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Poetry in the Slovene Language
1. The Slovene dual-aspect: an untranslatable form
The Slovene language is one of the rare modern languages to have retained the dual-aspect, an archaic grammatical form: in Slovene, this special form - midway between singular and plural - is used to refer to two things or to two people. For example, at the verbal level:
- I speak/am speaking: - govorim
- We speak/are speaking: - govorimo
- (three people or more)
- We (two) are speaking: - govoriva
The same goes for nouns, e.g.:
Since Slovene has six cases, with different declinations and conjugations, it will be clear that the dual-aspect poses a difficult problem for foreigners wishing to learn our language.
As you may well imagine, this dual form plays a special role in Slovene erotic poetry. The dual is the language of love, an isle of intimacy. Lying between two deserts - the silence of solitude, marked by the singular form, and the voice of the masses, represented by the plural - there is a whispering oasis which flourishes in our language. Here, two solitudes create a fragile link speaking to each other in a low voice, protected by the very syntax of the Slovene language. When one translates Slovene poetry in which the dual form is used, one loses the atmosphere of intimacy which is granted us by the very structure of our language. More than any other dimensions of our culture, it is the dual form which symbolizes the soul of the Slovene people. Indeed, we often say jokingly that Slovenia is so small that already two people together form a quantity which cannot be neglected.
The Slovene writer, working in a language which is used by just about two million people, may almost physically feel the closeness of silence. And I myself, as a Slovene poet, am not only a gardener of words, but also at the same time a gardener of silence.
2. Slovene prosody
The alexandrine was extremely important in the shaping of Slovene poetry during the Age of Enlightenment; in effect, the victory of accentual (more exactly, accentual-syllabic) prosody against the hardly natural efforts towards producing quantitative versification in imitation of Greek and Latin poetry is linked to the introduction of the alexandrine amongst the Slovenes. Janez Damascen Dev, one of the most important authors of the Pisanice (almanacs of Slovene poetry during the Age of Reason), relied upon the rhythm of the German adaptation of the French alexandrine (which is the same as in English: an iambic 12-syllable rhythm with masculine rhymes, and 13 syllables with feminine rhymes); for, despite the deep differences which exist between the German and Slovene languages, the poetry of both languages is based on accentual (accentual-syllabic) prosody. On the other hand, it is most interesting to note that Croatian and Serbian poetry is built upon the syllabic system of versification. Here one encounters a curious phenomenon, which is that - despite the similarity between the south Slavic languages - the versification of Slovene is closer to that of the Germanic languages, while Croat or Serb versification is closer to that of the romance languages. As a consequence ofthis difference it is easier to translate French poetry into Croatian or Serbian, precisely on account ofthe rhythmic structure of the verse, which allows for the transposition of the rhythm of the original; for the same reason, it is easier to translate German or English poetry into Slovene.
Following the radical reform of Slovene poetic language introduced by France Preseren (1800-1849), the greatest poet of the Slovene romantic era, the alexandrine disappeared from our poetry because its rhythmic structure did not correspond to the rhythm of Slovene verse. It is, however, interesting and significant to note that Preöeren did not turn to the models of German poetry, but rather to the poetic forms of Romance languages, particularly those of Italian poetry, i.e. the accentual-syllabic verse forms. Preseren's poetic sensibility enabled him to discover the optimal possibilities for the rhythm of Slovene verse by combining the accentual principle, which is fundamental, with the syllabic principle, which is secondary. Despite its accentual base, one could say that Slovene verse is actually accentual-syllabic. The introduction by Preseren of the iambic pentameter and of the Italian sonnet into Slovene poetry corresponded, therefore, to the nature of Slovene verse. Although Slovene verse belongs to the system of accentual versification, and Italian verse to the syllabic system, it is precisely the accentual-syllabic nature which represents the common denominator between these two prosodies.
3. The role of literature in Slovene history
The first written documents in Slovene date from the tenth century. The Slovene literary language was founded by the priest Primoz Trubar, the ideologistof the Slovenian Reform movement. On account of the prohibition on the use of Slovene in the Catholic liturgy and in public life in the old Austrian monarchy, Trubar had to smuggle the first books printed in our language from Germany into Slovenia, concealed in casks. The strong reform movement was conquered by the forces of the Counter-reformation which restored the Catholic church in Slovenia; thereafter, however, the Catholic liturgy had to use the Slovene vernacular.
After its modest beginnings in the Age of Enlightenment, Slovene poetry attained the quality ofan art form during the period of Romanticism, when France Preseren succeeded in elevating the language of the Slovene peasants to the level of quality of a European language; it is for this reason that Preseren is considered the greatest Slovene poet.
The specific circumstances surrounding Slovenian history had the effect of giving culture - and particularly literature - an exceptionally important role to play: culture was the main arm of defense in the battle for Slovene identity. Since it was impossible to wage armed warfare for the independence of the Slovene People, the Slovenes had to replace the sword by the pen. During the centuries when the dark clouds of oppression threatened to annihilate the linguistic and cultural identity of the Slovenes, it was literature that was the voice of liberation - more powerful than the sword.
This historical situation continued until the twentieth century, when the functions of the sword and the pen became separated: the struggle of the Slovene soldiers against the Austrian army at the end of WWI; the resistance movement against Nazi and Fascist occupation in WWII; and the unanimous defense against the aggression by the Yugoslav army, which attempted to occupy Slovenia in 1991 - all these are incontestable signs of the determination of the Slovenes to become masters of their own destiny. The consequcnce of this historic change was the gradual divorce of the long marriage between literature and politics.
It would seem, furthermore, that the political role of literature as a support for cultural and national identity is renewed whenever liberty is in danger; it seems that this moral and political role played by literature in Slovenian society is a form of genetic coding which is reactivated whenever it proves necessary. Contemporary Slovenian poets, whatever may be their personal approach to poetry, follow this rule.
4. Slovene Poetry
Since it would be quite impossible to present all the riches of Slovene poetry, I shall restrict myself to just some of the most important names, with emphasis onthe twentieth century.
After the death of Preseren in 1849, realism in Slovene literature had become most fertile in the domain of prose, but had remained relatively unused in poetry - a situation which was also to be met with elsewhere. Mention, however, should be made of Simon Jenko, a subtle poet, inspired by the beauty of nature.
Towards the end of the 19th c., a group of four young Slovene writers - influenced by contemporary movements in French poetry - revolted against realism by introducing the poetics of symbolism and decadence. These four names are of great importance in the history of Slovene literature:
Oton Zupancic is generally considered to be the greatest Slovene poet after Preseren. His poetry is so musical that it attracted the attention of Roman Jakobson, who has devoted several analyses to the work.
Ivan Cankar, who fairly soon abandoned poetry to become Slovenia's greatest novelist and playwright.
Josip Murn and Dragotin Kette, known for their impressionist poetry; sadly, both died very young, atthe ages of 22 and 23 respectively.
The avant-garde made its appearance in Slovenia after WWI: the poet Anton Podbevsek, a futurist, and - especially - Srecko Kosovel, the only Slovene poet published by Seghers in the celebrated French collection Poetes d'aujourd'hui (No. 127), in the translation by Viktor Jesenik and Marc Alyn. Kosovel, who died at the age of 22, is one ofthe tragic poets of Slovcne literature. Yet during his short - too short - life, he succeeded in exploring new dimensions of the universe of poetry. After beginning by writing poems which were tender, simple, trembling like the light in imprcssionist paintings - "velvet-soft" - as he himself said, he ended his poetic and existential adventure by revealing an energy of poetic language hitherto unequaled in Slovene poetry, and never surpassed; which leads him to use - at the same time as the Italian futurists, the dadaists and surrealists - the most radical of poetic approaches.
During the inter-war period, Alojz Gradnik restored neo-romanticism through the co-identification between love and death (Eros Thanatos). Anton Vodnik wrote religious odes conveying a neo-symbolist musicality, while by contrast Bozo Vodusek expressed the despair in his Man Disillusioned (the title of his collection of poems).
During this period, the literary avant-garde of Slovenia was concentrated on expressionism; this may be explained by the cultural fact that Slovenia had always been linked to the area of central Europe, in which this movement emerged as a typical form of expression for the region; the same holds true for Croatian literature of this period. By contrast, the Serbian avant-garde was influenced by surrealism, which can be attributed to the close links Serbia had with French culture.
Slovene expressionism often has a social tendency, and one towards the left. Miran Jarc is the most powerful of the expressionists. As a Partisan, member of the resistance against the Nazi and Fascist occupation, he disappeared during an Italian offensive. The most celebrated of the resistance poets are Matej Bor and Karel Destovnik Kajuh, the latter of whom was also to lose his life during the war. France Balantic, a gifted poet who combines a rich imagination and a religious vision ofthe world in classical form, died tragically at the age of 22, burnt alive during an attack by the Slovene partisans, wearing, unfortunately, the uniform of the collaborators. His poetry has nothing to do with his political choice. No: the Second World War in Slovenia was not just a resistance against Fascist occupation, it was also a fratricidal war, a battle between literary colleagues.
One might perhaps claim that the greatest Slovene poet of this century is Edvard Kocbek, a powerful personality who has so deeply marked our recent history that he deserves closer attention. A personalist, linked to Pierre Emmanuel and to the French review Esprit - he began writing under the influence of Paul Claudel - Kocbek had been a dissident from the official Catholic Church, and was the spokesman for the Christian Socialist intelligentsia before WWII. As one ofthe founders of the Liberation Front against Fascist occupation, he ended the war as a high-ranking functionary of the State of Yugoslavia. One might have thought that he would have merited the respect of his comrades in the Resistance. What a mistake: throughout his life he had been condemned to be a dissident, a double dissident: the bigots hated him because of his liberalism, and the communists were wary of him because he was different. Since he was no longer of use to the communist cause, the harsh logic of the revolution required that he should be dispensed with. After the publication of a collection of his short stories, entitled Fear and Courage, he lost his position; thereafter, he was constrained to live the rest of his life in cruel isolation. What a contradiction between this imposed solitude and his poetry, which is a grand ode to the miracle of existence! Despite certain dark shades, we still have the impression that the prevailing tone in his work, as shown through the message of his poems, is a sense of adoration of the entire world, conceived as a divinity. His poetry, and his personal heroism, exerted a great influence on the generations of writers who have followed his model of the independent intellectual.
During the socialist period, in order to avoid censorship, writers were obliged to invent a new literary language - a language full of metaphors, double and secret messages. For example: after the revolution - when the communist ideology reigned with nihilistic cruelty, attempting to abolish all human rights to a private life- literature found a means of battling back against this nihilism. The poets of the first post-war generation (Joze Udovic, Ivan Minatti, and the poets from the group-of-four: Janez Menart, Tone Pavcek, Ciril Zlobec, and Kajetan Kovic, one of the best contemporary Slovene poets), wrote poems almost entirely dedicated to love, the erotic dimensions of life, the beauty of nature as a mirror of the soul, fractured by the coldness of social life. Yet, although this poetry did not directly express a revolt against totalitarianism, it was perceived by the authorities as a political message. A paradoxical situation: without uttering a single word of politics, this poetry was a revolt against politics.
Thus, this political dictatorship led to fertile production in the literary field nonetheless, one would not wish for this period to return on account of its literary successes.
The radical and open revolt against the official aesthetic of socialist realism dates from the fifties, when a group of writers and intellectuals introduced existentialistm into Slovene cultural life. (It should be mentioned that Slovene philosophy has always been more influenced by the existentialism of Heidegger than by that of Sartre, who, nonetheless, inspired the beginning of this movement.) Since existentialist philosophy was considered to be dangerous by the ideologues of the one and only truth, many writers of this generation found their way into prison.
Dane Zajc was obliged to publish his first collection of poems, The Burnt Grass, at his own expense because his poetry had been condemned as being "too somber and pessimistic." The poems of Dane Zajc are marked by a powerful and painful energy, like a cry. Zajc articulates the position of a man who has lost heaven and earth. He sings of the vulnerability of man, yet at the same time this vulnerable man is fatally dangerous to others. Zajc tells us that we are all victims, but he does not allow us to have the illusion that we are innocent; on the contrary - he shows us that we are also torturers of the others! Dane Zajc's poems confront us with our human destiny: death; but being mortal, we are at the same time those who give death to others. Despite this pessimistic message, the somber light of his poetry - with the awareness that each being and each thing is unique - illuminates the whole world.
Among the post-war poets, Gregor Strnisa is probably the one who has created the most personal, exceptional and unique poetry. His poetic approach is so far from what one is familiar with in Slovene poetry and elsewhere, that it seems as if Strniöa had fallen from a star (astre) - or rather, using the rhyme invented by Mallarmé - from a disaster (desastre). His cosmocentric view, his descent into Celtic and Germanic mythology, his poetic language using certain rhythmic elements of the popular ballads of bygone times, the unique form of his poems, the composition of his collections, so pure and geometrically organized after the philosophy of Kant - all this is an indication of poetic research reaching well beyond the definitions of history and of literary theory, poetic research reaching the fire hidden in the shades of time, yet at the same time translating a sensibility which is wholly modern.
Strnisa has awakened a new interest in popular poetry. The first lady of contemporary Slovene poetry, Svetlana Makarovic, bases her poetry on a combination of ancient rhythm and vocabulary with a modern message. Veno Taufer is one of the most important poetsof this generation. While having the same poetic force as Zajc and Strnisa he chooses a different direction. Through his discovery of the enormous possibilities of language experimentation he became the father of neo-avantgarde poetry of the sixties, and even one of the precursors ofthe post-modernist poetry of the seventies.
The most radical rupture between traditional and modern poetry is marked by the poetry of Tomaz Salamun, who introduces word-play that knows no limits.
The literary historian Taras Kermauner has described this poetry as ludism. With the combination of words no longer motivated in the traditional way, Salamun discovers a new universe of the imagination. The publication of his first collection of poems, entitled Poker, in 1966 unleashed the greatest cultural scandal of post-war times, shocking the Slovene public and provoking ferocious attacks from the ideologues of tradition. His daring gesture had enormous influence: after Salamun, Slovene poetry was no longer what it had been before him. This was thunder, this was an earthquake, and even the poets who were remote from him felt obliged to define their position with regard to the cruel star of Tomaz Salamun. I did indeed say: cruel star. Yes; but at the same time there is in his poetry a thrilling tenderness, a cosmic vision, an ode to love...
What Tomaz Salamun had created was a true explosion of language. During the same period there was another poet, no less radical than äalamun, but one who preferred words of silence to theSalamunesque noise. This poet, Niko Grafenauer, had chosen a different direction: if the poetry of Salamun can be described as an implosion of language, Grafenauer's can be described as an implosion of language; if äalamun can be compared to Rimbaud, Grafenauer could be compared to Mallarmé. Salamun broke all the traditional poetic forms; Grafenauer rediscovered the broken form and filled it with a new language, alter the model of Mallarmé and Valery. In evoking the confrontation between man and Nothingness, without any pre-established sense, Grafenauer has based his poetry on the thesis that in a world devoid of metaphysical, religious and ideological truth it is only language which gives substance to human existence.
Among the many poets who followed the revolution in poetic language introduced by äalamun, mention must be made of Ivo Svetina and Milan Jesih, both of whom have found their individual literary ways.
Ivo Svetina has developed a poetry which is wholly personal and original by combining an unfettered imagination with the richness of the metaphorical language and the wisdom of oriental philosophy.
Milan Jesih began his literary career as the most radical representative of ludism. Once he had made his entry into the Slovene literary scene, Jesih also affirmed himself as one of the most popular authors - a quality which is rare indeed among avant-garde writers. He is indisputably one of the grand masters ofthe Slovene language. In his exploration of the poetic language he has traversed a long road, leading from avant-garde experimentation to the rediscovery of the traditional sonnet - an ideal form for his poetic message - which is at the same time both melancholic and full of irony and derision.
Milan Dekleva belongs to the avant-garde generation, but it was only in the post-modern period that his singular voice was recognized. The musical quality of his verse may be explained by the fact that he is also a musician. His deep vision is always searching after the secrets ofthe universe and the paradoxes of human existence.
After the avant-garde revolution, the world remained empty and destroyed, and this caused a reaction among the young generation of poets who were to embrace post-modernist poetry.
According to Tine Hribar - the Slovene philosopher who has compiled an anthology of contemporary Slovene poetry, accompanied by a lucid essay - the precursors of post-modernism are Veno Taufer, Ivo Svetina and Boris A. Novak.
Novak is obsessed by the musicality of verse; for him "the meaning of words must have sound, and the sound must have meaning." He combines modern sensibility with classical forms, including French ballads or the sonnet corona. After the hymns he wrote to the miracles of the universe and of human existence, Novak's poetry took on a darker tone, becoming elegiac in confronting the tragic experience of the wars in former Yugoslavia.
The poets of the young generation adopted the post-modernist approaches while also developing their own poetic world.
The intellectual leader of this generation is Ales Debeljak, a poet who introduced new tones into Slovene poetry by combining refinement of language with the melancholic atmosphere of a world which has lost its reality, becoming broken into mirages and simulations. A brilliant essayist, Debeljak laid down the bases of the literary program of his generation.
After the long series of poets who based their poetry on the richness of metaphor, Alojz Ihan reintroduced and reinstated the narrative form as part of the fabric of the poetic text; this arrived as an innovation in the eighties. Although the subjects of his poems at times follow the surreal(ist) logic of dreams, Ihan's poetic message is always based on the deeply-entrenched ethic of concern for human destiny.
Since the poetry of Jure Potokar is impossible to define in a few words, one must resort to paradox as a source of poetry: Potokar's poems - which are both static and dramatic, free in the undulation of feeling, yet very strictly arranged - are a narrative recounting of the landscapes of music in which time and space, the history of mankind and of the universe, are revealed.
Although Maja Vidmar belongs to the same generation, her powerful and uttcrly personal poetic language cannot be labeled by the term "post- modernism." She has found a new, highly rhythmical, concentrated style of writing and a fresh, joyful and at the same time painful way of expressing erotic passion.
Iztok Osojnik started writing in the seventies, but his radical criticism of institutions has kept him at the margin of the society for a long time; as a consequence Osojnik has published many books in so called "samizdat" (at his own cost). Only in the last years has he decided to give up his marginal status and to share his poetic experience with the wider audience which has brought him well-deserved critical acclaim. Osojnik's poetics has its sources in the beat and neo-avantgarde poetry of the sixties, but he has deepened this frame with the strong emotional touch.
Brane Mozetic is one of the poets who have succeeded in discovering a new expression of love in our contemporary poetry. The obsessional rhythm of his verse evokes the pulsation of erotic passion. The thematic novelty of his poetry rests in the fact that for the first time in Slovene poetry a poet has sung of homosexual love in such an open manner.
The strength, but also the weakness, of post-modernist literature lies in a certain academicism, a certain intellectual dryness, which are the result of a superfluidity or a reflection and a lack of contact with reality. It is therefore quite logical that, after post-modernist poetry, there should have been a reaction against intellectualism in order to rediscover spontaneous emotions. This transition step was made by Uros Zupan, a poet who was able to find a new way of singing praise to the beauty of the world and human existence, a poetic voice in which there are intermingled both sorrow and joy in the search for love. In the youngest generation Miklauz Komelj and Ales Steger have found their fresh and unique voices.
At the present moment, it is not possible to speak of prevalent movements; there are only personal poetic approaches - auto-poetiques, self-poetics.
This is the most recent degree in the development of Slovene poetry a development which, without doubt, will continue along its way, for poetry is at the heart of the Slovene language and soul.
Copyright by Boris A. Novak
Translated from the French by Alan McConnell-Duff
A Selection of 20th Century Slovene Poetry
Srecko Kosovel (1904-26)
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