The poetic work of Ion Barbu, the pen name of mathematician Dan Barbilian, can be divided into four distinct phases: a period under the influence of the late-nineteenth-century French Parnassian poets, a period under the influence of the early-nineteenth-century Wallachian poet and composer of Ottoman music Anton Pann, an Expressionist period, and a period of so-called literary charades. Literary critic Tudor Vianu reduced these three phases to the Parnassian, the Balkan-Oriental, and the hermetic.
In 1919, when he began to attend meetings of Eugen Lovinescu’s Sburătorul literary circle, Ion Barbu introduced himself using the highly common Romanian surname Popescu. He published a number of poems in newspapers of the time, remarkable for their strong feeling and rejection of the ordinary and mundane, and revealing a thirst for the enigma of what lies beyond the immediate concrete reality.
The aforementioned Balkan-Oriental phase of his poetry, to which the Isarlîk cycle belongs, abounds in the picturesque and the folkloric, but not those of the Romanian milieu, which Barbu disdains and even rejects on theoretical grounds. For his poetry is a reaction against the highly conventionalised traditionalism of Romanian poetry at the time. The Orient to which Barbu looks, and which is suggested by the imaginary toponym Isarlîk, is nonetheless not rooted in any particular place or time, but revives the Balkan poetics developed by Anton Pann almost a century before only to be superseded by the more specifically national and westward-looking tradition in Romanian poetry. In this respect, Barbu may be compared with his near contemporary, novelist Mateiu Caragiale, author of the ornately Balkan Rakes of the Old Court.
Barbu’s most famous work is a cycle of poems entitled Second Game (1930), which includes most of his hermetic lyrics. The poems in the collection are highly recondite, abstruse but without succumbing to unintelligibility. The title poem of the collection, “Second Game” is an ars poetica that speaks of the power of poetry, its ability to step out of the “hour”, which is to say, the immediate concrete reality. The poems are constructed by means of symbols whose hidden poetic meaning the reader must try to decipher.
Although his poems are sometimes encysted in layers of cryptic metaphors to an extraordinary degree and therefore difficult to digest for many readers, Barbu’s work is nonetheless a poetic achievement unique in Romanian literature.