Seifert, Jaroslav (Poetry Criticism)
Jaroslav Seifert 1901-1986
Czech poet, essayist, memoirist, and journalist.
The following entry provides information on Seifert's career from 1985 through 1998.
Recipient of the 1984 Nobel Prize for Literature and one of the most beloved and widely read Czech poets, Jaroslav Seifert's literary career spanned over sixty turbulent years and produced over thirty volumes of poetry. Having survived the Nazi, Stalinist, and Communist oppression, Seifert is singular in representing what William Harkins calls “the two great eras of Czech literature in the twentieth century”—the period of modernist innovation in the 1920s and the “thaw” of the 1960s. From his role as a leading proponent of the Czech avant-garde to his somber fugue-like meditations on Czech history, Seifert has been an important voice in literature. Seifert was awarded the Czechoslovakian State Prize for Literature in 1936, 1954, and 1968, and was named National Artist of Czechoslovakia in 1964.
Jaroslav Seifert was born on September 23, 1901, in Žižkov, a suburb of Prague. The son of a Catholic blacksmith, Seifert dropped out of school in order to become a journalist. At age 19, Seifert co-founded Dev˘etsil and was an early proponent of the Poetist movement. Poetism rejected art as an institution and celebrated everyday objects and popular pastimes; it perceived the everyday world as poetry itself. Although the members of Devětsil were active Marxists, their poetry was not explicitly political; Devětsil insisted that art has no purpose beyond being art and that daily life itself is art. Seifert published his first book of poems in 1921. He married Marie Ulrichova in 1928 and had two children. In March 1929, along with six other writers, Seifert signed a manifesto deploring Bolshevik tendencies in the Czech Communist Party and was subsequently expelled from the Party. Seifert joined the Democratic Socialist Party, and worked for Social Democratic and trade union newspapers throughout the 1930s and 1940s. In 1936, Seifert received the State Prize for Literature. Despite his fame, when the Communists consolidated control of Czechoslovakia in 1948, Seifert was blacklisted and forbidden to practice journalism. In 1950, the Communist regime criticized Seifert's poem Song of Viktorka as a “misuse of poetry.” Refusing to be a “poetic collaborator,” Seifert supported his family by writing volumes of children's verses and focusing on uncontroversial themes such as childhood, music, and the city of Prague. Throughout his life, Seifert spoke out against oppression. At the Second Congress of Czechoslovak Writers in April 1956, Seifert called for an end to state control of literature. With the Prague Spring of 1968, Seifert served as President of the Union of Czech Writers from 1968 until 1970, when Soviet forces dissolved the union and Seifert was forced to publish abroad through samizat publishing houses. In 1977, the year his masterpiece, The Plague Column, was published through samizat, he was one of the first to sign the Charter 77 human rights manifesto in response to the government's persecution of musicians. In 1984, Seifert became the first Czech to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died on January 10, 1986.
From 1921 to 1983, Seifert wrote over thirty volumes of poetry of that celebrated the redemptive power of everyday life. Seifert's poetry combined the traditions of Bohemian Baroque music and Czech folk culture with innovations inspired by the European and Russian avant-garde. His earliest work, Město v slzách (The City in Tears, 1921) focuses on the working-class daily life in which he grew up. Samá láska (Nothing But Love, 1923), Na vlnách T.S.F. (On the Waves of the Wireless, 1925), Slavík zpívá špatně (The Nightingale Sings Poorly, 1926), and Poštovní holub (Carrier Pigeon, 1929) reflect Poetism's fascination with startling the senses. Seifert's Poetist work is characterized by mixing media and genres (e.g., visual, aural and linguistic puns), paradox, irony, playfulness and sensuality. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the Nazi invasion, Seifert became a nationalist poet, producing work that, as Josef Škvorecký notes, was “full of both linguistic beauty and encoded messages—clear to the Czechs, impenetrable to the Nazis.” Seifert's lyric poetry during this time responded to the death of Tomás Masaryk, Czechoslovakia's first president (Osm dní [Eight Days], 1937), denounced the consequences of the Munich Agreement (Zhasněte světla [Put Out the Lights], 1938), and celebrated the defeat of the Fascists (Přilba hlíny [Helmet of Clay], 1945). Works such as Jablko s klína (An Apple From One's Lap, 1933), Ruce Venušiny (The Arms of Venus, 1936), Jaro sbohem (Farewell, Spring!, 1937) abandon Poetist experimentation and focus on national traditions, the beauty of Prague and the Czech landscape. Světlem oděná (Clothed in Light, 1940), Kamenný most (The Stone Bridge, 1944) and Praha (Prague, 1956) represent Prague as a symbol of national pride and Czechoslovakia's survival. Seifert's work at this time (Ruka a plamen [The Arm and the Flame], 1943, and Šel malíř chudě do světa [A Penniless Painter Went Out into the World], 1949) celebrates Czech writers and artists. His poems, Vějír Boženy Němcové (Božena Němcová's Fan, 1940) and Písen o Viktorce (Song of Viktorka, 1950), use the nineteenth century romantic novelist, Božena Němcova, and one of her heroines, Viktorka, to symbolize the strength of the Czech national tradition. In the 1950s, Seifert wrote children's verses, most notably Maminka (Mother, 1954). Three volumes of poetry in published in the 1960s—Koncert na ostrově (Concert on the Island, 1965), Halleyová kometa (Halley's Comet, 1967) and Odlévání ní zvonů (The Casting of Bells, 1967) focus on the harshness of life and the poet's disillusionment. Seifert describes this work as “chillingly naked.” Seifert's masterpiece, Morový sloup (The Plague Column, or The Plague Monument, 1977), is an evocative meditation on the political and spiritual pestilence that has ravaged his homeland and its people, including himself. Seifert wrote poetry (Deštník z Piccadilly [An Umbrella from Picadilly], 1979; Bytí básníkem [To Be a Poet], 1983) well into his eighties. In 1981, he published his memoirs, Všecky krásy světa (All the Beauties of the World). Seifert once said, “If anyone else remains silent, this may be a tactical maneuver. If a writer is silent, he is lying.” Seifert resisted silence and was the voice of the Czech people for over sixty years.
When Jaroslav Seifert received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984, only three volumes of his poetry had been translated into English, and possession of some of his books was a crime in Czechoslovakia. Rudé Právo (Red Justice), the official newspaper of the Communist Party, criticized Seifert's early works as “silly and harmful to the workers' cause.” The Communist-controlled government denounced Seifert as a disloyal, bourgeois escapist, condemning Seifert's Song of Viktorka as a “misuse of poetry” that “ridiculed everything that our working people hold dear.” And yet, Seifert received the State Prize for Literature for 1936, 1954 and 1968, and was named National Artist in 1964. As Czech poet Pavel Kohut noted, “He is not liked by the state, but they cannot silence him because he is so famous. He's really a voice of the people.” The lack of translations, and difficulty translating Seifert's precise rhythms, puns, assonances and specifically Czech allusions have made it difficult for English-speaking critics to assess Seifert's work. Critics such as Jan Vladislav compare Seifert's poetry to Mozart's music, which both “conceal hidden depths beneath [the] transparent, melodious surface.” Critics praise Seiefert's poetry for its sensuality and humor, accessible yet provocative style, and its subversive celebration of Czechoslovakia's cultural heritage. Morový sloup is considered Seifert's masterpiece. Edward Možejko writes, “[I]f Seifert had left only The Plague Monument to posterity, he would have assured himself a lasting place in Czech literature.” To Czech critics, Seifert is a national figure who, as Miroslav Holub says, “represented the nation's positive spirit, consistently, steadfastly, and to the end.” Milan Kundera praises Seifert's poetry as “tangible proof of the genius of the nation, the only glory of the powerless.” For Vaclav Havel, Seifert's “poetic work has long become common property, that is, everyone who is the least bit interested in literature got it under his skin.” He writes that Seifert “embod[ies] the best tradition of a responsible civic stance of a writer in this country.” The Nobel Prize agreed, citing Seifert's work as “endowed with freshness, sensuality and rich inventiveness, provid[ing] a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man.”
Město v slzách [The City in Tears] 1921
Samá láska [Nothing But Love] 1923
Na vlnách T.S.F. [On Waves of the Wireless] 1925
Slavík zpívá špatně [The Nightingale Sings Poorly] 1926
Poštovní holub [Carrier Pigeon] 1929
Jablko s klína [An Apple from One's Lap] 1933
Ruce Venušiny [The Arms of Venus] 1936
Zpivano do rotacky [Sung Into the Rotary Press] 1936
Jaro sbohem [Farewell, Spring!] 1937
Osm dní [Eight Days] 1937
Zhasněte světla [Put Out the Lights] 1938
Vějír Boženy Němcové [Božena Němcová's Fan] 1940
Světlem oděná [Clothed in Light] 1940
Ruka a plamen [The Arm and the Flame] 1943
Kamenný most [The Stone Bridge] 1944
Přilba hlíny [Helmet of Clay] 1945
Dokud nam neprsi na rakev [As Long As It's Not Raining on Our Coffins] 1947
Šel malíř chudě do světa: verše obrazkum Mikoláše Alše [A Penniless Painter Went Out into the World: Poems Accompanying the Work of Mikoláše...
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SOURCE: Harkins, William E. “The Czech Nobel Laureate Jaroslav Seifert.” World Literature Today 59, no. 2 (spring 1985): 173-75.
[This brief but comprehensive introductory essay provides an overview of the works and career of Jaroslav Seifert and offers commentary on why Seifert is deserving of the Nobel Prize despite a lack of recognition in the West.]
The award of the 1984 Nobel Prize in Literature to the aging Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert naturally raised many questions—hardly new ones. The Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy has demonstrated a striking preference for lyric poetry in recent years, a preference that the reading public scarcely shares. At least five prizewinners from the past eighteen years have been poets, not counting Seifert himself. The award to Pablo Neruda in 1971 reminds us parenthetically that this Chilean poet had taken his unusual (but somehow Spanish-sounding) pen name from Seifert's great countryman, Jan Neruda (1834-91), who, unfortunately, did not himself live quite long enough to qualify for the prize.
As a writer, Seifert has the distinction of having survived the great period of Czech interwar literature (he began to publish in 1920) and having continued to be productive in recent decades, even under communism (though for a time he could not publish). Thus he unites in his person the two great eras of Czech literature in our century: the...
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SOURCE: Vladislav, Jan. “Poets and Power: Jaroslav Seifert.” Index on Censorship 14, no 2 (April 1985): 8-12.
[This historically-grounded article describes the Communist regimes attempts to suppress the writing of Jaroslav Seifert, the samizdat or émigré publishing houses used to disseminate censored literature, and Seifert's importance as a literary and historical figure.]
Following his 1984 Nobel Prize, the communist authorities in Prague now claim poet Jaroslav Seifert as one of their own; only a year earlier, possession of his books was deemed a crime. ‘Force does not tolerate another force,’ wrote Gustave Flaubert in connection with the planned but then hushed-up trial of his young friend, Maupassant, thinking when he wrote those words of one of the two chief enemies of every good author. The first enemy are his readers, because a good book ‘forces them to think, to work’. More dangerous, however, is the second enemy Flaubert had in mind—those in power, the government.
Flaubert had learned to his cost what these enemies can do, especially when they join forces to haul the writer up in court, as they did with him over Madame Bovary. Then there was the trial which condemned Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil. But such trials, whether public or secret, were by no means confined to nineteenth-century France. There is a time-honoured tradition of books on...
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SOURCE: Holub, Miroslav. “A Song Under All Circumstances.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 14, no. 1 (1987): 209-27.
[This thorough essay provides careful close readings of Seifert's early, middle, and late work as the author explores Seifert's conception of poetry as song.]
“I believe, or, to be perfectly frank, I just assume that what is normally called poetry is one great mystery of which the poet, and indeed every single poet, unveils a greater or a lesser part. Then he puts down his pen or covers his typewriter, turns pensive and towards nightfall he dies. As for instance Nezval.”
As for instance Seifert.
He'd written this sentence in his memoirs, and then he kept his word, in that night from January 9-10, 1986: it is said that he left a half-written poem on his bedside table.
If it were possible to classify poetry, as certain other forms of human behavior, into obligatory and optional, then Seifert would be a clear example of the first kind: the poem to him was the most natural form of expression. As is evident from the paragraph quoted above, even his prose was composed of half-written potential poems, of poetic sweeps tending toward a metaphorical anchoring before the flow of narration is embarked upon. “I'm not a good storyteller,” he himself said. “When I tell a story I'm in too much of a hurry … I simply haven't got the knack....
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SOURCE: Možejko, Edward. “Between Dream and Reality: The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert.” Scando-Slavica 33 (1987): 63-79.
[A scholarly essay that provides a thorough, historically and politically grounded overview of Seifert's life and work while also providing nuanced readings of Seifert's poetry, with particular attention to Morový sloup.]
1. THE EARLY PERIOD: FROM PROLETARIAN POETRY TO POETISM
Jaroslav Seifert made his literary debut in 1921, barely four years after the first publication of T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock, and one year prior to the appearance of The Waste Land. Franz Kafka was still alive and living in Prague. In the same year, another Czech writer and Seifert's contemporary, Karel Čapek, wrote his play, R.U.R., which gave the world a then strange, but now familiar, term: “robot”.
The new generation of writers included such poets as Vitězslav Nezval, Konstantin Biebl, František Halas, Josef Hora, Vladimir Holan, Jiří Wolker, Stanislav Kostka Neumann and others. As noted by one critic,1 no other generation has ever had a greater impact on the evolution of Czech literature than the one which appeared shortly after the first World War.
Jaroslav Seifert was part of this generation. Born on September 23, 1901, to a poor worker's family in Žižkov, a suburb of...
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SOURCE: Gibian, George. “The Poetics of Prague: Literary Images of a City.” In The Achievement of Josef Škvorecký, pp. 171-81. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.
[This essay considers how Seifert's poetry uses and reflects upon the Czech capital Prague.]
The action in Josef Škvorecký's most famous novel, The Cowards, takes place not in Prague, but in a small town very reminiscent of his own Náchod. Nevertheless, the presence of the capital is very palpable. For the young heroes of the novel, Prague is a magnet gleaming somewhere in their future. They look forward to going to Prague now the war is nearly over and the Germans are gone. Prague is the focus of their yearnings and aspirations, as Moscow was for Chekhov's three sisters. But the Prague of The Cowards holds very different promises from those of Moscow in the Russian play: the young Czech boys look to Prague for the fulfilment of their dream of a marvellous girl and of marvellous jazz. The last words of the novel read: ‘I played for them, and thought of all those usual things that I always thought about, about girls and jazz and that unknown girl I am going to meet in Prague.’1
In this article, however, I am not concerned with the images of Prague in the works of Škvorecký; I shall leave this fruitful and enjoyable topic to others to pursue. Rather, I shall examine the lyrical...
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SOURCE: Sternstein, Malynne M. “Sensuous Iconicity: The Manifestoes and Tactics of Czech Poetism.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 31, no. 2 (June 1998): 77-100.
[In this selection from a scholarly essay, the author draws upon the linguistic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce to examine how Seifert's early poetry contributes to the Poetism movement and to Czech surrealism.]
The concerns expressed in the early decades of the 20th century by movements in the vanguard of European literature revolved commonly around renewing the “sense” or “power” of the poetic word. Although these attempts were informed by coincidental breakthroughs in the areas of linguistics and aesthetics, the impetus for poetic innovation cannot be summed up merely as a general interest in linguistic “experimentation” or penchant for word-play. On the contrary, the motivation derived from an overriding political and philosophical concern with a direct engagement of social reality. Treating the word as such meant not only freeing it from servitude to alternate (arguably “communicative”) purposes by rendering it autotelic, but also liberating it from dependence on any other definition to substantiate its being; that is, the word is set truly free by making its being its own. An attempt was made to establish what might be called the word as thing—a semiotic revolution to...
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Saman, Paul A. “Jaroslav Seifert's Political Profile.” Proceedings of the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference 4, no. 1 (1986): 104-13.
Biographical essay providing an overview of Seifert's politics, with particular attention to his struggles against government control of his work.
Coffin, Lyn. “On Jaroslav Seifert.” Concerning Contemporary International Poetry 17, no. 2 (1987): 183-88.
Brief introduction to the poet's work, accompanied by translations of Seifert's poetry.
French, Alfred. Czech Writers and Politics, 1945-1969. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Book-length work prominently featuring the life and work of Jaroslav Seifert.
French, Alfred. The Poets of Prague. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Provides an overview of poets who lived in and wrote about the Czech capitol.
Harkins, William E. “On Seifert's Morový sloup.” Cross Currents: A Yearbook of Central European Literature 3 (1984): 131-35.
Reflects on the significance of Morový sloup and suggests that the poems “helps to confirm” Seifert's status as “the greatest Czech poet of our day.”
Iggers, Wilma A. “The World of...
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