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.
The subject of another cycle, ‘Besieged Serenity’, is the existentialist drama of one man’s confrontation with the absurd. There is a strong resemblance between Camus’s Sisyphus, with his ‘universe henceforth without master’, and the hero of these poems. The breach between the self and the world is the problem: ‘How to live without being torn between these infinities?’ Popa asked in one of the few short notes he wrote on poetry. What interests him is the dignity and heroic forbearance of the Everyman-Sisyphus figure pushing his rock – or, as Saul Steinberg has it in the old cartoon, pushing a huge, boulder-like question-mark – up a hill.
The poems that elicited most controversy were the cycles ‘Landscapes’ and ‘List’. Here’s ‘On the Table’, a poem from the former:
The tablecloth stretches
Shadow of a toothpick follows
The bloody trail of the glasses
The sun clothes the bones
In new golden flesh
The breakneck crumbs
Buds of drowsiness
Have burst through the white bark
Surrealist nonsense, the reviewers said. Other poems were about a plate, a chair, a potato, an ashtray, a hatstand, and such unpoetic things. The critics were right to blame the French but whereas Breton, Eluard and Péret sought to create a state of heightened lyricism by bombarding the reader with unrelated and outrageous images, Popa, despite his flights of fancy, remained focused on the object.
There are, I would say, three types of poet: those who write without thinking, those who think while writing and those who have figured out everything before they sit down to write. The first group is the largest and the last the smallest. When, as a young poet, I met Popa in 1970, poetry for me was still pretty much a spontaneous venting of some inner turmoil. Poetry is a visionary activity, my Romantic and Symbolist masters assured me. In a moment of inspiration, one somehow stumbled on extraordinary images and metaphors – and that was that. These notions of mine both amused and annoyed Popa. He did not believe in chance. He compared the poet to a miner, a pearl-hunter, a lighthouse-keeper and a watchmaker. For him writing a poem was an act of supreme critical intelligence. There were strict rules as to what was permitted and what not. Poets laboured within the confines of tradition and the idiosyncrasies of the language in which they wrote: we were both fettered and free. Good poetry was not made by teenagers in love, but by sly old tricksters. Popa himself had already thought out everything he was going to write over the rest of his life. Late one night, after much wine, he described his future poems to me in full detail. I assumed that this was just the wine talking, but not so. In the following years, I would see his poems come into print and they were pretty much as he had described them that night.
His second book, Unrest Field, which came out in 1956, again had four cycles of poems. This time, however, the poems were unmistakably original. They were fun to read despite the fact that their meaning was not always easily dislodged. Wallace Stevens’s observation that we often admire something long before we understand it comes to mind here. The cycle called ‘Games’ is the best-known, and some of those Popa played are familiar and some are his own invention. This is ‘Hide-and-Seek’:
Someone hides from someone
Hides under his tongue
He looks for him under the earth
He hides in his forehead
He looks for him in the sky
He hides in his forgetting
He looks for him in the grass
Looks for him looks
Where he doesn’t look for him
And looking for him loses himself
We associate games with childhood and innocence, but that’s not how they are used here. Popa’s players are types; their roles are fixed. The games they play are intense and all-consuming, but their aim is obscure. In these grim nursery rhymes, pain and suffering are real. The creator of the games, the one who first made us play them, is absent. These are the circular games of hell played wim broken toys, as Ivan Lalic said. They are emblematic of our lives and we go on playing them in the hope that they do make sense, despite our suspicion that they don’t. For Popa, the biggest joke is that the pack has no joker.
The cycle, ‘Give Me Back My Rags’, personifies the unknown joker and attempts to exorcise his power. The speaker of the poem refuses to play the game:
Damn your root and blood and crown
And everything in life
The thirsty pictures in your brain
The fire-eyes on your fingertips
And every every step
To three cauldrons of cross-grained water
Three furnaces of symbol fire
Three nameless milkless pits
Damn your cold breath down your gullet
To the stone under your left breast
To the cut-throat bird in that stone
To the crow of crows the nest of emptiness
The hungry shears of beginning and beginning
To heaven’s womb don’t I know it
Damn your seed and sap and shine
And dark and stop at the end of my life
And everything in the world
The translation does not do justice to the spirit of the original, and how could it? The phrase ‘give me back my rags’ comes from games played by poor children. Girls play with scraps of old material, swapping them and using them as clothes for their dolls, until they quarrel with each other and want their own back. The entire cycle is a pretend game built out of the submerged and multiple meanings that lurk in idiomatic phrases.
Every one of Popa’s cycles is a self-contained universe, in which the end is also a beginning. The model is the cyclical, sacred calendar of myth. The idea is to spin the wheel of metaphors and images until sparks of association begin to fly for the reader. Poetry conceived that way is a kind of alchemy, since its object is to transmute matter into spirit.
‘Writing is primarily an experience of language,’ Robert Creeley said, and Popa reaches back to the folk tradition of riddles, charms, proverbs, nursery rhymes and exorcisms for clues about how to make poems. What he is after are the eyes and ears of the anonymous folk poet who could hear flowers growing, the hen laying its eggs, the stars multiplying, and the Earth and the Sun speaking with a human voice. ‘Father’s scythe lies across mother’s Sunday skirt’ is how the Serbian riddle describes the crescent moon. ‘What runs but never walks’ is a river. ‘If not for the wind, spider webs would cover the sky’ is another saying.
‘A metaphor is a memory of the Golden Age when all was everything,’ Andrei Sinyavsky said in his journals. Popa sought the origins of myth in colloquial turns of phrase and oral literature. Writing about an early 20th-century poet, Momcilo Nastasijevic – Popa’s biggest influence and someone who had similar ideas about the uses of native tradition – he praises the poems by saying that each one is a ‘verbal icon of our immaculate mother tongue’. Poetry’s task is to remember the archetypes, recover the symbols, discover the laws of their transformation, not by studying mythology or dictionaries of symbols, but by hearing, as if for the first time, the language that comes out of our mouths. ‘You speak to the wall. You speak into the dark. You speak into the fire. You speak to the monsters in your dreams. You speak to your own death. You speak to her death, speak to death. You speak to water. Speak to nothingness, speak into nothing.’ In this short note on poetry, Popa asks about authentic language. What words would we trust today is the pressing question? What words did our ancestors use? There are key words, he believes, words that open worlds, words that are already a poem. How do we find these words? ‘You go to meet the words bringing your gifts – your attentiveness and your silence.’ This would just be abstruse, pseudomystical twaddle if the poems did not make it happen.
What his translators are compelled to perform is a kind of magic trick: they have to pluck English idioms out of a hat, as it were, and keep the ones that hint at the lushness of the original. As a translator of Popa myself, I can vouch for the fact that this is a very tricky business. Anne Pennington wisely observes that whereas ‘English literary usage is too far removed from our folk tradition to mingle with it happily, literary Serbo-Croat was founded as recently as the early 19th century and was firmly based on the spoken language and popular culture.’ What is missing from her translation of ‘Give Me Back My Rags’ is the teasing tone of the original and the cumulative effect of this less formal voice.
The comic ingredient of Popa’s poetry comes to the fore in his third book, Secondary Heaven (1968). Writing about humour in the introduction to an anthology of Serbian poetic humour which he compiled, he speaks of it as the supreme transgressor, mixing the sacred and the profane and making heaven and earth change places. Humour of this kind allows us to see how everything would look if it were different while at the same time not permitting us to believe it will stay that way. In other words, this humour is as unruly as poetry and as dangerous as truth.
Here, for instance, is Popa’s comic version of how the world began in ‘A Forgetful Number’ from the cycle ‘Yawn of Yawns’:
Once upon a time there was a number
Pure and round like the sun
But alone very much alone
It began to reckon with itself
It divided multiplied itself
It subtracted added itself
And remained always alone
It stopped reckoning with itself
And shut itself up in its round
And sunny purity
Outside were left the fiery
Traces of its reckoning
They began to chase each other through the dark
To divide when they should have multiplied themselves
To subtract when they should have added themselves
That’s what happens in the dark
And there was no one to ask it
To stop the traces
And to rub them out
In another poem in the same cycle, ‘A Conceited Mistake’, Popa imagines the creation of the world as an accident; a small, silly error that invented space and time. Secondary Heaven is a book of many such speculations, in which the poems read like the creation myths of some lost tribe. It is full of playful conjectures on the ways cosmologies are invented and the ways they mirror our human follies. As above, so below, is the axiom.
His next two volumes of poems were very differently conceived. The poems in Earth Erect (1972) address specific events, historical monuments, heroes and symbols in the Serbian tradition. There are cycles about St Sava, the national patron saint; pilgrimages to various monasteries; the Battle of Kosovo features in it, and so does the first uprising against the Turks. Since Popa believed that a poet’s imagination was intricately tied to the language and place he came from, this was not an unexpected development. He could be charged with being a cultural nationalist, but not a political one: there is nothing fanatical and exclusionary about his view of Serbian history and culture.
Wolf Salt (1975) consists of seven cycles on the lame wolf, the pre-Christian Serbian tribal god whose memory lives on in stories, cults, legends and rituals. The poems pay homage to this ambivalent figure of good and evil, life and death, extinction and survival. In his introduction to the Collected Poems, Ted Hughes compares them to psalms. They celebrate the figure of the lame wolf, but also pray to it to reveal the secret of changing a stone into a cloud, the cloud into a deer with golden antlers, the deer into the white flower of a basil plant and so on. Above all, these are psalms celebrating poetic metamorphosis.
Some read Wolf Salt as a nationalist poem and Popa was praised in Serbia and rebuked elsewhere in Yugoslavia. This is unfair: Popa was too subtle a thinker to be accused of jingoism. The last time I saw him, in 1989 in New York, he was extremely worried about what the nationalist crazies and opportunists were cooking up. ‘There’ll be bloodshed soon,’ he told me with complete confidence. He could see that, with his Romanian background, he was already a suspect in the eyes of super-patriots.
Raw Flesh (1975) and Cut (1981), his last two published books of poems, are more personal. The first-person pronoun returns. These are autobiographical and occasional poems of great directness and charm. They are like short magic-realist anecdotes, the sort of thing we find in One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is ‘The Lost Red Boot’:
My great-grandmother Sultana Urosevic
Used to sail the sky in a wooden trough
And catch rain-bearing clouds
With wolf-balms and others
She did many more
Great and small miracles
After her death
She went on meddling
With the business of the living
They dug her up
To teach her how to behave
And to bury her better
She lay there rosy-cheeked
In her oaken coffin
On one foot she was wearing
A little red boot
With splashes of fresh mud
To the end of my life I’ll search
For that other boot she lost
As a translator of this poem, and of many others in the book, I naturally have reservations about some of Pennington’s word-choices and admiration for others. Popa’s diction was more varied than Pennington can offer and he was capable of a verbal dazzle that makes him sound at times like Paul Muldoon. Pennington’s language is far more formal. Francis Jones, who expanded and revised the Collected Poems, is aware of the problem. Popa’s ‘words and images are multi-layered’, Jones says, ‘combining concrete representations with idiomatic, proverbial and atavistic meanings to form complex, archetypal signs, which interpret more levels of existence than what is merely tangible in this or another universe’. Popa, who knew Paul Celan and admired his difficult poetry, often came pretty close himself to being untranslatable.
Popa died before completing another of his long-term projects, a book that was to be called ‘Iron Garden’. Only one cycle, ‘The Little Box’, was finished and published in his lifetime while parts of four others and a few isolated poems were included in a posthumous volume. The workings of his magical box resemble the workings of the imagination: the mother of all mythologies. When we give the box a shake, religions and philosophies, with their assorted gods and devils, pop up. Imagination is a mixed blessing: it works for us and against us. We cannot resist its temptations, and yet it has a way of undermining everything we know – which is what poetry has always secretly been up to. This is ‘Last News of the Little Box’:
The little box with the whole world inside
Fell in love with herself
And conceived inside herself
Another little box
The little box’s little box
Fell in love with herself too
And conceived inside herself
Another little box
And so on ad infinitum
The little box’s whole world
Should be somewhere
Inside the little box’s last box
None of the little boxes
In the little box in love with herself
Is the last one
Try finding the world now