The longest day: an ecstasy of Czech poetry

Making the paper boats

Last month the Czech Republic enjoyed its annual celebration of poetry, the “Den poezie”. Literally this translates as “poetry day”, although in reality the event lasts a good deal longer than a mere 24 hours. This year there was a particular reason to celebrate, as David Vaughan reports in Czech Books.

K. H. Mácha's statue in Litoměřice,  photo: NoJin,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
We have mentioned in several recent editions of Czech Books that 2010 is the bicentenary of the birth of the great Czech romantic poet, Karel Hynek Mácha. This added a particular symbolism and momentum to this year’s Poetry Day, as I found out when I spoke to one of the organizers, Bernie Higgins. Bernie, who is well known to regular listeners to this programme, told me about some of the Poetry Day’s highlights.

“The Poetry Day actually started off as one day in 1999, so this is the twelfth year, and it’s grown and grown and grown organically. Now it’s a fairly baggy monster of activities that take place in about 40 towns now…”

… and so it’s a “Poetry Fortnight”.

“In fact it was two-and-a-half weeks this year! But it all centres around one day, which is the birthday of Karel Hynek Mácha on November 16. He’s really very much revered in this country, and particularly this year with the 200th anniversary: it was officially called “Máchův rok” (Mácha’s Year). There were lots of events, exhibitions, conferences. We have always celebrated his birthday, but it was extra special this year.”

I like the idea of the Poetry Day being a festival which happens in many different places, even in small towns that many of our listeners probably won’t have heard of. It seems a nice way of bringing poetry to the broader public.

Making the paper boats
“I always find it very inspiring to hear of these wonderful events, particularly in libraries. The libraries in the Czech Republic have become very creative and active. In Blansko, for example, which is a very small town, they always have a lovely event which is to give every visitor what they call a ‘beribboned scroll’ of a poem, and many other libraries give poems to visitors – in Plzeň, for example. In Sedlčany library they had a whole range of events in the library, and outside it they had a procession for children, who carried lanterns, unfortunately in the rain as I saw from the pictures.

“And also a lot of schools participate. Particularly this year they participated in an event we called, ‘Send Your Poems to the Sea’. Teachers and others went with children and the children made paper boats with their poems on, and they sent their poems to the sea, because the theme for this year – alluding vaguely to Mácha, who was very much a poet of the Czech landscape – was the “nekonečný kraj” (the endless landscape), so we thought this would be maybe inspiring for some of the activities, particularly for children, who could use their imagination.”

We’re back to the subject of Mácha, so tell me something about the events in connection with the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Bernie Higgins  (center)
“Unfortunately, I must say that Mácha was born in the middle of November, so the weather is often really horrible. An event we have every year is that we congregate on Petřín Hill at the famous statue of Mácha, and poets read their poetry. We drink wine and take candles and remember Mácha. Luckily the rain stopped for long enough for this to be a very nice event. But the whole of the festival ended this year with a pilgrimage to Litoměřice…”

… which is where he died.

“Yes, and it’s a beautiful town, about an hour or so from Prague, and it has a Mácha museum. We had the idea that people would be invited to walk there through the countryside – from Roudnice and Ústí nad Labem. About 20 people came along for that, and I’m afraid I was so exhausted I took the train….”

Mácha would not have been impressed. He was famous for his extremely long walks!

“I could barely walk one tram stop, I’m afraid, by that point. I was very, very tired at the end. My younger and fitter organizing colleagues did make the pilgrimage, though. It was a lovely event apparently. The weather was beautiful and along the way the pilgrims stopped and they read some Mácha or their own poetry. And then everybody gathered in Litoměřice in a pub and there was a very long and full programme of mainly local, regional poets, because this region in the north is very lively from a literary point of view. And the local television covered it. So it was a very nice event.”

Zbyněk Hejda
And the Poetry Day traditionally also includes some well known contemporary Czech poets, one of them being Zbyněk Hejda, who is one of the grand old men of Czech poetry. Some of his poetry has recently been translated into English.

“Yes, one of the highlights of the festival for me was his reading at the Czech Centre in Prague. I’m delighted that at least some of his poetry has been translated into English. He wasn’t published here until after 1989. His poetry before that was only available in samizdat or abroad. In 2005, Cork was the European City of Culture and as part of their activities his work was translated by an Irish poet, Bernard O’Donoghue, so at least a selection of his work is available in English.

The Door Will Open The door will open. Will the dead one enter?
Things will shake gently in the wind.
Yes, she is coming quietly.
It is early spring twilight, and it is raining. I can hear it still.
It is quieter and quieter again. The day was beautiful.
and I yearned for you. But now
in the dark the wind is rising, In the dark your fingers’ touch is fading.
just as the evening sun fades
from college walls in Oxford. Steps dying away. The dark
and empty chapel. When we began it was five o’clock,
spring’s translucence on the skyline.
Already the twilight was falling
down on the town
with a full white moon.
A shard of music sounding faintly…
will the heart too grow quiet? The path is narrower, and narrower again. Behind the path it is still light
as in the depths of the woods
the edge is sensed. On high
beautiful angels are carrying
the blue canopy of the world
in old pictures
in dark galleries. Down here
there is unbearable anxiety. Now the dark is torn
by a bird’s cry.

Milla Haugová
“I think what’s very powerful for me in Hejda’s poetry is what one critic described as a sense of a bond with the dead, and you find in his poetry that his poems are often haunted by the dead, people from his past, and this line between death and life is very blurred. Often also his poems are based on dreams, so that’s the influence of surrealism. There’s a starkness and a clarity which is coexisting with this sense of living in this blurred world, where love comes to us not just from the living but also from the dead. And I find many of his poems very, very moving, where the people he loved from his past appear as characters and they are still in the landscape all around. So the landscape is pervaded with a kind of joy, but this joy is connected very much to death.”

There are also poets from beyond the Czech Republic, taking part in the Poetry Day, including from neighbouring Slovakia.

“The poetry festival really does range from the very, very local, little events in villages, to an international, also multicultural aspect, and particularly poets from our neighbouring countries. And often they will have readings alongside Czech poets. So this can introduce Czech audiences to poetry from other cultures. This year the Slovak Institute invited three poets who featured in a recent bilingual publication called ‘Six Slovak Poets’, so it was fantastic to have half of the poets from that. The event was in Slovak and English, again as a way of trying to broaden out the audience. Milla Haugová, who’s the best known woman poet, read there. Here is one of her short poems.”

Insomnia the little beast that begs with its eyes
lies down near me on the pillow blue and
smooth, i’m tired it says.
I’ll be here with you. i want to be here with you
desire is the portent of every deed
knowledge and love the road which moves
with the body, reasons of the heart
i want to be here with you

The Poetry Day
“I think that what was very interesting about this event was that they were all poets of an older generation, so they’d had very interesting life experiences. One of the poets, Peter Repka, had in fact emigrated to Germany and spent a lot of his adult life there, but also, as well as reading their poems, they talked about their poetry and about the current state of poetry in Slovakia, and I thought this was a very interesting debate to have. I think that one of the reasons why we want to be international is to open up the Czech poetry scene to other countries and vice versa, and to offer some opportunities for poets to meet poets from other countries.”

Obviously that’s particularly relevant with Slovakia, given that Czechoslovakia was one country and that the languages are so similar that Czechs and Slovaks can understand each other and read each other’s poetry.

“Yes, unfortunately I think that this ability is lessening over time, because, before the division, people were exposed on national television to Czech and Slovak, but I fear that young people find it less accessible now. So this was a fantastic opportunity to hear the very best of Slovak poets, and I’m very glad that English readers will now also have the chance to sample six very different poets. This was another very interesting thing about the reading – how very different the poets were, not only from Czech poets, but also from each other.”

Bernie, you’ve been part of the Poetry Day since its inception twelve years ago. Do you plan to carry on?

Litoměřice,  photo: H2k4,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
“I think that the event will carry on because there’s really no way to stop it now, as the people who are involved organize the events independently, and so there are many other people working on it now. So, in theory, it’s less onerous, but it’s also very exhausting. My friends say I’m like the boy who cried wolf, because each year I say never again, because it is very tiring. But there are always moments of inspiration – to hear a great poet like Hejda or to see the work that’s being done in the libraries and schools to encourage children to experiment both with writing themselves and learning different ways to enjoy poetry, and not be frightened of it and think of it as something that you have to learn by heart and recite, and something that shuts you out rather than something that can open up the world.”

Congratulations on the success of this year’s Poetry Day and best of luck in eleven months’ time with the Poetry Day 2011.

“It will be the thirteenth year…”

Lucky thirteen…

“Maybe we should have that as a theme too! I hope that people will carry on feeling that it’s worthwhile to celebrate living poets and great poets from the past, and also to encourage children to enjoy poetry too.”

The Poetry Day - - is organised by the voluntary organisation Společnost poezie (the Poetry Society), Martin Zborník, Bernie Higgins, Josef Straka, Zora Šimůnková.