Marko Cepenkov -- Macedonian Folk Collector

Marko Cepenkov

Born in Prilep, Marko Cepenkov belongs to the first generation of Macedonian folklore collectors -- the Miladinov brothers, Stefan Verkovic, Partenie Zografski, Kuzman Sapkarev, and Gjorgji Pulevski.

Although his prodigious collective opus represents one of the most deserving cultural achievements of 19th century Macedonia, little was known about Marko Cepenkov for many decades within the contemporary study of literary history.

This is primarily due to the fact that he was never able to publish the full breadth of his work in a single series of volumes.

While almost all other members of the first generation of Macedonian folklore collectors were able to catch the public eye with various published collections,he had  to  settle for publication of only parts of his folklore notes. The Collection of

the Miladinov brothers (Zagreb, 1861) was a real trove for the folklore enthusiasts of Europe, as was the first published collection of Macedonian folk songs by Stefan Verkovic (Belgrade, 1860), as well as Kuzman Sapkarev's detailed study (in eight volumes) of Macedonian folklore (Sofia, 1891-94). These provoked tremendous responses abroad, sustaining a wide-spread reputation.

However, the bulk of Marko Cepenkov's folklore material lie as manuscripts in editors’ office drawers, left only partially published.

It was not until the Macedonians created auspicious conditions necessary for studying their cultural legacy that they came to discover Marko Cepenkov as an educator and his life's work of gathering and promoting Macedonian folk literature and poetry. More and more articles began to appear citing Cepenkov's contribution to the fund of Macedonian folklore, and praising his artistic refinement in that which he recorded. Gradually, his work started receiving greater recognition. Once the full breadth of his work was known, Cepenkov -- a Prilep tailor with scanty education -- was acknowledged as not only having recorded more Macedonian folk literature and poetry than any other collector, but also having employed an artistic style of his own in refining his material.

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Marko Cepenkov started collecting folk literature while Dimitrija Miladinov was a teacher in Prilep (1856-57). Indeed, Cepenkov began directly under his influence as he notes in his Autobiography: "When D. Miladinov would come by our place, he'd be acoaxin' me inta writin' 'bout all 'is stuff..." (These words were quoted by Dimitrija Miladinov to explain why Cepenkov began to collect folk literature). And later, K. Sapkarev prodded Cepenkov into collecting folk material, and some of the tales he had already gathered he turned over to Sapkarev. Toward the fulfillment of his desires, Cepenkov moved to Sofia where he was to live the rest of his life. Despite living in extreme poverty, Cepenkov never gave up his writing. Between 1896 and 1911, he published about 10 of his poems and his play "Crne Voivoda," which confirmed his own creative and literary pledge. His writings appeared, quite noticeably, among the other folk literature he recorded. Abandoned and impoverished, Marko K. Cepenkov died in Sofia on 29th December 1920.

Marko Cepenkov stands as a unique figure in Macedonian folk literature and poetry, not only by the great quantity of material he gathered, but also by the quality of that which he recorded and the artistic touches with which he refined the material. His specific mode of notation reveals an undeniable creative gift of his own and thus sets him above others who recorded folklore. The key difference between Cepenkov and other collectors was that he did not record folk tales as he was listening to them, but wrote them down later as he recalled them. He had an exceptionally powerful (narrative) memory. He himself said that whatever he heard he sealed "in my mind as if it'd been born there." Thus, recording folk literature by memory, Cepenkov ornamented the tales in his own language according to his own lexical fund. Consequently, all Macedonian folk literature written by Cepenkov possesses a unique language.

However, Cepenkov's creative intervention was not limited to the language alone. Regardless of the source of the story or how the story was told, he would ply his own creative style, rendering a shape of his own. The result is an original syntax and composition uniquely his. And because, as he wrote, "the tale is my passion," much of the folk literature he produced, especially the tales, has been memorably styled.

Cepenkov rarely tampered with the plot of a folk tale, but rather focused his style on the expressive components. One of his distinguishing traits was to stretch the telling of a story by repeating certain sentences. Occasionally, he repeats entire passages. Nevertheless, his intrusions were invariably in proportionate accord with the structure of folk literature. Also, Cepenkov was an unsurpassed master at using the right word -- with one word alone, he could capture a scene and a mood. Of course, all of Cepenkov's recorded folklore is redolent of his style, but his talent for resolving composition and for narrative gradation through repetition is a tour de force in the longest Macedonian folk tale, "Siljan Strkot" (Siljan the Stork).

It was undoubtedly Cepenkov's ardour for folk literature and poetry that inspired his forty-two years of searching out folk material and his amassing such an extraordinarily large treasure. By doing so he realised his potential as a writer. His talent was beset by many drawbacks, most apparent of which was his barren education, however he was ingeniously suited for, and his talent was best expressed through refinement of folk literature and poetry.

With time, Cepenkov's gathering of folklore became a special creative reflex: "Whatever I hear from people, like tales and what not, I'd write it down." His inner need for telling stories found its creative niche in the re-creation of the noble stuff of folklore.

In real numbers, the passion of this eminent cultural craftsman amounted to 681 tales; 710 songs; 5,032 folk proverbs; 100 riddles; 389 folk beliefs; 201 dreams and their interpretations; 46 sorcery incantations; 67 children's games; pledges; curses; blessings; quasi-proverbs; folk traditions and customs; examples of secret (conditional) languages; descriptions of crafts; musical instruments; requisites of everyday homelife; personal names and surnames; nick names; diminutives and augmentatives of personal names; and various types of language material connected with the agricultural life of our men in the past. Despite his avid search, Cepenkov did not write down all that passed through his hands; his aesthetic sense enabled him to select judiciously throughout the course of his collecting efforts: "In his creative opus, Cepenkov has no redundancies."

The vast amount of folk and ethnological material Cepenkov compiled is not the only accomplishment that merits him recognition. He was also the first to write in genres theretofore unknown. This is the case with the dirges, which are extremely difficult to note down due to the nature of the occasions at which they are recited. Also worthy of special mention along the same lines are the secret (conditional) languages, children's speech, descriptions of crafts, and some derivative forms of personal names.

We should also mention the fact that he lived and worked under very inclement family and social conditions. In his Autobiography, there are a number of testimonies to his love for folk poetry and literature in juxtaposition with the misunderstanding he encountered from certain members of his family.

"'You gotta leave 'at love o" yours alone, boy,' my pa would say to me. *Writin' won't be aputtin' bread on 'e table, whatever 'tis you be writin'. You wouldn't be out ta catch Miladin with all them stories I been atellin' ya, now would ya. You cain't catch 'im, you jus' cain't! He learnt hisse'f Greek and he knows Bulgarian too, an' he can print hisse'f every blamed word in 'at collection o' his you got yer eyes in all 'e time. Lookit yer tailorin' work boy. You do fine work.'"

Other members of his family thought similarly and tried to discourage him from writing. But Cepenkov's perseverance knew no bounds.

Was Cepenkov able to turn the attention of his milieu, which did not understand the significance of his work? And was that milieu compelled to leave accurate data about his life and activities? After his death, four decades had to pass before the importance of his work received the undivided recognition it deserved, before the interest in Cepenkov's life and activities reached full stride. "His nephews ... understood him." (Gane Todorovski)

The fruit of Cepenkov's efforts is of invaluable significance for the Macedonian culture. His work bears relevance to ethnology, cultural history, and philology, as well as to national political history, sociology, and economics. Any folklorist would consider it the richest and most varied source material. The folklorist can extract all genres of Macedonian folk poetry and literature and can lift examples of new, theretofore virtually unknown variants of folk tales, songs, legends, traditions, and beliefs with which he can illustrate the original motifs of Macedonian folk literature and poetry. Moreover, Cepenkov's work is a precious contribution to the world of folk literature in general for its competence lends itself to expert scientific analysis and theoretical conclusions.

In view of the literary aesthetic values embodied by Cepenkov's material, it should be regarded as a significant achievement in Macedonian literature. Again, the tales penned are an appreciable contribution to the treasury of our prose. The folk texts are of equal importance. They provide an insight into the life of the suppressed Macedonian. They portray our man with all his vitality and stoicism, rendering almost all of his more important views of life. A prominent place is given to the social and ethical/moral norms. Some of the material -- the songs, for example -- are an actual poetic chronicle of the struggling haiduk period: of attempts by voivodas and other leaders for freedom, and of victories. Cepenkov's recordings are a precious testament to the glorious pages of more recent Macedonian history.

The great quantity of Cepenkov's collecting efforts deserves special recognition and exaltation. Aside from the Miladinov brothers and Kuzman Sapkarev, he is the greatest collector and promoter of Macedonian folk poetry and literature. In terms of quantity, Cepenkov stands above the brothers from Struga. He stands shoulder to shoulder with Sapkarev, surpassing him slightly in the variety and the quality of the folk material collected.

In terms of his artistic intervention in the folk texts, Cepenkov has no peer in the history of Macedonian folk literature and he can only be compared with the Serb, Vuk Karadzic. The creative urges of this tailor from Prilep found substantiation in his own literary work which, although lacking in true artistic value, nevertheless is an important contribution to the literary history of Macedonia. His 10 songs, mainly with patriotic and later with religious themes; his memorable autobiography full of juicy folk expressions; his historical play "Crne Voivoda," dramatisation of a folk song about the folk hero, Spiro Crne; as well as his portrait of the voivoda, Stefo Nikolov-Skender, are all useful contributions to the Macedonian printed word.

Of fundamental importance, of course, for Macedonian culture and national history are his recordings of folk literature, which convincingly and illustratively present the poetic gifts of the suppressed Macedonian -- his colourful language, his inspirited life, his time-honoured customs, traditions, beliefs and legends, as well as his unique outlook on life and the world.

Marko Cepenkov's opus keeps safe and sound the basic features of our people's national independence from the invading reach of attempts at assimilation, which have been strong in the past.

Today Cepenkov's work -- inspiring new recognition and awareness with its deep and complex meaning for our national history -- stands as an everlasting monument to the dignified path of a true patriot who sprang from the folk valleys and reached the peaks as a national enlightener. And his 10 volumes of Macedonian folklore remain a tribute to his dauntless effort and to the true pride of Macedonian literature and culture.

D-r Tome Sazdov