: Poetry Today: The Unshackling of Albanian Poetry :

an excerpt by John Taylor

“A land within sight of Italy and less known than the interior of America”… This is how the British historian Edward Gibbon (1734-1794) described Albania in the eighteenth century, and Robert Elsie recalls the quip in his introduction to Lightning from the Depths, a pioneering anthology of Albanian poetry co-translated with Janice Mathie-Heck. “The spirit of this quotation has lost surprisingly little of its validity over the last two centuries,” adds Elsie. “Albania has until very recently been no better known to most other Europeans than Tibet or Timbuktu.”


The same remark is even truer of Albanian poetry, and the reasons are essentially political. The mountainous Balkan country was ruled by the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha (1908-1985) from the end of the Second World War to his death; and the terror continued for about five years thereafter. Hoxha's and his successors' hands were so brutal that serious writing was summarily suppressed for more than four decades. And because no politically independent foreign literati were allowed inside the country, little reliable information about what was secretly going on among Albanian writers seeped out until around 1990, when the democratization process painstakingly and chaotically began. Before this time, contemporary Albanian poets either compromised themselves with the regime, survived as best they could while remaining silent or, more frequently, were sent away to labor camps-about whose daily life some grim poems by Arshi Pipa (1920-1997) give indications. Elsie and Mathie-Heck's volume actually begins with northern Albanian epic verse from an ageless oral tradition and the gloomy, yet literarily path-breaking, poems of the Catholic priest Pjetër Budi (1566-1622), as well as gives samples from all the other historical periods, but the section devoted to modern and contemporary verse is more extensive. The personal suffering that is either expressed in the poems themselves or suggested by the biographical résumés of the poets is sobering.