Life Studies

Vasko Popa: Collected Poems 1943-1976

translated by Anne Pennington, with an introduction by Ted Hughes. The Persea Series of Poetry in Translation, general editor Daniel Weissbort
Persea Books, 194 pp., $5.95 (paper)

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

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