of Modernism or be said to have originated in the great literary centres, but was actually the work of outsiders and mavericks, starting with Kafka, who created something without precedent from a mix of native and foreign traditions. The poetry of Vasko Popa, who died in 1991, is of that eccentric company. He was the best-known Yugoslav poet of this century, and the most translated: his Selected Poems were first published by Penguin in 1969, as part of its series of modern European poets. Popa was then usually grouped with Zbigniew Herbert and Miroslav Holub, two other astonishingly original East European poets, whose work was plainly unlike anything being written in Britain and the United States. Encountering in Popa an exotic blend of avant-garde poetry and popular folklore, the foreign reader tends to think that this is what all poets from that part of the world must be like. In fact, no other Serbian poet sounds like Popa. He was both the product of his time and place and the inventor of his own world.

Popa was born in 1922 in an area north of Belgrade called Banat, where the population was a mixture of Serbs, Germans, Slovaks, Hungarians and Romanians. His father was a record clerk and afterwards worked for a bank; his mother was a housewife. He went to school in the town of Vrsac, and in his last year there he discovered Marxism: he continued to think of himself as a Communist for the rest of his life. The war began for Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941, when the country was attacked simultaneously by the German, Italian, Bulgarian and Hungarian Armies and quickly occupied. Nevertheless, that autumn, Popa, following his parents’ wishes, went to Bucharest to study medicine. He left after a year, and went to Vienna to read philosophy. On a visit home in May 1943, he was arrested and interned in a concentration camp in nearby Zrenjanin. He was somehow released in September and returned to Vienna, where he enrolled in French and German literature classes and also worked as a tram conductor. He did not return to Vrsac until shortly after the Liberation. There he promptly joined the Communist Party and soon afterwards moved to Belgrade to study French language and literature at the university. It was a most unusual wartime itinerary, as his Communist Party dossier suspiciously pointed out at the time. In Belgrade, Popa began his literary career, editing and writing for a weekly paper; eventually he became an editor at a prestigious publishing house, where he remained until not long before his death.

The appearance of his first book of poems, Bark, in 1953 created an uproar, even before its publication. Critics and poets of the dominant socialist realist persuasion, who had already seen the poems in literary journals, attacked Popa. ‘How is it possible that such texts can be written by a young writer and published by a renowned literary magazine?’ one demanded to know. The age demanded paeans to the struggle of the working classes and got avant-garde poetry instead. Others griped about Popa’s hermeticism: even the title of the book is ambiguous. In Serbian bark can mean both the ‘bark’ of a tree and ‘crust of bread’. Nonetheless, a few critics and writers supported Popa, and wrote polemical pieces explaining the poetry and, in the process, undermining the aesthetic principles of their opponents. Popa was the luckiest of young poets: from the day he started publishing, no one ever remained indifferent to his poetry.

The poems in Bark were written between 1943 and 1953 and were continuously revised until their reissue in 1969. The first edition included a number of prose poems that were subsequently discarded, leaving four cycles of poems which serve as a preamble to Popa’s work. Many of the distinguishing features of his poetry are already evident: the poems are short, but arranged in sequences, so that each cycle has a quasinarrative quality. On the one hand, as even his early critics saw, the poems have a concision and formal rigour that is almost classical: on the other, there is a wildness of metaphor that equals anything the Romantics or Surrealists ever dreamed up. Except in this first book and his last one, Popa tends to be absent from his poems. Here, however, he describes the torments of a young man in love. One of the cycles here, ‘Far within Us’, is a sequence of erotic poems in the tradition of Breton and Eluard.

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