Author of the Week / 8 April 2024

Verse Guerilla, or: The Shady Side of Parnassus

Author of the Week: Croatia

What is a European poet today? A view from a ‘small language’

The Nobel Prize in Literature is probably the most visible, most elevated public point of intersection of the poetical and the political. It is the square, the stage of this intersection. So, let’s begin, quite arbitrarily, with the 2016 laureate – of course, a controversial one – the great Bob Dylan. It is my assertion that Dylan absolutely deserved the Nobel, if not on account of anything else then for authoring one of the truest and most universally applicable lines of all times, the gnomic and canonical The things have changed. The great line wouldn’t have been really great, therefore universally interpretable, inspiring and more or less impervious to the inclemency of years, if it weren’t applicable to all spheres of life, including poets and their playground, the boot camp of the letters – poetry itself.

In order to come closer to the answer to the question of what it means to be a poet in Europe today, I will make use of a well-known rhetorical prosthesis – the negative definition. I wish to begin by sketching out what a poet in Europe is not (anymore). The basic premises are, I believe, also applicable to most of the so-called Western World, with some minor modification.

I’m setting a quite heuristic hypothesis: things with poetry (and literature in general) in Europe have changed significantly over the last half a century. This doesn’t imply that they were immutable in some homogeneous, clear-cut past. Things, including matters of poetry, are in a constant state of flux – let us remember the much abused and overused Heraclitus: no man steps into the same poem twice. The flux I have in mind here is contextual, it is within the purview of sociology rather than literary theory or history, and is a result of a more comprehensive paradigm shift in various fields including the literary. At the same time, it is not a fundamental change within the medium itself, like the transition from the oral phase of poetry to its textualised universe; it is not even a strong epistemological turn away from the ‘previous era’. I won’t even attempt to substantiate this hypothesis using scholarly, academic arguments. Instead, I will make use of poetic ones, nearer and dearer to me. I will rely first and foremost on personal observation (rickety empiricism), metaphor, intuition; I will rely on that which cannot yet at the same time must be relied upon.

Let’s leave Dante and Petrarch, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Villon and others rest on the laurels of the old, unconquerable Parnassus. We may, without much compunction, push the beginning of the story of the social role of poetry and poets a few centuries later, and to a geographically closer area. Let’s take, for instance, the year 1848, a year of revolutions breaking out all over Europe. Let’s focus on so-called Central Europe – a concept that is more political than geographical – an area marked at the time by the crisis of empires waning and slowing down the entry of a whole host of nations into a modernity framed by national issues and nationalism. These romanticisms, by and large belated and local in scope and colour – in the context of struggle for a national identity, most commonly defined in linguistic terms – would often see verses as national programmes, and put them into political practice here and there. Example: taking as their war cry the opening line of Sándor Petőfi’s National Song, ‘On your feet now, Hungary calls you!’ in the spring of 1848 Hungarian masses started an anti-Habsburg uprising informed by nationalism. In line with the romantic hierarchy of literary forms, poetry was considered the most sublime, privileged literary form and medium. In the following century, this explicitly public role of poetry gradually diminished. The Hegelian autonomy of art became more tangible in its consequences, but poetry and the figure of the poet – at least nominally and in terms of symbolic capital and representation – still participate in the public sphere. In a bourgeois just as in a revolutionary (e.g. Bolshevik) socio-spiritual constellation, their voice is in a way at once marginalised and prominent, enthroned as the voice of society’s conscience. This was the case with Eliot and Mayakovsky after WWI, Szymborska, Celan and Char after WWII, with Brodsky and Yevtushenko, and with Ginsberg, in the eyes of the Generation ‘68. In a revolutionary and a reactionary context alike, poetry remains a recognisable and esteemed traditional/emancipatory signal, and therefore a cog in the mechanism of cultural hegemony. This state of affairs came to an end, I believe, with the decline of the modernist paradigm, which coincided with the shattering of Generation ‘68’s dream of social change. The process designed during Years of Lead definitely ended with Glasnost, Perestroika and the final collapse of the Soviet Union – probably the last bastion of public visibility and social importance of verse. As for the literary/social periodisation, they coincided with the emergence and eventual dominance of so-called post-modernism.

As a result, poetry in Europe is no longer part of the rotten, hidebound yet still dominant bourgeois habitus, and it has become the domain of academic and professional ghettos and niches, which makes its social function and visibility marginal at best. Its commodification potential is also virtually non-existent, placing it on the fringes of the circuit of direct economic exploitation, and therefore on the fringes of the circle of interests of global capital. The same logic displaces the poet into the ivory tower, assigning to him the still honorary yet wholly pacified and silenced role of the shepherd of sensitive souls. However, all this doesn’t mean that poetry has lost its emancipatory potential, that the idea of freedom has slipped it. Its quietness, behind-the-scenes, its flight below the radar of capital, in a way make all of the above possible.

This (unwanted) position isn’t, of course, the only thing that makes poetry and the poet privileged. Their emancipatory potential lies in their medium, in the intervention into the medium itself. Poetry is not anything if not a bomb in language. The poet – regardless of his intentions – is not anything if not a sapper laying landmines. And one of the defining characteristics of the landmine is its invisibility. A landmine is laid underneath the soil, planted, a grenade is chucked from the ambush. But its explosiveness always includes potential: the explosion is triggered by an external factor on which its realisation depends. Yet the explosion, given enough time, is bound to happen eventually, sometimes when least expected, when its cause has been almost forgotten. However, the danger of explosion, the fear of a tectonic shift under our skin, is in itself enough to lend weight to the explosive device – the very rumour of it terrifies and deters. In Petőfi’s case it was a bomb – eventive time, tangible realisation. Modern poetry still has to reckon with delay-action, brace itself for conjunctive time, take long-lasting structures as its yardstick. The external factor – the foot that steps on the mine, a hand pulling out the pin of the hand grenade – are specific historical circumstances. In addition, the explosion can never be completely controlled, there is always a streak of chaos to it. Realisation of the social and political potential of poetry doesn’t boil down to taking on the role of the lectern (when the historical circumstances allow it to), but to a series of unexpected explosions of different intensity ripping apart the seemingly homogenous tissue of language and opening up new pathways, intertwining and making connections where there were none – the construction of a para-system which permits an artistic or political articulation of the moment. Poetry is not an armoured fist of the dominant discourse and at this point it cannot be expected to field awesome firepower that will decisively influence the outcome of the battle. Poetry functions as the fifth column, the guerrilla of language. Such is its modus operandi, such are its methods.

Ultimately, what is the European poet today, a spectre haunting Europe in silence? Is he some ironic, toothless version of Benjamin’s Angel of History? Has he betrayed his fundamental motto – do good as opposed to do beautiful, forgetting that kitsch is an aesthetic phenomenon as much as a political one? What is the point of such a search, and is it even possible? How far can one push generalisations, and what is identity today, poetic identity in particular?

Such a poet – if he enjoys the rare privilege of writing professionally – is usually a highly precarious, mostly nomadic cultural worker often dependent on institutions in which he doesn’t believe. In addition, he avoids seeing himself as a poet – the word sounds almost cynical to him. A writer in a so-called ‘small language’, if he wants to make a living and do his job according to the dictates of his own conscience, is forced to become a gastarbeiter writer, a client of a wide network of artistic and cultural pseudo-supply and pseudo-demand with which Festung Europa keeps a host of cultural workers and art producers fed and meek. He has to bite the hand that feeds him, but not too often. He has to receive prizes, be translated, sit on boards and juries and become part of the institutions that, consciously or not, reproduce the system, institutions dominated by straight white men. He will certainly have an easier time of it if he is a straight white man himself. He will certainly have an easier time of it if no one ever asks him anything, and if he has got nothing special to say anyway – nothing that wouldn’t fit into the bourgeois horizon of expectations. In short, the most opportune thing for the poet with the future in mind is to simply grow a beard and grow mystically old, in silence.

There is also a harder way, which I, of course, bashfully advocate for here. It includes taking on the role of the sapper laying landmines, waging guerrilla warfare in language as described above. In other words, it takes complete commitment to poetry with all the consequences of that choice. It’s hard to tell where one begins and the other ends: the real and the ideal European poet are usually intertwined beyond telling which one is which, like a grotesque Laocoön Group. The European poet today, ultimately, is not anything if not the potential of the European poet today: he is an invisible man with a series of obligations that nothing and no one imposes on him anymore. Nothing and no one, except his own idea of literature, his own vision of the world around him, and himself in that world, alone.

Translated by Mirza Purić


Marko Pogačar

Marko Pogačar was born in 1984 in Split, Yugoslavia. He is holding MA’s both in theory of literature and history. He has published fifteen books of poetry, essays and prose, for which he received Croatian and international awards. In 2014, he edited the Young Croatian Lyric anthology, followed by The Edge of a Page: New Poetry in Croatia (2019). He was a fellow of, among others, Civitella Ranieri, Literarische Colloquium BerlinRécollets-Paris, Passa Porta, Milo Dor, Krokodil Beograd, Landis & Gyr Stiftung, Lyrik Kabinett and DAAD Berliner Künstlerprogramm fellowships. His books and texts have appeared in more than 35 languages. 


Photo by Dora Held