In response to:
Life Studies from the November 8, 1979 issue
To the Editors:
Mr. John Bayley’s review of Vasko Popa’s Collected Poems (“Life Studies,” NYR, November 8) demonstrates a serious misunderstanding of the contemporary Yugoslav scene. Vasko Popa (or any other Yugoslav poet) is not a writer from whom it is possible to generalize about the role poetry plays in Eastern Europe, nor, in fact, does the place poetry occupies in Yugoslavia justify Mr. Bayley’s generalizations.
However flattering, his statement that “a printing a fifteen or twenty thousand would disappear from the bookshops of Belgrade or Bucharest in a couple of days” is totally untrue in so far as the Yugoslav poetry climate is concerned. Although I cannot talk about Bucharest, I can assure you that nothing like that has ever happened in Belgrade. Unfortunately—and contrary to the myth which Mr. Bayley supports—the Yugoslavs neither particularly want nor need poetry. Volumes of poetry are rarely printed in editions of more than 1,500-3,000 copies, and then they are usually in print for years. Just as in England, poetry in Yugoslavia is denied “mass readership and popular integration”; and just as in England, the best contemporary poetry “has its life much out of the way of official culture.” One reason for this may be that the Yugoslavs are (fortunately) surrounded by the “great mass of surrogate and often degraded culture” which Mr. Bayley fails to see. Finally, I would like to set Mr. Bayley right on another point: Vasko Popa was not born in Vrsac (or “Vershats” as he put it), but in the village of Grebenac.
Department of Central and South-Eastern
European Studies, Lonsdale College
University of Lancaster
John Bayley replies:
Apologies to Mr. Puvacic. I’m delighted to hear that poetry is not read to any extent in Belgrade. Nowadays, national indifference to the arts is a sign of freedom, civilization, and a (comparative) lack of hypocrisy. But in Bucharest and Moscow things are rather different, as I know from visits and from friends, innocently proud of the extent to which national poets are published and read.
Apologies too for incorrectly implying that Popa was born in Vrsac/Vershats, rather than in Grebenac. I was misled by the context and the translation, though the latter was first-class.
April 17, 1980