Sad news spread through the poetry world yesterday that the great Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun has passed away at the age of 73.
Playful, irreverent, and exuberant, Šalamun’s poetry was deeply influenced by Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, and other poets of the New York School. In fact, his work stands as a powerful example of the perhaps unlikely, but profound, impact the New York School aesthetic has had on Eastern European poetry.
In his excellent introduction to The Selected Poems of Tomaž Šalamun, Robert Hass explains how Šalamun encountered the New York poets. Born in Zagreb in 1941, in what was then Yugoslavia, Šalamun studied art history at the University of Ljubljana, began to exhibit his work as an artist, and also discovered poetry. Hass writes:
The summer of 1970 brought him to New York City for an international show by performance artists at the Museum of Modern Art. He returned to Ljubljana to teach twentieth-century art at the Academy of Fine Arts for a year, and then in 1971, at the invitation of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, he returned to the United States, and stayed for two years. The ambience in Iowa City at that time was formed mostly by the second generation of New York School poets. Ted Berrigan and Anselm Hollo were on the faculty and among the most gifted of the graduate students were Bob Perelman and Barrett Watten, who later moved to San Francisco and became influential figures in the emergence of the so-called language poetries. It was a congenial time, and the two American chapbooks Turbines (1973) and Snow (1974) are the result of Šalamun’s collaborations with the Iowa poets.
An interesting sidenote about Šalamun’s Iowa years and his friendship with the Language poets: in a biographical piece on Bob Perelman, Steve Evans relays that “the fates of Šalamun, Watten, and Perelman almost took a tragic turn in the winter of 1972 when an Iowa to Cambridge, Massachusetts, road trip–motivated in part by Perelman’s budding relation with Francie Shaw–ended with the car carrying the three friends skidding into a snowbank after a truck suddenly swerved into it. Watten had a broken leg and Perelman sustained a back injury, but the three young men all escaped this serious accident with their lives.”
These years were formative for Šalamun’s aesthetic — as Hass notes, Šalamun “had spent two years in Iowa where he had come to know a good deal about American poetry — he was especially interested in Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, in William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens – and he had translated some of them into Slovene.”
In the early 1970s, his poems began to borrow moves from the New York School toolkit but recast them in a distinctly Slovenian or Yugoslavian key — as in the extremely Koch-like “1/1/73,” which begins:
Good morning, sun!
Good morning, New Year!
Good morning, all friends on earth,
all enemies, and the meager, good morning! …
Good morning, all Slovenes on earth!
Good morning, Bob!
Good morning, Francie!
Good morning, Anselm & Josephine!
We are: boom in the New Year!…
Good monring, Stane Dolanc,
I wish you would bring some gentleness
Good morning to you again,
because you oppress the people,
you must stop oppressing the people!
Good morning, Ljubljana!
Don’t despair, good morning!…
Good morning, dear young Slovene poets,
don’t allow yourself to get frustrated!
Good morning, all ecclesiastically minded ones,
all you, Party members,
good morning from the bottom of my heart!
Or in the list poem “I Have a Horse,” which begins “I have a horse. My horse has four legs,” and carries on through a child-like catalog of things the speaker has, ending:
I have money. With money I buy bread.
I have six really good poems. I hope I will write more of them.
I am twenty-seven years old. All these years have passed like lightning.
I am relatively courageous. With this courage I fight human stupidity.
I have a birthday March seventh. I hope March seventh will be a nice day.
I have a friend whose daughter’s name is Breditza.
In the evening when they put her to bed she says Šalamun
and falls asleep.
Or in the playful yet bravely subversive poem “Proverbs”:
1. Tomaž Šalamun made the Party blink, tamed it dismantled it and reconstituted it.
2. Tomaž Šalamun said, Russians Get Out! and they did.
3. Tomaž Šalamun sleeps in the forest.
Observing that Šalamun first came to Walt Whitman through the work of the Russian avant-garde poet Velemir Khlebnikov, Hass writes that:
Šalamun’s use of American poetics looks familiar to us but has somewhat different intentions. It is one thing to have the Whitman descended through Williams to Frank O’Hara who, having moved from Worcester, Massachusetts, via Cambridge to the edges of the brilliant, rowdy art scene in Manhattan, could write in the last line of a poem, “and here I am/ the center of all beauty,” pledging himself to art and freedom and the playfulness of art; and it is another to inhabit a Whitman out of Khlebnikov and to stand in the middle of Ljubljana, or to be a young Slovene reading O’Hara and Plotinus and Tibetan Buddhist texts in the middle of Iowa City … and to try to leap past art by coming to the center of one’s own imagination and claim that space with all its monsters and demons as the ground of freedom.
Fueled by O’Hara, Berrigan, and the New York School, Šalamun went on to become (as the Poetry Foundation’s biography puts it) “one of Europe’s most prominent poets of his generation and was a leader of the Eastern European avant-garde.” He published more than 40 collections of poetry in Slovenian and English, and has proven to be a powerful influence on a whole generation or two of American poets, including Brian Henry, Matthew Rohrer, Joshua Beckman, Matthew Zapruder, and many others.
Here is one of Šalamun’s best-known poems, “History“:
Tomaž Šalamun is a monster.
Tomaž Šalamun is a sphere rushing through the air.
He lies down in twilight, he swims in twilight.
People and I, we both look at him amazed,
we wish him well, maybe he is a comet.
Maybe he is punishment from the gods,
the boundary stone of the world.
Maybe he is such a speck in the universe
that he will give energy to the planet
when oil, steel, and food run short.
He might only be a hump, his head
should be taken off like a spider’s.
But something would then suck up
Tomaž Šalamun, possibly the head.
Possibly he should be pressed between
glass, his photo should be taken.
He should be put in formaldehyde, so children
would look at him as they do foetuses,
protei, and mermaids.
Next year, he’ll probably be in Hawaii
or in Ljubljana. Doorkeepers will scalp
tickets. People walk barefoot
to the university there. The waves can be
a hundred feet high. The city is fantastic,
shot through with people on the make,
the wind is mild.
But in Ljubljana people say: look!
This is Tomaž Šalamun, he went to the store
with his wife Marushka to buy some milk.
He will drink it and this is history.