Czech Poetry: what Do You Know? by Natalie Nera

  The answer for most people around the world would probably be – not much. Some intellectuals may recall the names of prose writers Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal and Karel Čapek. All were or have been great authors, yet none had the pleasure to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, although Kundera (arguably also a French scribe) and Čapek were/have been nominated many times. Yet, the only author who won this literary prize was a poet – Jaroslav Seifert.               

Czech poetry has always been heart and soul of the nation. In the nineteenth century, it tried to prove that Czech language, only just brought back from the brink of extinction, is more than an equal match for the big languages. The nationalistic undertone of much of the output of that era is hard to miss. Nonetheless, it still produced some world-class authors, notably Jan Neruda, who is one of my favourite writers of that period. If the name sounds familiar to you, you are not wrong. The legend has it that later, the “greatest poet of the 20th century in any language” and Nobel Prize Winner Pablo Neruda assumed this Czech writer’s name in his honour.                Let us travel swiftly to the age of contemporary poetry. Until 1989, there were essentially three streams of poetry: the official one; the underground one and the exile one. The communist government was in great support of official poets who became one of the powerful tools of their propaganda. That style discredited an occasional poetry – address poems, for many years to come, and thus widened the division between an ordinary person and a poet.               

The only poet, widely exported at that time, was Miroslav Holub who stood apart from these official trends and wrote intentionally in a way that made his poems easy to translate.

It is difficult to unpick what happens after 1989, perhaps with a general but not very accurate statement that there is no one stream that prevails. There are many more names that would deserve and should end up in our small taster of what contemporary Czech poetry has to offer, and perhaps – I hope -,  in the future we will be able to do it.

Like in many countries, regular readers of Czech poetry are small in numbers. Unlike in the XIX and beginning of XX century, Czech poetry does not follow any particular international trends, nor it adheres to any scheme or master plan. Writing in the style of our only Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Jaroslav Seifert is a rarity these days.

In the following months, you will get a small glimpse of the current scene of Czech poetry. Many more poets would be deserving to appear here, and I certainly hope that in time, we will be able to introduce them all. In the meantime, you may wish to read the article on the pages of the Czech Literary Centre that names many other notable authors I think are worth exploring. Next week: Ladies first – four contemporary Czech poetesses