From the beginning, Tomaž Šalamun seemed somehow uncomfortable as a Slovenian poet. Whether or not he consciously set out to become a world poet translated into over twenty languages, he remained simultaneously local and international, focused on his surroundings while looking outward. From his first book, Poker, in which he claims, “I got tired of the image of my tribe / and moved out,” Tomaž demonstrated a dissatisfaction with the usual allegiances that most poets carry around with them. So while he claimed the great Slovenian poet Dane Zajc as a major early influence, Tomaž was also influenced by visionaries like William Blake, mystics like Rumi and Giordano Bruno, and modernists like Pound, Eliot, and Williams. He discovered French and Russian poetry early on, and when he encountered John Ashbery’s Three Poems in the seventies, the book shifted Tomaž’s thinking about poetry and its possibilities. By then, Tomaž had recognized his poetry’s dependence on travel — the physical aspect of it as well as the exposure to new cities, landscapes, cultures, and poets. And for the next four decades, Tomaž never sat still for long, participating in poetry festivals around the world, teaching in Amherst, Tuscaloosa, Richmond, Pittsburgh, and Austin, even working for the Slovenian Consulate in New York City as cultural attaché. He seemed positively indefatigable, until cancer took him on December 27, 2014.
Tomaž admired many American poets and followed American poetry as closely as he followed Slovenian poetry. Although several generations of American poets felt affinities with Tomaž, he remained beyond categorization and poetic schools. Opening one of his books at random, a reader might find Whitmanesque self-mythology, a list poem, an aphorism, a crystalline lyric, a dramatic monologue, a one-liner, a visionary narrative, a disembodied dialogue, an apostrophe, a disjunctive lyric, a series of imperatives, a personal narrative ... And Tomaž’s body of work is vast: his nine-hundred-page volume of selected poems, When, published in Slovenia in 2011, culls material from thirty-six individual volumes. Six more books followed, most recently Orgies, published three weeks after his death. Although he wrote in free verse, he frequently composed in quatrains, tercets, and stanzaless fourteen-liners, which occupy the same amount of time and space as a sonnet but short-circuit the sonnet’s formal logic. Despite his erudition and worldliness, most of his poems contain questions (there are more than ninety questions in the sixty-six poems in Woods and Chalices), as if implying that the poet’s role is that of the child attempting to grasp the unfamiliar, not of the didactic elder delivering wisdom.
Tomaž has always been capable of writing “anthology” poems — poems like “Eclipse,” “History,” “Folk Song,” and “Jonah.” But the longer he wrote, the more poetry overtook him. By the nineties, Tomaž had become so prolific, so consumed by poetry, that poems would wake him in the night and he would start “scribbling.” One might wonder if such a practice left his poems open to the workings of the unconscious (in part because his poetry was often described as surrealist), but there’s little difference between these poems and poems he wrote at other times. They all use language in new ways — nouns become verbs, adjectives become nouns, intransitive verbs take direct objects, antecedents move in and out of focus — and veer so forcefully that their central subjects are often impossible to pin down. In an email, he explained his penchant for the off-kilter: “I like awkwardness, awkwardness is the crucial thing in my writing. Things should not be clear. If clear they’re too domesticated. I de-domesticate, invade the language, delogify.”
Tomaž had arrived at a kind of compositional freedom and fluidity that came after writing thousands of poems, achieving the ability to skim the surface of the mind (impressions, images) while plumbing the depths (of memory, history, myth, folklore). His poems range across world history, literature, and geography as well as his own personal past, employing rapid shifts of location, thought, image, and tone from line to line, sometimes within lines. While translating Woods and Chalices, I asked Tomaž about his tendency to end lines on words like “and” or “have” (or even on the “se” in a reflexive verb), and he explained that the beginnings of lines were much more important to him than their endings. Tomaž also included multiple languages in his poems — especially English, Italian, French, Spanish, Croatian, German — because, as a polyglot, words and phrases in other languages came to him while writing. People’s names similarly appear throughout his poems — not just friends, but also historical, artistic, and cultural figures, some renowned, many obscure or of local renown — without distinctions or hierarchies. A poem might mention Nietzsche, then “Steve and Ken” (“In the Tent among Grapes”), without bothering to identify anyone.
Translating over one hundred of his poems, I realized that every poem by Tomaž deserved multiple readings, if only for the sheer force of imagination and the constant threat or promise of the shock of utterance. Some poems, after being brought from Slovenian into English, would make me wander away from my desk repeating a phrase that I knew had never occurred before in a poem in English (“Bob Perelman is the pigeon,” “Don’t sneak me onto mountains, chicken”). Without the mediator of another translator, I discovered just how unpredictable Tomaž’s poems are. Because there is often no way to get a handle on a primary mode or thread or theme in a poem by Tomaž, a translator stops looking for them and starts looking at sounds, images, places, and objects. In a way, Tomaž, an advocate for literal translation, compels a translator to break down a poem to its simplest elements. I once wrote to him with some questions about a poem I was translating, and Tomaž responded, “Things are completely simple. I only describe what they do or they do what I order them to do. And they like to do what was not done before.”
Poet, translator, and editor Brian Henry earned his BA at the College of William & Mary and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His collections of poetry include Astronaut (2000), American Incident (2002), Graft (2003), Quarantine (2006), In the Unlikely Event of a Water (2007), The Stripping Point (2007),...
Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun was one of Europe’s most prominent poets of his generation and was a leader of the Eastern European avant-garde. Early in his career he edited the literary magazine Perspektive and was briefly jailed on political charges. He studied art history at the University of Ljubljana, where...