Branko Miljkovic: Killed by a Too Powerful Word

by Nicolas Cobic

Branko Miljkovic

On the night between 12th and 13th February 1961, the body of Serbian poet Branko Miljkovic was found hanging from a tree in a park in Zagreb (Croatia) where he had been living for a while. He was 27. Official records stated at the time that it was a suicide, but growing evidence is emerging that he was killed by Croat nationalists. To this very day, the truth remains yet to be uncovered.

The name of Branko Miljkovic is certainly not widely familiar in western Europe. Main reason for this is that for 50 years there have been distinct cultural and political separations between regions in Europe, that have deprived us of knowledge of hugely talented poets. One such example is Branko Miljkovic, young, almost iconic figure whose work represents inspiration and brainwave to generations of poets.

Branko was born in 1934, in the Serbian city of Nis. It used to be a main Roman fortress in Balkan peninsula and it still holds idyllic ancient beauty, shrine of the dead empire, doubtlessly inspiring young Miljkovic. The horrifying images of the Second World War stuck in the poet's mind, and injected his writing with stimulation for years to come.

Another monument in Nis that cannot but instigate horror and awe in anyone who sees it is the infamous Turkish tower of Cele Kula. Built in late 18th century, solely out of skulls belonging to Serbian people who rebelled against the dominance of Asian invaders, it stands 150 feet high to remind generations to come of bloody past. It is this kind of past that had put that extra passion into Branko's quill. Passion to seek the truth in love, war, philosophy, death, nature, fire.

His poetical talents were mirrored in numerous prizes won in various local and school competitions in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1953, his family moved to Belgrade, where Branko arrived with hundreds of poems under his arm, and where he would spend the next 8 years battling to be affirmed into the Belgrade poetry circle.

He enrolled into the University of Belgrade, where he studied philosophy. Miljkovic's was a passionate reader and a great admirer of French symbolists Mallarme and Vallery. He quickly found like-minded young poets and philosophers, and started socialising with artists and thinkers, amongst which were poets Vasko Popa and Ivan V. Lalic.

A number of poets close to Miljkovic decided to form a group of 'Neo-symbolists'. The group would represent the cry of talent battling to pave the road of new poetry. Miljkovic was not the leader, but definitely the power and mind of this group. Although his poetry was highly thought of, he struggled to be published, for the sole reason that poets of more political aptness, would have a distinct advantage.

He refused to play a sycophant for the Communist Party, and the success of his poetry clearly suffered for it. Finally, because of his huge popularity amongst younger poets, five of his poems were published in a highly reputable magazine Delo, edited by the famous Serbian poet and critic Oskar Davico. Poetry that almost everyone already knew by heart, finally saw the public light for the first time. What followed was his first collection of poetry In Vain I Wake Her (1956), which was an immediate success with readers and critics alike.

Although it contained sections on love (Between Two Days and Night on That Side of the Moon), it contained metaphysical sections Tragic Sonnets and Fake Lights. In essence, this collection was lyrical but with symbolical and surreal finesses.

The title poem In Vain I Wake Her is a classic, and probably the one he is most famous for. According to the story, Branko paid a visit to his neighbour's house in Nis and saw on the wall a picture of his friend's dead sister. Immediately he fell in love with the dead girl and wrote most beautiful lines in her honour. Miljkovic would comment that poetry is a victory over poet and life.

There is one existential criteria for poetry: a poem is worthwhile if the poet is superfluous. Therefore, Miljkovic emphasises the similarity between a poet who has just finished a masterpiece and an army general after winning a great battle. Both are superfluous and have only one choice - death. In an essay, Miljkovic states: 'From the moment of leaving the poet, a poem has nothing to do with him anymore. It has its own bloodstream that feeds it, that makes it breathe, grow.'

Often seen in various Belgrade taverns and pubs, Branko lead a bohemian life. Very eloquent, a natural storyteller and a young Don Juan, Branko is popular with young artists. However, his tendency to become violent when drunk, often resulted in fights, most of which he would lose. On one occasion, after having quite a few brandies, in an overcrowded pub he shouted: 'Freedom for our whorehouses! You fucking communists have taken away our whorehouses! We want freedom! Who will fight me you cowards!?'

In any left wing regime, during 1950s, such behaviour would prove to be highly dangerous and reactionary. It is behaviour like this that would get him into trouble on many occasions. Luckily, it was his writer friends, some close to the left regime, that would get him off the hook with the police.

Despite such behaviour and trouble he would get in, he would always write, swearing that he never wrote a single verse whilst drunk. In 1958, his second collection came out entitled With Death Against Death.

Very different from In Vain I wake Her, the second one is inspired by heroism, pride, tragedy, national folk tales and myths. He would say that poetry begins where the world, with its meanings defined by its three dimensions, ends. With Death Against Death is enhanced with symbols as an incarnation of reality, condensing reality in time and space into what is essential. Miljkovic tries hard to make his metaphors appear as crossroads leading in all directions.

Over this period, Branko also translates heavily, especially Russian and French poets Mayakovski, Vallery, Prevert, and writes essays on hermetical poetry. He argues that incomprehensiveness in poetry is a result of attempting to overcome base obviousness and primitive banal experiences. A comprehensive speech in poetry is shallow, it has an eye but no soul. A poem should always be elusive, never fully grasped. Asking a poet to be comprehensive and speak only in clear images is something superficial, petty and it makes no distinction between real creators and ordinary 'dribblers'.

Here, Miljkovic defends the symbolism of Rimbaud and Mallarme. He would tell friends: 'A poet should always be aware of the weight his poetry has. Rimbaud was unaware of what he wrote and that's why he declined.'

In 1959, Jean Paul Sartre visited Belgrade as an honorary guest of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences. Miljkovic received a special recognition from the French philosopher, and the two spent hours talking.

Branko's third and fourth collections came out within the space of four months. He had trouble publishing The Origin of Hope (1959) for political reasons, so by the time he found the publisher, his forth and final collection Fire and Nothing (1960) was ready. Instantly both became hugely successful, praised by many critics, editors and above all - readers. He destroyed the notion of a word as a word and an object as an object and brought back the innocence of language. Fire and Nothing was awarded the most prestigious poetry prize in Serbia, the October Prize and Origin of Hope won the NIN Prize.

By autumn of 1960, Branko was increasingly surrounded by too many Salieris, all trying to undermine his poetry by saying it is too hermetic, too far fetched, too reactionary. Even his colleagues, closest allies he had, started taking sides against him. He took it all very hard. Deeply disappointed with many trusted friends, he decided to leave Belgrade and move to Zagreb where he was promised a post as a cultural editor of Radio Zagreb. What followed may have cost him his life. Branko Miljkovic wrote a letter to his friend, the editor of a prominent Belgrade magazine Duga, which read:

Please announce in your next issue my following statement:

I renounce the following books:
In Vain I wake Her
With Death Against Death
The Origin of Hope
Fire and Nothing
And although it is unfortunately impossible to return it, I renounce the October Prize presented to me.

The statement was published. Branko moved to Zagreb where he continued to write, but broken hearted he also continued to drink. On the last night of his life he was seen by colleagues drinking with some girls. According to eye witnesses, he was cheerful, telling everyone that he is 'done' with stuck up editors, political lap dogs and sycophants and is preparing a new collection of poetry. He was even singing. Shortly after midnight, he left his friends at the table, saying he has to go and meet someone.

Next time anyone saw him was hanging from a park tree in a Zagreb suburb. That was a death of a poet and a birth of an icon.

Some say, he killed himself because he couldn't stand the pressures and humiliations, some say he took his life because he realised what a mistake he made by denouncing his poems and couldn't live with it, some say he killed himself because of lost love.

There is strong evidence that drunk, he went to another pub, where he sang a Serbian song, and when confronted by Croat nationalists, he swore at them. They then took him out and strangled him, put him in a car and took him to the park where they hanged him to make it seem a suicide. Police records are vague, probably because if the truth of nationalist killing saw light, it would cause havoc in Tito's Yugoslavia.

In his collection Origin of Hope, he wrote an Epitaph - Killed by a too powerful word. It was prophetic.

Read three poems by Branko Miljkovic translated by Nicholas Cobic.


The Current Issue

The current issue is packed with poems, reviews and interviews.

View Online copy »


Hear the Wolf poets read their work.

Click here >

The Wolf at the Poetry Library

The Wolf on - all of issues 6, 10 and 11