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Between Zenon and Leda (Notes on Marin Sorescu’s Poetry*) George Popescu

25 March 2022

Between Zenon and Leda


(Notes on Marin Sorescu’s Poetry*)


                                                     George Popescu


Translated from Romanian by Victor Olaru



Between the denominative function of language and the ontological condition of the Real, Marin Sorescu infers the insidious presence of a process that inducts, poetically, into a mechanism of substitutions that assumes the appearance of a paradox.

The threshold of translation, namely, the passing of language into a connotative system, does not imply an effort of turning into metaphysics, does not angle, in other words, in the traditional way and, therefore, modern, for a „pure” transcendent of Mallarmean extraction, but for an act of  postmodern parodying of the same real, whose language, playfully reinvested with a denoting function, grows into a correlative kind of subversive.


In what way in Marin Sorescu’s poetry occurs this radical transformation, which, at the level of two dissociating landings, namely, at the level of Romanian poetry in actu, the moment of the publishing of the volume Poems in 1965, and at the one of his own poetic adventure?

Let’s revert, with the acquisitions we have meanwhile acquired, but also with today’s disengagement, to that moment of Romanian lyric.

We lie in full process of emaciation of proletcultist lyric, therefore at the end of an experience that, exiling noisily and primitively  whatever it had been achieved in more than a century of Romanian poetry, and, especially annulling with a blamable brutality the whole dramatic effort of synchronizing our inter-war tradition with European literature, triggered under trusteeship of such a famous critic as Eugen Lovinescu, had ended, by now, in a ridiculous manner. The attempts of surpassing the crisis take place on the line, still discreet, of an effort of retaking the old patterns of poetic production. Or, the punt – obviously blacked out within this effort that foregoes and prepares the moment of the so-called thaw*- was that of remaking the connection with inter-war poetry and of reintegrating it in a way of follow-up.


Marin Sorescu-The Man did not preserve anything from the powdery ”cloakroom” of the legend ( actually so false ) with which a hypocritical tradition insisted on delivering us the figure of The Poet; he was rather  ”antipoetic” or ”anti-poet”; actually, the collocation ” alone among poets ”, so lucky for the surface destiny of its author, preserved, beyond  a circumstance of a playful nature, a poetic and poietic feature so profound that still needs to be revealed and interpreted*.


* We refer to the first iears of the Ceausescu regime ( aproximately 1965-1971), when the dictator, donouncing the Stalinist type of socialism installed by the Soviet army at the end of the war ,  strategically adopts  a rapprochement to the Western world , suggesting a turning away from Moscow, with the overt  intent of assuming a relative independence that will actually provide him  the ideal plea for installing a personality cult beyond the limits of a tragic absurd.

* ” Alone among poets ”, is the title of the poet’s poetry debut miscellany in 1964, actually parodies of some false creations written by his fellows in the style of what was at that time called ”proletcult” literature, propagandizingly invented on patterns imposed by the Soviet occupation of Romania.. In this context, it is worth mentioning the novative and courageous poetic program promoted by some of the poets of Generation of the 60’s, among whom Marin Sorescu himself, and by which is subversively achieved the resuming of the officially banned Romanian inter-war lyrical tradition. Even more challanging is the new poetics choses as its landmark the Romanian avantgarde of the 30’s and, especially of the 40’s, speculating the fact that its representatives had been anti-fascist.


Rather demure in conversation, extremely suspicious – and susceptible  -to any challenge on poetry and art, he was playing with unconcealed ability the part of the ” blabber ” doubled by a savour, compulsory recorded with a guilty delay, never regretted, always illuminated. He was a non-profit anti-confessional kind of person! Generous and available, but only to the inflammatory limit of transforming art into an object of disgusting transactions.

Exigent with others, he proved an enormous exigency for his own work: writing acquired for him the dimension of a labour that unconditionally implied the seal of a completely assumed bet, always at the limit of survival. Hasty interpreters should keep in mind that this ”ordeal” seems exactly the opposite of the ”finite” work or of the surface impression that the writer had kept, unfortunately, almost all along his destiny as a writer who made out of defiance ( at conventions, mostly) a modus operandi.

Marin Sorescu was fighting against the word/words with the staunchness with which the artist (the fated one) fights against colours. I watched him * writing, working, rewriting, correcting in a gigantesque effort, often ravaging, scrupulous to ”inexplicable”, cutting and removing lines that seemed, if not brilliant, at least suitable in the context, sentences that imposed through judgement and profoundness ( let alone the personal, Sorescu-branded ”style”), replies invoking the shock through the originality of the uttering, of which, for instance, no dramatist would have been ashamed.

It seemed difficult to assess then and there the mechanism, hard to identify the immediate or remote causes of the discontent that turned the author into a guard incorruptible with his own texts. Only later, when the work reached a form that invoked, not finality, but a personal, unmistakable mark, something of the secret resorts of this kind of torture gave you evidence of some hints. The desperate search, the insidious torment, the terrifying torture, the peeking ( the author’s favourite term, in writing, but in oral discourse as well ) of an obsessive kind articulated an elementary act of hunting , something that resembled a ghoast, taking the form of a reality concealed somewhere  beyond the name, in the proximity of the word.

Marin Sorescu had never been, as too easily one might have believed, given (once more) the misleading surfaces of his work, neither a lucky ”manipulator” of the verb, approached by parody-like games at hand, nor a ”constructor” of edifices raised by means of a simple alchemy of a mockery mis-en-scene. Sorescu had long ago assumed his poetic destiny , since adolescence. Actually, his boyhood  and youth ”poetry” notebooks should be sometimes  looked into; this examination could be two-times revealing: one would find out that the author of La  Lilieci had traversed, step by step, episode by episode, the whole ”story” of Romanian poetry with the virtues of someone who proved , very young, receptive capacities, an undisputed and almost a precocious genius of forms ”already tried”, ”already received”; and, secondly, one may finally record the decisive fact, in our opinion,  in understanding Sorescu’s work, that the ”forms” adopted by the poet at his debut and, especially, in the volumes that were to follow, were not the signs of an initiation, but, on the contrary, emblems of an option assumed at the end of a long and difficult travel of attempts and, mostly, of renunciations (and abandons) almost all hypostases of the work that followed.


* Destiny had it that I had subeditted for several years „Ramuri”  literary periodical, whose editor-in -chief he was for more than a decade.



Poetry within Limits


The major stake of the Sorescian discourse is –and that has been observed-the effort for authenticity.  Actually, this effort –that engages and puts to work in a fertile manner the semiotic function of language, the text-related conscience of the creative act, as well as the process of intertextuality, all these elements finding in the author of the Descântotecii/ Incantations the most credible precursor of literary mutations that have taken place in our literature in the last three decades- is presided by a movement with a hardly foreseen philosophic support. It is a process that implies a double emancipation of the poetic; out of the myth and, consequently, out of itself. It is an answer-an adequate and original one-to the crisis of the poetic in the last century, mainly, a crisis of identity. The novelty of the Sorescian option is maintained by the focusing of the act of creation on the second movement, the emancipation of poetry out of and from itself. Thus one could better explain the conscience of textualization the intertextualist lode, as well as the above-mentioned postmodern crocheting, but one could confer Sorescian poetics individual brands of its symbolic figures.

Here it is, randomly taken, a famous poem of universal lyric, in which William Shakespeare gets the dimension of divinity, creator of its own world, self-sufficient, the creative act thus installing, almost liturgically, an almost epiphanic discourse:


On the first day he made the sky, the mountains and the depths of the soul.

On the second day he made rivers, seas, oceans

And other emotions —

And he gave them to Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Anthony, Cleopatra and Ophelia,

To Othello and others,

To be master over them, with their descendants,

For ever and ever.

On the third day he gathered all the people

And taught them to savour:

The taste of happiness, love, despair,

The taste of jealousy, fame and so on,

Until all tasting was finished.


Then some late-comers arrived.

The creator patted their heads with compassion,

Saying the only roles left for them were

The literary critics

Who could then demolish his work.

The fourth and fifth day he reserved for laughter.

He allowed clowns

To tumble,

He allowed kings, emperors

And other unfortunates to amuse themselves.

On the sixth day he completed the administration:

He set up a tempest

He taught King Lear

How to wear a straw crown.

As there were a few leftovers from the creation of the world

He designed Richard III.

On the seventh day he took stock to see what else might be done.

And Shakespeare thought that after so much effort

He deserved to see a performance;

But first, as he was overtired,

He went to die a little


(Shakespeare created the world in seven days)



A parody of the existent, of poetry, of Literature, ” exhibit-like” objects that had not passed yet into the canonized lyrical inventory are, by now, current assertions of the exegetics of Sorescian poetics of that moment, but even of a subsequent period. Critical judgements, far from being untrue, contribute  (voluntary or involuntary) to a vicious reception of the author’s poetry or at least to a jamming action of it: they extract carefully and with the challenge of ”discovery” at hand impulses ready-served by poetry itself and offers them to  the reader under the form of drafts with the function of recipes.

Furthermore, they reproached the poet the danger of imitation, of mannerism, and even more serious, of self-imitation; all these were, certainly, places almost common in the author’s poetry, but they ignored their invoking and ”methodical”  usage, employed by the author as a possible ostentatious answer to the state of crisis itself felt by the literary genre as such. What seems to have mostly stopped the exact placement of the intercession of the author of Death of the clock was precisely the apparent and false impression that the answers were nothing else but momentary  handy ”solutions”, simple ”job offers”.

In reality, the poet’s offers-answers did not represent solutions (compromised beforehand, as long as the crisis had to be lived to the end, with a famous formula of Nietzsche-Heidegger), but desperate modes of saving whatever might be saved from the disaster who had weakened out the language.

Sorescu himself had identified a weak link ( not the Montalian one, that exhausted link –che non tiene-, although this one may also be invoked, but not from an ontological perspective, but from a poietic one), but the one that had turned poetic language into some sort of disagreeable feast. Of course, the whole bet of the poem is the appeal to metonymy ”methodically” used , like a photographic filter installing an innovatory semantic suggestion: the words, lent to their zone of common use, assumed as anti-poetic, acquire an overt subversive, insurrectional function; literary critics made haste in signaling the decanonizing function of the metonymic, the playful (surface) spirit that changes the morganatic aspect installed by the ”old” poetry, undoes the solemn and the sacred, not the poem, but the pattern itself, of poetry ”making”. Exact, pertinent assertions, but not sufficient enough for defining the authentic innovatory spirit that presides the whole Sorescian intercession of the period.

In Sorescu’s representation of the act of creation, poetry is neither a ”mirror” (we are far from the Romantic speculation), nor a repulsive addition above the stylized existent at the level of a ”trace ” with existential valence, but a sort of an infra-discourse within vitality’s lymph, thus imperatively claiming the spectrum and destiny tried by the prophecy of suffering, like a resuscitation of crucifixion whose salvation appears only like a useless supposition:


I’m being visited more and more seldom

By respiration.

I can’t breathe anymore -so I can’t write therefore, I live no more.


And here I ask:

The portion of my air I did not breathe

(Since I was gone before the deadline)

Is it worth anything?

At least it could be given to the poor

(If this were possible)

But this is such an absurd parsimony

Of Nothingness.


And further on:

The thoughts I left unwritten

By whom will they be finished? Since grains of sand are not alike

How could a new pen different from mine

Resume the thread exactly from the point I ceased?


And I had just discovered

A handful of great subjects, themes.

I had already improvised – and it did work – my style

Who is the one who will decode my notes

Which I could never organize?


Is it then you who will give answer

To these simple, common sense questions

You Pure Nothingness?

. (The Scribe)



It happened, with Sorescu’s lyric ( but also with his plays, essays, and criticism) a fact that did not have the expected and deserved echo in exegetics: the reception of his work by the reader turned into spectator. And, it was not about, as it was often thought, more out of convenience rather than malice or misunderstanding, a momentary or circumstantial success: not the ”form” of poetry, not even the much invoked pointilism, carried exclusively – not in the least essentially, the responsibility of this success, but something more profound, something to be situated in the inner dialectics itself of the Sorescian discourse. Maybe even what we called the powerful emancipation of the poetic, actually a circular movement, including the hermeneutic sense assumed from Diltey onwards.

The poet blurts out ,”philosophically” speaking, the incarnating process of human nature; the ”objectification” of human being is, at first, a denounce of ”modern” world, on the way to lose the touch of the essential. A recurrent ”subject” in contemporary culture, handy, without lacking a slight taste of trifling. It so happens that such tough ”subjects” are, more often than not, ”attacked” by rhymesters who, be they in poetry’s waiting-room or lacking a clear and firm awareness of it, may imagine, out of a representation counterfeited from the start, that the poem needs an ”ebullience” of ideas ( or ideological in the etymological sense of the word ) in order to reach the poetic horizon. The assertion is also valid for a large part of the poetry homologated in a certain period, out of various interests and with  extra-aesthetic criteria.

Besides, at the time of his debut, and after the first volumes of the author of The Youth of Don Quixote’s, his poetry excelled in an awkward placement of the lyrical subject in relation with language and with its function of knowledge: thought as an open process of discursive knowledge, it interfered in the narrative and ended in tautology and simplicity, if not completely in preposterous ideas. And we do not refer exclusively to proletcultist lyric, whose aesthetic claims Sorescu and his generation had to avoid from the interior, but even to the inter-war lyrical pattern, towards which the ”new” poets found themselves in an ambivalent attitude , difficult to overcome: they had to resume, on the one hand, the discourse abusively interrupted in the 1960’s by extra-literary intrusions, and, on the other hand, to break away from it, often in a silent manner, resisting the pressure of a reader eager to see this relation with the initial pattern restored, as Nichita Stanescu  asserted.

Sorescu had chosen, as it is known, an unconfirmed way until then in the Romanian lyrical praxis: his debut with the parodies Alone among Poets had offered the opportunity – to him, but also to the ”new” poetics that was configuring at that time (due to the changes that took place in a history that seemed to reopen to aesthetics)  to do, in his own way, some sort of tabula rasa with tradition and its unable states, and, on this basis, to prepare in vitro, a personal model; on the other hand, and again it had been remarked, he made use of second -level patterns ( Topârceanu, Minulescu, etc.), thus avoiding the recurrence of models of the tough kind, but not less dangerous from the perspective of the chance of total renewal and of redistribution of accents, according to the new challenges of a founder suddenly turned interested in the metamorphoses of universal lyric.

But what was not retained with a necessary, but rather blamable discernment, was the connection of Sorescian poetics to a pattern of the avant-gardes. Sorescu is from the beginning a follower of Urmuz* in his early period, of Tzara as well, from where derives his so frequently invoked influence from Prevert, who remains only a point of convergence, a hallmark met on the way, on a way of his own, determinately constructed from the start, with decision and with a certain form of pride of the man arrived at the show somehow from outside, but who had proposed, first of all, to know well its rules and canons.






*Urmuz is a quite special case of Romanian literature and, to a large extent, of the universal one: a magistrate in Bucharest in the first two decades of the XX-th century, he writes, on his own, ultra avant-garde texts, but outside any kind of influences or fashions in actu, of which he was not aware. These texts were discovered after his committing suicide in a park; thus his literary experiences forego the dadaism of his co-national Tristan Tzara, and Eugen Ionescu will acknowledge Urmuz as his only master.




A contemporary Italian philosopher, Sergio Givone, regardful of the metaphysical relations between logos şi mythos, puts forward that, in front of the crisis, poetry cuts loose out of myth, cutting itself loose out of its Self. But the myth is the Self,  the substance,  poetry’s profound content, and poetry cannot be anything else but emancipation, nothing else but the act of emerging out of itself, through a reflex of self-defense, in order to contemplate and self-contemplate.


Poetry is therefore a passage from myth to logos, but this passage gets the form of an interrogation, which is precisely a reality of the myth form. The myth as interrogation means resuming from the start a ”narration” that suspended all its referential functions, a fabulous invention without beginning and without ending, lacking the justifying checkout. Finally it is about a fall, not inside metaphysics, as philosophers of  Nietzschean  parentage believe, but inside poetry, exclusively where poetry works against myth and meets it again, and at the same time annuls it by reinventing it.

In a writing as early as the 1940’s, W. Nestle· remarked the evolution ( the ”fall”, some literary historians hurried to decree ) of Hellenic poetry from epic to tragedy, and from it to comedy, namely to ”satirical drama”; it is as if language, laying waste its sacredness, would have turned towards its own precariousness, substituting the founding pathos with the derisory and with the festal play. Myth descended, turned into logos, adopting that koiné, which is no longer only that standardized, current speech, but a form of discourse of the ”crowd”.

Reverting to the poem Viziune/Vision, let’s remark the way in which the poet, recording the effect of the process of world materializing, at the end of which he settles, does not pathetically deplore its emergence in the terms of the tragedy, but through the grid of irony, parodies its presence under the form of a ”feast” only outwardly innocent. It is an anticipation of the cycle La lilieci , where the centre of the world, that axis mundi, of a community who relies on language in their survival attempt, moves from….Iocan’s clearing to…the grave. It is the answer, defiant in its turn, to the great challenge of late modernity (mainly in our country), it is the eager modality of this inquisitive and rebelling spirit, who is Marin Sorescu, of transforming language in the Wittgensteinian manner in a sort of puzzle game.


The dissipation of the mythical and world carnivalization


In a poem such as În dungă,/In stripe/line/crease??? the installing process of the Text becomes symptomatic for Sorescu’s lyric: we witness, at first, an act of dissipation of the ”sacred”, meaning by it the serious, ”romantic” manner  (they accurately spoke about a de-romantizing of the lyric in case of Sorescu ), an act followed almost concomitantly by another, almost perceptible, which we would call world carnivalization. Everything is, of course, ironical and parodical at the same time:

La început nu era în picioare / Nici un munte, nici un vis. / Aşa că nici ploaia n-avea rost / Să cadă de susAt first there was nothing afoot/Neither a mountain, nor a dream/So rain either made no sense…” ( trad. Victor Olaru)


The gesture, placed underneath, so-called subtextual, is ”mimetic”, in the religious meaning of the term, of the type Imitatio Christi; it is, actually, an Imitatio mundi, like many other poems of the author, conceived on the pattern of myth deflagration, starting with the cited poems Trebuiau să poarte un nume/The had to have a name şi Shakespeare.

The insurgent Sorescian spirit ( more much obvious and more corrosive in his plays ) does not install itself at a primary level, therefore genesis-like, but at a second one, because it takes as object of his subversive act, Literature itself (its making) or, more precisely, Literacy, which, by submitting it to the carnivalizing action, does not compromise it, but rescues it.

Playing identity is pushed beyond the limit of the absurd, in a game in which the rule of alteration is vitiated up to an annihilation of every difference, and thus the vital flow becomes some kind of ”natural” emergence, like in a famous Ionesco play:


They had been living long together,

And they had rather started to repeat themselves:


He was she,

And she was he.


She was she,

And he was she too.


Sometimes she either was, or she was not,

That’s when he was one she, two shes, and many shes.

Such used to be life, more or less.


And above all, early each morning,

Till they would get at last to demarcate

Who was each one,

Where they did start and end

Why in this way and not the other one,

A lot of time was wasted,

As carried by a river time was flowing.

They even tried to kiss sometimes,


But suddenly they realized

That both of them were she.

Much easier to duplicate.


But scared by such discovery,

Both would start yawning

A yawn of softened wool,

Which could be even knitted, the way it follows:

One she yawned very attentively,

Meanwhile, the other she was due to hold the ball.




The Sorescian lyricism carries in itself – I should say, written in its own programmatic reason-a spring and a motive of a strong exegetic nature: the spirit that endows it with life is one of hermeneutical  nature; the poet refuses the descriptive as well as discursiveness ( did not this very refuse  represent the stake of his debut parodies?) and ironically re-interprets any kind of mythical  lode that presses and pries into our imaginary museum, bringing it at the level of daily occurrence.

Sorescu’s poetry often gets the form of a Lamentatio Doctoris Fausti,  of which spoke,  if I am not wrong, Adorno, but which, for the poet of La  Lilieci… had become a sort of Lamentatio Doctoris Nastratini.  Sorescu’s cosmos is a post-Dedalus and a post-Icarus one: all adventures, attempts, founding exploits  had been consumed., the world had exhausted all its chances, all its myth-related solutions , the cloakroom of the genesis is empty, and what is left for us is travesty and caricature. The verb itself had been robbed of any founding function, accepting as a petty remedy the carnavalesque play, not in ”Venetian” version, but in a  Byzantine or a Levantesque one.

Here one may identify and explain the model-creating contribution Sorescu’s poetry marked in the account of recent writing age groups, but also his singular success at universal level. But Sorescu’s exegetics is only at the beginning.  His work, not only prodigious, but also organically articulated, and, especially, polyvalent, keeps defying us.



Marin Sorescu was born in the village of Bulzesti, county of Dolj, the fifth child of a family of peasants. He attended secondary schools in Craiova and Predeal, graduating from Iasi University in Philology. He worked as editor-in-chief of the literary periodical Ramuri.

His first volume of poetry Singur Printre Poeti (Along Amongst Poets) appeared in 1964, followed by numerous volumes of poetry, prose and drama.

His first play, Jonah, was published in 1968, followed by The Verger in 1970, and The Matrix in 1973. In 1974 the three were included as a trilogy in The Thirst of the Salt Mountain […]

His work has been translated into many languages, and his plays performed throughout the world.

In 1974 he was awarded the drama prize by the Writers’ Union of Romania and in 1978 the international prize ‘Le Muze’ by the Academia delle Muze, Florence. In 1983 he was made a correspondent member of the Mallarmé Academy in Paris and in December of the same year he received the International Poetry Prize ‘Fernando Riello’ in Madrid.

In 1964 the Romanian government relaxed its censorship policies, signaling a new openness to free expression. The nation’s poets heeded that signal, and Romanian poetry experienced a striking revival. The poet and playwright Marin Sorescu is perhaps one of the most popular figures to emerge from Romanian literary culture in the years since.

Sorescu writes in a plainspoken, down-to-earth style spiced with sly humor. He responds to the hardships of Romanian life not with grand rhetoric or fire-and-brimstone sermons, but with what his translator Michael Hamburger describes as “ironic verse fables,” as quoted by Dennis Deletant in the Times Literary Supplement. Virgil Nemoianu, also writing in the Times Literary Supplement, comments that “[Sorescu’s] reactions to an increasingly absurd political regime were always cleverly balanced: he never engaged in the servile praise of leader and party usually required of Romanian poets,  nor did he venture into dissidence. He was content to let irony do its job.”

His choice of irony over confrontation has made it possible for Sorescu to publish freely and frequently. The journal he edited for years, Ramuri, managed like his poetry to stay within the bounds expected by the Romanian regime. Sorescu’s plays, however, have not always fared as well. Both Iona and Exista nervi played to packed houses in Bucharest, the former in 1969 and the latter in 1982. But both plays were quickly withdrawn, their content deemed too controversial. Nonetheless, notes Deletant, the success of these pieces during their brief runs solidified “Sorescu’s status as one of the leading writers of his generation.”

Sorescu’s plays and poetry have earned him, Deletant further states, “an unequaled audience” at home in Romania. And translations of his work into English have helped him build a secure international reputation. The qualities that have allowed his writings to flourish on Romania’s state-controlled literary scene may contribute to his popularity abroad as well. There is a universality to Sorescu’s conversational tone and ironic perspective, what Nemoianu calls “his rueful jocularity and the good-natured cynicism.” George Szirtes, writing in Times Literary Supplement, finds in Sorescu’s voice “the wry wisdom that sees through everything and yet continues to hope and despair.”




  • Vom Mythos zum Logos.
  • Vom Mythos zum Logos.




March 2022