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Comments by Bob Corbett
Seifert was the last in a long line of national poets:
“Czech poets are expected to express the deep feelings of the nation in matters of everyday life – love, nature, and death – and also to speak out about major public issues . . .”
Jaroslav Seifert was born in 1901 in a working class neighborhood of Prague when it was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. He was independent, left wing, interested in the proletariat and favored anarchism. He was first a member of the Social Democratic Party, but in 1921 he joined the Communist Party.
In his 20s he shifted to more modernist views and in 1929 he was expelled from the Communist Party and never sought reinstatement.
During the Nazi occupation, Gibian says:
“Seifert published three volumes of poetry during the German occupation and World War II, in which he attempted to strengthen the nation’s resolve to survive with dignity. They expressed love for his homeland, for Prague, and for the Czech language, and with them he won the widest recognition of the Czech public.”
In the 1950s he emerged as a voice demanding modifications in Soviet treatment of Czechoslovakia and again won popular approval.
In 1965 he emerged with a new poetic manner. It was free verse.
In his last years he was a strong figure in Czech resistance to Soviet rule.
Gibian sums his way to be:
“. . . Seifert’s sunny poetic personality is rare in the twentieth century. It has much in common with Mozart’s. His heliotropic inclination towards grateful enjoyment of life is not Pollyanna-like, however. It rests on two important bases: compassion for the suffering of others and a gentle irony.”
This philosopher simply loved Seifert’s short poem mocking modern philosophy:
Salute to the Madrid Barricades“Remember the wise philosophers:
Life is but a moment.
Any yet whenever we waited for our girlfriends
It was an eternity.”
In this powerful poem about Lorca’s last days during the Spanish Civil War Seifert writes:
“But when the pen turned into a rifle
who did not flee?
A bayonett oo, can write on human skin,
its better burning like the crimson leaves
through which I’m wading at this difficult hour.
Yet one thing I do know, dead friend:
along the boulevards of Madrid
workers will march again and they will sing
your songs, dear poet,
when they’ve hung up the rifles they now lean on,
when they have hung them up in gratitude
as do the lame in Lourdes
their now no longer needed crutches.
I thought this was especially moving and a beautiful tribute to Lorca who was killed in 1936 during their Civil War.
His images are often very dark, even angry. In one poem he even announced this darker side of poetry:
“And so the poet drunk with life
should spew out all bitterness,
anger and despair,
rather than let his song become a tinkling bell
on a sheep’s neck.”
Yet he also sees that poetry can achieve a happiness in a certain unreality.
“But at that moment someone at my back
whispered into my ear:
But I make no excuse.
I believe that seeking beautiful words
than killing and murdering.”
There are nearly as many poems about writing poetry as there are poems about the world.
He also seems simply obsessed with woman and sex. He writes incessantly about women, love, and sex, about all of which he seems to complain that he had too little of.
This poem about half way through the collection has been my favorite to this point. It is actually about daydreaming, and how it is superior to nighttime dreaming. The opening stanza is the only one about regular dreaming, and I thought it was marvelous:
“How defenseless a sleeper is at night!
When cruel and senseless dreams
he calls for help in his sleep.
And yet these are just worthless coins
in a pocket with holes in.”
The rest of the poem talks about how much nicer are daydreams where we have some control over what happens:
“Those dreams with half-closed eyes
are happier. I can summon up whomsoever I wish,
even those who left us long ago
and whom I loved
and prolong their lives
by those few moments.”
He goes on to do so about a young woman he once loved.
This is a lovely poem that begins with Berthe Soucaret who he claims was the first woman crowned as a “beauty queen” back in 1888. She is his symbol of a beautiful woman and the joy any man has with falling in love with his beauty queen. Very lovely poem.
A significant number of the poems are set in and celebrate Prague. Those were delightful to me since I made at least a half-dozen visits to Prague over a 20 year span and always loved the lovely city. The last poem in the collection is set on the Charles Bridge and I spent significant hours on that bridge just sitting on one of the stone benches and watching people and the water.
He writes of several of the churches as well, including the cathedral on the Castle Hill, but he never mentioned the Infant of Prague statue. On one of my earliest visits I was alone and just wandering the narrow streets on the Castle side of the river and came across this fairly large church. It was a foggy morning and due was all over the various benches, so I went inside to sit a bit. There was the famous Infant of Prague statue and not a single person in the church but me. I was simply astonished and realized that in the U.S. a church with such a famous and valuable statue would have been locked up and only opened when security for this treasure could be assured.
He does write lovingly and caringly of Prague and it’s clear that he much enjoyed wandering around the whole of the old parts of the city and writes about it with tenderness.
This collection ends with a number of relatively short prose pieces, I enjoyed these more than I did most of the poetry. He began with a verbal portrait of his parents and their marriage which felt so real and so deeply personal that I felt like I was snooping on a secret journal entry.
In the short essay “The Schoolboy and the Prostitute” he tells of having heard about prostitutes in a rundown area of Prague and went to visit. He couldn’t get up his nerve and on one trip a relatively young prostitute saw him through the window and bared her breasts to him. He was overwhelmed, but hurried away, only to return, but he never had the courage to go inside.
I was reminded of a visit to Amsterdam with one of my sons who was just about 20 at the time, but very naïve. It was early evening, but fully dark and we were just walking around near the canal and came across a house of prostitution. The large picture window was open and soft lights were on inside and the young woman was undressing. My marvelously innocent son saw this and said to me: “Dad, that poor woman forgot to close her window, you should knock on the door and tell her.” He was dead serious and I was just convulsed in laughter. When I explained it to him he had a great laugh with me as well.
Overall I must admit I enjoyed the prose pieces more than I did the poetry and plan to see if there are purely prose works of Seifert which are available.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com