The hospital and the poet: God the linguist teaches us to breathe

Ivan Blatný, photo: Czech Television

We have spoken about the poet Ivan Blatný many times on Radio Prague, most recently when Martin Reiner published his award-winning novel about the poet in 2014. Blatný had an extraordinary life. At the age of twenty-nine and already a rising literary star in Czechoslovakia, he took refuge in Britain, just a few weeks after the communists came to power in February 1948. Not long afterwards he had a complete nervous breakdown and he spent most of the next four decades in various hospital and psychiatric institutions in southern England, where he died in 1990. It was while he was in Saint Clement’s Psychiatric Hospital in Ipswich in the late 1970s and early 1980s that his poetic career saw a remarkable second flowering, with the publication of two influential and highly original collections. The hospital’s link to Ivan Blatný had been all but forgotten in Britain, but this has changed thanks to the writer Julie Garton. We find out why in Czech Books as she talks to David Vaughan and the translator Eva Kalivodová about her award-winning literary essay devoted to Ivan Blatný.

Ivan Blatný, photo: Czech Television
DV: I’m joined by Eva Kalivodová, who teaches translation at the Philosophical Faculty here in Prague and is a well-known literary translator, and – on a line to London – by Julie Garton, who is a freelance writer and teacher of creative writing. She is also the winner of last year’s British Czech and Slovak Association annual creative writing competition and that is what we’re going to be talking about today. Julie, what did you write about?

JG: “I chose to write about the Czech poet Ivan Blatný. I came across him when I was working in a psychiatric hospital in Ipswich. It was a community project. The hospital was closing down and the project was to commemorate its closure, because the hospital, Saint Clement’s, had been in the town for about 140 years. It was one of a series of events to mark its passing.”

DV: It is quite an imposing building. I’ve been to Ipswich and have seen the hospital.

JG: “It is one of the few working hospitals from that era left in the UK.”

DV: Tell us a little more about this project. It seems a good idea, when a hospital is closing down, to conserve a memory or a footprint of the place in the public consciousness.

JG: “Yes. It was a project that involved lots of different activities for people who have had something to do with the hospital – people who were maybe a patient there, members of staff, people from the administration department. So there was a series of art workshops and writing workshops. I also did some oral history recordings with people who had an association with the place – about 28 hours’ worth of recordings. And that is when I first heard about Ivan Blatný. A former charge nurse called Gordon Morris mentioned Blatný. I’d never heard of him but I immediately became very interested in him and went off to do a bit of research.”

Julie Garton, photo: archive of Julie Garton
DV: At this stage I’d like to bring in Eva Kalivodová. I understand that you and Julie have known each other since the 1980s.

EK: “Julie and her friends came to this country as a theatrical group and they performed variations on Shakespeare. For me it was one of the rare chances to meet authentic British people, because we couldn’t meet anyone here under the totalitarian regime and we couldn’t travel. So that was a fantastic and very friendly and warm meeting. And we have remained in contact over the years. I just recently learned from Julie about her essay on Blatný and the fact that the essay won the prize, and it was very interesting for me.”

DV: Ivan Blatný is one of the best known 20th century Czech poets, but he wasn’t spoken about at all under the communist regime, because he was exile in Britain. And so you came to Blatný from a very different angle than Julie, who came upon him quite by chance.

EK: “That’s true. Actually I read the novel about him by Martin Reiner. He has helped to turn Blatný into a sort of magical personality. But he is Czech while Blatný lived in Britain for most of his life, and thanks to Julie I started to be interested in British views of this man. That is why I introduced the essay to my students who are really always so pleased when they can translate something that could function as a translation outside school. So it was a great joy to work with them on that translation which is now coming out in a Czech version in a journal which is called H_aluze. So that’s the history.”

DV: I can understand what you are saying, because, like Julie, I’m interested in Blatný from a British perspective. I was intrigued by the story of this person who had been a major Czech poet as a very young man before and during the Second World War and was rediscovered after spending decades quite forgotten in asylums and hospitals in Britain, without losing any of his brilliance as a poet.

Eva Kalivodová, photo: archive of Eva Kalivodová
JG: “It’s an intriguing story and it’s a lovely story. He was befriended by Frances Meacham, a retired midwife from Ipswich and she had some contacts in Czechoslovakia, as it then was. And they asked her to keep an eye on Ivan. She looked after him, she gave him stationery and she gave him pens, and she took care of all the poetry that he wrote. She stored it in her garage, apparently in recycling dustbins, and kept it for posterity. She didn’t throw any of it away. I think that prior to that his poetry had just been traded for cigarettes or had been written on the back of toilet paper and prescription sheets and so on. But she kept hold of it and now it’s in the literary archives in Prague, which I just think is wonderful. She looked after him and we have her to thank really.”

DV: It was quite a sacrifice, to keep going to see Blatný regularly for all those years and gather his poetry.

JG: “Yes, and apparently she didn’t like poetry herself. She wasn’t a fan! But what I find absolutely incredible is that he was still able to write after all those years of being ill. He would have been given anti-psychotic medication, which really does profound damage to the brain. But he was still a poet. He still managed to write, and I find that extraordinary.”

A group of factory buildings may be called a plant
God the linguist teaches us to breathe In a hollow of a tree
there is a cart
there lives the wood-cock
there is the crown
there is the flamboyant madame Lupescu.

DV: There are a lot of elements of his distant past that turn up in the poems mixed with numerous literary references, and he sometimes shifts between Czech and English – and sometimes even French and German – but there is also a lot from everyday life in the hospital – even the TV he was watching along with the other patients.

JG: “Yes, the poems are very direct. You can tell that he’s writing about the ward. It’s quite funny, because there are lots of references to people who were on the television in the 1970s in Britain – newsreaders and comedians and Prince Philip and people like that. And the day-to-day life on the ward, there’s a lot of that in it as well.”

DV: And there’s no hierarchy of language, there is no line drawn between high art and his day-to-day life in the hospital. It’s all there on a level footing.

JG: “Yes. Absolutely…”

DV: … which is actually quite subversive in poetry.

JG: “Yes, it is. The poems are just very direct.”

Prince Philip is a great gastronome
he instructs a brigade of cooks
The archipeligo of Palau has the richest marine life in all the Pacific
I remember only molluscs feeding on algae
vzpomínám si jenom na mlže
mají filtr Prince Philip wouldn’t like to live in underseas chambers
he prefers Buckingham Palace and the Queen. She has got one. [This poem is written in English, with the exception of the one line in Czech which translates as: “I remember only molluscs/ they have a filter]

DV: And how did you find it going to the ward? You went to the hospital to see where Ivan Blatný had lived. You write about this experience very evocatively in your essay.

JG: “It’s now office space with rows of desks and printers, and office workers work there. But there are still traces of the former use of the building.”

“Afternoon sunshine streams in through the high-arched windows. Russell shows me where the patients’ beds would have been lined against the walls (the buffers which prevented them from knocking against the paintwork remain on the skirting boards). When the ward was busy, he says, they’d be all pushed up together with no room in between. Lockers were kept at the end of the beds. He recalls the permanent blue cloud of cigarette smoke which floated in the air. Everyone smoked in those days, he says - staff, patients - no restrictions as far as he remembers. The ceilings were filthy. They were replaced with polystyrene tiles in 1985 when the patients were sent to live in the community and the ward became an office.”

JG: “We opened a cupboard door which had been locked for years and was full of cobwebs and old Christmas tree decorations, all covered in dust.”

DV: I love a line in your essay where you’re being taken round by a member of staff called Russell, and you say: “As Russell is taking me around the abandoned spaces of Saint Clement’s, it is impossible not to ponder if old buildings such as hospitals, in which so many hopes and fears are invested over the years, absorb traces of the people they’ve housed or the events they’ve witnessed.”

JG: “Yes. I did wonder whether there was a little bit of Blatný still there somehow in those walls, because they would have witnessed him at work and going about his business on the ward.”

Saint Clement’s Psychiatric Hospital in Ipswich, photo: David Vaughan
EK: “I find it very interesting, as Julie has pointed out, that Blatný, after all those years, and after taking so much medication – being drugged in fact – could start writing poetry again. He was treated as a mentally ill person, but also he was cared for in British hospitals. He lived a life in which he didn’t need to be worried about the world around, about the real world, unlike many of his contemporaries, intellectuals, people who did have hard times in Czechoslovakia after 1948, and it was awful for them to cope with what was going on. It seems to me in a sense that Blatný did have a comfortable life in those hospitals. It’s true that it was deformed, but it seems to me that he was a person who was not able to act in the outer world and he was afraid to act in the outer world. And maybe that was the only way for him to live. But he didn’t go through many of the hardships which Czech people under communism had to face.”

DV: I like the fact that his life was – in its own way – a success, because he was a poet who managed to keep writing his poetry. He was even writing poetry on his deathbed. And his work is acknowledged.

EK: “He lives on. He provokes new reflections and his work is really inspiring. It’s not just exhausted by the one novel by Martin Reiner, but it seems to me that this phenomenon is really inspiring and it is provoking people in these days, irrespective of time, because it is a unique phenomenon.”

JG: “It is an inspiring story that has come out of quite a dark period in history. But he did survive as a poet and he has left quite a body of work behind him, which is fascinating and wonderful. I agree it should be celebrated.”

I have now two pens and plenty of paper
for ink sweet-toothed dreams line up at the dining hall of love
dark green ivy is overgrowing the vicarage
all tongues are sweet-toothed
in the corner the sweet waits
happily into the new century.

[The poems used in this programme are from “Ivan Blatný: The Drug of Art”, Ugly Duckling Presse, NY, 2007]