“Den poezie”: Poetry as a guide through the labyrinth of the world

Photo: archive of Den poezie poetry festival

For two weeks from November 12 the Czech Republic will be indulging in a feast of poetry with the 19th annual “Den poezie” poetry festival. It will include a wide variety of events, nearly two hundred in total, in sixty towns and villages across the country, and even if you do not speak Czech, you will not be left empty-handed. David Vaughan talks to the festival’s co-founder and co-organiser, Bernie Higgins.

Photo: archive of Den poezie poetry festival
Poetry is as much a defining part of the Czech identity as dumplings and Dvořák, so we should hardly be surprised by the scale of this year’s Den poezie. The festival’s name translates literally as “poetry day”, although it has rapidly expanded to a full two weeks. Its beginnings back in 1999 were modest, when its founders Renata Bulvová and Bernie Higgins embarked on a project to get poetry onto Prague’s metro trains. Bernie picks up the story.

“To launch the project we decided to have the poetry day and each year after that it has grown and grown and grown. Now it is in sixty towns.”

And it coincides with the birthday of the great Czech romantic poet, Karel Hynek Mácha.

“His birthday is November 16, and this is the day that we chose. Now the festival is usually around a week before and a week after his birthday.”

This year you have a particular theme which is connected with another great Czech, Jan Amos Komenský – or John Amos Comenius – a seventeenth century Czech thinker, humanist and educator, who spent a great deal of his life in exile.

“Yes, a great Czech and I would emphasise a great European. I think he really saw himself as this, and he was very influential in other countries in Europe, including England and Sweden…”

… and he lived in the Netherlands.

“He certainly did, and is buried there. He had to go into exile because of religious persecution and he said that he spent his entire life wandering. He was known as a great educator.”

He was remarkably modern in his ideas about the education of children.

“Absolutely. Learning through play, and he introduced the idea of life-long learning. Really revolutionary ideas.”

Jan Amos Komenský
The theme this year is taken from one of his books, “Labyrinth of the World”.

“’Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart’, which is a wonderful book. I was delighted when I first discovered it, because it is very similar to one of my favourite books, which is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It is also an allegory. It’s probably more cynical, more critical of society, but similarly it depicts a pilgrim or seeker after truth, looking at the world in general and travelling through various aspects of it, and finally in Bunyan’s case arriving at the celestial city. In the case of the seeker in the Labyrinth of the World, he turns inward into his heart and he finds Christ there. That’s the Paradise.

“It’s a wonderful picture of the horrors of the labyrinth of society. One of his guides is Delusion, who gives him some spectacles, so he can see the world in a distorted way. But he manages to shift them, so that he can see how things really are. So, he looks at society and describes what he sees.”

… one had a swine lip, another dog’s teeth, or ox horns, or ass ears, or basilisk eyes, or a fox tail, or wolf claws. Some, I observed, strutted about with a proudly erected peacock’s neck, others with an erect lapwing crest, or with horse-hoofs, and so on. Most of them resembled monkeys. Horrified, I exclaimed: “But I see monsters here!” — “Of what monsters are you babbling, you meddler?” remarked my interpreter, threatening me with his fist; “if only you look properly through your glasses, you will recognize them as human!” Moreover, some of the passers-by overheard my calling them monsters and stopped, threatening and reviling me. I realized that it was useless to argue. Therefore I remained silent, thinking to myself: if they wish to regard themselves as human, so be it. But I see what I see.

As part of the poetry festival there are going to be several events that are in some way connected with Comenius and the Labyrinth of the World.

Gymnázium Elgartova in Brno,  photo: archive of Den poezie poetry festival
“There are a number of events which are taking the idea of the labyrinth quite literally – for example, in Sedlčany library they will be building a labyrinth. In Plzeň library there will be an event called ‘Poetry as a Guide through the Labyrinth of the World’, which is aimed at the first grade in basic school.”

I’m sure that you would agree that poetry is the guide through the labyrinth of the world!

“I do, so this really resonated with me! There’s a secondary school, the Gymnázium Elgartova in Brno, that is devoting a whole day to the labyrinth and its various meanings: the original myth of the labyrinth in Crete; they’re bringing in Umberto Eco and The Name of the Rose; they’re talking about their own hundred-year-old school as a labyrinth, and they’re inviting all the families in to celebrate and explore the idea of the labyrinth. So, it’s being used in many ways, as are other aspects of Komenský’s life.

“There are also several events celebrating his work. There’s one event called ‘Komenský byl migrant’ – Komenský was a migrant – which is looking at the whole issue of migrants in Europe at the moment.”

That brings us right up to the present day.

“I think Komenský really can speak to us today. He’s a great internationalist, somebody who absolutely valued Czech culture, his own native culture, but thought it was very important to teach about other cultures. He was very open to other cultures and religions, and was really a towering personality in the whole of Europe.”

You mentioned the similarity between Comenius and the English writer John Bunyan. Not many people read Bunyan today, but just a few generations ago in many parts of the English-speaking world every household, even if they had no other books, would have had a Bible and a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress on their shelf. I know that there will be an event connected with Bunyan and a new translation of Pilgrim’s Progress that has just been published in Czech.

“It’s translated by the poet Tomáš Míka. This is a beautiful new edition. It will be a very interesting event, presenting the book and having quite a serious theological discussion about the book. Because it very much connects with the Labyrinth of the World, I think it’s very appropriate to have it in the programme.”

The programme is far from focusing just on poets who lived in the distant past. You have a lot of contemporary poets, poets from all over the Czech Republic and all over the world – everywhere from Iceland to Slovenia to Syria.

Alan Spence,  photo: archive of Alan Spence
“I’ve spoken so far mainly about the events in the small towns and villages because part of the festival I like is that these activities are connected with the visits of the international poets. And we have some very interesting poets this year. There’s Mustafa Stitou, who is from the Netherlands of Moroccan heritage, Gerður Kristny from Iceland and we have several poets from Poland. We have the new Makar of Edinburgh, Alan Spence, coming to read. Makar is the Scottish word for maker, creator, poet. It’s something like a Poet Laureate of Edinburgh.”

And I know you have a dream of having a Prague Poet Laureate…

“I was thinking why not? As Alan Spence is here, I thought it would be interesting if, as somebody representing the very first City of Literature, he could meet people involved in the Prague City of Literature organisation. I know that the Edinburgh experience was influential and supported the Prague journey to become the City of Literature. So, I think it might be a fruitful dialogue. Why not share some ideas and have a European perspective?”

Alan Spence’s reading will be in English. For our listeners in Prague who do not speak Czech, are there further events in English that they might be able to go to?

“There are many bilingual events in Czech and other languages: Russian, Slovenian, etc., but the other English-language event will be at the Anglo-American University and I think it will be great. It features Stephan Delbos, who, as well as being a poet himself – he’ll be reading his own poetry – edited a very interesting anthology of poetry about Prague, called ‘From a Terrace in Prague’, and the poet Jane Kirwan, whose work reflects her life – spending half of her time in England and half in a small ‘townlet’ in the Czech countryside. She’ll be reading some of her new poetry. And they’ll be joined by the highly regarded Irish poet, Justin Quinn, who is not reading his own poetry this time but is reading from his new translation of the poetry of the famous 20th century poet, Bohuslav Rejnek. And like almost all the events in the programme, it’s free.”

And the poetry festival is not just about readings…

“Not at all. It’s about happenings, drama, dance, music, children illustrating their own poems, making their own poetry books. One thing that I like is the diversity, not only the linguistic and ethnic diversity, but also in terms of age. There are events for kindergarten children, but also, in the town of Turnov, the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the poet Josef Kainar is being celebrated in an old people’s home and a club for active seniors. And one of our regular participants in Prague is the home for seniors in Chodov. They’ll have an afternoon of poetry.

“And we are going back, in a way, to the beginnings of the festival in that we are expanding our display of poems on public transport. For the last few years we’ve had poems in the Prague trams and this year we’ll also be having poems in Liberec trams.”

And that will include one of my favourite poets, Tera Fabiánová, who was a Czech Roma poet who wrote beautiful poetry in the Romani language.

“She died ten years ago, and I respected her very much. I was lucky enough to meet her a few times. She was a beautiful, shining and outstanding personality. So I wanted one of the four poems that we’ll display to be hers. Another interesting event is looking at the situation of minority languages in the Czech Republic, and I think that one of the things that will come up is the status of Romani in the country. Czechness was really built on the idea of promoting the Czech language and I’m interested in the extent to which it seems resistant to being a multilingual society.”

So, let’s end with Tera Fabiánová.

“This was one of the poems that we originally displayed when the project Poetry for Travellers started in 1999. It was one of people’s favourites. It’s such a moving poem. I think people remember it, and I hope they’ll appreciate seeing it again and will remember her ten years after she died.

Happiness Comes to Me Happiness comes to me
only through the hands of my children.
At home there's only unhappiness -
what more is waiting for me?
I've given to God what I owe.
Do I still owe something to the devil?
High above my head the clouds race
and I am connected to the earth like a twisted tree...
Even a twisted tree casts shade.