The prison poet: remembering Ivan Martin Jirous

Ivan Martin Jirous, photo: Czech Television

Last month was the end of an era in Czech poetry. The man who practically embodied the poetic underground of the 1970s and 80s, Ivan Martin Jirous – alias Magor, or Loony in English – died at the age of 67. Not only was Magor one of best Czech poets of his generation, but also the driving force behind the underground rock scene. He embodied the longing for rebellion and freedom, as so-called “normalization” sucked the air out of Czech and Slovak society. In Czech Books, David Vaughan talks to one of Magor’s close friends and associates.

With his long hair, his love for the provocative and outrageous, and poetry that was completely unfettered by the absurd constraints of socialist realism, Ivan Martin Jirous became a symbol of the dissident underground, every bit as much as his friend, Václav Havel. In the years after the 1968 Soviet invasion, he was best known for his work with the underground music scene, most famously the cult rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe, and he proved brilliant at organizing and coordinating concerts under almost impossible conditions.

In the early 1970s he also introduced the poet Egon Bondy to the band, and from then on the Plastic People’s lyrics drew richly from Bondy’s poems. Bondy was 15 years older than Jirous and was a huge inspiration to him. “Without you, Bondy, I’d be done for,” he wrote in one poem. Both were passionately and creatively iconoclastic. Gradually Jirous became known as a poet in his own right, and long after the fall of communism this culminated in his being given the coveted Jaroslav Seifert Award in 2006.

For the rest of the programme I’m going to be talking to the literary critic, editor and translator, Martin Machovec who knew Ivan Martin Jirous for nearly 40 years. He remembers his rather strange first meeting with the poet, at a time in the mid-70s when the police were clamping down heavily on the underground cultural community. Both were on their way to hear Egon Bondy reading his poetry at a secret venue in Klukovice, on the edge of Prague.

“I remember that we got on a bus and we saw some long-haired guys there, and I asked one of them if they were going to Klukovice as well. I remember he turned his back to me and never answered back. So I wondered what we’d done wrong. They got off at the bus stop and so did we. They started walking away in the direction of the pub and we followed them. In the middle of a field they stopped and waited for us three to come. And when we were on the spot, they surrounded us and wanted to beat us, because they suspected us of being police spies. When we presented the invitation written by Bondy, they immediately started apologizing. Jirous, who had proved to be the most aggressive of all of them, immediately apologized, saying, ‘Well, you have to understand, guys, we’ve had this trouble before.’ And so that was the way I made friends with Jirous.”

And Jirous was well known, wasn’t he, for making no compromises with the regime, even to the extent of sometimes being aggressive or provocative towards the regime.

“Undoubtedly. That’s why he started to be nicknamed ‘Magor’, which could be translated as Loony – and I think it would fit. He always behaved in a rather irrational way. Our rational mind tells us, ‘Stop here, be more cautious!’ And he never did! He behaved in the so-called normalization years as if there had not been any normalization. He always wanted to behave as a free human being and he paid dearly for it, of course. That’s why we admired him, because, had it not been for his courage, the whole of the movement would probably have collapsed much earlier.”

And he ended up being jailed several times. I think it was at least three times…

“Five times altogether, and for the fourth time it was the harshest imprisonment. He was imprisoned in the prison Valdice among murderers and prisoners who were sentenced to fifteen or twenty years for the worst possible crimes. It very much reminds me, let’s say, of extermination camps.”

It’s just about the biggest compliment that a totalitarian regime can give to a poet – to treat the poet as a political threat. In most societies, the fate of the poet is to be constantly on the margins and to be considered as irrelevant by most people. Here it’s the exact opposite. Jirous was someone they were really terrified of.

“Absolutely, and it’s one of the paradoxes that he was able to write his best poetry when in prison. In his harshest years he wrote his masterpiece, ‘Magorovy labutí písně’ – Magor’s Swan Songs – when he definitely must have suffered immensely during those three-and-a-half years in prison at Valdice. But, of course, that was not so new. The 1950s saw similar things. Many excellent Czech and Slovak writers and poets were imprisoned, to say nothing of what had been going on in the Soviet Union in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s.

“But here, Jirous’s role was really extraordinary. Firstly, it should be stressed that he was an excellent organizer in the early years. It was thanks to him that the whole of this rather anarchistic movement of rock fans started to take shape, and then he was able to organize those unofficial gigs, and keep it secret. He described it all in his seminal text called ‘Pravdivý příběh Plastic People’ – The True Story of the Plastic People. So we can easily get to the important data concerning his career.

“And only later on did he gain the reputation of a poet. In his early years he did write poetry, but it’s conspicuous that although he made several anthologies of underground poetry, he never included any of his texts until the early 1980s. And only in the mid-1980s did he gain this reputation. It’s a paradox to say that it was thanks to his imprisonment.”

You’ve mentioned Magor’s Swan Songs, written in prison. Here is a short poem from that collection.

Neplavil jsem po mořích
a přece sedím v lodi
nade mnou nebe ve mně hřích
dva věrní lodivodi Namísto stěžně vztyčen kříž
tak pořád doufám že mě něžně
nad vodou podržíš I didn’t sail on any sea
and yet I now sit in a ship
above me heaven inside me sinful debris
two faithful pilots on a trip Instead of a mast a crucifix grows tall
so I keep hoping you will gently
hold me over the water and above the squall [trans.: Clarice Cloutier, in "Up the Devil's Back", Slavica 2008]

Martin Machovec, photo: David Vaughan
We can see from this short poem that here is Magor with this slightly insane, aggressive image, capable of writing very lyrical poetry.

“Yes. I would share the opinion of literary historians that this collection, written in the mid 1980s in prison is one of the best collections of poetry written in the second half of the 20th century in this country. Yes, there are texts that are extremely tender, and on the other hand there are very provocative texts, full of blasphemies, full of offenses, full of four-letter words that seem unacceptable for poetry. So that’s what made his poetry so attractive also.”

It’s interesting that you talk about blasphemy, because when Ivan Martin Jirous died in November, the memorial service was led by the Prague Catholic Bishop Václav Malý. There’s a paradox even there, isn’t there?

“Well, not perhaps so much, because they were friends since the dissident years, although now, of course, Bishop Malý represents the high clergy! So that was one of the many paradoxes of Jirous’s life. There were actually two services. The one took place in Prague, the other one in Kostelní Vydří, where Ivan Martin Jirous was buried. The service was led by another priest who also quoted some of his poetry during the service, including some of the very provocative verses about how he detested Christianity, because of collaborating with the communist regime etc. These poems are also included in Magor’s Swan Songs.”

Ivan Martin Jirous, photo: Czech Television
And throughout the period of communist rule, one of Magor’s key principles was the idea of no compromise with the regime. After the fall of communism, political realities get a great deal more complicated and it’s no longer really possible to hold that stance. Did Jirous find it very difficult after the fall of communism to adapt to the more ambiguous political situation?

“Undoubtedly. It is not just my opinion that he must have found it very, very difficult. At the beginning of the 1990s I remember when he was released from prison, there was no chance to talk to him, because I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much when I say that he spent the 1990s drinking very heavily, travelling as well – trying to make up for lost time. But there was no longer any opportunity for him to do that in which he proved so useful in the 1970s – as an organizer of gigs. That was no longer necessary for him. He went on writing poetry but it was only in the late 1990s that his poems started to be published. He was discovered only after 1997 when a thick volume of his poems called ‘Magorova suma’ was published, and his colleagues – poets and writers – realized that this troublemaker seems to be an excellent poet.

“But as for the new political, democratic system, I think in the beginning – as most of us who remember those years were – he was in favour of his friend Václav Havel in his role as president of Czechoslovakia, later on the Czech Republic, but after a couple of years he started to be disappointed and so he ended up in his later years as a very radical opponent of today’s political establishment. Many, many times he spoke about how disgusted he was with today’s political and social situation in the Czech Republic.”

And at the same time, he became very popular as a children’s poet.

“Yes, it’s one of the surprises his writing had in store for us, because that was also, let’s say, part of his prison production. He wrote nice, tender texts, which he was permitted to send to his two daughters, who were quite young in the mid 1980s. These were little poems, nursery rhymes, but also fairy tales he wrote for his two daughters, that later on were made part of the collection ‘Magor dětem’ – Magor for Children. This collection was then published several times and he gained a reputation as an author quite well capable of writing texts for children.”

Let’s end with a last, very short poem. Again, this is a poem without a title.

Krásná je hora Mont St. Michel
Já nejdál do Valdic jsem přišel
moje básně jsou samý klišé
na hubě vyrazil mi lišej Mont St. Michel sure is striking
the furthest I got was Valdice by hiking
my poems are full of clichés like sprouts
on my trap eczema’s broken out [trans.: Clarice Cloutier, in "Up the Devil's Back", Slavica 2008]

There is a mention there of Valdice…

“…which, as I mentioned, is the prison where he spent almost three years and this is the place where he wrote this collection of poems, Magor’s Swan Songs.”

And what is it that particularly appeals to you about this little poem?

“This is a good example of the way Magor wrote with rhymes and rhythms, how he was able to introduce into his poetry texts or facts that are in general considered to be unacceptable for poetry. There is the provocative rhyme ‘klišé’ – ‘lišej’ etc. Mont St Michel definitely shows nostalgia for the beauties of the western world that he’s never going to see again in his life – I think he did later on, but he can’t have believed at the time that he’d see such a beauty of the West as Mont St Michel is. So this was something he was able to express in just four lines. It is a sort of nostalgia confronted with irony or cynicism, with facts taken from prison, from everyday life in prison. Jirous is able in just a few lines to express inner drama – something that is full of tension and full of the atmosphere of this harsh prison at the same time as this spiritual life that still went on when he was in prison.”

Ivan Martin Jirous is going to be greatly missed. He was only 67 when he died. Do you have a fear that further generations will no longer understand this kind of poetry and the context that brought it about?

“Yes, I do. It’s always very difficult to try to predict. I can’t speak on behalf of future generations, although let’s hope that it’s the kind of poetry that will speak to generations to come, especially thanks to the excellent sense of humour, self-irony. So, let’s hope that such terrible places as Valdice Prison will be forgotten, but Jirous’s poetry will live on.”