Most Obscure on my Bookshelves – the Romanian Poets

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I’ve had to break this down into two posts, one for poetry, one for prose, for fear of it becoming a post as long as a novella. When it comes to poetry, there is a saying that ‘Romanians are born poets’ – a double-edged sword in the original Romanian, akin to the Irish kissing the Blarney stone. It means we are eloquent and make full use of our musical language and romantic/ fiery Latin disposition. But it can also mean that we have little of substance to say, but we are able to say it beautifully.

This is not the case with the three poets I mention below. They combine style with substance. They are perhaps not as famous as our ‘national’ poet, the arch-Romantic Mihai Eminescu, but they are my favourites. I’ve had to limit myself, however, to those that you can find (albeit with some difficulty) in English translation. I hope you will get a chance to discover at least one or two of them!

The Poets

Lucian Blaga – Complete Works

My favourite Romanian poet (and certainly in my Top 10 worldwide), Lucian Blaga was a philosopher, writer, diplomat and translator, best known for the poetry he published between the two world wars. When the Communists came to power after WW2, he lost his position as a university professor because he refused to pledge allegiance to the new government. His philosophy was also considered too idealistic and suspect, so he was sidelined and not allowed to publish anything other than translated works. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in the mid 1950s but the Romanian state protested against it. Luckily, by the 1980s when I went to school, he was once more studied in school, although we avoided discussing his philosophy. His poetry is best described as lyrical, highly spiritual, searching for the transcendence of self. He has a nostalgia for village life, for folklore, nature and the past, a Jungian yearning towards something greater than one’s conscious self. The language is musical and sensuous. This is an old volume of his all his poetical work, translated by Brenda Walker. And you can get a brief taster of my favourite poem as a teen, translated on my blog here.

George Bacovia – the grey poet

Bacovia is more of an acquired taste. Back in school, most of my classmates hated him, his gloomy depression, his seemingly endless rain-soaked landscapes. The one poem they could relate to was ‘Liceu’:

High school, graveyard of my youth,

Pedantic teachers,
Hardcore exams,
You still make shiver…

This might sound light-hearted, but on the whole he is the poet of melancholia, a symbolist, a modernist, even a surrealist – fitting in well with other contemporaries of his such as Eugene Ionescu or Tristan Tzara. [Blaga was also a contemporary, but very different.] Bacovia is the poet of the urban landscape, of industrialisation, of smog and dirt. Unsurprisingly, he suffered from lung disease most of his adult life, which may have coloured his perceptions. There is a lot of talk of spitting blood, of decay both of the body and of nature, in his work. Naturally, it appealed to my dark, dramatic teenage self.

There is no full translation of his works in English, but you can get a flavour of his work, plus a short critique, here.

Nichita Stanescu

Younger than the other two, Nichita Stanescu lived through the tumultuous post-war world and the ascent of Communism. He chose not to go into exile, but never became a spokesperson for socialist realism either. His poetry is relentlessly soul-searching, scathing, at times enigmatic, at times openly angry. Intense and personal, unashamedly romantic yet at the same time political in the way that any meditation about a human’s place in the world is political. His lifestyle was the stuff of legends: a rebel who refused to play the literary awards game (although he won several, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1980), he spent most of his life in a grubby little flat, with a mattress on the floor and at least two bottles of vodka a day. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he died in 1983 at the age of 50 of cirrhosis. The last great self-destructive Bohemian, one might say.  Here is a poem of his which every single Romanian person seems to know:

Tell me, if I caught you one day
and kissed the sole of your foot,
wouldn’t you limp a little after,
afraid to crush my kiss?…

You can find a selection of his poems translated by Sean Cotter reviewed on Words without Borders.






22 thoughts on “Most Obscure on my Bookshelves – the Romanian Poets”

    1. He was very highly regarded during his lifetime and even now, so he has left quite a legacy. But yes, some people are just born under a self-destructive star…

  1. I don’t know any of these poets I’m ashamed to say. I will seek out more of their work! Are there any female Romanian poets you’d recommend too (who are available in English translation)?

    1. See also Carmen Bugan, with some links in a reply below. She writes in English, so she didn’t immediately come to mind, but she is very gifted. And not just because she is a friend!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Marina. It’s been a while since I read Romanian poetry. I remember when we had to learn poems in high school – Bacovia was so bleak, Eminescu wonderful. Sara pe deal, buciumul suna cu jale… Ah, you’ve made me want to read him again…

    1. Maybe studying him in school put me off Eminescu a little (although yes, I do appreciate his wonderful musicality and power – and Luceafarul is perhaps one of the best poems ever!).

  3. Oh my goodness what a poetry find!

    Blaga’s poem is beautiful – love the pollen described as ‘small mountains of golden ashes’.

    Thx for sharing – will investigate the others

        1. Our reading tastes and needs vary over the years, don’t they? I’m very pleased, of course, to hear you say that. I think in troubled times we need more than ever the timelessness of good poetry.

  4. Oh, these are great suggestions, Marina Sofia. And from the bits that you’ve shared, I can see clearly why you talk about these poets having both style and substance. I so admire poets who explore in depth, but still have that gift of elegance in words.

    1. They do inevitably sound better in Romanian (like Italian and French, it’s a musical language, and some of that cadence gets lost in translation). But I do wish they were better known, so this is my humble first step.

  5. Interesting list, and I’m looking forward to see what kind of Romanian novels you have on your list. But, why do you think so little of Romanian authors have been translated into English? I have to admit that I find more translated into Norwegian (from the 80s and 90s) than I really do English. Which I’m not really used to (Norwegian is not a big language. We’re only about 5 mill people).

    1. Good question! I wish I knew. Perhaps publishing is more commercial in English-speaking countries and there is less room for experimentation and translation generally (they have so many writers of their own). The reverse is also true, of course: many more books get translated into Romanian (from a wide variety of languages). Incidentally, I was planning to study Norwegian and be able to translate its literature.

      1. You were? I felt the same surprise when hearing that Norwegian (with the other Scandinavian languages) are huge in Germany. Unless you’re a big fan of Ibsen or Hamsun or something like that, I always get surprised when people outside of Scandinavia pursues our language.

        I have thought that maybe English publishers aren’t so focused on the international marked when it comes to translations (which they should), and that the lack of translations are a reflection of lack of interest, or perceived interest, from the English/American public. But what languages/countries are the most common to translate into Romanian?

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