Miloš Crnjanski and his descendents

Miloš Crnjanski and his descendents

1999-01-01

Poet Nina Zivancevic translates and comments on poetry by the founder of Modernism in Yugoslav literature

Miloš Crnjanski (1893-1973), one of the seminal figures of 20th century Yugoslav literature, was born in Vojvodina, spent most of his adult life in political exile in Europe, and died in Belgrade, shortly upon his return to his homeland. Poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright, he is considered to be, along with Ivo Andric, the founder of Modernism in Yugoslav literature. However, due to the political circumstances and to the complexity of his style he was not as widely translated as the Nobel prize winner Andric, or Vasko Popa. His innovative style in poetry, deeply rooted in metaphysical expressionism, which he himself called “Sumatrism,” finds its affinities in Bergsonian echoes of Eastern philosophies that ruled European poetry in the beginning of the century. Somewhat lacking in the Symbolist’s dualistic categories of expression which characterized the verse of his contemporaries, Crnjanski’s poetry dwells nonetheless between the boundaries of late Serbian Symbolism, new Russian formalist theories of language, and his own distinctive Modernist approach to free verse, a non-dualistic mode of thinking and writing which he described in his 1922 essay, “On free verse.” “The contemporary lyric,” Crnjanski writes,

abandons the old content, rejects the old forms. It is not folly nowadays when a poem turns to the themes of the universe - it is an attempt, rather to locate life within the universe. The poem turns itself to strange and unusual colors, moods, and sensations coming from the skies….This mysticism is just an enormous reaction, quite comprehensible, against all that was recently considered to be life in Europe…. Free rhythm is the true, lyrical rhythm, spontaneously tied to a mood. It is the seismographically exact rhythm of the earthquakes of the soul. In lyrics that immediacy is the most valuable quality. The words and expressions have gained new color.

The contents of this early expressionist verse were smeared with the blood of his comrades killed in the First World War - men who had been disillusioned even before the fighting. Unable to change the reality of the early 1920s in Europe, Crnjanski turned to the transcendental thought of the Far East - thus his numerous translations of ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry, which influenced his own verse profoundly. What Walt Whitman and his pantheistic verse meant to the German poet Arno Holz, the poetry of the Far East meant to Crnjanski. Unlike many other Serbian poets and writers, Crnjanski was a pacifist, disgusted by the ravages of the First World War where he found himself a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army. If we read his poetry aloud today, we are likely to find in it not only his metaphysical quest for the distant blue star and a free land of poetry, but also the harsh criticism of Serbian nationalism, that form of a collectively induced madness again prevalent in political speeches in his home country today.

Disgusted with the communist regime in post-war Yugoslavia, and also threatened by that regime against returning, he remained in exile in London from 1941 through 1965, when, persuaded by an old friend living in Belgrade at the time, he would return to the country whose nature and landscape he loved. His most accomplished prose and poetry was written in exile, however, as well as a great novel (in English) about the condition of his fellow expatriots, Novel about London, originally titled Shoemakers. A translation of a more popular book, Migrations, appeared in France from L’Age d’Homme in 1986.

The influence of this highly innovative and influential Eastern European poet are many and difficult to trace - he is definitely a presence in the work of Sveta Mandic and Zoran Mišic, Serbian poets of late Modernism; in other cases, the ‘anxiety of influence’ is more intrinsic and more difficult to trace. In this essay, I would like to follow some traces of Crnjanski’s sensibility in his own work and in the poems of my post-modern contemporary living in Serbia, Milan Orlic.

Let us begin by looking at one of Crnjanski’s most famous poems, “Sumatra”:

Now we are carefree, light and tender.
We just think: how quiet are the snowy
peaks of the Urals.
If a pale figure makes us sad,
the one we lost to an evening,
we also know that somewhere, instead of it a rivulet
flows and is all red.
Each love, each morning in a foreign land
envelops our soul closer by its hand
in an endless tranquility of blue seas,
in which red corals glitter
like the cherries of my homeland.
We wake at night and sweetly smile
at the Moon with its bent bow
and we caress those distant hills
and the icy mountains with our tender hand.

I choose this poem not only because it stands for Crnjanski’s literary program, but because it is also a mixture of his early Expressionist desire for metaphysical peace and his Symbolist flight into No Man’s Geography - into the quiet land of icy Ural mountains where the poet’s soul dwells in the memories of his feelings and dispair.

Compare the landscape of Crnjanski’s poem with the Northern spaces of Milan Orlic’s verse. Here, for example, is a poem from his book, Scenes from the Polar night, where the Hyperborean cold rules both the poet’s exterior and interior sanctums:

Under the hooves of a reindeer, it crumbles:
resembling snow, white snow made of
petals. Of an almond bud; over the warm,
wetty perspiring
buttocks. The jingle bells, they twinkle. Sad-face
Pierrot, sitting in the sleigh. He blows into a tiny mirror. Mother:
holding a lady’s hat, with her hand:
on the top of her head; she plays hopscotch.
Miles away:
they are lit and they slide. Along the soft moonlight,
empty streetcars,
in the cave’s silence. Somewhere in the depths:
subterranean waters,
glisten. The earth trembles. Grey wind,
in the folds of the fishnet sky. It wiggles,
through its thick woven threads,
v they fly over. The tumblers. Over the wood, over the tree-tops
turned grey by ice,
they cry in quiet. Clouds stranded. Darkness of the Polar night,
shimmering.

Here we are - in both Crnjanski and in Orlic - in the land of eternal snow, the extreme North which freezes the soul of a sensitive individual and which turns a child into a poet.

Seventy-five years after Crnjanski wrote his early poems, Orlic encounters in Belgrade the same cruel and pragmatic world devoid of poetic justice. Thus he says of his themes, consciously parodying Crnjanski (who also understood the almost impossible task of a poet to speak truth in name of the others): “They are old, to say the least: they are ancient. My themes. But my way of telling them and my poet’s vanity are new.” The poet’s effort to make it new echoes Crnjanski, but it also echoes Pound and other modernists. Why is Orlic parodying these older poets? Not so much from his desire to try on for size some new postmodern statement of pseudo-citation, fragment, or worn-out literary take-off; more likely, Orlic’s parody comes from his desire to remind readers of the old and valuable message that was written by the others but somehow forgotten. He tries to trick readers into an artifice so that they would encounter again an ancient truth that they had never mastered, not even in the previous era.

And there is something else: in difficult and complex times the same types of warnings inevitably come from a variety of poets: P. B. Shelley was not merely playing the role of an arrogant Romantic when he claimed that poets were unacknowledged legislators of the world: what he meant was that somehow the poet’s awareness made them the legitimate reminders of some basic truths in the world: if we are to live in the Polar night, let us call it by its proper name without trying to call the condition “the warm sunny day from the Tropics where white and red roses bloom.” If Orlic in this line makes the polar and icy garden bloom, he does it exclusively through the power of imagination, and in a persistent faith in the human spirit’s ability to persevere and bloom even in the most difficult circumstance.

Crnjanski’s poem, “Traveller,” recognizes such difficulties, but the poet choses to rise above it, in poetic terms, and to seek from his surroundings nothing but a moment of calm and silence. In doing so, his poem becomes a sort of a prayer:

I walk freely,
as no one took that sad ability
to love away from me.
I spread my arms, not in dawn-breaks
but into the night and the sea.
Sad and excruciating realities I’ll enter -
no matter where I’d end - with a smile.
When I love, even the sins crown
my head happily bent with heavens.
My melancholy smile lets the dream
pass by, go, and die.
Love is an interminating path
which permits all things to follow it.
I pity neither you nor myself;
I am smiling from the distance,
in my eyes only fatigue flickers
and all that I request from you
is a moment or two, of
silence, just silence.

As a response to Crnjanski’s prayer, Orlic says a prayer of his own, different from the other in form but similar in sentiment, titled, “Prayer, with the Morning star, In Finis, Ad Infinitum”:

Good morning: morning, comedy, all over the world,
my smile
in my sad, eye. What is there to meet, glorious morning:
beatuful, world, amidst racket and
fury. I am alone, abroad and
forever mortal:
perfectly-impure. Like that petal of
an almond bud:
light. Really: a ray in flight. A melancholy day, sweet are
the dreams: and the world?
Is it icy? It is not over. I am alone,
abroad,
but never polite. Fine- to no one: in finis,
ad infinitum.

This specific poem of Orlic’s falls like a cascade into his “Gallery of the polar genre-scenes,” where the poet juxtaposes his personal “I” to a lyrical subject exposed to boredom and misunderstanding. He also suggests a possibility of writing down a poet’s ordinary prayer or even of finding a poetic sensibility/entity similar to his own: “If someone finds a way/ to my heart,/he will inherit it.” In most of his poems Orlic enters the very essence of a “Polar frame of mind,” which does not determine only our times and recent development. Such a “polar state” is eternal, “ad infinitum”, and inherited from one era to the next. This state is that peculiar metaphysical plane, Wallace Stevens’s ‘mind of winter,” where we all dwell, but only few of us dare or know how to describe it. It is possible, the poets suggest, to redeem oneself in the polar night, and most often the redemption comes through some primordial warmth, some form of simplicity provided by a mother, a lover, or Earth; or sometimes we are saved by a silence which resembles death. However, Orlic’s last poem in his collection brings us to another way of seeing the man’s Icy Land of existence - somewhat like Crnjanski who sees in the white snows of the Urals a certain metaphysical calm and tranquility. In the land of Hyperborea, both poets see the possibilities for transcendence and continuity: the sun has always shone and will shine on, even over the coldest compartments of human soul and experience.

Here is Crnjanski’s haiku-like anthological poem, “Departure”:

We parted
and descended from the city
like two tears dropping parallely down
a wrinkled face.
Two boats awaited on water
and yours was the first to leave.
Mine was touring the islands.
I sat bent and sombre
empty
as moon’s shadow.

In this poem, the only visible image is Munch’s primal scream, presented as a “moon’s shadow” covering completely all other images - those of the river, the boats, and the islands itself.

These poems by two Eastern European poets, sampled and translated here for this essay, attest to the challenge of the specific times that imposed themselves on poetic vision and creativity. The era of Expressionism formed their poetic stance, and that of many other Eastern European poets - endowing their work with root-ideas and rhethorical figures - an inclination towards a personal approach, the poem’s intimacy and synesthesia, the long line that we find today in the verse of so many contemporary poets but which has its origins in the poems of Trakl, Celan, Gotfried Ben, but also Heim, Holz, Krleza, and Crnjanski. From the early seventies on, the political as well as the artistic climate in the world started resembling the era of early Modernism. In France and elsewhere in Europe, the spirit of liberal hermeneutics and indeterminacy started penetrating the realm of literary criticism and the consequent revival of Futurism and early Expressionism was felt in the domain of poetry. On the formal level, the Neo-expressionists, under new names and programs, started expressing the old ‘avantgarde’ disgust for the established literary forms and genres, and at the level of contents they again echo Hermann Bahr’s old claim that the “Expressionist feels fear…because when he sees the work of art it reminds him of nothing, he cannot trust it, he cannot even trust his senses…. Never has man been more insignificant. Never has he felt so nervous…This whole pregnant time is one great cry of anguish.”