"Den poezie" - a rich annual celebration of poetry in the Czech Republic

This month sees two literary anniversaries connected with the great Czech romantic poet, Karel Hynek Macha, who was born 195 years ago this month and died in November 1836, just 26 years later. So we'll start with the opening lines of his very well known lyrical epic of love and death Maj [May]:

Late evening, on the first of May-

The twilit May-the time of love.

Meltingly called the turtle-dove,

Where rich and sweet pinewoods lay.

Whispered of love the mosses frail,

The flowering tree as sweetly lied,

The rose's fragrant sigh replied

To love-songs of the nightingale.

In shadowy woods the burnished lake

Darkly complained a secret pain,

By circling shores embraced again;

And heaven's clear sun leaned down to take

A road astray in azure deeps,

Like burning tears the lover weeps.

Macha is also the inspiration for a poetry festival taking place here in the Czech Republic. The festival's main organizer - along with Martin Zbornik and Zora Simunkova - is somebody who regular listeners to Czech Books will know very well because she often presents this programme, Bernie Higgins.

"The festival is now in its seventh year and it was launched in 1989 as a poetry day, when the Poetry on the Metro scheme started - with poems put up in the metro so that people travelling to work could read poetry. We decided to have a regular celebration so the first poetry day was born. We decided to have this poetry day on the anniversary of the birth of Macha, because he really is the Czech national poet."

What sort of festival is it? Poetry takes many forms and comes in many shapes and sizes...

"It is just that sort of festival. Each year it has grown quite a lot and now, in fact, we have activities in Prague and in 25 other towns in the Czech Republic. It's a sort of festival that is very inclusive, or open, I would say, because we don't only have big name and well established poets. We also have activities going on in museums and libraries and schools."

Can you give a couple of examples?

Statue of Macha on Petrin Hill
"Yes, there are a couple of schools that have been doing their own thing for poetry day for the past years. In Trutnov, in the Krkonose Mountains, every year they spend the week encouraging the children to bring their poems and then they have an evening when the parents are invited to bring along their favourite poetry. So it's very much a way for the school to do something with poetry in the community. There's another school in Vlachovo Brezi, a small town, and they also have fabulous activities. In Znojmo in South Moravia the town library has a whole week of activities based around poetry. So for me this is a very nice part of the poetry day - that particularly the children can feel connected to this broader poetry community, and they can join in a festival where we also have well established and published poets."

Given that the Czech national poet, Karel Hynek Macha, is the spark for the festival, there are quite a few events that are in some way connected with him as well.

"That's right. For example in the town library in Jicin they have an evening celebrating Czech 19th century poetry as a whole. Another couple of activities have been inspired by him. They have such titles as, 'In the footsteps of Macha', and on the anniversary itself, the 16th November, we'll be making a sentimental pilgrimage to his statue, which is on Petrin Hill in the centre of Prague. We'll be reading poetry there and taking flowers, and really just commemorating his life."

That's the place where romantic couples always come on the 1st May.

"That's right. We thought that we can start visiting in November too and celebrating his literary achievement."

Here is a little bit more from a very well-known translation of Maj, but none other than the English novelist Edith Pargeter.

"In many ways it's a very dark poem, which focuses on existential problems of life and death, so this extract shows the sufferings of the main hero, who is in prison, about to be executed.

Out of heaven a star falls questing,

Dying through the wastes of space,

Endlessly it falls unresting

Through its endless resting-place;

From the unbounded grave wild crying

Beats at heaven with bitter breath.

"Is there then no end of dying?"

Nowhere-never an end of death.

Around the white tower breezes shiver,

Beneath, the whispering wavelets quiver.

On the blanched walls in silver glance

The argent moon sheds radiance.

But deep within the tower is darkness only,

For the clear moon's pale wealth of light

Through narrow window into the cell gropes lonely,

And dims into the assault of night.

Column by column the sombre vault's recesses

Melt into darkness. The entering wind sighing

Circles the cell like murdered felons crying,

And stirs the prisoner's tresses.

Beside a table hewn of stone,

His head upon his hands inclining

Half-sits, half-kneels this wretched one,

To deeps of thought his soul resigning.

As clouds the moon's face veil and cover,

He draws their web his spirit over;

Thought into thought flows undesigning.

The festival is not just about Czech poetry. There is also an international and multi-cultural element to it.

"Over the years we've worked with poets from other countries and I'm always very happy to have this international section. This year we are working more closely with the Multicultural Centre in Prague, who are having a so-called dialogue of cultures and for two days we will be cooperation with them, and on one day we have a fabulous programme of international poets, for example. There are three leading Latvian poets who are visiting. This is in anticipation of the fact that next year Latvia will be guest of honour at the Prague Book Fair, and there will also be an anthology of Latvian poetry in Czech."

That is quite interesting in that these are two smaller countries that have recently joined the European Union - not so very far from one another - so it will be quite interesting to see to what extent Czech audiences will identify with Latvian poetry.

Nicholas Makoha
"I think this will be fascinating. Not only are they the best of contemporary Latvian poets, but the reading will be not only in Latvian but also in Czech and in English. Apart from the Latvian poets we have poets from Spain, from Hungary, we have a Sorbian poet [from the Slav Sorbian minority in Eastern Germany], and we shall also have a very interesting section with a British performance poet Nicholas Makoha and also a Czech performance poet, Tomas Mika - I think this will be a very interesting combination."

The festival is taking place from the 9th to the 22nd November, and some of the events are in English, or partly in English.

"Yes, there are two visiting British poets. Nicholas Makoha will be giving a number of readings. One of them will be in Prague in a huge cinema. This is a special reading for secondary schools. And the Welsh poet Patrick McGuinness will be reading at a number of venues too. Also the readings of the Latvian poets will be in English. So there is something for English speakers too."

The festival has its own website. If you want to find out more you can find it at: www.volny.cz/denpoezie.