Ivan Jelínek: a poet in the newsroom

Ivan Jelínek

If you had been listening to Radio Prague back in the late 1930s, it is very likely that you would have heard the voice of Ivan Jelínek. He was one of the pioneers of broadcasting in Czechoslovakia, and an early presenter of our broadcasts to Britain and North America. From the radio headquarters here in Vinohrady, he witnessed many of the dramas leading up to World War Two, including moment of the German occupation itself. During his wartime exile in Britain and in the decades that followed the war, Ivan Jelínek became a familiar voice in the Czechoslovak section of the BBC, and he continued to broadcast from London until his death in 2002, at the age of 93. But Ivan Jelínek was not just a broadcaster. His lifelong passion was poetry. In Czech Books this week, I’ll be looking at Jelínek’s fascinating life and work.

We’ll start with an extract from a poem that he wrote in Britain during the Second World War, a poem that evokes movingly the pain of forced exile, here in English translation by the Scottish poet, Edwin Muir.

To the Czech Language When it rains in England
I hear from mother’s mouth the names of their children
and my own among them in the still life of vowels.
When it rains in England
I hear two women tenderly speaking Czech
and the words are only another name for love.
It rains on meadows on the harbour on the deck
and fishes swim and swim around the girl’s head
one of them with a key in its mouth as though
it would leap the weir longing for speech kills me.

Ivan Jelínek
The Czech broadcaster, Milan Kocourek has just brought out a collection of Ivan Jelínek’s previously unpublished poems. He knew the poet for many years in London, where they both worked for the Czechoslovak section of the BBC.

“I met him after I joined the BBC World Service in London in 1974. So from then I knew him well. I must say I didn’t know much about him before, but then I realized that he was a great man. He always lived for his poetry. He lived for his art and that is something not everybody can.”

Ivan Jelínek was born in Moravia, the eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic.

“His relatives and he himself had vineyards in Moravia before the war and he somehow was close to the land in that sense, although his father was a judge and wanted Jelínek to be a judge as well, if possible. That’s why Jelínek actually got a law degree from Masaryk University in Brno. So he was a doctor of jurisprudence, but he never actually practiced the law. He wanted to be a poet.”

Jelínek’s home region of Moravia has a strong poetic tradition, and this particular feel for the Czech language is tied closely to the region’s rich vein of music and song, varying enormously from village to village. Many years later, in 1968, Jelínek spoke about how his childhood exposure to what he described as the “ballet” of different dialects of rural Moravia marked the beginning of his career as a poet.

“It was this that made me notice the phenomenon of speech and words themselves. Understandably I also began to be interested in folk song. Both my parents were very good singers, the girls we had as maids sang too; in fact, everywhere we went, everyone used to sing. Before long I’d been exposed to a great deal of the wealth of Moravian dialect, and this almost naturally led me on to poetry of the more formal kind.”

Ivan Jelínek - 'Na závěr do prázdna'
Milan Kocourek picks up the story:

“He took poetry very seriously from the very beginning. These were youthful days for him, and he was hesitant for some time about what he would be, whether he would actually live as a poet and live from poetry. So he also worked for Brno theatres and he was a translator of world poetry and world literature into the Czech language. So he was starting not necessarily as a poet. He also worked as a radioman, first for Radiojournal, which before the war already had a branch in Brno. He was one of the first employees or collaborators of Radiojournal.”

Having started in Brno, it was not long before Ivan Jelínek went on to work at the Prague headquarters of Radiojournal – as Czechoslovak Radio was known in those days. It was here that he witnessed and reported on the drama of the Munich Crisis of 1938. Six months later, when Hitler occupied Prague in March 1939, he happened to be on duty in the radio, an episode which he later described in his autobiography:

“This is the Army General Staff,” a gruff voice said down the phone line, “if you’re a radio announcer, I need you here straight away. “I’m sorry,” I replied, “but the morning presenter hasn’t turned up yet.” “No matter,” the voice said impatiently, “you’re a presenter, so come over straight away. I’ll send a car for you.”

He was taken by car to the Chief of Staff, who gave him instructions, dictated by President Hácha himself, to read a message on air that no resistance was to be given to the invading forces. Jelínek was horrified, and begged not to have to fulfil the order. Surely something could be done?

“General, Sir,” I said, looking for words… talking more and more rapidly, “surely something can… something can be rescued… our planes maybe… they’d have time, they could take off. Why leave them to the Germans?” … The general tore the piece of paper out of my hand. “Out, out, out of here, man! I’ll read it myself…!”

A few hours later, German tanks rolled unopposed into Prague. In the weeks that followed, Jelínek managed to get out to Yugoslavia. On September 1, war broke out. Here is Ivan Jelínek himself, remembering back in 1968:

Ivan Jelínek
“I managed to get to France, where I went to the Czechoslovak Consulate. I joined the army and was given orders to go to Fécamp in Normandy, to work for the radio. There was a small British radio company based there, broadcasting exclusively for sailors, but when the war broke out, a Czechoslovak radio station was allowed to start broadcasting from there, called Free Czechoslovakia. Yet it didn’t last long, because when the Germans started mining the English Channel, they used the Fécamp station as a point from where to make their trigonometric measurements.”

And it was not long before France fell, and the entire Czechoslovak army in exile was forced to escape to Britain. From the Czechoslovak military training camp at Cholmondeley near Liverpool, Ivan Jelínek was summoned to London, to help establish the BBC’s broadcasts in Czech. But, as Milan Kocourek reminds us, things did not go smoothly:

“I remember that Ivan Jelínek told me that there was a clear distinction between BBC radio during the Second World War and Czech government radio, which was using the wavelengths of the BBC for their broadcasts. Ivan Jelínek belonged to the BBC part of the radio. I remember him telling me that once President Beneš called him and asked him about his broadcasting and whether he would be working for them, for the government radio, and started telling him some unpleasant things. And Jelínek clearly said: I work for the BBC and I will have nothing to do with the Czech government radio. He did not particularly like President Beneš and criticized him a lot.”

Edvard Beneš
Jelínek’s mistrust of President Beneš dated back to 1938 and survived even when they were both in exile, fighting a common enemy. As he later wrote in his autobiography, he could not forgive Beneš for giving up the Sudetenland without a fight when Czechoslovakia had accepted the Munich Agreement of September 1938. Following his row with Beneš, Jelínek decided to go back into the army, and in 1944 he ended up serving in the Middle East, from where he eventually found his way back to Prague. But he was very aware of the direction that post-war Czechoslovakia was taking, and in 1947, a few months before the communist take-over, he returned to London and once again to exile.

When it rains in England
the drowned day crawls towards the dark
a body without a soul as though myself were drowned.
When it rains in England
two lovers should light on the banks of the Morava
a candle and pray as the weir for a soul.

For a while, Jelínek left for the United States and Canada, where – maintaining his spirit of adventure – he decided to have a go at farming, partly out of nostalgia for his childhood in rural Moravia. But he soon returned to London, and spent the best part of half a century back in the Czechoslovak section of the BBC, broadcasting mostly news and current affairs, on shortwave to Czechoslovakia. He continued writing and publishing his poetry – often at his own expense – and Milan Kocourek, who worked with him for many years, remembers that his heart always remained with poetry:

“He actually scribbled even when we were waiting to read the talks that we were translating in the BBC. He would be scribbling Sanskrit in the studio before reading his translation of some heavy political story – Gorbachev or whatever. In his mind he was always somewhere else. He was hardly ever thinking of politics. He was always in his poetry.”

Milan Kocourek, photo: David Vaughan
For someone like that to be working in the world of day-to-day radio journalism, it must have been difficult to say the least…

“Well, it was not difficult for him. It was very difficult for us sometimes to correct him. He used Czech language which was very often archaic, and he never admitted it. He was actually proud of his archaisms – always. For instance, he used the word ‘vozatajstvo’ in his political talk, translated from English into Czech, to mean fighting force in the contemporary sense. ‘Vozatajstvo’ is the word that was used by the Hussites, possibly in the 15th century, and it refers to horse-driven carriages etc. And he didn’t mind at all. But he was always a perfect translator. I’d say he did it on purpose.”

He was just relishing the richness of language and showing not too much respect for the rules of modern news journalism…

“Absolutely. He actually considered himself a reporter, a report of what God inspired within him. He wrote to me once that he was only reporting what he was led to by God. And that is very important because it even explains why he never bothered about any correction of his use of Czech language, because he knew better. He had language that he was using and he couldn’t care less whether other people appreciated that use of the language.”

And when he says “God”, does he mean in the sense of established religion, or was his religious faith somewhere else?

“I think he did not mean established religion. He actually meant God in a very general sense.”

With the fall of communism, Ivan Jelínek’s poetry began once again to be published openly in Czechoslovakia, and today he has his place in the Pantheon of Czech 20th century poetry. He died in London on September 27, 2002.