Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Today, I’ll be reading “Folk Song,” a short poem by the great Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun.
Tomaž Šalamun was born on July 4, 1941, in Zagreb, Croatia. He was married to the writer and journalist Marusa Krese, and then to the painter Metka Krasovec. He wrote thirty-nine books of poetry during his lifetime, nine of which were translated into English. Two of these books are, “The Collected Poems of Tomaž Šalamun” and “Woods and Chalices.” He won the European Prize for Poetry and the Pushcart Prize, among other awards. He had two children, Ana Šalamun and David Šalamun. Tomaž Šalamun was greatly influenced by the American poets Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery, and their styles come across in his work. Tomaž Šalamun’s poem, “My First Time in New York City,” for instance, reflects the sensibility and cool fascination with New York City as so much of Frank O’Hara's work, and his poem “History” is similar to Whitman's “Song of Myself,” in the way that it talks about himself, saying things like, “Tomaž Šalamun is a sphere rushing through the air.” Salamun died on December 27, 2014, in Ljubljana, Slovenia at the age of 73.
Most of Šalamun’s poems are short and focus on memory, experience, or poetry itself. The poem I’ll be reading today, “Folk Song,” is only eight lines. Still, there’s a lot to talk about! Many of Tomaž Šalamun’s poems have a sort of stream-of-consciousness feel or they include lots of details about many things that Šalamun sees. However, his shortest poems are often centered around just one topic, packing so much meaning into very few lines. An example of this is “Folk Song.” This poem is part of a book by Tomaž Šalamun called, “The Four Questions of Melancholy,” which was originally published in 1997. The poem was translated by Charles Simic, also an amazing poet, who died recently on January 9th.
Now I’m going to read “Folk Song,” a short and beautiful poem.
Every true poet is a monster.
He destroys people and their speech.
His singing elevates a technique that wipes out
the earth so we are not eaten by worms.
The drunk sells his coat.
The thief sells his mother.
Only the poet sells his soul to separate it
from the body that he loves.
In the beginning of this poem, Tomaž Šalamun writes, “Every true poet is a monster.” He goes on to explain this in the next lines. Poets are monsters because they destroy things and put them back together in a way that makes them completely different. They build new worlds after they forget about the one they live in. A poet’s “singing” is their poetry, and it reshapes the earth — however, first our own currentworld must be metaphorically obliterated. However, the poem also shows why the poet does this. As he says, the poet does this “so we are not eaten by worms.” In other words, poetry provides us with something eternal, something that can live on after we die — maybe even provide a way to continue existing after we’ve been buried in the ground. A part of you that is shared with everybody, and until people forget the poem, you are not completely gone. But this is not just the case with the poet themselves. Poetry is for everyone, and everyone is a part of it. This is the reason for the poem being titled, “Folk Song.” A folk song is a traditional song that is often from a particular culture. Tomaž Šalamun refers to poetry as “singing” in his poem already, which makes a connection between the title and the poem. Poetry is passed on and it is known to everyone, like a folk song. And in this sense it helps.us to survive.
This poem is, in a way, in two parts. Though the entire poem is one stanza, the last four lines share the riddle quality of the first four, but they also seem more straight-forward. They are clear statements, meant to support the original claim made in the beginning of the poem. Out of all four of the last lines, the last two are the most interesting — “only the poet sells his soul to separate it from the body that he loves.” Again, the poem refers to poetry being something that is separate from the body, something greater than mortality. And so poetry makes us immortal, almost. It allows us to part from our physical self. But still, as much as we want to live forever, in every way possible, to live in art, we also yearn for our body. So, poetry is a problem in prompting the poet to leave their body behind, but it is also a solution, allowing people’s histories and legacies to live on.
“Folk Song” is a short and sweet poem by Tomaž Šalamun about what poetry really is. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you with the next one!