Jaroslav Seifert was born in 1901 in Prague, in a working-class neighborhood called žižkov. Throughout his life, Seifert liked to recall his childhood in this part of Prague with its strong proletarian flavor, many tenements, railroad tracks, taverns, and its own dialect. Seifert’s mother was Catholic, his father an atheist and Socialist. Although his parents were poor, Seifert was able to attend a gymnasium (academic secondary school), from which, however, he was not graduated; he left the gymnasium early and started working as a journalist.
Seifert wrote his first poems during World War I, when the future Czechoslovakia was still a province of Austria-Hungary. Czechoslovakia became independent in October, 1918; Seifert was associated with the left wing of the Social Democratic Party, and became one of the first members of the Communist Party when it was organized in 1921. Although “workers’ poetry” was fashionable at the time, Seifert was one of the few practitioners who actually came from a working-class background.
The evolution of Seifert’s poetry in the 1920’s and 1930’s is almost identical to the general evolution of Czech poetry during the period, proceeding from one major movement to the next. Seifert’s friends, especially Karel Teige and Stanislav Neumann, weaned him from his earlier “proletarian poetry” and brought him closer to avant-garde artistic circles. Seifert joined them in founding a group called Devětsil; the name comes from a medicinal herb and flower that means, literally, “nine strengths.” The group was inspired both by the Russian Revolution and by the heady atmosphere of freedom and national independence at the end of World War I. Its aim was nothing short of the rebuilding of the world.
Seifert also took part in the important movement of “Poetism” that left its imprint on almost all the arts in Czechoslovakia after 1924. Poetism was influenced both by Franco-Swiss Dada and by Surrealism. It was an avant-garde movement oriented toward the future, considering all aspects of life as art forms—in the future, art would become life, and life would become art. For the Poetists, poetry became an imaginative game of chance associations of ideas, images, and words, often illogical and paradoxical. Sound effects were strongly emphasized in poetry, as well as fresh, startling rhymes; logical connections were loosened. The subject matter of poetry was broadened to include areas previously considered to be nonpoetic, such as science, technology, and exotic information. The poets drew on all the arts for their inspiration: film, music, the ballet, pantomime, the circus, and the music hall. The movement represented a sharp break with proletarian poetry. In morality, the poets tended to be skeptical; they were indulgent in sensual aspects of life and art, and often generalized their enthusiasms. They are sometimes accused of artistic insincerity, but they performed the great service of expanding the frontiers and technical devices of poetry....
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