Post-Velvet Poetry

Czech Poetry in the 1990s
by Jirí Zizler. This article has been adapted by Transcript. Read the full text in our French or German versions.
Following the so-called period of 'normalisation' which began with the Russian invasion in the spring of 1968, the establishment had endeavoured to silence all Czech literary voices tinged with either spirituality or existentialism, encouraging only simplistic work which was happy to celebrate concrete aspects of the social order then in place.

Then, after November 1989, authors of several generations emerged on the Czech literary scene - the eldest of whose early work appeared at the time of World War 2, the youngest born after 1970 - who together formed a spectrum ranging from Catholicism on one hand to orthodox surrealism on the other. Czech poets saw their freedom of expression restored and looked to a future which promised uncensored communication. Three distinct threads - official literature, samizdat, and the literature of exile - were now woven together in a single cloth.

During the early 90s, poetry was perhaps the most influential genre in Czech literature. However, its importance was limited and it did not reach the greater part of the population: print-runs of the works of Nobel Prize Laureate Jaroslav Seifert, for example, ran to just 10,000 copies. Suffering from a lack of funding and of publicity, Czech poetry, once a major force in the life of the country, found itself consigned to the back seat.

This turn of events may be explained, in part at least, by a widespread scepticism regarding all forms of ideology. Other contributory factors were the prevalence of utilitarian values on the one hand, and on the other, a rejection of 'pretty words' and of the lyric for the lyric's sake. Different poetic tendencies mushroomed, some losing sight of the tradition, and a lack of cohesion and critical apparatus resulted in some literary and intellectual chaos.

During the mid- and late nineties, poet Jirí Kubena sought to counter an increasing lack of interest in poetry by organising regular events at Bítov Castle in Moravia. Publisher Martin Pluhácek took similar steps by setting up an international poetry festival in Olomouc.

Despite small print-runs, an average of 300-400 works of poetry appear now every year. As well as many first editions, publishers are taking it on themselves to anthologize the works of Czech poets who writing has remained uncollected; Jirí Kolár, Oldrich Mikulásek, Jan Skácel, Ivan Jelínek, Zdenek Rotrekl, Ivan Slavík, Bohuslav Reynek, and Jan Zahradnícek for example.

The work of songwriters (Karel Kryl, Vladimír Merta, Vlastimil Treanák, Jaroslav Hutka) who, for a number of years, spoke to the people in the absence of poets, has also been the object of attention.

The nineties is marked by a huge resurgence of spiritual poetry, much of it Catholic. Two major figures in this context are Ivan Slavik (1920-2002) and Zdenek Rotrekl (born 1920), both of whom made their literary débuts in the 1940s, but neither of whose complete works were available before the 90s. For both men, language is sacred and can lead to a heightened awareness of reality.

The poetry of Ivan Slavík may be described as a quest for hope and faith in a world plagued by uncertainty, and threatened by two forms of totalitarianism, one which has usurped traditional values, the other a mechanising and deshumanising force.

Zdenek Rotrekl spent thirteen years in communist prisons and his writing is indelibly marked by his experience. His work is an expression of faith in the dignity of freedom which emancipates man from otherwise inevitable ruin. His complete works became available only in 2001 entitled Nezdené mesto (City Without Walls). Rotrekl's poetry is complex and draws on baroque imagery, along with apocalyptic and allegorical visions, while finding room for surrealism and an element of linguistic absurdity, all combining to produce a highly original idiom.

Religion in the eyes of Rotrekl is the key to a heightening of morals and to a better appreciation of one's self. This process, far from being idyllic, results in much inner conflict and asks difficult questions of the believer.

Younger authors close to this spiritual school have a somewhat looser relationship with Catholicism. While staying tuned to its teachings, they are more concerned with the universality of the language of poetry. Faith for them is something deeply private which need not find its way onto the page in an explicit fashion.

Petr Borkovec (1970) has won many literary prizes, and is perhaps the most translated Czech poet of his generation. His handling of idiom and his unusual use of language sets him apart from the field.

Other younger poets are Pavel Kolmaka (1958) and Milos Dolezal (1970). Both writers are drawn to the rural parts of their country. Here, unencumbered by modern civilisation, consumerism and egocentricity, they are freer to search for the spiritual essence of things.

Ivan Divis (1924-1999), one of the most important figures in Czech poetry in the second half of the twentieth century, continued to exert influence during the 1990s. His going into exile in 1989 left its mark on his work, leading him to view not only his own country but the world at large as a place constantly threatened with catastrophe.

In the work of Karel Siktanc (1928), whose work was banned after 1968, poetry becomes the instrument of a ritual magic which may invoke the power of myth and recall ancestral memory. The Czech landscape is central to Siktanc. Summoned by the magical words of the poet, fate, love and death come together here to overcome travesty and ensure the past is not forgotten.

Ivan Wernish (1942), whose collected works are now available entitled Blbecká poezie (Poetry of Idiocy), builds a bewildering world of 'other-beings' who inhabit a time and place apart ruled by the absurd and by the imagination. In dreamlike visions tinged with pathos a world of reflecting the super-reality of poetry is born on the page.

Petr Kabes is another important name in contemporary Czech poetry. In his writing, snatches of conversation, literary quotations and moments of pensive vacancy combine to challenge the validity of the notion of poetic language. Kabes' experimental collages are, some would argue, an expression of scepticism vis à vis the ability of human kind to survive in a lexical world.

To conclude this short survey of contemporary Czech literature, mention should be made of Katerina Rudcenková (1976) whose two books Ludwig (2000) and Není nutné, abys me navatevoval (You don't have to come to see me) caused a wave of sensation when published. Rud
enková's mastery of the expression of emotional nuance is truly remarkable. Her poetry is at once a statement of faith in her fellow man, yet of disenchantment with the capacity for interpersonal communication which language offers.

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