Vasko Popa: two views

Milan Djordjević and Dubravka Djurić

This is the first of a two-part feature on postwar Serbian poetry. Second part: two poems by Slobodan Tišma.

Milan Djordjević

 [Djordjević is a Serbian poet, prose writer, editor and translator of American and Slovenian poetry, born in 1954. His Oranges and Snow: Selected Poems has been translated by Charles Simic (Princeton University Press, 2010).Excerpted from  "Notes on Vasko Popa's Poetry,"Poezija 5-26 (2004). Published here with permission of the author. Translated, with commentary, by Dubravka Djurić.]

In the second part of the 20th century Vasko Popa, along with Ivo Andrić and Danilo Kiš, was, in the international arena, accepted as great writer whose work overcomes the limitations of national culture. His poetry, which rose to the top of Serbian poetry of second part of 20th century, was framed in international literary circles as universal and original: an original and harmonious synthesis of several poetic elements, topics, motives, and devices. It should not be forgotten that Popa was not a modernist eclectic who created his work by artificial conjoining of different and heterogeneous elements, of even opposing traditions; neither was he content with the ludic arbitrariness of some modernist poetic devices. . . . When we speak on Popa's poetry, we have to keep in mind European and world context in which it is created.           

The poems from Kora (Bark, 1953) were written during the Second World War and the Cold War period, but I don't experience them as poems that are dealing with the immediate existential crisis, about border conflicts during the war, the Holocaust, or the of nuclear war. They express deep, cosmic foreboding and jeopardy. By transformation, the poet rejects a historical frame so that he can speak with a language of ancient human fears and menace.

[Djordjević goes on to write about Nepočin- polje (No-rest Field, 1965) and Sporedno nebo (Secondary Heaven, 1968) as Popa’s most important works. He notes that the titles suggest the coinages of Serbian Romantic poets. He mentioned that in Nepočin-polje (No-rest Field,) some poems resembles to the Belgrade surrealist poet Aleksandar Vučo's poem Humor zaspalo. Also he observes that a recurring word in Popa' – belutak  ­– (an archaic word for small stone) has a meaning in Jung of an image of the self. Djordjević says, "Stone is the symbol of the self because it is completed, unchangeable and eternal."

Writing of Sporedno nebo (Secondary Heaven), Djordjević connects it with Romanicism:]

In this book Popa also use mythological figures and poetic images derived from folklore, fairy tales, and other creations, or at least it seems as if they are taken from such sources. Of course, all this doesn't make Popa a folk poet, but at best way shows how a modern poet can have a creative relationship with tradition, and specially folk tradition, which urbanized culture are already forgetting.

Miodrag Pavlović, in the introduction of an anthology of patriotic poetry, gave a simple, somewhat traditional definition: "This poetry expresses loyalty to the motherland." . . . It is usually that patriotic poetry is considered as a variant of utilitarian, i.e., applied poetry. And utility is foreign to that which we called modern poetry.

[Djordjević then compare the patriotic poetry of 90s, and contrasts it to Popa's:)

In Uspravana zemlja (Earth Erect, 1972), Popa writes poems which, in some way, could be called patriotic, but these poems are far from having utility and are even further from the ideology of fighting for  Kosovo in its most vulgar variant. So, his poems are not just expressions of "love towards the one's nation," but are first of all lessons in the way how national mythology could be built upon, lessons on how so-called patriotic poetry could be written, and at the same time stay faithful to one’s own aesthetic, in the manner of modern poetry. . . . 

Popa was not preacher nor a poet in the service of specific ideas of religion or nation, but a creator who took his inspiration from different sources (mythologies, folklore, family legends, contemporary life) in order to bring to perfection his poetic world and poetic expression.

[Djordjević gives a source for Popa’s spiritual views to Saint Sava, which, if looked at from the perspective of  Serbian Orthodox church dogma, could be seen as heretical, but also as plebian and poetic. For Djordjević, the poet should be heretical and follow only his or her poetic vision, even if it is in confrontation with canonical opinions. Djordjević writes:]

 It could happen that under the influence of today's historical circumstances, we could experience Popa's cycle of poems "Kosovo polje" ("Kosovo field") as something that does not belongs to poetry. [Kosovo polje is geographical and mythical term referring to the field in Kosovo where, during the Battle of Kosovo in 1389) Serbian feudal lords and the Turkish, Otoman army.] But we need to say, Popa incorporated the myth of Kosovo, which is politically so much misused, into his poetic world and he interpreted it in his own way. Some elements of this Kosovo myth, which is otherwise used by traditional poets as well as well as by poets with narrative ambitions, are aesthetically dead. In Popa's poems they become alive, but exclusively and only in the spirit of his poetry and his poetic stances. . . .

[Poems from Živo meso (Raw Meat, 1975) as well as later poems are presented by Djordjević as deeply human. Popa, for Djordjević, is a poet of humanistic vision and love for simple life facts, small things, and so-called ordinary people.]

 In a well-known Penguin anthology published in 1960s, Alan Bold’s Book of Socialist Verse, Popa is represented by "Eyes of Sutjeska." Poems from this cycle are from his book Kuća nasred druma (Home in the Middle of the Road, 1975). I feel compelled to note that these poems are typical artistic creations made in the spirit of socialist aestheticism or modernism.  . . . "Eyes of Sutjeska" ("The eyes of Sutjeska river") is written utilizing modernist poetic devices and topics is in the spirit of socialist aestheticism – modernist factura with socialist content. ... This cycle of poems focused on the  Partisans [Socialist anti-Nazis] and their struggle in the Battle on Sutjeska (May-June 1943), which in socialist Yugoslavia took the shape of a new myth. Popa shapes this material with the abstract language of modernism, and thus reaches the universal message about destructive forces and fights against destruction and dehumanization.

Dubravka Djurić

[Dubravka Djurić is a poet and translator living in Belgrade. Her PennSound page, poems, and essays available at the Djurić PEPC library page. With Miško Šuvaković she is the author of Impossible histories: historical avant-gardes, neo-avant-gardes, and post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991 (M.I.T. Press, 2003). Excerpt from "Vasko Popa: Skech for Critical Reading," Poezija 25-26 (2004). Adapted and published here with permission of the author.]

The discourse on Serbian poetry after the Second World War is marked by an uncompromising anti-intellectualism. One of the best ways to understand this is through the work of Vasko Popa (1922-1991). I will cite some of his paradigmatic statements, which have defined discursive field of poetry and poetics in Serbia over that past fifty years. This is from "The secret of a poem" (1966):

They ask you what your poem means. Why don’t they ask the apple tree what its fruit means. If the tree could speak, it would, I suppose, reply, “Bite an apple and you will see what it means.” . . .  Your poem’s meaning is a secret conceived inside you, where it matures; and when it matures, you pronounce it in accord with your language. If you knew what this secret meant, you would not need to make the effort for it be born under the sun, among the people and among the clouds. And it is up to others, and not up to you, to answer the question if this secret could be known or just experienced.

Popa thinks that poet is "helpless, stammering, mute"; but he was capable of saying this in an, at the core, modernist statement on the creation of the art as something that is a 'natural' process: the poet creates in the same way as nature. At the beginning of the sexist "Poet's Muteness" (1966) he writes:

They ask you, How do you create a poem? Why don’t they ask a rock how it  makes small stones or a bird how it its babes come to be, or a woman how she has her child?

This ideological position connects to the literal muteness of poets in Serbian culture, to such a degree that the position of poet intellectual has almost disappeared.

For a long period of time I avoid Popa’s work. He belonged to the mainstream of Serbian poetry, and I am interesting in marginal figures, which are not of interest for mainstream poets and critics. When my colleague Dragi Bugarčić called me to give a talk on Popa's work, I accept this invitation as a challenge. In the end, Popa is unavoidable figure of historical importance, because, among other things, along with poet Miodrag Pavlović, he contributed to the reintroduction of modern poetry to Serbia, after the domination of socialist realism in the period after the Second World War.

Vasko Popa's work is fundamental to the constitution of the canon of Serbian poetry and is a sign for cultural identification. Popa's is positioned as the uncontested father figure. This fact necessitate that I reconsider very briefly the idea of canon. ...           

Mainstream critics in a culture speak of poetry and poems as autochthonous. For these critics, poems reflect universal human values and transcend the social context in which they are written. The subject who is speaking in poetry, they believe, is positioned outside history, expressing universal human emotions. So these critics will talk about Popa's poetry as a sphere of freedom, about high artistic value which embodies universal human values. But this approach hides the fact that all forms of so-called high art, as well as of popular culture, are ideologically based, and cannot escape the involvement in social and political relations. I would like to point in this text to the relation of Popa's work to meta-narratives of the culture in which his work is created. By the meta-narrative of culture, I mean the stories that constitute a dominant identification-matrix of the given society. These discursive/performative constructs form the national cultural identity with which the individual is supposed to identify. Meta-narratives construct the generally accepted norms, values, believes, cultural symbols and practices of a society.

My thesis is that poetry of Vasko Popa inscribes itself in the construction of three meta-narratives of socialist society in the period from post-revolutionary Yugoslavia to late, relatively liberal socialism. The first meta-narrative is the one of post-revolutionary society which "looks after the achievements of revolution." The second meta-narrative celebrates symbols that are constitutive elements of religious and national identity. The third celebrates a Third World path, i.e., the Non-Aligned Movement in the Cold War world division [associated with Tito and Yugoslavia].

In poems dedicated to heroes of socialist revolution and workers, Vasko Popa inscribes himself into the meta-narrative that celebrates socialist  revolutiona and the working class, which, according to this meta-narrative, creates "better world." In his book of poetry Živo meso (Raw Meat, 1975) we find the poem "Uninterupted class" ("Neprekinuta nastava") in which he celebrates Žarko Zrenjanin, the hero of the socialist revolution.

In Popa’s Kuća nasred druma  (Home in the Middle of the Road, 1975) we find the cycle ,"The eyes of Sutjeska river," ("Oči Sutjeske") which deals with a key historical event for socialist society of Yugoslavia, the mythical  Battle of the Sutjeska [the Partisans fighting the Nazis] during the Second World War.

In the cycle "Pilgrimages" (poems "Hilandar", "Kalenić", "Žiča", "Sopoćani", "Manasija", "Sentandreja") in Uspravana zemlja  (Earth Erect, 1972), Popa inscibes himself in the second meta-narrative. The poems recreate a mythical spaces of a great past, represented by radiance of the Serbian Orthodox monasteries and churches, among other things. In this way, the poet participates in reconstruction of religious identity of a majority ethnic Serbian nation of Yugoslavia, in whose culture he inscribes himself as Romanian in origin.

In Yugoslavian socialist society, multiple and historically antagonistic national and religious identities were repressed by dominant meta-narrative of an overarching working class / people’s war. In socialist Yugoslavia, like in other socialist countries, a class-stratified society was said to be replaced by one class – the working class – where “the people” struggles for liberation against the Nazi occupation and later the bourgeoisie. After the immediate post-revolutionary period, characterized by socialist realism, when the state stabilized itself, different kinds of symbols for cultural identification were needed for the citizens of a socialist society: these were taken from religious and folklore, presented in the of manner of socialist modernism. This religious and folklore imagery was framed by the dominant socialist state ideology.  Popa, along with other Yugoslavian artists and writers, used religious monuments and their own specific national origins in support of this overarching Yugoslavian socialist identity. In other words, Popa was able to refashion religious and cultural identity under the conditions imposed by the Yugoslavian multiethnic state. To do this he activatied two devices developed out of socialist aestheticism: intimism [personal, intimate space] and by ornamentation [decorativeness]. In Yugoslavian socialist culture, intimism and ornamentation function to neutralize the potentially polemical, problematical character of potentially “dangererous” poetic motives. Ornamentation in Popa's poetry is one aspect of socialist modernism, which obliged art to deal with its own language and form. The sphere of art in Yugoslavia in the years following the Second World War constituted itself as autonomous (separated from politics) and also away from utilitarian socialist aesthetics ie.., socialist realism. Intimism moves symbols of national, religious, revolutionary, class identity from public sphere and places it into the sphere of private life. In this way, the sphere of everyday life is imagned (i.e., constructed) as a politically neutral sphere of lyrical magic.            

The third meta-narrative has to do with the positioning of Yugoslavis as a Non-Aligned country. This meta-narrative is inscribed in heroicizing of the third world during the Cold War and can be traced in the Rez (The Cut, 1981) and the poem "Čanak hranljivog snega" ("A dish of nurture snow").

Popa’s used folklore to impart a universalizing humanism. This was another device to inscribe his poetry into the dominant national Serbian culture. In the canon of Serbian poetry folkloric poetry is positioned as the beginning, as the mythical origin of genuine, national creation, out of which all national poetry is derived.             

Dubravka Djurić wishes to thank Vanda Perović for help on translating both texts.