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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Vasko Popa was born on July 29, 1922, in Grebenac, a village near Bela Crkva in the Banat region of Yugoslavia. He studied literature at the universities of Belgrade, Bucharest, and Vienna and was graduated from Belgrade in 1949. He settled in Belgrade, working as an editor in various publishing houses, chiefly Nolit, one of the largest publishers in Yugoslavia, from which he retired in 1982. Popa began to publish poetry in 1951, and his first book appeared in 1953. He has traveled widely and is highly respected outside his native land. He has received numerous literary awards, and his poems have been translated into many languages.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 921 words.)