Popa was born in the village of Grebenac (Romanian: Grebenaţ), Vojvodina, Yugoslavia (present-day Serbia). After finishing high school, he enrolled as a student of the University of Belgrade Faculty of Philosophy. He continued his studies at the University of Bucharest and in Vienna. During World War II, he fought as a partisan and was imprisoned in a German concentration camp in Bečkerek (today Zrenjanin, Serbia).
After the war, in 1949, Popa graduated from the Romanic group of the Faculty of Philosophy at Belgrade University. He published his first poems in the magazines Književne novine (Literary Magazine) and the daily Borba (Struggle).
From 1954 until 1979 he was the editor of the publishing house Nolit. In 1953 he published his first major verse collection, Kora (Bark). His other important work included Nepočin-polje (No-Rest Field, 1956), Sporedno nebo (Secondary Heaven, 1968), Uspravna zemlja (Earth Erect, 1972), Vučja so (Wolf Salt, 1975), and Od zlata jabuka (Apple of Gold, 1978), an anthology of Serbian folk literature. His Collected Poems, 1943–1976, a compilation in English translation, appeared in 1978, with an introduction by the British poet Ted Hughes.
On May 29, 1972 Vasko Popa founded The Literary Municipality Vršac and originated a library of postcards, called Slobodno lišće (Free Leaves). In the same year, he was elected to become a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.
Vasko Popa is one of the founders of Vojvodina Academy of Sciences and Arts, established on December 14, 1979 in Novi Sad. He is the first laureate of the Branko’s award (Brankova nagrada) for poetry, established in honour of the poet Branko Radičević. In the year 1957 Popa received another award for poetry, Zmaj’s Award (Zmajeva nagrada), which honours the poet Jovan Jovanović Zmaj. In 1965 Popa received the Austrian state award for European literature. In 1976 he received the Branko Miljković poetry award, in 1978 the Yugoslav state AVNOJ Award, and in 1983 the literary award Skender Kulenović.
In 1995, the town of Vršac established a poetry award named after Vasko Popa. It is awarded annually for the best book of poetry published in Serbian language. The award ceremony is held on the day of Popa’s birthday, 29 June.
Vasko Popa wrote in a succinct modernist style that owed much to surrealism and Serbian folk traditions (via the influence of Serbian poet Momčilo Nastasijević) and absolutely nothing to the Socialist Realism that dominated Eastern European literature after World War II; in fact, he was the first in post-World War II Yugoslavia to break with the Socialist Realism. He created a unique poetic language, mostly elliptical, that combines a modern form, often expressed through colloquial speech and common idioms and phrases, with old, oral folk traditions of Serbia – epic and lyric poems, stories, myths, riddles, etc. In his work, earthly and legendary motifs mix, myths come to surface from the collective subconscious, the inheritance and everyday are in constant interplay, and the abstract is reflected in the specific and concrete, forming a unique and extraordinary poetic dialectics.
In The New York Times obituary, the author mentions that the English poet Ted Hughes lauded Popa as an "epic poet" with a "vast vision". The author also mentions that in his introduction to "Vasko Popa: Collected Poems 1943-1976," translated by Anne Pennington Hughes says: "As Popa penetrates deeper into his life, with book after book, it begins to look like a universe passing through a universe. It is one of the most exciting things in modern poetry, to watch this journey being made.".
Since his first book of verse, Kora (Bark), Vasko Popa has gained steadily in stature and popularity. His poetic achievement - eight volumes of verse written over a period of thirty eight years - has received extensive critical acclaim both in his native land and beyond. He is one of the most translated Serbian poets and at the time he had become one of the most influential World poets.
- Kora (Bark), 1953
- Nepočin polje (No-rest Field),1965
- Sporedno nebo (Secondary Heaven), 1968
- Uspravna zemlja (Earth Erect) 1972
- Vučja so (Wolf’s Salt), 1975
- Kuća nasred druma (Home in the Middle of the Road), 1975
- Živo meso (Raw Meat), 1975
- Rez (The Cut), 1981
- Gvozdeni sad (Iron Plantage), unfinished
- Od zlata jabuka (Apple of Gold), a collection of folk poems, tales, proverbs, riddles, and curses selected from the vast body of Yugoslav folk literature, 1958
- Urnebesnik: Zbornik pesničkog humora (Pealing Man: Collection of poetic Humour), a selection of Serbian wit and humor, 1960
- Ponoćno Sunce (Midnight Sun), a collection of poetic dream visions, 1962
Major literary works available in English
- Complete Poems., ed. Francis R. Jones, co-tr. Anne Pennington, introduction Ted Hughes. Anvil, 2011.
- The Star Wizard's Legacy: Six Poetic Sequences, trans. Morton Marcus (White Pine Press, 2010), ISBN 978-1-935210-11-5
- Collected Poems, Anvil Press Poetry, 1998
- Homage to the Lame Wolf: Selected Poems, trans. Charles Simic (Oberlin College Press, 1987), ISBN 0-932440-22-3
- Golden Apple, Anvil P Poetry, 1980
- Vasko Popa: Collected Poems 1943-1976, trans. Anne Pennington (Persea Books of New York, 1978)
- Earth Erect, Anvil P Poetry, 1973
- Biographical information
- Give Me Back My rags, Translated by Charles Simic
- Poem Hunter, All Poems of Vasko Popa
- A Shepherd of Wolves? Eleven Poems by Vasko Popa, translated by Anthony Weir
- Poem no. 22 from the "Far Inside Us" collection by Vasko Popa, translated by Lazar Pascanovic
- Poem "If not for Your Eyes" by Vasko Popa, translated by Lazar Pascanovic
- Poem "Kalenics" by Vasko Popa, translated by Lazar Pascanovic
- Vasko Popa in Persian Anthology of World Poetry
- Collection of poems by Vasko Popa in translation