Thursday, February 2, 2017

If you call poetry a song - some of Jaroslav Seifert's singing

The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert (1998, tr. Ewald Osers and George Gibian) is 250 pages of genial company with the Czech national poet, a position inseparable from the troubles of his country, the multiple wars, invasions, and occupations.  Or the troubles of his city, really.  He is the great poet of Prague.

Day after day I gaze in gratitude
on Prague’s Castle
                         and on its Cathedral:
I cannot tear my eyes away
from that picture.
                       It is mine
and I also believe it is miraculous.  (from “View from Charles Bridge,” 1983)

Tourist Prague, even.  There is enough geography in the later poems that even a couple of days in Prague was a big help.

Seifert began as a proletarian poet.  “We wanted to ‘astound the bourgeoisie,’ but it seems we astounded them only mildly” (p. 226).  I detected a contemporary French flavor, which was confirmed in a biographical prose piece, although in a surprising way:

[Karel Teige] would read and immediately translate for us the poems of Apollinaire.  In this way we became acquainted not only with Alcools and Caligrammes, but also with the poems of Jacob, Cocteau, Cendrars, Reverdy, and other modern poets.  Vildrac’s beautiful Book of Love, which we had loved before that, receded into the background, because Cubism, Futurism, and Tzara’s Dada rushed towards us, thanks to Teige.  (228)

Thus Prague looks a little different in a poem from the 1920s than in the above poem:

The telescopes have gone blind from the horror
    of the universe
and the fantastic eyes of the spacemen
have been sucked out by death.  (from “Prague,” 1929)

The telescopes would have been new, and are still there.  Osers, the translator, gives most of the book to the poetry of Seifert’s seventies and eighties, when he began writing poems again after a silence of two decades, poems that circulated as samizdat.  The poems that won him a Nobel, I presume, like a long sequence titled “The Bombing of the Town of Kralupy” (1983) from Seifert’s war experiences:

I do not know if I may say at last
what crossed my mind
at the sight of the bodies
                       -- it was a shocking thought.

They lay there on the ground in tidy rows
like so many hares laid out
after a successful shoot.  (188)

Maybe hard to get this subject wrong.  A set of music poems are lighter, including tributes to Bach and Mozart:

Mozart is not buried in capricious Vienna.
His grave is in Prague
on the Petřin hillside.

The grave is by now half crumbled.
It’s been a lot of years!
And no one else knows about it.  (from “Nocturnal Divertimento,” 1983, p. 196)

Three great lifelong loves for Seifert – women, Prague, and poetry:

If you call poetry a song
–  and people often do –
then I’ve sung all my life.

And I marched with those who had nothing,
who lived from hand to mouth.
I was one of them.  (1967, p. 79)

It can be hard to hear the singing in Osers’s free verse translations, which he says is a good part of why the book includes so few poems from the more formal, lyrical poems of the 1920s.  Easy enough to spend some time with wise, friendly, lively Seifert, though.


  1. Poetry as song?
    Consider "The Oven Bird" by Robert Frost.

  2. Yes, Frost's poem is kindred. Later in Seifert's poem:

    Blinded by love
    I staggered through my life,
    tripping over dropped blossoms
    or a cathedral step.