The Secret Malady of Esperanto Poetry


Dr. Julius Balbin
Associate Professor of
German and Romance Languages
Essex County College
Newark, New Jersey

In one of this year's issues of Heroldo de Esperanto there appeared excerpts from a lecture given in Berlin by Jean Forge, one of our better-known novelists. This is what Mr. Forge said about Esperanto poetry:

"It is an interesting and characteristic fact that many Esperantists, who can hardly stutter in the language and who have not studied it in depth or in detail, write poems—simply because the language entices them by the ease of its rhymes and the variety of forms easily found in lexicons. Let me mention only Waringhien's Plena Ilustrita Vortaro—for me a huge treasure-store of words! But the value of these poems is very, very small. In general, it is very hard to assess the worth or worthlessness of an Esperanto poem. No doubt, we have eminent poets of talent, if I may mention only the most outstanding one, Kalocsay of Budapest. I cannot assert that poetry is the most important element in evolving Esperanto, especially along the linguistic lines, but this poetry at least mirrors the beauty of the language. This simple and easily learned language tempts new Esperantists to jump on the green Pegasus and gallop across Esperantoland." [1]

Mr. Forge is perfectly right in lambasting beginners in Esperanto who think that fervor is a sufficient substitute for knowledge and who engage in dilettantist versification. But he is woefully wrong when lie identifies poetry with rhyming—a misconception which we might expect from an ordinary layman, but not from a renowned writer, even if only a prose writer. We all know that great poetry has been created in blank verse, and very poor poetry has been written in flawless rhymes, not only in Esperanto, but also in many other literary languages. We could go still farther quoting Thomas Mann, who said that highly artistic prose is indistinguishable from poetry, that it is poetry itself. It is a truism that it is not always possible to draw a strict line between prose and poetry.

But what most surprises me is Mr. Forge's claim that it is easier to rhyme in Esperanto than in other languages. Kalocsay, whose name he invokes, would certainly refuse to support that contention. This is what Kalocsay has to say on the subject:

"Esperanto is a language of musically sonorous rhymes. The clear vowels, the strictly distinguished consonants make possible those pure and long-­echoing harmonies which one finds perhaps only in the Italian language. Its poverty of rhymes is quite understandable: the language has a relatively small radicarium and, since the same grammatical forms have identical endings, the number of rhymes is almost equal to the limited number of the roots which one can rhyme with one another. It is not difficult to produce rhymes by eternally repeating such mouldy primitive rhymes (prarimoj) as koro‑floro‑odoro; amo‑flamo‑ornamo; bela‑ĉiela-­miela; sento‑vento‑turmento; lin‑fin'‑ŝin; loko‑voko, and so forth, but a translator of formally richer poems often racks his brains helplessly and feels an urgent need to broaden the all too narrow scope of Esperanto rhyming rules." [2]

Whereupon Kalocsay takes to task both Zamenhof and Grabowski, the legitimate fathers of our poetry, for resorting to suffix rhymes such as anta‑anta, iĝi‑iĝi, and ema‑ema. For example, in La Espero ( “Hope”), our international anthem, he finds five such rhyme pairs, while among the first fifty verses of Sinjoro Tadeo as many as thirteen. And this in the most famous work of a man who himself baptised such a transgression with the name adasismo, a word derived from the rhyme pair adas‑adas. Kalocsay continues at great length trying to demonstrate how difficult it actually is to create good rhymes in Esperanto, and to point out several ways in which poets who must, or choose to, rhyme, could do so without an outrage to good taste.

In his book, Kien la poezio? ("Whither Poetry?"), published in 1957, Brendon Clark, for all his opposition to many of the Kalocsay innovations (particularly his neologisms), agrees whole‑heartedly with the latter insofar as the poverty of Esperanto rhymes is concerned:

"Because of the paucity of roots in Esperanto, rhyming is extremely difficult. It is almost impossible to make excessive use of certain rhyme pairs and this, understandably, is bad. Many words do not have corresponding rhyme words; because of that and because of the general poverty of rhyme words, some poets introduce pseudorhymes and neologisms." [3]

Thus, contrary to what Mr. Forge claims, artful rhyming in Esperanto is a very difficult thing indeed. No self‑respecting Esperanto poet would ever, save in the most exceptional cases, content himself with an easily accessible adasismo rhyme. But what is most curious is the fact that such rhymes are easily found in the output of some very great poets in most national languages.

Let me, for example, quote at random from The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse a stanza from a poem entitled "Monte de el Pardo" by one of the most outstanding contemporary poets, Rafael Alberti:

todo esto me remuerde, me socava, me quita
ligereza a los ojos, me los nubla y me pone
la conciencia cargada de llanto y dinamita
La soledad retumba y el sol se descompone. [4]

where pone and descompone are not only "the same grammatical forms with identical endings," but, in addition, derive from the same root verb poner. Could we ever imagine an Esperanto poet, even one of minor talent, who dared rhyme metas with dismetas?

Mr. Forge is one of those happy few Esperanto writers whose works have been translated from the international into a number of national languages. He is also a professional motion picture script writer. Thus, he incontestably belongs to our cultural elite.

Now if Esperantists of his caliber are apt to demonstrate such profound ignorance of what poetry, and especially the poetry in Esperanto, really is—what can we expect of our average general readers? Should we be surprised if our books of poetry, whether original or translated, take several years to be sold out—and that it is a real sacrifice on the part of publishers when they make them available in print? How long ago did Kalocsay write that bitter poem in which he complained that he was a "poet without a people"? It was at the time creative talents still strove to mould our language into a full‑bodied medium of literary expression. Esperanto has since grown up and evolved and is at our disposal, a completely mature tongue equal to any ethnic or national language. However, I seriously doubt whether it has already acquired that enlightened "people" of which the greatest of our poets was dreaming some forty years ago.

I realize that there are not many readers of poetry in most national cultures. But we must not forget that our language and culture are essentially different from all other languages and cultures.

Ours is the only language in history that began its life as a written and not as a spoken language. Zamenhof, its initiator, was at the same time its creator in the transcendent sense of this word, since, thanks to the depth of his linguistic intuition, he knew that in order that his creature might live, he had to endow it with the spirit of creative life expressed in works of literature, both original and translated. It is almost certain that, had he failed to do so, Internacia Lingvo, published by Dr. Esperanto in Warsaw in 1887, would have joined all the other projects of international language on the dusty shelves of research libraries.

As Kalocsay aptly put it:

"He (Zamenhof) knew that only poetry can breathe life into the clay figure of his work, to make out of gray words, tedious rules and a drily schematic structure a truly living creature, in which one is amazed at feeling the pulse of life. And one may truly say that not through Esperanto he made poetry, but that through poetry he made Esperanto. One may say that all Esperanto is a poetic language."

"At the beginning was feeling," continues Kalocsay, "thus ought to begin the history of Esperanto." He says a few lines further that "the feeling not only created the language, but also sheltered it. The feeling expressed in poetry has given Esperanto that holding power which could be called Esperanto patriotism. Language and feeling, that's what Esperanto is all about: the language lives in its literature; the feeling speaks through its poetry. Without literature, without poetry Esperanto would be mute and dead." [5]

I doubt if any enlightened Esperantist could fail to see how deeply the evolution of our language, contrary to what Mr. Forge said in his lecture, has been affected by the development of our literature in general and of our poetry in particular.

In recent years, some of our leading writers and publishers have expressed publicly their concern over what they refer to as degeneration of Esperanto literary prose. Our men of letters either lack the talent, or the time, or both, to sit down and turn out a number of good novels and short stories. Yet the same writers and publishers seem to be perfectly satisfied with the output of our contemporary poets. They even go so far as to assert that our poetry is thriving.

Dr. M.G. Hagler, in her pioneering work, Esperanto Language as a Literary Medium, concludes her survey of the last two periods of Esperanto poetry on an equally bright note:

"In retrospect it can be said that poets writing in Esperanto from 1919 to the present time, building on the foundation established during the first period of Esperanto literature, have developed in Esperanto the rich heritage of poetic forms and techniques used in Western, and, to some extent, in Oriental poetry. In addition, like their twentieth-­century counterparts writing in national and ethnic languages, Esperanto poets have successfully experimented with the new techniques and content of modern poetry." [6]

I, for one, think that the actual state of our contemporary poetry does not warrant so affirmative an appraisal. Nor can I share the self­-congratulatory jubilation of the above‑mentioned writers and publishers.

In spite of our having a goodly number of talented poets who do not rest on their laurels but steadily strive to enrich our literature by ever new works in the fields of both original and translated poetry, these poets—with a few exceptions such as Auld (particularly in La infana raso), Ragnarsson, de Kock, and Sadler (in Memkritiko)—do not keep pace with the originality, vigor and audacity found in the contemporary poetry of many national languages.

Our poetry as a whole suffers from a strange ailment which I call "a secret malady" since even the most intimate friends of the patient seem unaware of its existence. This ailment is its compulsion to look backwards. And the myths tell us what is the penalty for looking backwards.

It is a great thing for a constructed language like Esperanto to have already acquired its own literary tradition. In point of fact, it is a phenomenon unmatched by anything similar in the entire course of human civilization. But the deadweight of a tradition followed too slavishly may have a most debilitating effect on the very continuity and development of that tradition. The overwhelming majority of our practitioners of poetry, not excluding the present writer, do not seem capable of overcoming and transcending it successfully; its deadweight has left on them its indelible blue, or I should perhaps say, "green" marks.

At the risk of antagonizing Zamenhofian cultists, I will venture to say that the creator of our language was a very talented translator but a poor poet. But have we not known all along that most geniuses are limited? It would be too much to ask of one man to create and launch a new language, to breathe the spirit of life into it and, in addition, to create in it a great literature. Besides, all that Zamenhof wanted to demonstrate by writing his verses was exactly the same he had proved by translating a number of literary masterpieces from a variety of languages: that his language was as viable a vehicle for poetry as any other literary language. Unfortunately, to most of Zamenhof's and his disciples' original poetry could well be applied Gide's famous dictum: “C’est avec les bons sentiments qu’on fait de la mauvaise littérature.”

It was exactly five years ago when R.P. Nogueira wrote an article entitled "La renovigo de la Esperanto‑Poezio" published in Impulso and later reprinted in Heroldo de Esperanto, in which he put the matter quite plainly:

"Only a language containing really valuable original literature can impress the world as being international. Zamenhof was aware of this, and this is well‑known to most Esperantists. Yet apparently very few of them are convinced that if this literature is not contemporary it will have little value. This means that literature in the international language must mirror the contemporary man and his contemporary world or otherwise it will not be valid for this man and his world. If we want Esperanto to play its role in human society—and without a fully living literature that cannot happen—we must, in the first place, prepare an adequate literary basis to enable modern man to express himself perfectly in the language to be adopted by him. Literature moulds the language, and particularly so in Esperanto where spoken language has limited influence."

The critic goes on to say that from this viewpoint, a survey of our literature is depressing. He confines himself to poetry which is "generally recognized as more important than prose."

"Our poetry was born under the lyrical influence of Zamenhof, Grabowski, Privat, Schulhof and others. Although Esperanto appeared at the time when the romantic movement had been in clear decline in other languages, our pioneers were essentially romantic. Zamenhof himself was the prototype. This fact was generally justified on the grounds that every literature, in its beginnings, is essentially lyrical and that this 'emotional' element is necessary for the formation of the language."

Mr. Nogueira does not know to what extent this argument is provable. However, it was to be hoped that in the future Esperanto poetry would be able to follow trends found outside the Esperantist ambience. But that did not happen. After the first World War, emerged Kalocsay and Baghy, the two most acclaimed Esperanto poets. Unfortunately, both these leaders of the Budapest School proved to be "conservative and outside of their time." And, of course, they only perpetuated, even though in a more refined fashion, the lyrical tradition of our poetry. Since they were major poets of the generation, they became veritable models of all postwar Esperanto poetry.

And so, "when in the interwar epoch, somewhere in the world, Mayakovski, Eliot, Pound, Ungaretti and Pessoa were revolutionizing poetry, Esperanto poets, in most cases, remained self‑complacently gratified with 'green cordialities,' man's brotherhood, flowers and their beloved female . . ." [7]

Mr. Nogueira may be a little too outspoken in his attack on the "sacred cows" of our literary tradition. Yet I cannot help but agree with the main thrust of his argument.

However, he is definitely wrong and exasperatingly unfair in placing the blame on Parnasa Gvidlibro and in accusing both Waringhien and Kalocsay of "narrow‑mindedness characteristic of conservative minds."

Our poets' guidebook is neither prescriptive nor exclusionary. It only describes and codifies all traditional varieties of poetic feet and meters, rhymes and rhyming patterns, types of stanzas and strophes, and fixed forms that have been used by Esperanto poets and translators. It does not proscribe use of any other poetic devices commonly found in modern poetry.

The achievement of Kalocsay is truly epochmaking. In the words of Auld, he "almost singlehandedly worked out the entire traditional poetry of Esperanto between 1921 and 1939. While national literatures developed very slowly through the contributions of various writers in extremely diverse periods ‑ one introduced the sonnet, another unrhymed verse, another polished, still another made slight changes ‑ Kalocsay himself did all this for Esperanto, and he gave to his contemporaries and to those who will follow a perfected basis of traditions and models. Sonnets existed in Esperanto before Kalocsay, but he consistently and convincingly showed the full possibilities of the form: he introduced the rondel and the ballad; he was the first to show the beauty and virtuosity of terza rima." [8]

According to Leon Courtinat, thanks to Kalocsay's multi‑faceted creative, linguistic, and critical works, his influence on Esperanto literature has been compared to that of Dante on the development of Italian literature. [9]

If poetry is called by some the highest form of discourse, it definitely found its most fervent practitioners in the followers of surrealism which, in the period between the two World Wars, was an organized literary and artistic movement centering in Paris, "iconoclastic and revolutionary in nature, with its leaders and disciples, its manifestoes and publications, its exhibitions and even its street brawls. It became international during those years to such an extent that fourteen countries were represented in its 1938 exhibition." [10]

André Breton, its founder and moving spirit, joined the dadaist movement right after the first World War. In 1932, he met Freud and, together with Desnos, Eluard, Ernst, Picabia and others, became engaged in the exploration of psychic automatism and its utilization for the purposes of poetry and art. In 1924, he published Manifesto of Surrealism which was followed in 1929 by Second Manifesto of Surrealism. Impressed by Trotski's book on Lenin, he joined the Communist Party with the proviso of opposing all outside control, including Marxist, on "les experiences de la vie intérieure." [11]

"By 1935," says Fowlie, "so many surrealists had joined the Communist Party that the movement itself seemed to be allied with the cause of communism. The statements of Marx about the need of world revolution were said to find support in Rimbaud's sentence that life had to be changed ('il faut changer la vie'). The advent of Dali had brought a second youth or new impetus to surrealism. The reign of the 'marvelous' in art ('le merveilleux,' as Breton called it) which came from man's passiveness and submission to his subconscious, seemed to have definitely displaced symbolism, with its emphasis on artificiality or contrived artfulness." [12]

And what happened between the two World Wars in Esperanto literature? The surrealist revolution coincided with the appearance of the first poems of Kalocsay under the auspices of Literatura Mondo, doubtlessly the most important of cultural magazines and publishing houses in the history of Esperanto. The significance of Kalocsay and his confrères of the Budapest School, and their influence on the development of our language and poetry, cannot be overestimated. However, at the same time when Breton and his followers could allow themselves the luxury of reshaping the whole concept of poetry—in line with the revolution which was taking place in the visual arts and music—Kalocsay had to wage a fierce battle against the stubborn opposition of well‑entrenched Esperantists to his introduction of neologisms—something that is taken for granted in all literary languages, but which was particularly important in a new and still growing language. It is hard to believe that the appearance in 1932 of Parnasa Gvidlibro with its "poetic vocabulary" could ever have caused some Esperantists to accuse its author of introducing a new Ido by the back door. As Waringhien put it, "his accusers simply showed that they did not know what Ido was and what a dictionary was. This minor crisis was only a period when our literary language was in a state of burgeoning, and growing to climb the steepest heights of classical masterpieces" [13] – a reference to the then flourishing translations of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, La Rouchefoucauld, Pushkin, Rilke and others.

An average Esperanto speaker, who merely enjoys the advantages of a linguistic world citizenship, corresponding with his "samideanoj" in all the corners of the globe, reading books and magazines published in some sixty countries, and crossing the national boundaries dividing the people of the world without having to worry over the language barriers, may not even realize that he is contributing to the most profound moral and intellectual revolution of mankind.

In the May 1971 issue of Esperanto, Waringhien, with his usual lucidity, traces this revolution to its very origins. They go back to the work of four geniuses: Galileo Galilei, who proved that the earth is not the center of the universe; Francis Bacon, who showed the necessity of proceeding "from experiments to axioms"; Hugo de Groot (Grotius), who laid the groundwork for international law and declared that slavery was unjust and ought to be abolished; and, finally, Descartes, who freed philosophy from the yoke of tradition. All these four geniuses of the seventeenth century encountered strong opposition to their ideas and suffered persecution for championing the sovereignty of reason over all knowledge transmitted by mere tradition and accepted uncritically. The main consequences of the acknowledgment of the sovereignty of reason were: first, the right of every individual to use his mind freely; second, his duty to respect the same right in others; and, third, the necessity to search for a new form of society that would make possible and protect the freedom of thought, mutual tolerance among individuals and peace among nations. Only slowly did their ideas find acceptance in the best minds of the epoch. In the following century of enlightenment, their ideas were refined and spread further by Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau in France, and by Kant, Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn in Germany.

It was only logical that Descartes as early as 1629 sketched a project for a new language that would be rational (a morphology without exceptions, a word derivational system using affixes, etc.). This concept was developed further by Leibnitz, a German philosopher, who more clearly than other thinkers, saw the intimate interconnection between the ideas of religious toleration, world peace and a perfected international language.

At this point, Waringhien quotes Zamenhof's saying that "the whole cause of Esperanto is one part of this common idea which I call hilelism, which only represents a peaceful bridge between various religions in the same way as Esperanto represents a bridge between various languages" and that "the whole problem of the unification of mankind and the disappearance of national hatreds can be solved only by the use of a neutral language." [14]

What an irony, then, that the carriers of the most revolutionary idea in the world should be so staunchly conservative! No doubt, that conservatism was, at a certain time in the history of Esperanto, the most important force, since it saved our language from disintegration into its various "improved versions." We owe to it the very fact that our language survived the Ido schism. But a linguistic conservatism that balks at neologisms which provide a writer with a more richly nuanced gamut of expressions is harmful to our literature, no matter how good a case the champions of "ease and simplicity" may make for it. Unfortunately, most of them are not sophisticated enough to understand that the introduction of neologisms is no threat to any language, since it does not affect its grammatical and morphological structure.

The political neutrality of our leading international organization is not without a practical value: thanks to it, the Esperanto movement is active in all the countries of the world, regardless of the nature of their political regimes.

However, if it comes to art and literature, both conservatism and political neutrality simply cease making sense.

It is not a mere accident that almost all the major figures of French surrealism—Breton, Aragon, Eluard, Char—not only held radical political ideas, but also participated in left‑wing activities. Nor is it an accident that the Italian futurism—even though ultimately misled to espouse the cause of reactionary fascism—sprang from a fundamentally healthy impulse of rebellion against the values of a bourgeois and philistine society. Likewise, Mayakovski burst on the literary scene of Russia with his startling formal innovations under the inspiration of the October Revolution. And the fate of García Lorca, the most modern of the twentieth century Spanish poets, was sealed by his opposition to the atrocities of the Falanga during the Civil War. Robert Bly, a well known American poet and translator, writing about Pablo Neruda, whose recent death symbolically coincided with the overthrow of Chilean democracy, says the following:

The conventionally wise assure us that to a surrealist the outer world has no reality—only his inner flow of images is real. Neruda's work demolishes this banality. Neruda's poetry is deeply surrealist, and yet entities of the outer world like the United Fruit Company have greater force in his poems than in those of any strictly "outward" poet alive. Once a poet takes a political stand, the wise assure us that he will cease writing good poetry. Neruda became a communist in the middle of his life and has remained one: at least half of his greatest work, one must admit, was written after that time." [15]

I wrote a letter in June 1973 to the Italian Literary Society, Patrolo, which publishes the review Literatura Foiro. Here are its main thoughts in a slightly reworded version:

"In my opinion, the sole criterion by which a literary work should be judged are its esthetic and artistic values, regardless of any ideological, religious or philosophic message it might carry.

"As a movement whose goal is the universal adoption of Esperanto as a language of international communication and cooperation we should certainly stay neutral insofar as political commitments are concerned. However, the idea that also our literature should be neutral is not only absurd but also extremely dangerous to its future growth and flowering, for which all of us hope so much. Unfortunately, too many Esperantists harbor such an idea—and among them apparently some of our prominent leaders . . . But literature is an art, and neutral art is nothing else than mummification of life.

"I suspect that this timid neutrality may be one of the main causes why the history of our poetry is the history of stagnation in the conservatism of form and content. Our poets, as a rule, have cautiously bypassed all the important international movements, trends and tendencies since neoromanticism which was the main fount of inspiration for Zamenhof and his disciples. Where were our poets when dadaism was startling the burghers, when futurism tried to envision new realities of life and art, when surrealism plunged into the subconscious in search of fresh insights hidden in the poet's psyche? Where are our poets now when concrete poetry attracts the most original creative minds in so many countries of Europe, South America and Japan? I am afraid that most of our reading public would be puzzled at the mere mention of the term itself. We will not find it even in our Plena Ilustrita Vortaro which for all my respects for its compiler and editor—I cannot call "Unabridged Illustrated Dictionary."

The response to my letter showed the editors' appreciation of the points raised by me; they found my remarks concerning Esperanto poetry “very interesting” and went so far as to offer to publish an article on the subject or even the paper which they knew I was going to prepare for the present seminar. "By such a valuable contribution," they wrote, "you would help us in our steady efforts at improving the quality of our publication."

I found a great deal of encouragement in their reaction: it somehow made me feel good to know that, aside from Mr. Nogueira, there were other Esperantist intellectuals who perhaps shared my discontent with contemporary Esperanto poetry.

Drago Kralj, in his Third Lecture, delivered over a decade ago, said that contemporary man no longer likes poetry very much, at least not so much as the man in the past centuries and in more ancient times, when poetry was the only form of literature accessible to him. "Man lives mentally very far from nature, from poetry, from philosophy and in his fuller wisdom no longer listens or wishes to listen to the deafening rhythm of the passing time. And yet—and yet poetry has remained and is the loftiest form of artistic expression."

I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. But when Mr. Kralj, after an adroit transitional paragraph in which he deplores the fact that so few Esperantists read poetry, says that Esperanto poetry experiences "a beautiful period in the last years," then I am simply taken aback at his lack of a more critical insight. And when he adds, "Perhaps it has already attained its high point, perhaps it is still climbing toward it—it arouses one's enthusiasm, and it is valuable for reading and enjoyment. Its voice is strong and elegant," [16] I feel like putting the whole blame on our critics and reviewers. If they continue singing such paeans to the glory of Esperanto poetry, ours will forever remain a literature of provincialism and mediocrity and fail to fulfill the promise of Zamenhof's great heritage—the same Zamenhof who, in the words of de Kock, "conceived Esperanto as a poetic work." [17]

René Wellek, in one of his recent essays, quotes Theodor Adorno's famous saying, "No poetry after Auschwitz," commenting that it is not a practical solution because "the artist's dissatisfaction with language can only be expressed by language." [18] I should add that such a solution is also impossible, for the simple reason that as long as there is language, there will also be poetry.

And so it was only natural that, as soon as the Nazi crematoria ceased pushing out their dark smoke toward the indifferent sky, Esperanto poets, along with their colleagues in national languages, resumed writing poetry. The trouble was that like the Abbé Siéyè's after the French Revolution, all their poetry was able to say adequately was: "I survived," as though that in itself were a sufficient accomplishment.

It continued to be written, but its practitioners blithely overlooked Auschwitz as well as all the other horrors committed by the Nazis, the Fascists, and their collaborators. They also overlooked Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They overlooked the atrocities of the war in Vietnam and the genocide of imperialism in Black Africa. They even overlooked the suppression of Esperanto itself, let alone that of such minority languages and cultures as Basque or Yiddish or Tatar in countries ideologically as apart from each other as Spain and the Soviet Union.

I could go on and on enumerating all that Esperanto poets have overlooked and still are overlooking today. The concept of "littérature engagée" seems to be utterly alien to them.

I would like to quote just two stanzas from a poem entitled, "La poeto volas verki subjektive" ("The poet wants to write subjectively") which introduces us to the latest poetry volume by Auld:

se regantoj kvakas,
mi sur ilin kakas;

miaj koncernaĵoj –
nur la eternaĵoj:  [19]

And here is my free and somewhat bowdlerized English version:

Our rulers' disputes
makes me only puke;

my sole concern is
eternal verities:

How odd that our most outstanding contemporary poet—a poet who in La infana raso has proved his ability to rise to the universal–should also so frivolously epitomize that escapist attitude which is so characteristic of Esperanto poetry.

I often wonder why Esperanto poets, having exiled themselves from the comforts and amenities of the Tower of Babel—an act of great courage and renunciation!—should so anxiously seek refuge from the world's problems and conflicts in an . . . ivory tower.

The festive speeches of our movement's leaders with which they inaugurate universal Esperanto congresses invariably emphasize the great significance of our international culture, as expressed in the works of Esperanto poets and writers. But after the congress is over, how much is done by them to really foster and promote that culture to which they pay so deep an homage in public? Very, very little. Our Universal Esperanto Association confines itself to publishing in its official organ, once a year, a few poems and, occasionally, a short story, that happened to win awards in annually held literary competitions. But why does it not subsidize the publication of a really important and a really international literary magazine, at least on the model of the defunct Monda Kulturo? And why does it not help new writers to publish their works? At this juncture, I cannot help but paraphrase the famous words of Zamenhof and say: For a culture to be international, it is not enough to call it such.

The usual procedure followed by a physician in the management of his patient's ailment consists of three stages: diagnosis, prognosis and therapy. Since our patient is not an individual nor a group of individuals affected by a specific ailment for which one could prescribe a certain definite treatment and predict the chances of recovery, I had to confine myself to only one of these stages: diagnosis. In diagnosing a pathological case, however, there is always temptation to speculate on its etiology. In this particular case, this temptation was so irresistible that I could not help yielding to it on more than one occasion.


1 Jean Forge, “Kelkaj fragmentoj el prelego en Berlino,” Heroldo de Esperanto, 2 April 1973, p. 1.

2 Kalman Kalocsay, Lingvo Stilo Formo (Dua Eldono, Librejo Pirato, Japanio 1963), p. 92.

3 Brendon Clark, Kien la poezio? (The Esperanto Publishing Company, Ltd., Rickmansworth, Herts., 1957), p. 40.

4 J .M. Cohen, ed., The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse (The Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1960), p. 410.

5 Kalman Kalocsay, Lingvo Stilo Formo, p. 46.

6 Margaret G. Hagler, Esperanto Language as a Literary Medium (University Microfilms, A Xerox Company, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1972), pp. 138‑139.

7 R. P. Nogueira, "La renovigo de la Esperanto‑Poezio," Heroldo de Esperanto, p. 3.

8 William Auld, ed., Introduction, Esperanta Antologio – Poemoj 1887‑1957 (Stafeto, La Laguna, Tenerife, 1958), pp. 17‑18.

9 Léon Courtinat, Historio de Esperanto (Bellerive‑sur‑Allier, 1965), Vol. II, p. 493.

10 Wallace Fowlie, Age of Surrealism (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1960), p. 11.

11 Jean‑Louis Bedouin, ed., La poesie surréaliste (Editions Seghers, Paris, 1964), p. 79.

12 Wallace Fowlie, Age of Surrealism, p. 114.

13 V. Bleier and E. Cense, eds., Ora Libro de la Esperanto Movado 1887‑1937 (Loka Kongresa Komitato de la 39‑a Universala Kongreso de Esperanto, Budapest, 1937), p. 118.

14 Gaston Waringhien, "Esperanto en la evoluo de la moderna penso," Esperanto, May 1971, pp. 84‑86.

15 Robert Bly, ed., Introduction: Refusing to be Theocritus, Neruda and Vallejo—Selected Poems (Beacon Press, Boston, 1971), p. 15.

16 Drago Kralj, Kvar prelegoj pri Esperanta literaturo (Eldona Sekcio de Slovenia Esperanto Ligo, Ljubljana 1960), pp. 105‑106.

17 Alfonso Pechan, ed., Gvidlibro por supera ekzameno—Skizo de historio kaj literaturo de Esperanto (Hungara Esperanto Asocio, Budapest, 1966)

18 René Wellek, "The Attack on Literature," The American Scholar, Winter 1972‑73, p. 31.

19 William Auld, Humoroj (Stafeto, La Laguna, Tenerife, 1969), pp. 19‑20.

SOURCE: Balbin, Julius. “The Secret Malady of Esperanto Poetry,” 1973. Based on original double-spaced typescript, 21 pp. Paper presented at meeting of the Modern Language Association. (Footnotes have been converted into endnotes.)

Note (4 May 2021): Christian Lavarenne adds the following corrective note to the text and to footnote 9: In fact, Gaston Waringhien (1935) is the source of this claim, cited later by Courtinat: "Al li iam ni ŝuldos la saman ŝuldon, kiel la italoj al Dante aŭ la francoj al Ronsard." [To him we owe the same debt as the Italians do to Dante or the French to Ronsard.] Source:

Waringhien,  Gaston. "Kalocsay," in Enciklopedio de Esperanto, vol. II, ed. I. Ŝirjaev, L. Kökeny, V. Bleier, K. Kalocsay (Budapest: Literatura Mondo, [1935]), p. 276-278.

Addendum by Ralph Dumain

At the time I received and read this manuscript from Julius Balbin, I largely shared his sentiment. Everything about Esperantists including their original literary output seemed to be quite old-fashioned and decades behind the times—not just the early 1970s but behind the 20th century, though I do give credit to Esperantist intellectuals and their minuscule audience for taking high culture seriously. Much has changed since then, in the Esperanto world and in its literary life, including the appearance of more sophisticated Esperantists, but some qualifications of Balbin’s thesis are in order.

First, there was already some literary experimentalism by the 1920s—at least in terms of exploitation of Esperanto’s grammatical properties—in original poetry, most notably in the case of Eŭgeno Miĥalski (1897-1937), who also introduced an intense prophetic-symbolic tone to the literature in contrast to the previously dominant doggerel.

Also, there was always socially engaged original literature in Esperanto, most notably in the proletarian Esperanto movement that flourished following World War I (not covered in this paper), but not limited to it.

William Auld himself wrote some unmistakably socially oriented poetry when he entered the literary scene in the late 1940s, and his philosophical epic La Infana Raso [The Infant Race] certainly can be said to have a sociopolitical dimension. Auld said what he had to say philosophically and politically by the end of the 1950s, and while his social concerns did not cease to be felt and expressed afterwards, in my view his purely belletristic proclivities dominated his work. In any case Humoroj [Moods] represented a more personal turn, and the particular poem criticized by Balbin—"La poeto volas verki subjektive"—aside from being an inferior poem, does not represent the totality of Auld’s perspective. Ironically, it too is a political poem, if you think about it, and is not really about pretty flowers and chirping birds.

As for social engagement, note also the anthology Sub la Signo de Socia Muzo [Under the Sign of the Social Muse], edited by William Auld kaj Stefan Maul (Antverpeno: Flandra Esperanto-Ligo, 1987), whose coverage spans the history of Esperanto publishing.

Balbin raises the question as to whether the political neutrality of the (mainstream) Esperanto movement inhibited it culturally. An investigation of possible effects should include a comparative analysis of the cultural output of the non-neutral workers' movement. There is an endogeous question of audience here as well as of authors, but one might ponder possible external factors as well, Another factor to consider is the fear of police surveillance and political repression, a concern for example in Europe and the Far East at least until World War II was over, and a continuing concern in the Soviet bloc until glasnost.

There is another issue with Esperanto poetry not limited to its relationship to sociopolitical developments or even to the question of poetic form (though certainly relatable to these aspects): there is a question of symbolic depth, which, at the time of Balbin’s writing, I found severely lacking in Esperanto poetry. With a few exceptions, everything was on the surface. Whatever other virtues Kalocsay’s poetry possessed, there was never anything beneath the obvious. This ultimately caused a problem for others, specifically when Kalocsay opposed the publication of Baldur Ragnarsson’s inaugural volume Ŝtupoj sen Nomo [Steps without a Name] in 1959.

Julius Balbin is also noted for his contributions to Holocaust literature in the form of Esperanto poetry (also in English translation), mostly concerning his experiences in Nazi concentration camps.

Roberto Passos Nogueira is cited here for his antagonism to Waringhien and Kalocsay, which I remember also from personal conversations with him in Washington. Nogueira himself published one volume of avant-garde original and translated poetry in 1972, Vojo kaj Vorto [Way and Word], but never followed it up. Nogueira’s original poems are not of lasting value. It is quite difficult to create free-form poetry that will last even where it agrees with the poetic norms of the culture in which it is produced, as it would in American English (whereas nobody could get away now with writing poetry in the American language according to the very traditional and for us outdated fixed-form poetry endemic to Esperanto literature). Hence one has to look to the ensuing three and a half decades of original Esperanto literature to ascertain whether it has lived up to the standards demanded in this paper.

You need not rest with Balbin’s 1973 assessment nor with mine. There is now a 740-page book  in English: Concise Encyclopedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto by Geoffrey Sutton (New York: Mondial, 2008).

29 July 2010

Noto de Ralph Dumain

Russ Williams tradukis ĉi tiun eseon Esperanten, kaj mi tradukis mian propran, kaj ĉi ĉio kaj plu aperis en Beletra Almanako, N-ro 13, Februaro 2012 (6-a jaro). Jen la rilata enhavo:

Julius Balbin: "La sekreta malsano de la esperanta poezio," trad. Russ Williams (91-104)
Ralph Dumain: "Postnoto" (104-106)
Ken Miner: "Amaraj vortoj pri la E-poezio" (106-107)
Zofia Banet-Fornalowa: "Julius Balbin (1917-2006) - In memoriam" (108-114)

La eseo de Ken Miner originale aperis liabloge, la 8-an de aŭgusto 2010: Taglibro de Ken Miner, Au(gusto 2010.

Cetere, legu mian blogeron: Julius Balbin, mi, & aliaj en Beletra Almanako.

14 Junio 2012

"Lament for the Gypsies" by Julius Balbin

"Lamento por la ciganoj" de Julius Balbin

Du poemoj de Julius Balbin

"On the Death of a Day-Old Child" / "Je la morto de tagaĝa infano"
by Menke Katz, trans. Julius Balbin

Spinozo” de Jorge Luis Borges,
tradukis Julius Balbin

Pri Moderna Poezio kaj Esperanto” de Roberto Passos Nogueira

Arta partikulareco kaj Esperanto de R. P. Nogueira
[pri teorio de Georg Lukàcs]

A World in a Grain of Sand [Mondo en Sablero]
de Roberto Passos Nogueira

Kiom Longe Atendi” de Brian Price-Heywood

Pri Esperanta Literaturo” de Edmond Privat

Originala aŭ tradukita literaturo?” de Izrael Lejzerowicz

Intelekto kaj ideologio en nia kulturo de K. R. C. Sturmer

Giorgio Silfer pri Kritiko de Esperanta Literaturo: Internacia Kulturo aŭ Subkulturo?

Esperanto Kiel Anti-Lingvo de Baldur Ragnarsson

Sub la signo de socia muzo, red. William Auld & Stefan Maul

William Auld Memorial Page / En Memoro

Poemaroj & aliaj verkoj de Julius Balbin (1917-2006)

Esperanto & Laborista Movado / Esperanto & the Labor Movement

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo pri Esperanto & Interlingvistiko

Alireteje / Offsite:

Julius Balbin - Vikipedio

Julius Balbin, mi, & aliaj en Beletra Almanako

STRANGLED CRIES: A profile of poet Julius Balbin
by Alexander Kharkovsky

Grad Student Wins Award For Esperanto Translation
(Columbia Daily Spectator, Volume CVIII, Number 23, 24 October 1963)

Roberto Passos Nogueira @ Ĝirafo

Recenzo de Baldur Ragnarsson, Esploroj; Roberto Passos Nogueira, Vojo kaj Vorto (Paco, 1974)
de Karl Schulze

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Uploaded 29 July 2010
Last update 6 December 2013
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Corrective note added 4 May 2021
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