Introduction

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Popa, Vasko 1922–

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A Yugoslavian poet who writes in Serbian, Popa is a modernist frequently credited with freeing Yugoslav poetry from traditional forms in the post-World War II era. His poetry is concrete, richly associative, fantastic, often grotesque. Popa's universal themes—life, death, fate, love—are conveyed through a terse, economical style that is enriched with the imagery of Serbian folk history.

Vasa D. Mihailovich

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In the struggle against traditional verse-making, [Popa's] poetry, like that of Miodrag Pavlović, played a prominent role and contributed decisively to the victory of the modernists. Since [his first book of verse, Kora], he has gained steadily in stature and popularity; today he is considered one of the best, if not the best, of contemporary Yugoslav poets. (p. 24)

Popa's world displays unique features. From the very first he showed a predilection for objects, for specifics rather than generalities, for the concrete rather than the abstract. As if to restore the equilibrium disturbed in his early manhood during the war, he felt a need to call everything by its proper name, to relegate each object to its appointed place. Among his first poems there are those entitled simply "A Chair," "A Violin," "A Plate," "Papers," "The Quartz-Stone." From this basic desire, however, he takes a step further in his attempt to penetrate the outer shell of objects (kora means "crust") and to arrive at their core. One gets the impression that he stares persistently at an inanimate object until it begins to breathe and to move…. The secret of Popa's propensity for things lies in that they are not things for him but beings, which only the sixth sense or the inner eye of a poet can discern. Moreover, he likes to use them as symbols for his own concepts and attitudes.

That Popa's dead world pulsates with greater life than the living beings around us is shown in many of his poems…. Popa's obsession with things reveals not only his uncanny ability to see the world from their perspective but also his intention to speak through natural symbols, to present the mysterious nature of human destiny more graphically.

Popa's closeness to things was undoubtedly accentuated by war experiences in his impressionable years, when the language spoken around him was blunt, terse, bloody, and final. From this experience stem two haunting cycles of poems, Igre ("Games") and Kost kosti ("The Bone of the Bone"). "Games" is his answer to the frightening games of war. These poems resemble an eerie pantomime of creatures beyond the natural and comprehensible. His games defy logical explanation. To him they symbolically reflect the cruelty, grotesqueness, and fatuity of human existence…. Through … absurd gestures, Popa obviously dramatizes the lowly level of the condition humaine, and the extent of absurdity is dictated by the gravity of that condition.

Even more drastic is the cycle about bones. By stripping the human organisms to their bones and by allowing the bones to express the feelings of their former bodies, Popa speaks the subterranean language of life beyond the grave. This danse macabre suggests the life that was or might have been. (pp. 24-5)

The hardships of war are utilized by Popa to suppress his early doubts of the meaning of human life, to escape threatening nothingness, and to protest against unjust fate and ruling death…. He assails his nemesis—fate or death—head on, demanding the return of his "little rags"—the minimum of existence. He calls it a "monster" …; he threatens it …, challenges it to a showdown, trying all the while to build an immunity against adversity, albeit unsuccessfully. But it is a valiant protest just the same, capable of restoring one's dignity…. Thus Popa can even be called an optimist (to use a meaningless phrase), despite the macabre atmosphere of his world.

In such an atmosphere the love experience, too, undergoes a Popaesque metamorphosis…. Love seems to Popa to be the only power capable of overcoming the adversities of fate and death.

That his protest against the senselessness of existence does not stem from personal motives is most evident in his patriotic poetry. Unconventional as everything he writes, these verses do not so much glorify the achievements of the past as they focus on the disproportionate suffering and sacrifice of his people…. The heroes of the past, who "have crossed the threshold of the impossible," evoke in the poet both reverence and the sense of obligation…. The cycle dedicated to the river famous for one of the bloodiest battles in the last war, Sutjeska, is especially expressive. (pp. 26-7)

Popa's patriotic poetry is free from the customary fanfare. Even the national convulsions offer an opportunity to look his own nemesis, death, straight in the eye and to protest against it with verve and spite…. With such an approach Popa has not only rejuvenated Yugoslav patriotic poetry but has given it a new course.

From the small, seemingly insignificant objects around him he moves to the larger microcosm of his native land, to arrive at a yet larger microcosm, that of the universe, as we see in his latest collection, "The Secondary Sky." To be sure, his cosmos is a conventional one: the sun rules in its empire, but his rule is marred by the struggle between the light and dark forces. Popa uses this allegory to state his world view and to relate this complex universe to equally complex human problems…. ["The Secondary Sky"] should not be seen as a metaphysical or mythological interpretation of reality, but rather as a reflection of our fate in the celestial mirror. The force of the poet's idiom, the familiar simplicity, the use of old legends and folklore, the original humor and charming irony make this collection Popa's highest achievement so far. Above all, it signifies that his poetic thought has completed a circle. By way of the universe he reaches his final destination—his own self. What started out as observation of things and proceeded as contemplation of his country and as a gaze at the cosmos, has finally found its true objective.

Stylistically, Popa's poetry shows several distinct characteristics. He likes to write in cycles. They are self-sustaining entities, dealing with the same matter and written in the same vein. They are moreover related to each other in a peculiar way. For this reason, he frequently changes the order of cycles in new editions, and each time the cycles acquire new light and pertinence.

Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of his verses is terseness. This is evident not only in the formal sense, but also in the very syntax of his speech, even in his thought. His verses are often aphoristic, resembling popular sayings. His language is a bare minimum, the essential, the sign language, so to speak…. Popa always uses fewer rather than more words, to the point of being cryptic and difficult to fathom at times.

There is also a certain playfulness in his poetry. It is connected with his … predilection for games and pantomime amidst the horrors of war. It can be good-natured fun (a picture of a donkey that cannot be seen for its large ears), often turning however into the nervous, biting humor of a sensitive man dissatisified with his world. Sometimes it takes the form of black humor, as the cycle "Bones" amply illustrates. Chiefly, however, it is situation humor, accentuating the tragicomical in man's life…. Such humor is hard to separate from the irony with which both his world view and his responses to reality are often suffused. Irony, too, takes on various forms. The most noticeable is his almost chatty approach to problems facing his creatures or things…. His ironic attitude arises for the most part from his awareness that he is locked in a losing battle with his old nemesis while stubbornly refusing to admit defeat. Therefore we often find words of defiance and plain spite ("you'll see," "you just wait") addressed to his adversaries, expressing the poet's strength and weakness, usually the latter.

In his approach to reality Popa, like most poets, often eradicates boundaries between sense perceptions. Even the logic itself is violated…. This, however, is the result of his liberal use of poetic figures and of poetic license.

Popa's language requires a study in itself. No other Yugoslav poet, of today or earlier (save Laza Kostić and Momčilo Nastasijević), has shown such originality, resourcefulness, indeed virtuosity of language. Much of it reflects his ability to distill the existing lexicon, to select the mot juste, and even to coin new words. Striking also are the clarity and the seeming simplicity of his idiom. However, the simplicity is deceptive because frequently his "simple" expressions harbor a variety of meanings, depending on the context. That is why he is both easy and difficult to translate. His language shows strongly the influence of the folk speech, evident also in other aspects of his poetry, especially in "The Secondary Sky." (pp. 27-8)

The influence of other poets on Popa is one of the more difficult problems to solve, because of the uniqueness and elemental power of his poetry. At the beginning he was attracted by the surrealists, whose Yugoslav offshoot was very strong between the two wars. But he refused to follow their prescriptions blindly, in the belief that each period brings its own problems and solutions. (p. 28)

His influence on Yugoslav poets of his age as well as younger is just as hard to establish. At the beginning, he was shunned by the ensconced poets—an attitude that prevails to this day. Even the younger ones do not show clearly what they have learned from him, their reverence for him notwithstanding. His forceful originality and unconventional style do not make imitation easy without revealing the source of copying. Like so many truly unique poets, he remains a poetic world unto himself and without legitimate offspring….

Popa's slim output represents perhaps the most important achievement in contemporary Yugoslav poetry. It is modern in many respects and rejuvenating, not so much because of his themes as the elemental force of his expression. His struggle with the basic problems—death, fate, the meaning of life, love—makes his poetry universal and enduring. His ability to conjure striking visions, images, settings, and atmosphere is remarkable, as is his highly accomplished, seemingly effortless poetic skill. Uncompromising when his poetic freedom is questioned, determined to reconfirm the superiority of poetry, and captivated by his craft almost to the exclusion of other concerns, Popa is the poet's poet…. (p. 29)

Vasa D. Mihailovich, "Vasko Popa: The Poetry of Things in a Void," in Books Abroad (copyright 1969 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 43, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 24-9.

Charles Simic

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Uspravna zemlja (The Vertical Earth) [or Earth Erect] is by far the most historical of Popa's books. As the first poem announces, it is a pilgrimage to the historical monuments of the Serbian spiritual tradition. Nevertheless, it is the time-lessness of the archetype in each instance that predominates and orders each of the five cycles. Consequently, we have a cycle entitled "The Field of Kosovo," which through its seven poems explores the mythical and spiritual connotations of the famous battle between the Serbs and the Turks.

Popa's method of constructing a poem is both innovative and rooted in tradition. It consists of an imaginative dismantling of the archetype, whether it be the lame wolf, the old Serbian tribal god, or the more universal one of the shepherd. The material, dynamic components of the archetype are examined and reassembled by the poet. Of course, as any archetype contains contradictory motifs and symbols, that paradox becomes the dialectic of the complex psychic processes that underline its recreation. In addition, the contemporary idiomatic language, in which the original animistic and mythmaking consciousness of mankind survives, becomes the concrete vehicle and voice of these poems. The result is a poetry which engages the deepest unconscious responses of the native reader, while possessing at the same time an ontological and epic appetite which give it the stature of one of the most complex and successful poetic works of our time.

Charles Simic, "Other Slavic Languages: 'Uspravna zemlja'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1973 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring, 1973, p. 392.

The Times Literary Supplement

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[Earth Erect] reproduces only four poems from the ample Penguin selection of Vasko Popa's work. These and thirty-two new translations are arranged in cycles: first, the stations of a pilgrimage (evoking ancient Serbian shrines); then St Sava's Spring (reviving the patron saint of Serbia, who milks the stones of the hillside to succour his wolves, the Serbs); scenes of Serbian defeat (providing tenuous reasons against despair—skulls that flower with laughter, blood streaming into the sun from an erect field) before the return, with ghosts of martyrs and heroes, to Belgrade, the hope for the future.

What on first reading appear as enigmatic flights of fancy presented matter-of-factly become, with the aid of an historical sketch, psalms rooted in tradtiton…. The language of ["Supper on the Blackbird's Field"] is plain and fabulous, its images clear and daedalian. The field was where the Ottomans routed the Serbs in 1389. Prince Lazar was killed. The white peonies were stained with blood. But there are further allusions: in European folklore the blackbird was originally white; at the Last Supper Jesus knew his end was close; Peter's sword leapt to defend his master. Such Christian intimations could be a way of hoping that the Serbian race live on…. The more one immerses oneself in this world of "solid hieroglyphic objects", as Ted Hughes has called them, the more one realizes how Serbian tradition is incorporated in a total, though ambivalent, vision.

"Solid Hieroglyphs," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3742, November 23, 1973, p. 1452.

Roger Garfitt

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Vasko Popa's [Earth Erect is] based on themes from Serbian history and folklore…. A prevailing pattern is that the poems move to a point where a symbol comes into its own, establishing its truth within the surface reality. 'The Blackbird's Field', for instance, begins as

                   A field like any other
                   a hand and a half of green

and ends as

                     a field like none other
                     Heaven above it
                     Heaven below

Although this is essentially a modern pattern, because in the traditional view there is no separate surface reality, the logic the poems refer back to is the logic of the symbol, and the structural force it has acquired in determining the movement of the poem. Vasko Popa has understood this form of expression so thoroughly that there is very little difference between what the received symbol suggests, and what he himself has created. (p. 110)

Roger Garfitt, "Near and Far East," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1974), Vol. 14, No. 2, June-July, 1974, pp. 104-12.∗

Vasa D. Mihailovich

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The poems in [Vučja so, Živo meso, and Kuća nasred druma] were written during the last quarter-century, although most of them are of very recent vintage. As has been the case throughout his poetic career, Popa always writes with a well-conceived plan of cycles, so that new poems easily fit into the already existing entities or form a new cycle. At the same time, seldom is a new book of Popa's poems totally new, either thematically or formally. Some poems in these books are related, for example, to his earlier collection, Uspravna zemlja,… and the myth of a wolf runs through many of his books.

The first collection, Vučja so (Wolf's Salt), is the best of the three. It is centered around the myth of a wolf as an old Slavic symbol of vitality, not of evil and destruction…. The well-known terseness and directness of expression in Popa's poetry add to the exceptional quality of this book, making it one of the best in his entire opus.

The second book, Živo meso (Live Flesh), represents a slight departure from the author's traditional poetry in that it is more personal and realistic, even factual. Popa returns to his native region, evokes memories of his childhood and even names names. Although the poems sound contemporary, there are returns to the old myths, popular beliefs and superstitions, all indicating the depth of Popa's immersion in the soul of his people. These poems seem somewhat lighter than his usual poetry, as if to show another, less somber side of the poet.

The last collection, Kuća nasred druma (A House in the Middle of the Highway), is the most heterogeneous of the three, lacking a tight cyclical unity. But even here one can perceive a potential unifying subject matter that may eventually lead to the further development of this cycle and possibly give birth to other cycles.

There are hardly any new peaks that Popa the poet has to climb, for he has been traveling at a steady, high-level pace for some time now. Yet with each new book he confirms again the exceptional quality of his poetry, without any doubt the highest in contemporary Yugoslav literature.

Vasa D. Mihailovich, "Other Slavic Languages: 'Vučja so. Živo meso. Kuća nasred druma.'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 4, Autumn, 1976, p. 918.

John Bayley

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Popa's poetry [in his Collected Poems] is highly formalized. But it is not formalization in the senses of imagism or surrealism, though Popa … was finding his style at a time when more or less precise and intelligent versions of surrealism were a common fashion in European poetry.

Cycles of poems link up in Popa's work to form both a human and a legendary landscape, the one included in the other…. [History] and myth seep naturally into the poet's apprehension of the present, without any feeling that he is making use of nationalism and folklore….

The more personal poems are as effective in their domesticity, their saturation in friends and family affairs, as any of the other "life studies" we are now accustomed to in contemporary poetry. (p. 29)

A sense of the young instrument and the old tradition makes affinities between Popa and such Rumanian poets as [Lucian] Blaga or [Marin] Sorescu. In both cases the country's myths and its modernity blend together in a language which for poetry is both old and new. Serbo-Croat, a Slav language and close to Russian, shares the same history of Church Slavonic, and the same familiarity between the legendary uses of a language and its modern organized state. Although, and even because, it is in a sense "new," such a language can be more at home over the whole stretch of a culture than would be possible in the more highly compartmented and stylized idioms of poetry written in English. (pp. 29-30)

[Popa's] leading characteristics are an extreme precision and tautness, yet he does not seem to be trying to be taut and precise; on the contrary, he seems friendly, relaxed, and forthcoming. (p. 30)

The strength, humor, and flexibility in [his poetry's] closely constructed cycles seem to have matured and grown together over a number of years, always suggesting a lack of finality and a further modulation into cycles of poems yet to come. Particularly moving is the relation between the visionary, almost psalm-like sequence on the "lame wolf" as symbol of Serbia, and the homely sequences in which national and cultural symbolism have merged into the simple routines and relations of Vershats, past and present. (pp. 30-1)

John Bayley, "Life Studies," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 17, November 8, 1979, pp. 29-31.

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