Thirty-six years ago, Melvin J. Lasky, editor of Encounter, wrote to a Croatian literary translator living in Canada, B.S. Brusar. The subject was a Bosnian poet of Croat origin, Nikola Sop (1904-1982), whose name is pronounced shop.
Encounter published several poems by Sop, in versions first rendered into English by Brusar and then recast by no less a figure than W.H. Auden. They were curious works. Sop was a Christian mystic, a schoolteacher, and a translator of the Latin classics, as well as of Renaissance Croatian poets who also wrote in Latin. But at the end of the 1950s, he began composing uniquely inspired verse about space and the human awareness of the cosmos. He titled a collection of these writings Astralia.
Among the best of Sop's poems in this distinctive genre is one titled "Space Visits," published in Encounter's May 1965 issue. Its first section opens, in the Audenized version:
We are leaning over and looking
At the night overturned.
What used to be above us, high up,
A soaring vault,
Is now flying, moving, swaying,
Deep below us.
Already we have forgotten clouds and winds and rains.
Here at the summit of overturned space,
Are we not ourselves--
Our own breath?
The original poem contains an extra line, between the third and fourth stanzas: "Nothing more above us." The work continues, with 16 further sections, none of them bearing the flavor of science fiction or astronautical adventures. Nonetheless, they engage effectively with the concept of living away from the earth. "Here space comes to an end," Sop writes. Further on, he conjures up alien beings, whom he describes as "Faces unseen until now, though once well known. . . . They come walking, flying, walking, walking."
The poem "Space Visits" concludes with an evocation of the sole common item between earthly creatures and these beings: bread. "Bread they know, bread they break and share: But your face is strange to them."
Sop's publications in Encounter comprise two more long poems, "Cottages in Space" (November 1969) and "Space Scene With Rooster" (June 1971), all redone by Auden and co-signed with his name as translator. Unsurprisingly, they do not figure in Auden's 1991 Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson. For Auden, they doubtless represented a trivial affair, tossed off at the behest of Lasky. But the English poet wrote generously of Sop as "considered by many of his compatriots to be the best living Croatian poet." This is an exaggeration, for Croatian poetry, like Polish, Czech, and Hungarian verse, produced many great talents throughout the 20th century.
Auden also noted that Sop was "crippled for life during Hitler's bombardment of Belgrade in 1941." Sop returned Auden's admiration, commenting in an interview with the co-translator Brusar, "When 40 years ago in my poetry Jesus appeared as I saw and felt him, he was exactly such as W.H. Auden imagines him in his eminent essay on Christianity and art: Jesus a child, and Jesus crucified . . . Auden is the first to, in a way, object [to] modern technology eager to subjugate poetry, subordinate it, make it celebrate discoveries."
Thus Sop insisted that his "space poetry" had nothing to do with commemorating or extolling the space explorations of either the Soviets or the Americans. "I have been sneaking through space since long ago," he said. One might presume that Sop, as a Croat Catholic, had turned to the furthest skies as a metaphorical place to escape the cult of mechanistic progress under Yugoslav socialism. But he also evoked his childhood in Bosnia in a way that makes his propensity for speculation about the heavens obvious.
Describing the road between his birthplace in the old city of Jajce, the seat of Croat rulers in Bosnia, and Banja Luka, a larger town today controlled exclusively by Serbs, he recalls, "Sometimes, when as a student I walked on the magic way, a dense night caught up with me, billowing blackly behind me while in front it was only beginning to get dark. And now imagine that distance between me and the night incessantly behind my heels. And how should I not be inspired in such a country. I should not exchange for anything that loneliness."
Melvin Lasky commissioned three more poems by Sop for Encounter, but did not publish them. Yet in 1969 Lasky wrote to Brusar with characteristic enthusiasm, promising "we will try to popularize Sop the same way we did [Jorge Luis] Borges." Anybody who met Lasky will immediately recognize him in this remark, for he ran to excess. In reality, although Encounter published some stories by Borges in the early 1960s, it could hardly be said to have "popularized" him. Borges remained unknown in Britain for quite a long time, according to a new biography by Edward Williamson. When he came there to lecture in 1963, after three of his stories had appeared in Encounter, the sharp-tongued Philip Larkin inquired contemptuously, "Who is Jorge Luis Borges?"
Lasky's effusions notwithstanding, Sop, unlike the Argentine Borges, remains unfamiliar except to readers of his native tongue. He appears in none of the standard, prolific dictionaries and handbooks of world literature, which fill a whole alcove of the Library of Congress--except in the indispensable and always-surprising Cassell's Encyclopedia of World Literature, issued in three volumes in 1973. There it is mentioned that Sop depicted "Jesus as a simple man in everyday life." Sop's sensitive face now appears on the currency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, along with that of the country's many other distinguished writers--most of them equally unrecognized outside the South Slav lands.
The very existence of these Auden-edited "space epics" would be forgotten had the Croatian Writers' Association not produced a pocket edition of them, supplemented by other poems, under the title Auden's Sop, in 1997. It is still in print, but like other excellent volumes produced in English in Croatia (typically in faultless translations), it does not circulate in the United States.
Bosnia is a country mostly covered, even now, with dense, virgin forest. The deep mysticism of Nikola Sop, his engagement with solitude, night, and transcendence, is familiar to anybody who has spent time in that environment. His vision of the sky overturned, and a platform from which to look down into the void and the stars, has an immediate resonance for those who walk through Balkan nights, when the nearness of the astral bodies and the thickness of the dark seem palpable to all, not just to sensitive children. In "Cottages in Space," again in lines redone by Auden, Sop summons up
Cottages in space, and windows
With a breath-taking view into fathomless abysses.
Open your door, and from your threshold,
Descend to the next cottage,
Swinging through space.
You'll leave no footprints, you'll find no traces.
This fantasy universe returns the author not only to bread, but to other mundane delights, which the son of the Bosnian soil can never leave behind. In "Space Scene With Rooster," which includes an image of Noah's Ark, Sop writes,
. . . already bewitched by transfiguration
I could hardly tear myself away
From the memory
And other tasty
It is doubtless of little interest to Anglo-American readers that W.H. Auden should be associated with an obscure Croatian versifier. But there is something more to this tale, something that deserves to be noted and remembered. When he died last year, at the age of 84, the irrepressible Mel Lasky, with his Lenin beard and anti-Stalinist pedigree, was memorialized in most of the Western media only because Encounter had been partly financed by the Central Intelligence Agency. Daily obituary writers referred to the magazine as if it had been merely an ideological newsletter for knuckle-dragging commie-bashers.
Thus, Adam Bernstein wrote in the Washington Post, "Once called England's 'leading highbrow magazine,' Encounter derived its influence not from its circulation--which peaked at about 40,000 in the 1960s--but from its high-profile readership." In reality, no periodical earns its authority by dint of its readers. Encounter's prestige was based on its contributors, its spirit of controversy, and its commitment to excellence. Ian Hamilton was said to have described Encounter as "the only literary journal whose publication day he had genuinely longed for during his lifetime." The literary history the Croatian Writers' Association chose to dig out of their memory and preserve is not only that of Auden's Sop, but of Melvin Lasky in London, casting his glance in all directions, seeking new intellectual energies wherever they were to be found.
Those who had no chance to read Encounter in its heyday will never know what they missed, and we may never be able to communicate to our children the passion which we brought to such experiences. The Croats, at least, have something tangible to remind them. We owe them a debt of gratitude for reminding us.
Auden citations by permission of Edward Mendelson.