Author of the Week / 9 December 2022

The Waves of Poetic Expression

Author of the Week: Serbia

Poetry and Expression

I have clear recollections of that mid-September of 2008 and the holiday in Corfu with my future wife. It was a few weeks before she started the first year of her BA in English Language and Literature, so it was only natural that, standing in front of a corner shop with little money in our pockets, instead of two ice-creams we would buy our first copy of The Times (which I still have). That particular issue, the only physical copy of The Times we ever acquired, just happened to become historical. The front page was showing a Bombay stock-broker pressing his eyes in desperation as the headline read ‘Black Monday: Lehman collapse rocks markets’. It was the beginning of the global economic crisis, of course, that affected so many all over the world. It was the date that changed everything and started the chain of events in which we now live.

At the time, I didn’t understand any of it. Maybe the press was, as usual, exaggerating. The biggest financial breakdown since the Great Depression? Give me a break! I knew next to nothing about economics. Besides, I had other things to worry about – my first book of poetry was soon to be published. And on top of that, I was at the seaside for the first time in my life, breathing in the relentless waves, the bare rocks above the olive trees and the southern sun – the elements the world is made of, according to the first philosophers. I couldn’t care less about the bankruptcy of some financial institution.

Something else was drawing my attention. Is this why so many poets use the sea as a metaphor for the infinite and the absolute or even the unconscious? I was approaching Corfu, clueless, staring at the waves hitting the shore, mesmerised, losing myself in the empty, vibrant vastness. That was my first thought, crossing the narrow sea from the Port of Igoumenitsa on a ferry, while strong wind was repeatedly putting out my cigarette. The verses of the poem ‘Sea’ by Dušan Matić were resonating in my head. I was barely 23 and didn’t know much about the world. All I knew was that I wanted to write poetry, and be a poet like Matić, one way or the other.

But, all of that would change rather quickly. Soon, the fragile Balkan world, caught in a permanent transition between the East and the West, started going under. Jobless, without a clear perspective, working part-time on construction sites or proofreading books for 25 cents a page, I started reading about the meltdown. That faraway event (as it first seemed to me) exacerbated a barely bearable situation in my country, while it made others – especially in the Arab world – collapse completely. I ditched Matić and started devouring books on economics and politics instead. It didn’t take long before I discovered a bunch of theorists, authors old and new, that fed into my personal dissatisfaction with the world. Dusty, forgotten volumes from the seventies started appearing on my shelf, and illegally downloaded pdf-s on my refurbished laptop. I swallowed it all in the coming years, from The Eighteenth Brumaire to Global Minotaur.

What did any of that have to do with poetry? Maybe not much. However, each author, each generation of artists has a right to its own origin story and this one could be mine.

I think it’s always good to look at literature or any other type of creative expression through the lens of history or economics, rather than just follow its intrinsic waves. These waves, somewhat repetitive like the phases of the Moon, tend to become boring and predictable after a while: classicism after baroque, romanticists against the classicists, and realists followed by modernists... The story of rebellious children turning against their predecessors has been perpetuated for centuries. One gets a more grounded picture looking at this from a distance, from the perspective of much more basic processes. Of course, this works as long as it’s done descriptively and the parallels are used simply as hypotheses that never want to become theories. Everything may be determined by the economy in the last instance, but the hour of that instance never comes, as a certain French anti-humanist puts it.

That’s why it’s much easier to use narratives that somehow trick us into not worrying about these theoretical conundrums. So let us return to that late summer in Corfu. The year in which the classical neoliberal world order came crashing down was the year a new generation of Serbian poets started publishing their first books. Interestingly, the poetry came before the crash and was in no way determined by it. There was something in the air, as they say. Suddenly, there appeared dozens of authors without a style in common, but with a similar creative intensity, moving in the same general direction.

What was the bigger picture, and what was the poetic world into which these authors were born? There were, first of all, the father figures against whose style these sons and daughters rebelled – the so-called poets of the nineties or post-symbolists, which is a more adequate but rarely used term. With their trimmed down realism combined with quiet lyricism and the return to tradition that followed the dominant line of Serbian poetry, they had defined the field that would be settled by their descendants. There were also the siblings, older sisters to be precise, swinging the pendulum in the other direction – female poets that gathered after the regime change in the early 2000s around AŽIN feminist school of poetry, with a strong respect for the avant-garde legacy of the previous century, especially the movements less prominent in Yugoslav modernist literature.

Poetry flourished during the worst years of the financial crash, especially among the youngest generation. Economic downturn generated a strong feeling of angst and the rapid spread of digital technologies opened up new windows into the world. Both of these meant a huge boost in creativity. In a few years, roughly from 2008 to 2014, hundreds of books appeared, with even the critics from the same generation as the poets struggling to keep up. The most extensive publication covered only 54 names.

This was not an isolated phenomenon, as a similar surge also happened in other ex-Yugoslav states. There were many similarities in the sensibility between contemporary poets of the younger generation especially among those from Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia. Regional poetry collections and anthologies started appearing and were read as a genuine reflection of this shared sensibility rather than mere aggregates of authors with the same year of birth in front of their names.

The new generation was non-conformist in poetic style but also in the way it went about publishing. A number of new and small publishers sprang out including even handmade samizdat publications. Young authors put foreign role models in front of the domestic ones, and when predecessors were chosen from poets writing in the mutual language, those were usually some marginal or anti-traditional figures. These were, just to name a few, the New York School of Poets, Srečko Kosovel or the Belgrade Surrealist circle. Not to mention that almost every author was heavily influenced by the study of literary theory.

This produced a body of mostly left-wing and, rather elitist poetry that combined the best and most radical twentieth century poetic practices. Maja Solar, Vladimir Stojnić, Petar Matović, Bojan Savić Ostojić, the poets gathered around caché samizdat publications and many, many others all shaped this strange and diverse landscape that would become known as the New Serbian Poetry.

But the wave diminished with the passing of the years. The youngest generation of authors were no longer young. Many stopped writing or at least publishing, many others switched to prose. New names and styles appeared. The rebellious children were now themselves regarded as father figures to be distanced from. And sure enough, the generation that appeared between 2017 and 2019 created their own narrative, started new publications and articulated very different creative expressions, defining itself in opposition to what had come before. But their rebellion is not as loud as ours has been and seems more as quiet unacceptance. Elitism and theory-based poetics are replaced by a more colloquial and accessible style, our experimental and often highbrow texts by poems about everyday experiences. Poetry of the 2020s very much resembles that of the 1990s. The pendulum has swung back to its starting position.

Now I feel as if that September morning of 2008 happened only yesterday and at the same time that an entire century had passed since. Our poetic rebellion was all about demanding change or lamenting the lack thereof. Financial institutions crashed, country after country burst into flames of civil war, millions of refugees and migrants crossed the borders and the very sea I was looking at with my inexperienced, pre-Socratic eyes. And nothing changed, at least not for the better, and surely not looking from my corner of the world.

I don’t feel rebellious anymore, and I’m no longer interested in theory and political activism that promised so much but delivered less than nothing. Were we deceived by our own hope? In any case, no one promised us anything. Maybe the new generation is indeed wiser than we were in our youth. Maybe the path of quiet unacceptance is really the way forward.

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