Few countries hold their national prose as close to their hearts as Serbia does. If you want to understand the spirit of Serbia, you should start with these poems.
From the epic poetry of the past to the more nuanced prose of the modern age, Serbia is a country built on the pride and passion of its most productive lyricists. Serbia’s contribution to the history of poetry is vast, and these 10 act as an insightful introduction to that canon. For the sake of access, all titles mentioned have been translated into English.
Published in Vienna in 1847, The Mountain Wreath (Gorski vijenac) is undoubtedly one of the most influential epic poems in the Serbian canon. It actually focuses more on Serbs in the Montenegrin lands and the fight for independence in the face of Ottoman oppression, but it became a beacon of light in an otherwise miserable struggle for many Slavs in the Balkan region. It has come under close scrutiny in recent decades for its overly nationalistic tones and clarion calls for violence, with people on all sides of the ideological and political spectrum mining it for their own ends.
Desanka Maksimović is one of Serbia’s most beloved poets, and her most iconic piece of prose is as dark as it gets. A Bloody Fairy Tale (Krvava bajka) tells the tale of the Kragujevac massacre that took place in October 1941, when the occupying Nazis executed thousands of civilians in a field near Serbia’s fourth biggest city. As she writes: ‘They were all born in the same year, their school days passed the same, taken together to the same festivities, vaccinated against the same diseases, and they all died on the same day’. It’s not an easy read.
Novi Sad’s Jovan Jovanović Zmaj was best known for his childishly adorable prose that appealed to both adults and children. Little Rosebuds (Đulići) is his finest, a collection of love songs that have become nursery rhymes sung to children all across the country. The work of Zmaj (literally dragon) shows the sensitive side of the Serbian spirit.
Ivan Lalić was one of the most important Serbian poets of the 20th century, and his influence spread beyond the borders of the former Yugoslavia. Lalić was an international superstar, gaining fans and followers across the globe thanks to his musings on the fragility and beauty of existence. You can’t go wrong with any of his prose, but Places We Love (Mesta koja volimo) holds a special place for its loving lamentations towards wherever or whatever you call home.
Laza Kostić, born in the middle of the 19th century in a small village in Vojvodina, was certainly on the eccentric side, but his poetry was undoubtedly human at every turn. Santa Maria della Salute is his finest piece, an epic tale of love, loss and defiance.
Vojislav Ilić’s The Grey, Dreary Sky (Sivo, sumorno nebo) is an aching take on life on its last legs. The short poem describes the loss of life, of ‘weary nature that has yielded to death’s sway’ and everything being ‘desolate, lifeless and grey’. It isn’t cheery but it is excellent, painting a picture of Serbian eloquence in the face of pessimism.
The son of deeply patriotic but impoverished Serbian parents in Hungary, Crnjanski overcame a conservative upbringing to become one of the most influential and engaging Serbian voices of prose. Lament Over Belgrade (Lament nad Beogradom) tells of a deep love for a city as obviously flawed as the Serbian capital, expressing the frustrations and exclamations of a million Belgraders in the process.
Branko Radičević is credited with bringing lyrical poetry to Serbia. Radičević is best known for his alluringly accessible poem The Parting of School Friends (Đački rastanak), a poem that exists in the present and is all the happier for it.
Serbia suffered immense loss during World War I, being well and truly decimated. The Great War came to play a huge role in the creation of modern Serbia. Milutin Bojić was arguably the most famous Serbian writer to perish during the conflict, although the boy from Belgrade did manage to survive the great retreat of the Serb Army in October 1915. Departure (Odlazak) is one of many proud poems penned by Bojić during the war, pledging to return as joyful and fearless as when he left to fight. The naivety of young men in war is clear.
Like many great poets of the early 20th century, Dušan Vasiljev did not live to see his 25th birthday. But the poet from Kikinda left behind a legacy of expressionism and life-affirming prose. His post-war poem, A Man Sings After the War (Čovek peva posle rata), is a tale of exuberant but exhausted soldiers failing to see the point of mundane everyday tasks after having waded in blood, but longing for the everyday nonetheless.