Vasko Popa
Vasko Popa; drawing by David Levine

Translating a good poet into poetry is a thankless task. When you have finished he will not look so good and, worse, he may seem to approximate to the manner of a number of other poets, whether foreign or writing in English. This loss of absolute individuality is bound to flatten in its turn the reader’s powers of response, and give him nagging doubts about whether the poetry possessed it in the first place. Philip Larkin’s straightforwardly insular objection to what is claimed to be distinguished foreign poetry is that it sounds so like the mediocre stuff that is always being produced at home. The “once only” quality has vanished.

All the more remarkable that it has survived in this version of the complete poems of Vasko Popa, one of the best European poets writing today. The translation is in its way as good as Charles Johnston’s recent version of Evgeny Onegin: that is to say it does not try any tricks but succeeds by sheer skill in keeping to the spirit, verve, and economy of the original. Its success does not look hard to achieve, but is; and that is the test. In this translation the precision and economy of Popa’s poetry come alive, as in this example.


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

As this shows, Popa’s poetry is highly formalized. But it is not formalization in the senses of imagism or surrealism, though Popa (who is fifty-seven) 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. One of the most potent of Serbian legends is that of St. Sava and the wolves, the wolves whom he tamed to become his flock and pastoral following. He is celebrated in a sequence beginning with the poem “St. Sava’s Spring.”

…At the bottom of this water
Shines the crystal wolf-head
With a rainbow in its jaws

To wash in this water
Heals all pain of death
To drink of this water
All pain of life

Clear eye in the stone
Open for all
Who leave their black teardrop here

This sequence forms part of “Earth Erect,” a meditation on Serb history and the legendary figures of St. Sava, Stephen the Tall, poet and warrior of the short-lived Serbian empire, and Prince Lazar, defeated and killed by the Turks at the decisive battle of Kossovo Polye—the Blackbirds’ Field. Lazar before the battle is said to have had a vision in which he was offered victory and an earthly crown or defeat and a heavenly crown, and chose the latter: one might compare this part with Alexander Blok’s poetic meditation on the field of Kulikovo, where Prince Dimitri of Moscow encountered the Tartars. In both cases 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 poet-pilgrim of Popa’s sequence returns to Belgrade, the white city, and to those questions of the present and future which in the medium of this poetic culture are at one with the past. In the same way the Marxist and materialist aspirations of a modern state and society mingle naturally with popular religious traditions and practices in the culture, the wolves of St. Sava—his Serbian flock—and the fortified monastery with its miracle-working icon of the Mother of God with her three hands, two painted and the third, a votive offering, worked in silver. In the life of the poems these merge too into the life of the provincial town of Vershats, where the poet was born and brought up. 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.


I am burying my mother
In the old overcrowded
New cemetery of Belgrade

The coffin is laboriously lowered
Into the shallow slit of grave
And rests on my father’s

It soon disappears under the first clods

Two hatless young grave-diggers
Leap round on the invisible coffin
And pack down the earth

On their upraised spades
Shine two afternoon suns

My laughing mother
Would have been thrilled to watch
This dance in her honor

Serbo-Croat was only organized as a literary language at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In this it resembles another Balkan language—otherwise wholly different—Rumanian. A sense of the young instrument and the old tradition makes affinities between Popa and such Rumanian poets as Blaga or 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.


There is another important difference for the amateur of poetry to take into account. In whatever ways it may seem to resemble ours, this sort of European poetry is in fact far more public than anything now being written in English. One reason is simple: poetry—even good poetry—has in Eastern Europe the blessing of the state, however reluctantly given. Its relation with its audience is as close as that of propaganda, however little like propaganda it is. Its audience will not necessarily be either “for” or “against” the regime, and yet poems will excite an essentially public response to questions about life under state control, questions irrelevant in the private response of his readership to a poet writing today in English. And that public readership will be a much larger one. A printing of fifteen or twenty thousand would disappear from the bookshops of Belgrade or Bucharest in a couple of days. It would be the same in the case of Polish or Czech poets—Holub or Herbert—or the Hungarian Istvan Vas—all near contemporaries of Popa, and still more so in the case of new and younger poets coming on.

It is admirable that people should still want poetry and need it, whatever the reason. One reason, in fact, must be the enforced absence of variety, that great mass of surrogate and often degraded culture with which we are surrounded in the West. Few know the highest when they see it, and fewer of those invariably prefer it to the many alternatives available. In Eastern Europe it is sometimes only the best that is available. But the best is read by many without any real capacity to appreciate it, and this can be bad for a poet and his poetry. Through no fault of its own poetry may become too much a part of local and national culture. How is this not a good thing? Perhaps it is, or can be, but the fact remains that the best contemporary poetry in English—say Larkin’s or Lowell’s—has its life very much out of the way of official culture, very much out of the way of the idea of poetry in society. Its indeterminate privacy resists mass readership and popular integration—resists it involuntarily, since it is itself so much the product of a disintegrated culture.

Ted Hughes, who contributes a thoughtful introduction to these collected poems, is a great admirer of Popa and indeed may well have been influenced by him. Hughes has always had a nostalgia for vatic poetry, poetry that while appearing to be recondite can tap some deep vein of folk response. He attempted something of the sort in Crow, and even more so in Gaudete, a kind of melodrama of the national unconscious, a blood ritual which the reader was invited to join in. Popa is not like this: he has far more restraint, fastidiousness, and humor. It is only the culture he writes in that gives him something of the appearance of a successful popular poet. His 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. Justly, if somewhat overdramatically, Ted Hughes refers to his “intensely bracing moral vigilance.” And more generally of the poets of that generation who were involved in the destruction of Europe and its ambiguous rebirth, Hughes remarks that “like men come back from the dead they have an improved perception, an unerring sense of what really counts in being alive.” What they have gone through has “purged them of rhetoric.”

Their poetry is a strategy of making audible meanings without disturbing the silence, an art of homing in tentatively on vital scarcely perceptible signals, making no mistakes, but with no hope of finality, continuing to explore. Finally, with delicate maneuvering, they precipitate out of a world of malicious negatives a happy positive.

Though it is a fancy way of putting it, that may accurately describe how a poet like Hughes apprehends the creative process. Yet it does not ring quite true. Hughes has a nostalgia for the poetry of extreme situations that leads him, I think, to falsify the ways in which such experience was actually used by good poets who were in the midst of it. He seems sure that such poetry is quite different from any other, and by implication superior to any other—“brought down to such precisions, discriminations and humilities that it is a new thing.”


I think it was Milosz, the Polish poet, who when he lay in a doorway and watched the bullets lifting the cobbles out of the street beside him realized that most poetry is not equipped for life in a world where people actually do die. But some is. And the poets of whom Popa is one seem to have put their poetry to a similar test.

Isn’t “In Memoriam,” or “A, Nocturnall upon St. Lucy’s Day,” or “The Eve of St. Agnes,” or almost any good poem one can think of, “equipped for life in a world where people actually do die”? I suspect that both Milosz and Popa would be deeply embarrassed by the curious claim Hughes is making on their behalf: So perhaps even would the Jewish Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti, who died on a forced march to a German camp, and whose last remarkable poems were found on his body in a mass grave after the war.

But apart from this muddle—the product of stylized, tough, neo-realistic longings—there is a more empirical fallacy in Hughes’s argument. For there is no especially strenuous kind of poetry that “equips” us for a strenuous and dangerous kind of life—quite the contrary. In war situations, as I remember, the few people who depended upon poetry found The Faerie Queene or The Prelude or some poems of Hardy particularly relevant to their situation, and equipped to help them.

Popa’s poetry is emphatically not “equipped” in the sense Hughes means, and I think Hughes, naturally enough, is reading his own fantasies and preoccupations into it. The strength, humor, and flexibility in its 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. It says much for Anne Pennington’s translation that she is able to convey the nature and tempo of these transitions in a version as sensitive as it is unpretentious, as successful as the translations which she and Andrew Harvey have already made of Macedonian poetry.

This leads back to the vexed question of translation in general. With no wish to be a poet at all, the translator is often compelled to look like an unsuccessful one. When a poet “translates”—FitzGerald his Rubaiyat, Robert Lowell his “Imitations” of European poets, Robert Graves his superb versions from the Hungarian of Gabor Devecseri—the original is turned into a counterpoint variation of the translator’s own idiom; and this can give new insight into an original that in being taken from one poet is added to by another. One can feel this even when there is a gap of more than a thousand years, as in Yeats’s rendering of choruses from Sophocles.

But for the amateur of poetry who wants to penetrate a little—whatever his linguistic inadequacies—into the physical being of a foreign poet’s work, there is no substitute for a dual version, the text on one side and a translation on the other, even though the translation need not be into the literal prose preferred by the Penguin European series. There are some excellent and important poets in the Persea Series of Poetry in Translation, including Mandelstam and the remarkable Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. This collected version of Popa makes the worthiest possible addition. But I wish the general editor would consider a policy of printing the real text as well. To the poetry lover even the original’s incomprehensibility has a sort of eloquence; and its verbal appearances, shape, guessed-at rhythms, do something to bring us more closely into contact with the poet himself.

This Issue

November 8, 1979