It staggers me now to think of it, but my first ever meeting with Tomaž Šalamun was in a restaurant in Ljubljana, just he and I. We sat, just us two, and talked for many hours on a summer evening in his city. I had simply emailed him, blind, without him knowing me, and without me having done anything of note to claim his time or attention, and he responded immediately and generously, and suggested we meet.
Ljubljana is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, Slovenia as a whole, one of the most beautiful countries. You’d not necessarily hear this from its citizens, who have the admirable self-deprecation of an intellectual, occasionally maudlin people, but amongst the baroque architecture and Habsburg openness to language and nationhood, they also possess one of the highest literacy rates in Europe, and a passion for poetry reflected in the books they shift and the poets they produce. Tomaž Šalamun was the greatest Slovenian poet.
He was a quiet titan who bestrode Tito’s communism and EU Europe with an ease and deference that was his hallmark. To speak to him or read his work was to be convinced these seismic changes were of secondary importance behind the actions and thoughts of each individual human being, whose true complexity and humour and love and expression were to be found in the layered, brisk, intelligent, timeless poetry that he penned for nearly fifty years. His reputation was as strong in America and the UK as it was across Europe and the rest of the world. He was, despite himself, a major poet of great significance.
At that time I was visiting Slovenia every year as a summer break, that country being a second home to me, Bled and Bohinj, the lakes, a place to try and write. And I had emailed him in a moment of boldness just because I was on holiday, and in reply he had asked me to dinner. By the time we met he had seemingly read my work, offered me compliments that showed a close reading that it didn’t deserve, connected me to my interview series, Maintenant, and showed that he had actually read many of those issues already. I later heard from younger Slovenian poets before we met he was telling people at festivals to look up the series and the work it was doing. He had his ear to the ground. And so we talked for hours, his manner famous for its intelligence, warmth, attention and generosity.
Soon he was telling me of his father and his family, its relationship with the multinational, pluralist nature of the Habsburg Empire, the line of doctors in the Šalamun line, then his own writing, his own life. His childhood on the Slovene coast, in Koper, the coast of Rilke, Saba, Svevo. Then his house in Bled, the history of Bled, for I couldn’t shut up about that place, and then, so casually, he transitioned into his time jailed under the communist regime, the time he said that made his name, made him famous. The time that made him so well known throughout his home nation that he had to flee to be able to write again, so cloying was the attention. Then his time in New York, in the late 60s and 70s, making his name again in America, where he went of his own volition, not by invitation, and the excitement of the poets and the poetry scene there, that he connected to just because of a chance conversation in a bookshop and not because anyone knew who he was for a single second. And his time in Iowa at the famous writers workshop. Then the great writers he knew from England, his great respect for those I mentioned and admired like Tom Raworth and Anselm Hollo, colleagues of his in the journey of a life spent in pursuit of poetry. And some great stories I won’t share too, some about Hollo, Iowa bars and the Viking poet coming up against ‘real’ people in rural America. A joke, a funny anecdote never more than a moment away even if he was talking about being in prison, telling me this was nothing, a very brief period, or being an unknown Slovene alone in New York city during its grimy glory.
And then that subject, himself, was done, as gracefully expressed to me, a young, eager, stupid dinner companion, as one could express such a thing. One’s own life, an incredible sprawling life that took in endless travel, endless writing, endless conversation and experience, condensed and relayed, out of politeness. Then it was questions about me, and beyond that, for much of our time, an endless, empassioned discussion about the young writers he had encountered. The depth and knowledge he had of those thirty, forty, even fifty years younger than him was incredible, deeper than my own about my peers. He had read their works, critiqued them, written letter after letter of recommendation, found them publishers, festivals, residencies. He had two or three generations of Slovenian poets in his debt, and beyond Slovenia, poets from around the world, and when thanked, as I was thanking him for meeting me, he would not hear that for a second.
His poetry has meant an enormous amount to me, as it has for so many who have followed him. It has the rare quality of being actually unique. Often labelled, quite bizarrely I think, as a surrealist, this reduction in and of itself is perhaps the best way to begin to understand his work. So dense, elliptical, circular and expressive to be beyond the comfort so many of his readers, it was this quality, always present in his work that he somehow, naturally I imagine, managed to hold together with a directness, a deftness, an accessibility and a conversational flow of language that was at odds with the complexity of the form and imagery. It was somehow as though this density required a brevity to complete it, to be his voice. These were bursts of insight, necessarily complex and winding, but given form as asides, refuting wisdom precisely because that is where it lies. His ability to remain singular in tone when evoking forms and language and ideas that were as wide as the potential of the poetic medium itself was his great achievement. This is what I have gleaned from his life’s work, that poetry is most authentic when it eschews linear authenticity, that the first note of poetry is sentiment and its greatest failing, that when a poet matures, or has any talent, they are like an artisan, they produce something that shocks upon encounter through great craft and that seems then, so easy in the world. As though it was always there.
Beauty of Man
by Tomaž Šalamun
Beauty of man is the furthest history.
We have pressed peaches.
Nobody is coming out from little huts.
We know, squeezed.
The building eroded into its horizon.
I didn’t propel anything that wouldn’t go to pasture.
I kneaded round kerchiefs inscribed above the fresco.
The one who doesn’t pledge the horizon,
how would he pay for it?
The tones don’t know what apples are.
The defense knows.
It bites the serene one.
The great blindness tells iodine:
dress up, stay.
Your little barrel is the arrogant’s clay.
And: on the white sand the grass grows.
I’m from tonight.
I never spoke to Tomaž at a reading or a festival. We never met when there was another person in the conversation. Just a few more times we met, each year or thereabouts when I was in Slovenia, Bled or Ljubljana, did we casually share dinner. We corresponded during his illness and as ever he was generous, energetic in writing, telling me of new plans and hopes to travel. Just back from Brazil he spoke to me of the exhaustion the trip had caused him and how inexplicable this seemed to him, past seventy years of age and unwell. This was a life spent with an energy and a soulfulness few can possess, a huge life traversing nations and political eras, and his was a mind so concentrated, so sharp and complex that I always thought of him as a man of capability somehow, not naturally kind or generous, but applied to himself as being so, as a responsibility, almost entwined with the sensitivity he suffered as a great poet. And this meant all the more to me, to see a man before me who I could learn everything from, that he had chosen a life of writing and a life of being open to people, to people younger than him, and the idea that they might be separate from him because of this seeming absurd. Tomaž was a man who chose to be a great poet and a great person, he chose to be that in the face of changes in his life and nation that he could not control and that at times tried to crush him. He was a courageous man, a truely gifted poet and gutted now, hearing of his death yesterday morning, I feel only privileged that my life crossed his and we shared those short evenings together in Slovenia.