Vasko Popa (POH-pah) is generally considered the best Serbian poet in the second half of the twentieth century. He published his first book, Bark, during the struggle between the traditionalists and the modernists in Serbian poetry. He himself contributed greatly to the victory of the modernists, assuming the leadership in the struggle.
Popa was born in the Vojvodina village of Grebenac, in a family with Romanian roots, although he considered himself a Serb. He studied literature at the universities of Belgrade, Bucharest, and Vienna. Because of his leftist leanings and membership in the Communist Party, he was interned in a concentration camp in World War II. After the war he settled in Belgrade, where he spent the rest of his life as an editor with a publishing house.
From the very first, Popa appeared to know exactly what he wanted to do for the rest of his life: to craft poetry according to a well-conceived, long-range plan. This led to a lifelong constancy in his approach, which varied only by different stimuli and by the poet’s inner growth. He wrote meticulously and published his books only when he believed that they could be improved no further. That, and a tendency to collect his poems in cycles, made Popa’s style unique and easily recognizable.
Bark created a sensation in the literary circles for modernism that clashed violently with the staid, traditional poetry of the time. Popaesque trademarks became clear right away: cycles, symbolism, myth creation, predilection for objects and specifics rather than generalities, irony, humor (even playfulness), brevity of poems, and a terse language. Some poems in this collection are entitled simply “Chair,” “Plate,” or “Paper.” In one of his finest poems, “The Quartz Pebble,” Popa extols the simple beauty of a white stone, seemingly immobile and indifferent yet pulsating with life under its smooth surface. Popa’s obsession with physical objects results in an uncanny ability to see the world from their perspective, as well as in his speaking through natural symbols and presenting graphically the mysterious nature of human destiny.
The second collection, Unrest-Field, is influenced by the poet’s war experiences. It, too, is divided into cycles, two of which, “Igre” (games) and “Daleko u nama” (far within us), are among Popa’s best-known poems. The basic theme of the collection is fate and death; the only power capable of overcoming them is love.
From the microcosm of everyday life and material objects Popa moves on to larger entities—his native land and the universe. In Secondary Heaven he weaves a complex tapestry of a cosmic world ruled by the sun but engulfed in the struggle between the forces of darkness and light. Starting with a symbol of emptiness in the form of zero, Popa builds his cosmology as the arena for the struggle. Hope seems betrayed, and the chances of the forces of light are slim, yet the struggle continues. A similar mood is found in Earth Erect, except that the struggle is localized and illustrated through Serbian history. Popa evokes the famous personages and holy sites of pilgrimage and sacrifice, and uses the archetypes of Serbian greatness, Saint Sava, Kosovo, and the First Uprising against the Turks. Through them Popa conducts the quest for his own roots.
In 1975 Popa published three books of poetry all at once. The first of these, Wolf Salt , is centered on the myth of a wolf as an old Slavic symbol of vitality, not of evil and destruction. The wolf is depicted as a benign creature, lame yet possessing indestructible tenacity, symbolizing the vitality of the Serbian people. He is...
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connected with Saint Sava, who is his shepherd; actually, through the wolf he is the shepherd of his people, as he was in real life.
The second book, Raw Flesh, is more personal and realistic, even factual. Popa turns again to his native region, evoking memories of his childhood and even naming names. Although the poems sound contemporary, they are also peppered with old myths, popular beliefs, and superstitions, indicating the depth of Popa’s immersion in the soul of his people.
Kua nasred druma (a house in the middle of the road) is the most heterogeneous of the three, lacking a cyclical unity. Even here, however, one perceives a potential unifying subject matter leading to further development and giving birth to other cycles, which, unfortunately, remained unrealized due to the poet’s premature death.
In his last book, The Cut, Popa returns to the here and now, as well as to self-examination. He intended to collect a number of poems, especially those in the cycle “Mala kutija” (little box), into a ninth book tentatively titled “Gvozdeni sad” (iron garden), but that intention remained unfulfilled.
Popa’s slim but weighty body of poetry marks one of the peaks of Serbian literature. Today he is already regarded a classic of contemporary Serbian poetry, receiving accolades and respect abroad as well.