24) Petr Hruška and Milan Děžinský: poets of the everyday
Czech poetry has been enjoying something of a renaissance in the new millennium. Following a decline in the 1990s, in the past two decades poetry has been shaped by lively literary activity, revolving around literary cafés, festivals and public poetry readings.
Despite being a marginal genre, poetry has been receiving significant publicity in dedicated literary magazines and websites, but also in special radio programmes and poetry awards.
Describing the present-day Czech poetry scene is quite difficult, as it is not dominated by poetic trends or schools, but rather by a number of distinctive individuals.
Among the leading contemporary poets are those who made their debuts in the 1990s but also during the first decade of the new millennium. What connects most of these authors is the predominance of free verse.
Their poetry addresses a wide range of issues, from the more traditional focus on the spiritual, metaphysical, existential and philosophical, social to politically engaged criticism.
But perhaps the most distinctive trend is the so-called civilist poetry, highlighting the importance of the everyday. In today’s edition of The Czech Books You Must Read, we’ll present two poets who represent this distinctive trend in Czech poetry:
The door always used to swing shut, by itself, for years and years, with measured haste.
Now it stands utterly still.
Next to it, a woman guiltily picks up a large undershirt that fell from the line overnight. A man watches the woman with the shirt. Probably the wind. During the night.
Both would like to know when, when exactly it happened. Both would like to be in that moment.
(Petr Hruška, translation by Nathan Fields, from the 2002 collection The Door Always Used to Close)
One of the leading Czech contemporary poets and a representative of civilist poetry is the Ostrava-based poet and literary historian Petr Hruška.
Hruška, whose unassuming style has inspired a number of followers, made his literary debut in 1995. In 2012, he won the State Prize for Literature for his collection Darmata, which was also nominated for the Magnesia Litera Award.
Described by critics as a poet of unrest and hidden dangers in everyday life, Hruška confronts his readers with a world that is seemingly familiar, yet surprising in its reality.
In his poetry, casual situations become a source of subtle tension and acquire a new meaning. This is how Petr Hruška described his poetry to Radio Prague:
“If I should attempt to capture the essence of my texts, I would say it is the feeling of some strange proximity. We all have this occasional experience of feeling unusually close towards someone or something, towards ourselves, or towards a certain situation.
“This strange feeling, when things that didn’t matter until now suddenly gain a new meaning, doesn’t cease to amaze me and makes me want to write.”
According to Petr Hruška, poetry is not something that should sooth readers. In his own words, “poetry has to excite, amaze, surprise, unsettle, demolish the existing aesthetic arrangement and create a new one.”
During his career, spanning nearly 25 years, Petr Hruška has published nine poetry collections. However, the form of his writing has remained more or less unchanged, he says:
“I think my poetry may have become sadder or slightly rougher, but I am not really sure about that. I don’t have an ambition to bring something completely new with every book of poems published, like some other authors.
“I would say I tend to be more precise in addressing the issues that have been fascinating me since I started writing. But that doesn’t bring any significant change of form.”
Hruška’s poetry has been translated into a number of languages, including English, French, German, Slovenian, Dutch and Polish.
The Czech editions of his poetry collections are always complemented by beautiful illustrations, done by contemporary artists, such as Adam Paleček, Petr Španěl or Daniel Balabán. Petr Hruška explains how such cooperation comes about:
“When I think of the book’s overall impression, I always imagine it in a combination or in contrast with some work of art. When I think it could work well together, I approach the artist and ask him if he would like to cooperate.
“I like to have my books complemented by pictures. I think visual art should be part of literary texts and that the two worlds, literary and artistic, belong together.”
I would like to have a woman’s empathy.
What do they think about when they’re shaving?
It’s stopped raining. I’m looking out into the yard,
above which a bird is fitfully circling.
I looked in the encyclopedia.
I have never seen a sparrowhawk,
it suddenly struck me that I would die
without ever having seen a sparrowhawk,
or worse still –
I’d die while chewing something –
or otherwise ridiculously –
with one foot in a pant leg –
(Milan Děžinský, translation by Nathan Fields, from a collection A Secret Life)
This is poem called Sparrowhawk by Milan Děžinský, another distinctive voice of contemporary Czech poetry and one of the leading representatives of the generation of Czech poets born in the 1970s.
Děžinský has published seven poetry collections to date. He won a Magnesia Litera Award for his book of poems called Obcházení ostrova (Walking Around an Island), published in 2017.
He also became the first winner of the International Václav Burian Poetry Prize and has another three Magnesia Litera nominations to his name.
Like Petr Hruška, Milan Děžinský is fascinated by the mysteries of the everyday. A teacher and city councillor by profession, Děžinský lives and works in the Central Bohemian town of Roudnice nad Labem, which plays a key role in his work.
“As a poet, you are formed by anything that surrounds you. I just literally scavenge on all the bits and pieces of my life - whatever I do, whoever I meet. So I wouldn’t say it is just the location. It is all of the different sources and experiences.
“I actually find inspiration in Nature and in those little miracles of everyday life. For example when two different worlds meet, such as when a sparrow hits a window pane.”
Apart from teaching and working as a city councillor, Milan Děžinský translates such writers as Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver or William Carlos Williams from the English, a process which also affects him as a writer, he says:
“Translating is the most adventurous way of reading a poem. You have to be very closely connected with the author’s voice. And the process of translating helps me to understand how poems are made.”
Milan Děžinský says his poems, full of insightful views and associations inspired by his everyday life, are the result of a long and often tedious process of writing:
“I am not that kind of talented, spontaneous creator. For me, writing a poem is often a tedious work, especially in the process of editing the original idea.
“My poems have countless revised versions and in the end most of them won’t even appear in a book. I select around thirty or forty poems and the rest I throw away. I erase them from my hard disk as I fear someone will try to publish them when I die.”
Milan Děžinský’s most recent book of poetry, called Hotel po sezoně (Hotel after the Season), which was published in 2019, presents a sort of diversion from his usual style of writing.
The collection of poems written in regular verse has been inspired by earlier Czech poetic traditions, represented by such poets as Vítězslav Nezval, Jaroslav Seifert or Vladimír Holan.
Děžinský wrote the poems over the course of two decades and as he says, he never actually intended to publish them.
“Normally I write into my computer. I never really meant to publish these poems, they were written out of pure joy and I only agreed to have them published as a kind of homage.
“So for almost 20 years I would write them on little pieces of paper that I use as bookmarks. As a kind of a dialogue with certain poets. So yes, these poems survived because they actually couldn’t be erased from a hard disk.
“They are different. They use regular verse, they rhyme a lot and they somehow imitate the melody of the poems. I only borrowed that and maybe added something from what I am living and from the current times.”
Despite its growing popularity among domestic readers, contemporary Czech poetry still remains largely unknown in Anglo-American countries.
Individual poems have been featured in international anthologies and magazines but only around a dozen Czech poetry titles appeared in an English translation over the past decade.
However more titles are scheduled to be published this year in Britain and the United States. One of them is Milan Děžinský’s collection A Secret Life from 2012, due to come out in Britain later this year in a translation by Nathan Fields.
Let us end with a poem from the upcoming English version of his collection Secret Life, called Burrow, in a translation by Nathan Fields.
September begins, brushing across your neck with its fox tail,
you sit with your back to an open door, a door
to the long corridors of an empty house,
these corridors continue further and turn into a forest
with an underground burrow in which anything can happen,
and anxiety wheezes through this very forest, through those corridors,
from that burrow in which anything can happen.
(Milan Děžinský, translation by Nathan Fields, from the 2012 collection A Secret Life)
The English translation of the poems has been first published in
B O D Y (bodyliterature.com).