Old Masters

Stevan the Tall
Those who have only heard the titles of his early books surely imagined him as a refined lyricist: ”Poem of Silence”, ”Ballad of Dusk”, ”Late Summer”, ”Stone Lullaby”… Based on the strictest criteria, he is one of the greatest. As a great lyricist, he became the best urban poet, turning the city prosaicness into a lyrical stage. He is remembered as gentlemanly and serious, sincere and sensitive, and an entirely unusual man. Neat, literate, moderate, he became the measure in Serbian high poetry and culture

By: Dragan Lakićević
Photo: Private Archive

He was a poet in the full sense of the word.
Stevan Raičković (1928–2007). It will soon be a decade and a half since his death.
We remember the figure – I don’t know whether the television or Serbian Academy of Sciences (SANU) archives have any documentaries about his life and appearance: his face, height, voice: ”One day, we, who now are here, / shall cease to be. / We are the thread / That binds the unborn with the dead…” (translation of verses by Danica Dimitrijević).
He left plenty of information about himself – mostly in his poems, as well as in his book of lyrical memoirs A Possible Life – discrete, sieved, fluid and poetic confessions. He expressed himself only poetically – never politically, always reserved, with style and gentlemanly.
Everyone remembers his walk from Slavija, where he lived, to the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, where he finally settled. He previously worked in Radio Belgrade, and as editor in ”Prosveta” publishing. One of his spiritual sanctuaries was the Serbian Literary Cooperative and the other was Matica Srpska.
His life was similar: he was born in Neresnica, lived and went to school in Subotica, Kruševac and Smederevo, and spent most of his time in Belgrade – in St. Sava’s Street… The explosion of World War II cast him all the way to Podgorica, birthplace of his father… He traveled, from Mt. Athos to America.


This lyrical poet spent most of his time inside of himself. When he chose the most remote kafanas, called the holes (”the worse, the better”, he used to say), in fisherman cottages on the Danube, poems were born in the spirit: ”Spinning for days in my breath / Vladimir between life and death”. The most important part of the poet’s spirit is in books: ”I know that each of them, as if alive / (Although without an ear or an eye!) / hides for me a lyric / in the motionless urn of the spirit”.
Those who have only heard the titles of his early books imagine him as a refined lyricist: Poem of Silence, Ballad of Dusk, Late Summer, Stone Lullaby.
He sang about the world in which he lived his own way, which only he had seen – his own way. That world was subtle, mysterious, under the surface and inside the visible – made of a grain of sand, whose fate he saw in Small Fairytales as a miniature novel about the tiniest element the world is built of. From an endless sand desert, carried by desert winds, then by other gales of existence, the grain travels enormous distances, on the bottom of the sea and by all kinds of transportation means – to the big city in which, together with ”fluid tar”, it will be built into endless asphalt. No wind will be able to move it from there. Sights the grain has seen and imagined during its odyssey remain in that petrified fate. From all those experiences and depths, only one fact remains: ”The wind on the street over it joyfully whirled only crumpled pieces of paper.”
It is easy to recognize the fate of man in the fate of the grain of sand, and its petrification – the metaphor of language and poetic creation, which he most expressively formulated in his most famous poem ”Stone Lullaby”. That lullaby is the lullaby of the world, life and poetry. Similar to the grain of sand, everything is petrified in poetry: the living and the dead,waters and bridges, plants and birds:

Sleep wherever you happen to be,
All you kind, bitter, inspired ones,
You hands in the grass, lips in the shade,
You who are bleeding, you who are in love.

Heal into the blue dream of the stone,
You living, you tomorrow assassinated,
You dark waters under the white foam
And bridges stretched over emptiness.

(Translation by Charles Simic)

Similar to petrified images from the great journey, poetic images, shapes and symbols are also petrified – poem as a monument: to silence, grass, leaves, wind, river, real and imaginary people, heroes – from the old fisherman Guri to the martyr of from Kosovo Đorđe Martinović, from the suffering people from Prkos and Jasenovac to Black Vladimir ”from the village of Sopot”.
He began with poems of silence, with senses open for rhythms, vibrations and juices of nature: ”In this meadow I already know many blades of grass”… ”The Poem of Grass”, ”Lyrics of Water”, ”Lullaby for a Shell” were motifs of the early lyricist who joined the most serious competition of our lyrical poets: Dučić, Rakić, Crnjanski, Desanka…


Petrified form opted him for sonnet with a series of anthological poems in which experience and knowledge of life receives extraordinary forms. Some of his most beautiful sonnets are: ”The Cold Time of the Year is Coming”, ”Books”, ”House”, ”Scream”, ”Illness”. They all belong to the contemplative circle of the ”Stone Lullaby”, which expanded thematically and still seems to expand, even after the poet’s death.
The famous ”Inscriptions” circle is also close to these motifs – unpretentious title for a few poetic master pieces. One of the best is ”Belgrade Pictures” with poems: ”Old Men in the Sun”, ”Ballad about the Public Bath”, ”Washers”, ”Ballad about the City and the Lizard” – the greatest lyricist became the best urban poet. Gray concrete sights of the metropolis are illuminated for a moment by a flush of water of street washers at midnight, or the ray of sun available only for the poet. Then something humane and something philosophical sparkles in the masterhood of poetic images and thoughts:

In a small square, with two or three benches
And the noise that seems softer
Old men from nearby houses
Gather at a sunny noon…

The prosaic area of city and social reality (public bath for singles and homeless people) becomes a lyrical stage in which, like fresh water from the darkness, a flush of light and purity shines:

And those strangers – who were silent
Until late hours under the same sky –
In touch with warm water
Become intimate, become loud.

They sing, cough, yell, breathe hoarsely,
Thump on the concrete, jump up high…
A few minutes later they depart
With faces dark and unknown…

There is a hospital near those Belgrade squares. And in it the poet discovered deep misplaced and unknown areas of the human soul – he articulated the thought about the bond between poems and life: ”Among the ten of us in the room, Vladimir Purić, thirty-five-year-old Gypsy from the village of Sopot in Kosmaj, farmer, cancer patient, was in the worst condition…”


The poet created a poem ”Records about Black Vladimir” from real and imaginary conversations with the ill Gypsy. These ”records” made a large metaphysical composition about poetry and death. About a dozen separate poems and fragments flowed into a lyrical fresco. After discovering who he had met, Black Vladimir wants the last medication: a poem: ”So let it be as it was… when Branko Radičević was passing away…”

He wants a poem instead of pills and drops,
When nothing helps, neither God nor drugs.
He wants a poem – as a longing poet –
To extend his life, whether alive or dead.

Vladimir received the requested poem from the poet. The way poems are requested and given – who gives and who takes – was also processed by Raičković in poetic form, in distich, with a common title ”Verses”. In a series of poems and fragments, he sang his poetics. In a dialogue with poems, the poet builds a register of topics, motifs and feelings following them. Pictures and music create high ranked contemplative sections from poetic principles and experiences:

We are standing under the sky while
Snow is falling on us like white darkness.

We are inventing something, but on the outside
We are already similar to trees among white fields.

Perhaps soon from the cold heights
A raven will fall upon us too.

Raičković’s ”Accidental Memoirs” and ”Verses from the Diary”, fit into poetic forms, ”Intimate Maps” as well as dedicated poems ”For the Monument in Prkos”, ”Instead of a Stone for the Memorial Church in Prebilovci”, ”Records about the Tomb in Lovćen” (”When they destroy the first stone from the top of your tomb, / it will fall into the depths of our soul”)…
And books for children. Translations: ”Slavic Rhymes” and ”Shakespeare’s Sonnets”.


Raičković, our contemporary, is a special chapter.
He is remembered as gentlemanly and serious, yet an entirely unusual man, particularly sincere and sensitive.
He confined his weaknesses to his friends and noble legends were created from those experiences of weaknesses – his poetic image was blossoming.
Once, he was already single, he returned home late. Winter night, the heating was already turned off in residential buildings. He rushed to bed, to cover and warm up. The floor was cold under his bare feet… He lay down and, while turning off the night lamp, he saw the painting on the wall. It seemed that it was moved to the side a bit. He started thinking about it: how did it move? (He did not like anything moved to the side or disorderly – editor in ”Prosveta”!) He turned on the lamp again and there: it was moved to the side… He didn’t feel like getting out of bed into the cold, but such a perfectionist could not stand it, so he got out of bed, walked a few steps across the room and set the painting straight. He quickly returned, turned off the lamp and covered himself… Then, instead of closing his eyes and going to sleep, he began thinking: ”I got out of bed because of a painting! Is that possible?” He continued thinking, then got mad at both himself and the painting, turned on the lamp, got up and moved the painting to the side again. Only then he could fall asleep.
He was orderly, literate, precise. His handwriting was readable, with small, round letters… One time, we were signing a petition. On top of the page, in several lines, was the text of the request or protest (it was a time of petitions and significant prestige of many signees), and below were numbers and names. Patriarch Pavle and Metropolitan Amfilohije or the then president of SANU were usually on top… then followed other names from literature, art, professors… We gave the petition to Raičković to sign it as well. He (poetry editor!) read the main text and said: ”You didn’t write it correctly – you have to change the word order here. And why did you put this additional explanation? Everything is clear… When you correct it, I will sign it, certainly…” – We cared about his signature. So, we did everything from the beginning: corrected the text, sent someone to the Patriarchy, Metropolitan comes from Cetinje on Thursdays… Academician Medaković says that he will be in the Foundation of Vuk Karadžić at noon…


He considered poetry something most sublime and worthy of greatest respect. He often called poems ”records”. His poem ”Record” was dedicated to Branko Miljković:

Fresh snow everywhere. Not even a narrow path.
Early darkness. I’m heading to my bronze friend,
Only moving in the skies: wild geese
Flying through the winter cold – to the south.

Can you hear their cries overwhelming us?
(I’m silent, almost like you.)
It’s snowing on us for a long time, slowly,
Should I take the snow off your head?

All of us who know that poem by heart dedicated it to Stevan.
He did not like to go to work on Fridays. When they asked him why, he said:
– I don’t deal with others on Friday, I deal with myself. I’m silent and listen… On Saturday I think. And on Sunday, a poem bursts!
That is what he loved most – a poem to ”burst”. (It bursts out of his heights, like a gift!)
During the last days of his life, he went out of his apartment and walked down St. Sava’s Street, about thirty steps, to Slavija. There were three benches in front of the old hotel. He liked to sit on one and be lonely in the mass. He watches inside: thinks.

In Slavija Square: in deep darkness
I sit alone on a bench… as if I’m the only one…

When my heart fades… my thoughts begin
Ticking on both temporal bones…

When it too dissolves in darkness:
I sit… as part of the bench… as a sign…

Whoever wanted to see him just had to pass by there.
When someone asked him: Stevo, are there any poems?, he melancholically smiled:
– I never know when it will come by. There haven’t been any for a long time…
Whenever we traveled somewhere, on literary business, we’d meet there, ”at Steva’s bench”. There is still the unrealized idea to put a plate on the bench with the title: Stevan’s bench.
The area has changed – new traffic canceled the significance of the bench, but we remember – both the bench and Stevan.
The sign is still standing there.


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