Vasko Popa Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

In addition to poetry, Vasko Popa published Urnebesnik: Zbornik pesničkog humora (1960), a selection of Serbian wit and humor, and Od zlata jabuka (1966; The Golden Apple, 1980), a collection of folk poems, tales, proverbs, riddles, and curses, which Popa selected from the vast body of Yugoslav folk literature.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

When Vasko Popa’s first book of verse appeared in 1953, it was rejected by many readers and critics who did not believe that Yugoslav poetry was in need of modernization. In the struggle against traditional forms and themes, Popa’s poetry, like that of Miodrag Pavlović, played a prominent role and contributed decisively to the victory of the modernists. Since then, he has gained steadily in stature and popularity; today, he is considered by many to be the preeminent contemporary Yugoslav poet.

Popa’s contributions are manifold. He not only has helped rejuvenate Serbian and Yugoslav poetry but also has brought it to the level of world poetry—one of the few Yugoslav poets to do so. His profound interest in finding the primeval roots of his nation’s culture; his creation of myths for modern times; his probings into the deepest recesses of the subconscious; his gift for striking visions, images, and metaphors; and his highly accomplished, seemingly effortless poetic skill—he has brought all of these elements to contemporary Yugoslav poetry. Popa’s wrestling with fundamental human problems—death, fate, the meaning of life, love—makes his poetry universal and enduring. Uncompromising when his poetic freedom is questioned, determined to reconfirm the superiority of poetry, and captivated by his craft almost to the exclusion of all other concerns, he is a poet’s poet, whose place at the top of all Serbian and Yugoslav literature seems assured.

Terse Verse, Humor, Irony

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Perhaps the most conspicuous feature of Popa’s verse is its terseness. His poetry is often aphoristic, and his language is reduced to a bare minimum. When he wants to underscore the maddening intensity and chaos of a battle, he describes a river turning and twisting, unable to find its shores again. The agility of a horse is illustrated by its eight legs—the impression one gets when observing a galloping horse. 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 Popa’s poetry, connected with his aforementioned predilection for games and pantomime amid 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 dissatisfied with his world. Not infrequently, Popa’s humor takes a mordant, even macabre twist, but more often he laughs at the absurdity, the tragicomedy, of human life. In his most exalted poetry, in Secondary Heaven, the old sun stopped “Three paces from the top of heaven . . ./ And went back to his rising/ (So as not to die in our sight)”; similarly, two lame rays lead a blind sun, and “morning is out somewhere seeking his fortune.” Such humor is hard to separate from the irony with which Popa’s worldview is suffused.

His irony, too, assumes various forms. The most noticeable is his almost chatty approach to problems facing his creatures or things. At a crucial moment, when a solution is expected, the poet half jestingly quips, “What shall I tell you?” meaning, “Oh, what’s the use!” His ironic attitude arises for the most part from his awareness that he is locked in a losing battle with his old nemesis, although he stubbornly refuses to admit defeat.

Language and Idiom

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Popa’s language requires a study in itself. No other Yugoslav poet (save perhaps Laza Kostić or Momćilo Nastasijević) has shown such originality and resourcefulness—indeed, virtuosity—of language. Particularly notable is Popa’s ability to distill the existing lexicon, to select the mot juste, and even to coin words. Striking also is the deceptive simplicity of Popa’s idiom—deceptive because his “simple” expressions often harbor a variety of meanings, depending on the context. That is why he is both easy and difficult to translate. His language also reveals elements of folk speech, evident also in other aspects of his poetry, especially in Secondary Heaven:

A transparent dove in the head
In the dove a clay coffer
In the coffer a dead sea
In the sea a blessed moon

A stanza such as this (from “A Dove in the Head”) resembles a folk poem or riddle in both content and form. Popa’s poetry abounds in similar examples.

Popa’s prosody is idiosyncratic: He eschews rhyme and strict meter, but he also avoids free verse. His lines are roughly metric, by no means following a regular pattern yet possessing a strong underlying rhythm.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

There is no critical consensus concerning the extent to which Popa has been influenced by other poets, in part because the uniqueness and elemental power of his poetry belie any simple notion of imitation. Early in his career, Popa was attracted by the Surrealists, whose Yugoslav offshoot was very strong between the two wars, but he refused to follow their prescriptions blindly, believing that each period brings its own problems and solutions. Another source of influence is Momćilo Nastasijević, one of the most unusual and enigmatic of modern Yugoslav poets. This dark genius, creating his art outside, and often against, the mainstream of Yugoslav poetry between the two wars, has always attracted Popa, even when Nastasijević was almost a forgotten poet. As a matter of fact, Popa has edited Nastasijević’s collected works. How much direct influence Nastasijević has exercised on Popa is indeed difficult to ascertain, because both poets have followed the dictates of their own strong personalities; that there has been some influence, however, is beyond doubt. Other poets mentioned as influences on Popa are Léon-Gontran Damas, Francis Ponge, and even Rainer Maria Rilke.

Popa’s own influence on contemporary Yugoslav poetry is just as difficult to establish. At the beginning of his career, he was shunned by the established poets; today, younger poets do not show clearly what they have learned from him, their reverence for him notwithstanding; his forceful originality and unconventional style are difficult to imitate without the appearance of mere copying. Like many great poets, he remains a poetic world unto himself and without legitimate offspring. (This does not mean that he is not emulated or that he has had no direct influence upon his fellow poets.) As for his possible influence on foreign poets, he has begun to be known to the outside world only recently: It is too early to tell.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Alexander, Ronelle. The Structure of Vasko Popa’s Poetry. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1985. A critical analysis of Popa’s linguistic technique in selected works. Includes bibliographic references.

Lekic, Anita. The Quest for Roots: The Poetry of Vasko Popa. New York: P. Lang, 1993. Lekic’s study of Popa and his work provides the complex background where Popa’s imagination and metaphysics have their beginnings. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Mihailovich, Vasa D. “Vasko Popa: The Poetry of Things in a Void.” Books Abroad 53 (1969): 24-29. A basic introduction to the themes in Popa’s poetry.