A poetic guidebook to Prague


What does Allen Ginsberg have in common with the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, Turkey’s Nazim Hikmet, and the Czech Nobel Prize winner, Jaroslav Seifert? The answer, rather surprisingly, is Prague. In this week’s Czech Books, David Vaughan tells us more about an irresistibly eclectic new poetry anthology.

Many of you who are interested in Czech literature will have come across Stephan Delbos, the culture editor of the Prague Post. It was his idea to put together an anthology of over a century’s worth of poetry about Prague or inspired by the city. He has come up with an impressive collection, titled “From a Terrace in Prague” – itself a quote from one of my favourite poets, Ivan Blatný – and it offers a rich portrait of the city: often evocative, sometimes provocative, and featuring some of the great names of world poetry. Should we need any proof of Prague as a literary muse, this book offers it. Stephan Delbos told me more about the anthology, at the same time offering a flavour of its poetic riches.

“It’s designed basically as a poetic guidebook to the city of Prague. Literally it’s a collection of 120 poems covering 1888 to 2010, all translated into English from 16 languages, and all poems about Prague or taking place in Prague.”

So you’ve been eclectic in your choice…

“Yes, very eclectic. One of the main ideas behind the anthology was to establish Prague as an international destination for poets and a place that has really inspired an unparalleled number, and diverse group, of poets over the 20th century and even now into the 21st.”

Can you give us a taste of the poetry inspired by Prague through the years?

“I’ll begin with a piece by Svatopluk Čech, which is the first poem in the book. It’s a fragment from a longer poem called ‘Prague’. One of the critical narratives that I established in the introduction is the way that poets’ relationships to the city have changed over the course of time that the book looks at. So this poem from 1888 is at the end of the ‘revivalist’ era and so you can hear that Čech is really trying to get the public to be enthusiastic about the city and consider it as beautiful as any other European city:”

Behold, Prague! – Vision sparkles, blearing – Prague!
The name alone sings. The mere sound of it
rapturously gets down into the strings of the Czech spirit
and sets the heart beating a thunderous throb.
Let foreign pilgrims take your modest measurements
and scorn, Prague, your graying robes:
to us in your beauty, ancient gloom
you are luscious Naples, you are proud Rome!

So that’s quite an advertisement for Prague from the late 19th century, and I should add that it’s in your own translation.

Stephan Delbos
“Yes, it is. I did a number of translations for the book. Hana Ondráčková helped with that translation.”

Svatopluk Čech is one of the most unambiguously patriotic Czech writers and poets, very different from the next poem you are going to read, also by a Czech poet, but from a very different time.

“This is a poem by Kamil Bouška. It’s called ‘The Velvet Revolution’ and it’s the first poem in the last section of the anthology, which is from 1990 to 2010. I think what we see here is that the poet is writing from a much more personal stance – about the Velvet Revolution:”

The Velvet Revolution Again I’m running down the school hallway,
a long shadow on the green-gold linoleum.
Fluorescent lighting buzzes above the children’s heads.
Someone has stuck a tricolor on my sweater
with a pin. Ten years old, I’m running to the cloak room, I’m looking
for my winter coat, I’m looking for shoes and the outside door.
Waking prolongs the dream with the death image.
I remember – velvet had the black and white color of the crowds
on the television screen. Actors and the role of a lifetime:
big words, again innocent. Politicians didn’t need
politics, only the market – free tinsel tight around
the Christmas tree of the republic. Almost the whole government
was at the airport when Frank Zappa landed.
Except the teachers kept wearing heavy rings,
skirts below the knees, perms and with thin lips
they recited to the class: “…disciplinary action is taken
by class teachers for insubordination and inappropriate behavior…”
They kept it up another four years and maybe more.
Again I’m running down the school hallway,
I thread a long shadow through the glass door.
The wind carried lunch bags around the courtyard
and an invisible hand is dragging me from schoolwork to history. [trans. Stephan Delbos and Filip Šenk]

That’s a surprisingly un-euphoric poem about the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism…

“Yes, it is. I believe Bouška was born in 1979 – so he was 10 years old at the time. It is un-euphoric and from a very personal or private point of view rather than a public point of view. I think this is one of the big changes in Czech poets writing about this city in the course of the 20th century.”

For centuries foreign writers have been coming from all over Europe and beyond to Prague – it’s at a crossroads in the centre of Europe. Tell us a bit about some of the poets from beyond the “Czech Lands”, who are featured in the anthology.

“The first foreign poet is Guillaume Apollinaire, the French poet and inventor of the word ‘surrealism’. He visited Prague in 1902…”

… and he was also hugely influential on 20th century Czech poetry, wasn’t he?

“Definitely. One of the main strands through Czech poetry in the ‘20s and early ‘30s would have been surrealism, coming from Apollinaire, also from André Breton, who gave a lecture here in the early ‘30s. One of the things the anthology traces is the way that foreign poets in different eras have come. In the early ‘20s the great Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva was living in Prague – in Smíchov – and wrote two long poems set in the city. And then, throughout the ‘20s there were some other foreign visitors, but it really took until the ‘40s, when there was a big resurgence of foreign visitors. We had Edwin Muir, the Scottish poet, here. He wrote a few poems about Prague, and we had a really eclectic array. There’s Byambin Rinchen, who’s a Mongolian poet who visited Prague in the early 50s, Pablo Neruda was here at that time, the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet was exiled in Prague in the winter of ’55-’56. In the ‘60s, of course, there’s Ginsberg’s famous – or infamous – visit. One of the most interesting poets I discovered in editing the anthology is an El Salvadorian poet named Roque Dalton, who was here in 1965-66. He wrote a long – 20-page or more – poem set in ‘U Fleků’, the pub, and it’s called ‘Tavern’. It’s a cacophonous poem with five different voices and it’s really quite an amazing and major long poem of the 20th century, that I’d never heard of.”

Could you read a short extract from this poem?

“I should just give a short preface to this. His life was so interesting. He was jailed three times and was meant to be executed three times. The first time, the dictator who had put him in jail, Colonel José María Lemos, was overthrown the night before he was due to be executed. The second time he was in jail, due to be executed, there was an earthquake and the jail collapsed and he climbed out. Then he was sent to Prague. Eventually he went back to El Salvador and was executed, unfortunately. I’ll just read the first ten lines or so. This is in one of the voices. All the voices are offset with different typeset and size of font. So ‘Tavern’ in the epigraph is ‘Conversatorio’ – a play on ‘Oratorio’:

TAVERN (Conservatorio) The old poets and the new poets too
have aged an awful lot in the past year:
after all, sunsets are so terribly boring now
and disasters, a horse of another color. In streets I’m getting to know by heart
countless bodies are making the eternal music of footsteps
– a sound, let’s face it, poetry can never re-create.
So why all the fuss?
So that its dusty echo can pile up
in this, once the courtyard of kings! Don’t talk to me about mystery, night owls,
you lovers of golden olden days
for whom the world, it seems, has got to stop:
Has anybody solved the one about the navel? [trans. Hardie St. Martin and Jonathan Cohen]

Jižní město,  Prague
Another thing that I really like in the book is the map at the back, which shows the different parts of Prague mentioned in the poems. It’s interesting to see the places that are the main focuses of the poems. There’s Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, the Old Town Square and the Old Town. But there are a few rather more surprising bits of Prague that have inspired poets…

“One thing that’s interesting is that in the first sections of the anthology, there are many, many poems about Prague Castle. What it seems is that the castle was such an obvious symbol for Prague poets that it seems that anyone who took themselves seriously as a poet would have to try their hand at a poem set at the castle. As we get along in the 20th century and then especially in the last decade or so, we see fewer poems about the well-worn tourist symbols, like the Charles Bridge and so forth, and we see poets looking farther afield, as if the old symbols had rather become clichés. So, there’s a poem set in the southern suburb of Prague – in Háje – where there are the ‘paneláks’, the large apartment houses. There’s a poem that’s out at Černý most – at the end of the C Line on the metro. There’s Dolní Počernice – which is Prague 9 – and so forth. We see poets are becoming more aware of the tradition and are looking farther afield, looking for symbols that haven’t really been done to death, as it were.”

You’ve clearly spent years collecting these poems and poets – putting them together and translating where necessary. As somebody who lives in Prague, do you find that you actually experience walking through Prague differently with so many of these poetic references buzzing around in your mind as you go past particular parts of the city?

“Definitely. I actually mention that in the introduction. One simple thing is that, as you walk through Prague, you see these plaques on the buildings. When you’re researching these poets and translating them, and finding out about them, you suddenly realize you know who this person is on the plaque that you’ve walked past a hundred times before. Also, I think that the diversity of the anthology proves that Prague is a particularly inspiring city and has been a kind of magnetic place for poets, and will continue to be, I think. And so, when I’m walking down the streets of Prague, I’m not walking alone. I’m thinking about the poets who have been here before. It’s a really rich poetic and literary history in Prague. It’s a cliché that Prague is a great city for writing, but it’s actually true. Once you start to look at the work of so many of the poets who have been here and were compelled to write about the city, it’s impossible to ignore.”

The anthology, “From a Terrace in Prague”, edited by Stephan Delbos, is published by Litteraria Pragensia Books, and can be purchased at Prague’s English-language bookshops as well as through the publishers themselves (www.litterariapragensia.com).