Tuesday, July 31, 2012


 By Vasko Popa

Translated by : Anne Pennington 

Vasko Popa is considered the greatest Serbian poet of last century. From surrealist fable to traditional folk-tale, from personal anecdote to tribal myth, Popa's poetry embodies in an original form the most profound imaginative truths of our age, precisely located in the reality and history of Serbia, in the heart of Central Europe. Popa  could be grouped with Zbigniew Herbert and Miroslav Holub, two other astonishingly original East European poets, whose works were plainly unlike anything  written in Britain or the United States.

Popa was born in 1922 in an area north of Belgrade called Banat, where the population was a mixture of Serbs, Germans, Slovaks, Hungarians and Romanians. His father was a record clerk and afterwards worked for a bank; his mother was a housewife. He went to school in the town of Vrsac, and in his last year there he discovered Marxism: he continued to think of himself as a Communist for the rest of his life. The war began for Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941, when the country was attacked simultaneously by the German, Italian, Bulgarian and Hungarian Armies and quickly occupied. Nevertheless, that autumn, Popa, following his parents’ wishes, went to Bucharest to study medicine. He left after a year, and went to Vienna to read philosophy. On a visit home in May 1943, he was arrested and interned in a concentration camp. He was somehow released in September and returned to Vienna, where he enrolled in French and German literature classes and also worked as a tram conductor. He did not return to Vrsac until shortly after the Liberation. There he promptly joined the Communist Party and soon afterwards moved to Belgrade to study French language and literature at the university. It was a most unusual wartime itinerary, as his Communist Party dossier suspiciously pointed out at the time. In Belgrade, Popa began his literary career, editing and writing for a weekly paper; eventually he became an editor at a prestigious publishing house, where he remained until not long before his death in 1991.

The symbolist poetry of Mr. Popa, a modernist, was widely hailed as the finest in the Serbian language and an artful mix of folk poetry and surrealism. His language was succinct, often aphoristic and elliptical, and it focused on the specific over the abstract. He avoided rhyme while using humor and proverbs to explore the universal themes of life, love, fate and death. He was admired for being inventive and entertaining and for using paradoxical images and forceful rhythms to dramatize the senselessness, ironies and tragicomedies of life. The English poet Ted Hughes lauded him as an "epic poet" with a "vast vision" and added, in an introduction to his collected poetry: "As Popa penetrates deeper into his life, with book after book, it begins to look like a universe passing through a universe. It is one of the most exciting things in modern poetry, to watch this journey being made."

Conceited Mistake

Once upon a time there was a mistake
So silly so small
That no one would even have noticed it

It couldn't bear
To see itself to hear of itself

It invented all manner of things
Just to prove
that it didn't really exist

It invented space
To put its proofs in
And time to keep its proofs
And the world to see its proofs

All it invented
Was not so silly
Nor so small
But was of course mistaken

Could it have been otherwise

In the above poem, Popa imagines the creation of the world as an accident; a small, silly error that invented space and time. A silly little mistake can get compounded by another and yet another in a vain attempt to cover the initial error, until it reaches gigantic proportions.

Here is another poem that shows Popa’s comic version of how the world began in ‘A Forgetful Number’ from the cycle ‘Yawn of Yawns’:

A Forgetful Number 

Once upon a time there was a number 
Pure and round like the sun 
But alone very much alone 

It began to reckon with itself 

It divided multiplied itself 
It subtracted added itself 
And remained always alone 

It stopped reckoning with itself 
And shut itself up in its round 
And sunny purity 

Outside were left the fiery 
Traces of its reckoning 

They began to chase each other through the dark 
To divide when they should have multiplied themselves 
To subtract when they should have added themselves 

That's what happens in the dark 

And there was no one to ask it 
To stop the traces 
And to rub them out. 

Here is another poem written in lighter vein that shows his penetrating ability to observe the sly games played by men for their survival   


Some bite from the others
A leg an arm or whatever

Take it between their teeth
Run out as fast as they can
Cover it up with earth

The others scatter everywhere
Sniff look sniff look
Dig up the whole earth

If they are lucky and find an arm
Or leg or whatever
It's their turn to bite

The game continues at a lively pace

As long as there are arms
As long as there are legs
As long as there is anything

From: Vasko Popa: Collected Poems [Paperback] Vasko Popa (Author), Anne Pennington (Translator), Francis R. Jones (Translator), Ted Hughes (Introduction).  Anvil Press Poetry; Revised & enlarged edition (June 1, 2004).ISBN-10: 0856462683

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