Monday, 10 March 2014

Vasko Popa: "A Universe Passing Through a Universe"

Plaque at Vasko Popa's house in Belgrade.

I started reading Serbian poet Vasko Popa's poems late last year, and my rather unacademic commentary on his work is that it has absolutely blown my mind. I may have encountered him before, particularly since his poem 'Belgrade' ("White bone among the clouds/Bone of our bones") has appeared in recent years as one of London's Poems on the Underground. He was largely new to me, though, and I was swept into a world of Serbian folk mythology and historical archetypes, surreal and disturbing parables and games, and sardonic, funny commentaries on human nature.

Ted Hughes was a huge fan of Popa, and in a famous introduction to Popa's work, he commented: "It is the Universal Language behind language, and when the poetic texture of the verbal code has been cancelled (as it must be in translation, though throughout this volume [Anne Pennington's] translations seem to me extraordinary in poetic rightness and freshness) we are left with solid hieroglyphic objects and events, meaningful in a direct way, simultaneously earthen and spiritual, plain-statement and visionary." This is a very good point of entry into Popa's work, and it says much about why I'm becoming so obsessed with Eastern European poetry; the way in which it can be both corporeal and spiritual, prosaic and mystic, is absolutely remarkable to me.

Vasko Popa's most famous translator is Serbian-American poet Charles Simić, but so far I've mostly read Anne Pennington's highly regarded translations. You can read her translation of 'The Little Box' here:

THE LITTLE BOX (Vasko Popa, translated by Anne Pennington)

And here you can listen to Popa reading his poem 'Poetry Reading for the Gastarbeiters' in the original Serbian, although you will need to track down the English translation elsewhere - perhaps in the collection published by Anvil Press Poetry.

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