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Robert Elsie

Anthology of modern Albanian poetry
An Elusive eagle soars
Edited and translated with an introduction by Robert Elsie

UNESCO Collection of Representative Works
European Series

ISBN 1-85610-017-0
Forest Books, London & Boston 1993
213 pp.


  • Introduction
  • Lasgush PORADECI
    End of autumn
    Preface of prefaces
    The sons of the new age
    Songs unsung
    Poem of poverty
    Broken melody
    Song of noble grief
    The lost rhyme
    Autumn on parade
    Scandalous song
    New spirit
    The themes
    The weight of destiny
    Song of the West
  • Esad MEKULI
    Longing for the unobtainable
    Turk, elhamdulila
    Is it the Albanian’s fault?
  • Martin CAMAJ
    My land
    To a modern poet
    The old deer
    Mountain feast
    First elegy
  • Fatos ARAPI
    On the shoulders of my times
    If I die young...
    I dived into the waters of the Ionian Sea
    Do not hate me
    The workers
    Sultan Murat and the Albanian
  • Dritëro AGOLLI
    The cynic’s monologue
    The petty bourgeoisie
    The heart
    The cow
    The vineyard
    The foundations
    First nostalgia
    In the ancient city
    A couple of words to poets to come
  • Vorea UJKO
    Arbëresh moment
    Arbëresh song - X
    You are beautiful
    Three maidens
    The light still blazes
    Dialogue with the lake
  • Dhori QIRIAZI
    Oh, first love
    The leafy acacias are disrobing
    I have noticed...
  • Fahredin GUNGA
    The wave
    The porter
  • Ismail KADARE
    And when my memory
    Longing for Albania
    The cataracts
    The old cinema
    Train timetables
    Requiem for Mayakovski
    What are these mountains thinking about
  • Azem SHKRELI
    At Saint Naum’s
    Over Europe
    Tale about us
  • Rrahman DEDAJ
    Our word
    When... 2
    Obstinate verse
    The dog
    The unknown
    Go back to Homer’s verse
    Rain in a legend
    The black cat
    The illness of my family
    The day of the butterflies
    Between two ages
    Ballad of man
    The stolen flame
    And you dead
    It is the Albanian’s fault
  • Xhevahir SPAHIU
    For you
    The eagle
    To be with you
    Sunday taxis
    The foxes
    Our history
  • Agim VINCA
    Becoming a poet
    Biography of the root
    Albanian rhapsodies
    Psalm for Saint Naum
    Ballad of the Dry Mountain
    The names
    My dead
    The hounds of Sodom
  • Eqrem BASHA
    Introduction to the meaning of a solitude
    Perpetuum mobile
    Road with an end
  • Natasha LAKO
    A woman’s monologue
    The leaves fall every autumn
    At night, after threshing
    I shall write a poem about the doorstep
    The grave of Paul Eluard
    Oh, what new verdure
  • Bardhyl LONDO
    The monuments
    Who are you?
    Lasgush Poradeci
    The poet’s last request
    Chronicle of a love affair
    Morning on the Acropolis
    Feelings in search of Homer in Athens at midnight
    Meeting with Leonidas
    Only Ithaca remains
  • Moikom ZEQO
    For Gabriel García Márquez
    The double
    Anna Comnena
    On my elderly aunt
  • Sabri HAMITI
    The death of young Don Quixote
    George Castrioti
  • Rudolf MARKU
    Caligula’s horse
    In memory of my mother
  • Visar ZHITI
    The arrival of Pegasus in my cell
    The warbling of moments
    In our cells
    Epilogue (of which time makes a preface)
    Bloody lips
  • Mimoza AHMETI
    Rhetorical question for Comrade X
    It would be awful
    Outside and inside me
  • Selected Bibliography


    Two hundred years ago, Edward Gibbon described Albania as a land within sight of Italy and less known than the interior of America. The spirit of this quotation has lost surprisingly little of its validity over the last two centuries. Albania, bordering on Greece and what has been Yugoslavia, and less than one hundred kilometres from the southern Italian coast has until very recently been no better known to most Europeans than Tibet or Timbuctu.
    The Albanians are probably among the oldest inhabitants of southeastern Europe, claiming descent from the ancient Illyrians, although due to the lack of linguistic records the exact strength of the Illyrian element in Albania is difficult to determine. Fathoming the genesis of a people is particularly difficult in the Balkan peninsula, which has baffled scholars from Herodotus to recent generations of history students trying to sort out the Balkan wars.
The Albanian language
    The Albanian language, now spoken by about six million people in the Balkans, is divided into two basic dialect groups: Geg (or Gheg) in the north and Tosk in the south. The Shkumbin river in central Albania, flowing past Elbasan into the Adriatic, forms the approximate border between the two dialect groups. The Geg dialect group is characterized by the presence of nasal vowels, by the retention of the older n for Tosk r (e.g. venë ‘wine’ for Tosk verë, Shqypnia ‘Albania’ for Tosk Shqipëria) and by several distinct morphological features. The modern literary language (gjuha letrare), agreed upon, though not without political pressure, in 1972, is a combination of the two dialects groups, but based - about 80% on Tosk. It is now a widely-accepted standard both in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia.
    In addition to three million speakers in Albania itself, the Albanian language is also spoken by two to three million individuals in what was once Yugoslavia, where it is second only to Serbo-Croatian. The Albanian population is to be found primarily in Kosovo (Alb. Kosova) with its capital Prishtinë. With the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the people of the once autonomous region proclaimed the Republic of Kosovo, though they are still de facto under harsh Serbian political and military control. In Kosovo, the Albanians now make up about 90% of the population, the other ca. 10% being primarily Serbian and Turkish speakers. The three languages were until recently all officially recognized and in full use in every sphere of life in the politically and economically troubled region. The mother tongue of most Kosovo Albanians is the northeastern Geg dialect referred to above, though virtually all publications here, as in Albania, are now in standard literary Albanian. Radio and television broadcasting and schooling from kindergarten to university also took place in standard literary Albanian until the Serbian military takeover put an end to all broadcasting. The Albanians have an extremely high birthrate and their proportion of the population in Kosovo and in Macedonia is increasing year by year. The southern Republic of Macedonia has an Albanian-speaking minority of at least a quarter of the total population. Skopje (Alb. Shkup) which, much to the distress of the Macedonians, is ironically said to have the largest Albanian population of any city on earth, serves as a secondary centre for Albanian publishing and culture, though it is far less important than Prishtinë itself, which can now vie with Tiranë in every way as a focal point of Albanian literary and cultural activity and as a publishing centre for Albanian literature. A substantial minority of Albanian speakers (ca. 10%) is also to be found in Montenegro, mostly along the Albanian border, e.g. in the regions of Guci and Plavë in the mountains, Tuz south of Podgorica (Titograd) and Ulcinj on the southern Yugoslav coast. There are, in addition, Albanian speakers throughout southern Serbia and indeed in virtually all other regions of the disintegrating Yugoslav federation, many of whom having fled from the economically destitute Kosovo region to the more affluent northern republics (Croatia and Slovenia) in search of freedom, jobs and a better standard of living. Numerous Kosovo Albanians are also to be found among the migrant workers of western Europe, in particular in Switzerland and in Germany.
    A surprise to many is the existence of an Albanian minority in southern Italy, the so-called Arbëresh. They are the descendants of refugees who fled Albania after the death of Scanderbeg in 1468. Due to a more favourable social and political environment than that existing in the Balkans, the Arbëresh were able to make a decisive contribution to the evolution of Albanian literature and to the nationalist movement in the nineteenth century. Older Albanian literature is indeed to a large extent Arbëresh literature. As a linguistic minority, the Arbëresh now consist of about 90,000 speakers, most of whom live in the mountain villages of Cosenza in Calabria and in the vicinity of Palermo in Sicily. Their language, which still does not benefit from the official status accorded to other national minorities in Italy (German, French, Slovenian etc.) is moribund due to the strong cultural influence of Italian and to economic emigration. It is extremely archaic and differs substantially from the Albanian now spoken in the Balkans. Communication is difficult if Arbëresh speakers are not familiar with standard literary Albanian.
    In Greece, the sizeable stratum of Albanians who populated much of central and southern Greece in the Middle Ages has been largely assimilated. The Albanian language there, known in Greek as Arvanitika, can nonetheless still be heard in about 320 villages, primarily those of Boeotia (especially around Levadhia), southern Euboea, Attica, Corinth and the Peloponnese, and northern Andros. No official statistics exist as to the number of speakers since the language does not enjoy any official status. Arvanitika, which is dying out rapidly, is thought to be the most archaic form of Albanian spoken today.
    A large Albanian community still exists in Turkey (Istanbul and elsewhere). The ranks of these Turkish Albanians were swelled by an estimated 230,000 Yugoslav Albanians who were unjustly expelled from their native land between 1953 and 1966 and forced to emigrate to Turkey.
    Finally, Albanian speakers in varying numbers are to be encountered in countries of immigration such as the United States (Boston, New York, Detroit), Australia, Canada and Argentina.
Albanian literature
    Compared to the other national languages of Europe, Albanian does not enjoy a long literary tradition. In fact, it was the last national language of Europe to be recorded. Nor has the establishment of a literary culture in Albania ever been an easy task, though not for want of artistic endeavour and creative impulses. All too often the tempestuous course of Albanian history has nipped the flowers of Albanian literature in the bud and severed the roots of intellectual culture.
    Early Albanian literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with its primarily religious focus (biblical translations and devotional texts), beginning with the ‘Missal’ of Gjon Buzuku in 1555, might have provided a foundation for literary creativity in the age of the Counter-Reformation under the somewhat ambiguous patronage of the Catholic church, had not the banners of Islam soon been unfurled on the eastern horizons and tiny Albania been destined to bear the full brunt of the Turkish invasion. The Ottoman colonization of Albania which had begun as early as 1385 was to split the country into three spheres of culture, all virtually independent of one another: (1) the cosmopolitan traditions of the Islamic Orient using initially Turkish, Persian and Arabic as their media of literary expression and later Albanian in a stylized Aljamiado literature, the so-called poetry of the Bejtexhinj, (2) the lingering Byzantine heritage of Greek Orthodoxy in southern Albania which produced a number of religious and scholarly works in Greek script in the 18th century, and (3) the awakening culture and literature of the Arbëresh (Italo-Albanians) in southern Italy, nourished by a more favourable social, political and economic climate and by the fertile intellectual soil of Italian civilization.
    The stable foundations of an Albanian national literature were finally laid in the second half of the nineteenth century with the rise of the nationalist movement striving for independence from a decaying Ottoman Empire. The literature of this so-called Rilindja period of national awakening was one of romantic nationalism and provides an excellent key to an understanding of the Albanian mentality even today. As so often in the history of Albanian literature, writing in Albanian, by its very existence, constituted an act of defiance against the foreign powers ruling the country or dominating it culturally. Indeed, the Sublime Porte rightly regarded most Albanian cultural and educational activity as subversive, and as such, saw fit to ban Albanian-language schools and the publication of all books and periodicals in Albanian. With no access to education in their own language, only a small minority of Albanians could hope to break through the barriers to intellectual thought and literary creativity.
    At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Catholic education facilities set up by the Jesuits and Franciscans in Shkodër (Scutari) under the auspices of the Kultusprotektorat paved the way for the creation of an intellectual elite in Albania which in turn produced the rudiments of a more sophisticated literature that expressed itself primarily in verse. The culmination of Albanian literature before the Second World War can be seen in the works of the talented Franciscan pater Gjergj Fishta (1871-1940), once lauded as the national poet of Albania, though from 1945 to 1990, for reasons more political than literary, he was ostracized from the Albanian Parnassus.
    The flourishing literature of pre-war Albania was swept away by the political revolution which took place in the country during and after the Second World War, to be replaced by a radically proletarian and socialist literature in its infancy. This literature was to remain undeveloped, however, since the terror exerted upon writers and intellectuals by the Stalinist regime which came to power in 1944 created a cultural vacuum that lasted for over two decades. The results of this period of fear and stagnation can still be felt today.
    With the coming to power of the communists led by Enver Hoxha (1908-1985), substantial efforts were nonetheless made for the first time to provide the broad masses of the population with basic education. The post-war mass literacy campaign which was concluded fairly recently, constituted a revolution in itself, and paved the way for a real national literature that could encompass all strata of society. In order to appreciate the reasons for the comparatively late blossoming of a written literature in Albania, one must also keep in mind the fact that up to the not so distant 1950s, eighty percent of the population of the country, including virtually all the women, were de facto illiterate. The twentieth century arrived late in Albania.
    Poetry has always been the élan vital of Albanian literature; original prose is a newer genre, and professional theatre, the prerogative of an urban society, was virtually unknown in Albania until recent times. The earliest recorded poem in Albanian, written by the Sicilian cleric Luca Matranga (Alb. Lekë Matrënga), dates from 1592. With the exception of Pjetër Budi (1566-1622), an interest in verse among other early Christian authors remained sporadic. The Moslem culture of seventeenth and eighteenth century Albania however produced a substantial amount of oriental verse in Albanian, written in Arabic script, the poetry of the Bejtexhinj, much of which remains to be discovered. The romantic nationalism characteristic of verse of the Rilindja period of the late nineteenth century, when Albania was struggling for its independence, lasted well into the first decades of the twentieth century.
    Modern Albanian poetry can be said to date from the 1930s. It begins its course with two poets in particular: Migjeni (1911-1938) and Lasgush Poradeci (1899-1987). Migjeni (acronym of Millosh Gjergj Nikolla) from Shkodër, who died of tuberculosis at the tender age of twenty-six, was one of the first poets to abandon the long-standing tradition of romantic nationalism in Albanian verse. His poetry, collected in the slender volume ‘Free Verse’, is characterized by a strong social ethic, not of pity for the poor, but of outrage against injustice and oppression. Lasgush Poradeci from the town of Pogradec on Lake Ohrid, on the other hand, who had very little in common with his contemporaries - the romantic Asdreni (1872-1947), the political Fan Noli (1882-1965) or the messianic Migjeni - imbued Albanian letters with an exotic element of pantheistic mysticism, introducing what he called the metaphysics of creative harmony. An eclectic child of his age, Poradeci was and remains one of the many paradoxes of southeastern European literature. Kosovo critic Rexhep Qosja notes aptly that he felt like a Romantic, thought like a Classic, was as solitary and spiritually hermetic as a Symbolist and as formally precise as a Parnassist. Although he remained an outsider, his stylistic finesse was decisive in enriching and diversifying Albanian poetic metres.
    Literature of the fifties and early sixties saw the pervasion in Albania of the doctrine of socialist realism which encouraged a definite social and political message, not only in prose but also in verse. The link between literature and Marxist politics was firmly cemented. In a preface to ‘Anthologie de la poésie albanaise’ (Tiranë 1983), conservative critic Dalan Shapllo defined the mission of poetry in socialist realism as “serving the masses, giving them spiritual sustenance and emotional satisfaction”. It was a mission destined from the very start to failure. All writers in Albania came under the ‘critical guidance’ of the Party of Labour, a surveillance more attuned to a socialist surrealism. Prose writers were ‘encouraged’ to concentrate their creative energies on specific themes such as the partisan struggle of the ‘national liberation war’ and on the building of socialism. Subjects devoid of any redeeming educational value in Marxist terms were considered alien and taboo. Socialist realism gave writers the tools with which to create but, as an absolute value, it allowed them no alternatives.
    A turning point came in the stormy year of 1961 which on the one hand, marked the dramatic political break with the Soviet Union and thus with Soviet literary models, and on the other hand witnessed the publication of a number of trend-setting volumes of verse: Shekulli im (My century) by Ismail Kadare (1936-), Hapat e mija në asfalt (My steps on the pavement) by Dritëro Agolli (1931-), and in the following year Shtigje poetike (Poetic paths) by Fatos Arapi (1930-). The attempt made by this generation of intellectuals educated in the eastern bloc to exploit the break with the Soviet Union in order to broaden the literary horizon led to a vigorous literary controversy at a meeting of the Albanian Union of Writers and Artists in Tiranë on 11 July 1961. It pitted writers of the older generation such as Andrea Varfi (1914-), Luan Qafëzezi (1922-) and Mark Gurakuqi (1922-1977), who voiced their support for fixed poetic standards and the solid traditions of Albanian literature and who opposed new elements such as free verse as un-Albanian, against a new generation led by Ismail Kadare, Dritëro Agolli, Fatos Arapi and Dhori Qiriazi (1933-) who favoured a literary renewal and a broadening of the stylistic and thematic horizon. The road to renewal was given the green light by Enver Hoxha himself who saw that the situation was untenable.
    Though it constituted no radical change of course, and no liberalization or political ‘thaw’ in the Soviet sense, 1961 set the stage for a quarter of a century of trial and error, which led to much greater sophistication in Albanian literature. Despite the terror waged against intellectuals during Enver Hoxha’s 1973 campaign against liberalism and foreign influences, themes and styles did diversify and more attention was gradually paid to formal literary criteria and to the question of individuality. Fortunately, the assigned mission of the poet was soon combined with enough creativity and talent to save contemporary Albanian lyrics from the sterile panegyrics which party dogmatists usually long for.
    The Albanian literature of Kosovo was late to develop. The extreme political divergence between Yugoslavia and Albania which erupted in 1948 made it evident to Kosovo Albanians from the start that they could not look to Tiranë for more than moral support in culture and education. The preservation and fostering of Albanian culture in Yugoslavia under often hostile conditions was of necessity to be the concern of Yugoslav Albanians themselves. The formidable problems posed by widespread illiteracy and dire poverty among the Albanians in Kosovo, as in Albania, were compounded substantially by an unwillingness on the part of the Serbian authorities in Belgrade for many years to give the Albanians access to education and cultural facilities in their own language. Full cultural autonomy was first achieved after much delay under the constitution of 1974, though only in Kosovo itself. In 1989/1990, however, Kosovo de facto lost its limited autonomy and freedom and was placed under direct Serbian military occupation. Immediately after the dissolution of the Kosovo parliament in the summer of 1990, the only Albanian-language daily newspaper was banned as was all Albanian radio and television broadcasting in Kosovo. In the autumn of 1991 teaching at the University of Prishtinë was suspended with the exception of classes reserved for the small Serbian minority. The situation has been particularly dire for Albanian writers and intellectuals there.
    Nonetheless, the rapidly developing literature of the Kosovo Albanians, though lacking the rich literary traditions of Slovenian, Serbian and Croatian, can now easily keep pace. By the next century, the Albanian language will no doubt be the second most important vehicle of literary expression in what was once the Yugoslav federation. The modern literature of Kosovo is just as dynamic as that of Albania proper and, with regard to the diversity and expressiveness of its poetry, often surpasses that of the motherland. Without the ideological constraints which were imposed on literature and culture in Tiranë, the literature of Kosovo was able to flourish free of dogma. It is thus more experimental and offers the reader a wider range of styles, subject matter and ideas.
    Is there a poet slumbering in every Albanian? Publishing statistics would certainly indicate a strong preference for verse over prose. In Tiranë about 40% of literary publications over the past few years have been poetry, and in Prishtinë up to 70%, something quite unimaginable in the rational West.
    Albanian literature is young and dynamic, reflecting a culture quite unique in Europe. But perhaps no European literature has been so neglected by Western readers, a neglect fostered by the lack of available translations, the lack of specialists in Albanian, and over the last half a century by Albania’s political isolation. If Edward Gibbon’s remark about Albania is still valid, the real terra incognita is Albanian literature.
    The present anthology is but a first step to introduce Albanian literature to the English-speaking reader. By including selections from the best known poets of Albania, of the Albanian population of Kosovo and Macedonia and of the diaspora, it endeavours to be representative of modern Albanian verse production as a whole, though it is obvious that many more volumes would be needed to provide comprehensive coverage of all modern Albanian literature.
    In conclusion, I should like to thank all those who have helped and encouraged me in this project, including my friends and colleagues of the Albanian Writers’ Union (Tiranë), the University of Prishtinë, the Albanological Institute (Prishtinë) and the Writers’ Union of Kosovo (Prishtinë). Particular thanks also go to Barbara Schultz (Ottawa) for her excellent assistance with the manuscript.
    Robert Elsie
    Olzheim/Eifel, Germany, spring 1992

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