Branko Miljkovic: Killed by a Too Powerful Word
by Nicolas Cobic
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
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
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
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
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
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
In his collection Origin of Hope, he wrote an
Killed by a too powerful word. It was
Read three poems by Branko
Miljkovic translated by Nicholas Cobic.