Ivan Blatný: a great Czech poet lost and found

Ivan Blatný

August 5 was the 20th anniversary of the death of one of the most important Czech 20th century poets. Ivan Blatný spent his last years in Clacton-on-Sea, a resort on the east coast of England. He had spent more than half his life in exile, and most of that time as a patient in various psychiatric hospitals. It was in these unlikely circumstances that he wrote some of his best poetry, after being virtually forgotten as a writer for several decades. David Vaughan has more in this week’s edition of Czech Books.

While rain went rippling out across the land,
you shivered at a table, blank and alone.
The downpour drummed on all that black outspanned
by umbrellas. The hours, the hours edged on. Far from people, far from their strange ways,
their tedious good cheer and useless prattle,
the wind waltzed scattering hailstones and staves
above the city. And all the windows rattled. (trans. Justin Quinn)

Ivan Blatný
An extract from one of Ivan Blatný’s early poems, in the collection Melancholy Walks, published in 1941, when Blatný was still in his early twenties. This was the collection that made his name, a series of beautifully crafted poems evoking Blatný’s native city of Brno, more often than not in the rain, with a sense of melancholy delicately balanced with a lightness of touch.

Ivan Blatný was born in 1919 into a well established and wealthy Brno family. His father was the successful expressionist playwright, Lev Blatný. But Ivan was still a child when both his parents died, and for the rest of his childhood was brought up by his grandmother. As an extremely gifted teenager he came to the attention of the poet Vítězslav Nezval, who introduced him to French surrealism – and also to the bohemian life of Brno’s cafés – much to the concern of Ivan’s grandmother. During the German occupation Blatný was spared being sent as forced labour to Germany as he had already inherited his grandfather’s optician’s shop in the centre of Brno. His cousin, the composer Pavel Blatný remembers that seeing the young poet at work as an optician was an unlikely and amusing sight:

“I remember Ivan in his shop, changing somebody’s glass eye…”

You were a little boy at the time, and walked into the shop?

“Yes, and this would be a story for a movie [laughs].”

It must have been quite surreal…

“Yes, yes, yes…”

It was clear from the start, says Pavel Blatný, that Ivan could only have one possible career:

Ivan Blatný's manuscript,  photo: author
“Ivan was really a genius, the one great genius from the whole family. And he was only a poet. Nothing else… nothing else…”

During the war Ivan Blatný came under the influence of the literary critic and theorist, Jindřich Chalupecký. He joined Chalupecký’s “Group 42”, a group of writers and artists, determined to break down hierarchies of high and low art and to introduce elements to poetry that were deliberately and strikingly unpoetic. Here is an extract from the poem, Tento večer (This Evening) written at this time.

I observed the grains and threads,
propped the knife Listen to the trams,
I’d be glad to speak, as I say this evening,
barking Again Rising upward,
this giant book of mine I’m leafing through,
the clatter of steps Thick Still in the same place
Gently I blow the ashes Eight-thirty struck. (trans.: Martin Tharp)

Martin Tharp
After the war, like so many of his generation, Blatný embraced communism. At the beginning of 1948 he was invited to take part in a Czechoslovak literary delegation, travelling to London. The trip took place in March, just a couple of weeks after the coup that brought the communists to power. Until that time, Ivan Blatný had seemed to support the emerging communist order, so when he defected on the first day after the delegation’s arrival in London, it came as a complete surprise. He made a declaration on the Czechoslovak service of the BBC. Martin Tharp, who has studied and translated Blatný’s work, picks up the story:

“He stated that he was forced to this decision by what he called the cold terror that the communists had brought to his homeland. And he also said that he was leaving the Communist Party because of what he termed its ‘base doctrines’. This was met with a response of more than virulent anger from the party authorities and indeed the cultural public in Czechoslovakia.”

The pressure on Blatný must have been enormous. Within weeks, his mental health began to break down. The art critic and collector, Meda Mládková, who was also living in exile, remembers that this was by no means unusual at the time.

“Many of these people who escaped became sick. I remember in Washington there was also a very famous professor, who came from, I think, Boston University, and he was also in an asylum – immediately. It must have been terrible.”

Do you think it lies in the fact of being uprooted and knowing that you cannot go home again?

Meda Mládková,  photo: author
“I think so, because I saw three cases like this – always very educated and very intelligent people.”

Blatný was admitted to a psychiatric hospital on the northern edge of London, where Meda Mládková visited him regularly.

“Usually, they would put me in a room alone with him. When I came and we would sit down, suddenly the windows were full of eyes looking. I’m sure from how they were looking that they were masturbating…”

… because they weren’t used to seeing women in the asylum…

“Yes, and I was a young woman, so this was an event for them. And when I came one day with a book – ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ by Baudelaire – I gave him the book, and when I came next time, they wouldn’t let me in. They said: ‘The director has to talk to you.’ So the director came and said: ‘Do you realise what you did? We cannot let you come back. My God, we cannot let you bring these books to the sick people.”

And this was because it was the famous edition of “Les Fleurs du Mal” with erotic illustrations...

“… Yes, and I didn’t realise. I just gave him the book as wonderful poetry.”

In Czechoslovakia all Blatný’s work was banned, but he was not quite forgotten. In 1958 the Czechoslovak intelligence service came up with the idea of trying to persuade him to return to the country – for propaganda purposes. They sent an agent to visit Blatný – giving the poet the unlikely codename “Mlok”, meaning Newt. The files, put together by agent “Kolařík” – not his real name – confirm that the venture was not a success. Martin Tharp continues:

Ivan Blatný spent his last years in Edensor Care Centre in Clacton-on-Sea,  photo: author
“To quote from Kolařík’s report: In his nine-year stay in the institution, Newt has been completely accustomed to such a form of life, has entirely lost contact with the outside world, and presently has no knowledge of political and cultural events. In the institution he feels altogether satisfied. He answered primarily in the sense that he missed nothing. He went to the kitchen to peel potatoes, cleaned up garbage, worked in the garden, washed dishes. According to the statement by Kolařík, Newt is, in fact, insane.”

A decade later, with the political thaw of the late 1960s, Ivan Blatný’s cousin, Jan Šmarda, managed to travel to Britain. He traced Ivan to a psychiatric hospital in the town of Ipswich in Suffolk. It was clear that whatever Ivan’s mental illness might be, he was certainly far from insane. The two cousins spent hours catching up with news:

“One of my first questions was: ‘And what are you doing now, Ivan, what are you writing? What sort of poetry etc.?’ And I will never forget his answer. His answer was more or less unhappy, with a strange shade of smile: ‘Writing poetry – it was, but it is not any more.’ I haven’t written anything for a long time already.’ I used the situation to try to persuade him that for anybody who is born with a talent, if he doesn’t use it, it doesn’t mean that the talent ceases to exist. The talent is still present. It’s only necessary to cultivate it, which means for him to continue writing.”

And you did manage to persuade him to write again…

Photo: author
“I repeatedly returned to this theme and I persuaded him.”

Ivan began sending letters, including poems, to Jan Šmarda and his wife Helena. By coincidence there was a retired midwife living in Ipswich, who had direct links with Brno. Her name was Frances Meacham and during the war she had got to know the family of a Czech airman in the RAF. On a visit to Brno not long after Jan Šmarda had been in Ipswich, she came to hear about Ivan. She arranged with the Šmardas that she would start visiting him. Here she is talking in a radio interview in the early 1990s:

“I said to him, about the second visit: ‘I understand that you write poetry.’ He said: ‘Oh, yes.’ So I said: ‘What do you do with it?’ He said: ‘I just write it and throw it away.’ So I said: ‘Look, don’t do that. I will bring in paper and pens each week and you save me what you have. I will take it away and keep it.”

Ivan began once again to write prolifically and Frances Meacham sent examples of his work to the exile Czech writer Josef Škvorecký in Toronto, who published a collection of his poetry under the title “Old Abodes”. At the time Gordon Morris was the charge-nurse responsible for Bixley Ward at St Clement’s Hospital in Ipswich, where Ivan lived from 1977:

“Ivan certainly – while he slept on the ward and ate on the ward – spent a great deal of time walking around the large grounds that we have or in and out of the town itself. And I think that during that time he did an awful lot of the composing of his poetry. He would always have paper with him and would stop as he walked to make notes, and then write things down better when he got back to the ward. It was something that would absorb him all of the time.”

Blatný’s poetry became increasingly experimental, combining recollections from Brno, literary references drawn from his phenomenal memory, and elements taken from the everyday life of the hospital or from British popular culture, which he absorbed through television, a central feature of hospital life. Here is one of his poems in English, which Jan and Helena Šmarda recorded him reading when they visited him a second time in 1978.

The Count The count left the castle
and went to the township bustle
tired of loneliness.
Tired of deer-park walking,
he wants some more noise, more talking,
tired of playing chess. And when he has enough of claxons,
of motor-cars, of taxis,
he’s glad and turns round.
Again the relaxation
above the lower nation,
lucky we have a count.

Ivan Blatný’s final collection, “Bixley Remedial School”, is wonderfully anarchic, moving between different languages and registers, but never losing the sense for rhythm and the music of poetry that characterized Blatný’s early work. The following poem, written in English, is typical:

Outside and in 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.

Ivan Blatný lived just long enough to be able to observe from afar the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, and he took a genuine delight in the changes. By the time he died at Colchester General Hospital on August 5 1990, he was once again lauded in his native country – and above all in his home city of Brno, where his ashes were interred in the Blatný family grave a year later.

If you understand Czech and would like to know more about Ivan Blatný, you may like to listen to a longer programme that David Vaughan made recently about his life and work for Czech Radio 3 (Vltava): www.rozhlas.cz/vltava/dokument/_zprava/777028 David Vaughan’s documentary about Ivan Blatný for Ladbroke Productions, “The Poetic World of Newt”, broadcast by BBC Radio Three in April 2007 is unfortunately no longer available in audio. An English edition of Ivan Blatný’s selected poems was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2007, under the title “Ivan Blatný: The Drug of Art”, edited by Veronika Tuckerová.