Poets Vasko Popa
KAFKA SUPPOSED that the artist was like a "soaring dog," like the small animals floating invisible through the world above our heads: "They have no relation whatever to the general life of the community, they hover in the air, and that is all, and life goes on its usual way; someone now and then refers to art and artists, but there it ends." Poets would like to emulate the Investigations of Kafka's dogs, or even become fish, as Virgil Thompson has suggested; for they have always found the chore of living among the forms of possibility a tedious one, and most of them have chosen to "climb into a walled garden," as Robert Bly has pointed out. "They imagine the garden as poetry's world."
Bly is probably more aware of this retreat from reality than any other American poet, and he has struggled to oppose it, to climb back over the wall out of the garden. Recognizing that our language and the tradition which survives it is no longer an exclusive proposition. Bly has turned to foreign poets, translating their work, providing essays on their lives, and revealing their enormous influence on his own poems. Georg Trakl, Cesar Vallejo, Pablo Neruda: these are names whose meaning calls out to us in a low voice, intruding on our conscious life: their experience is entirely other than our own.
Where American poetry has always been inseparable from its origins, remote and rational, obsessed with the poem's existence as an aesthetic mode. Latin-American poets, Germans, Eastern European writers have all shared in the premise that the poem is essentially non-rational; it possesses a logic derived from the illumination of dark rooms, and not from the dour confession of spirit. A poem comes alive the moment that it claims authority from unknown sources; herein lies its identification with itself.
The political implications of all this are immediate, they seize upon one's own condition; Marxist artists, especially those working in Eastern Europe, have realized how rooted their collective sensibility remains in a long history of revolution. Even the means of composition have been transfigured by these dramas; when Hungarian poets in prison, denied their simple tools of pen and paper, continue to write by repeating the lines to themselves in an unceasing litany, it becomes difficult to talk about poems as if they were anything other than prayers. Richard Gilman, discussing the "Poor Theatre" of Grotowski, argued in New American Review No. 9 that "Art is a new action for which life has no precedents: culture is the taming of the implications this throws up." And it is precisely this action which calls into question the relation of art to those sanctions so harshly imposed on its autonomy, on its independent life. That art assumes no obligations, that it refuses to explain itself. means that it exists apart from culture, a suspended object breathing.
VASKO POPA, now considered the most prominent Yugoslavian poet, was born in 1923, and so belongs to that generation of Eastern European poets who endured World War II when they were young; Ted Hughes, writing on Popa in Tri-Quarterly, has documented their response to what they witnessed during those years:
Circumstantial proof that man is a political animal, a state numeral, as if it needed to be proved, has been weighed out in dead bodies by the million. The attempt these poets are making to put on record that man is also, at the same time and in the same circumstances, and acutely conscious human creature of suffering and hope, has brought their poetry down to such precisions, discriminations and humilities that it is a new thing.
At a time when the impulses of surrealism were everywhere enacting a loud rage against aesthetics, insulting whatever vestiges were left of art, the temptation must have been to succumb or to fall silent. What poets like Popa proposed was no less than a program of animalism, in which the landscape moves as if it were an animal, in which what is most alive is the articulation of non-human speech.
Lezek Kolanowski, the eminent Polish Marxist philosopher, reminds us that "language cannot be compared with a transparent glass through which one can contemplate the 'objective' wealth of reality. It is a set of tools we use to adapt ourselves to reality and to adapt it to our needs." This is why Popa's work touches on that close edge of experience or why it lies just beneath the surface of all things: the intention is to prevent confusion by celebrating an alliance with the words themselves. These poets, then, are proletarians, and their knowledge of alienation far exceeds our own. Kolakowski's remark about "the 'objective' wealth of reality" appears ironic, a mere aphorism, to poets whose reality is as tragic as his has been. Nothing is perceived as whole; in a metonymous gesture, hands come to represent a process of history:
Two burning hands are sinking
In the depths of heaven
They do not grasp at the star
That floats around them
And twinkles and crosses itself
They are saying something with their fingers
Who can guess
The tongue of fingers in the flame
Solemnly they put their palms together
To signify a peak
Are they talking of an old house
That they left burnt down
Or perhaps of a new one
That they are just thinking of building
Why grasp at a star that extinguishes its light whenever one approaches it? With this in mind, even to think of building a new house demands an act of will, an act that Popa's writing has performed.