The Madman and the Poet

The Madman and the Poet

In a new collection of poems by the mentally ill Czech dissident Ivan Blatný, the world and the poet’s interpretations of it are continuously transforming.


The experience of reading the Czech poet Ivan Blatný in English is strangely reminiscent of watching Peter Weiss’s 1963 play Marat/Sade, set in the Charenton Asylum, with its astounding collision of intellectual brutality and insane gentility. Blatný, who defected to England shortly after the 1948 Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, spent most of the subsequent four decades in mental hospitals, where he suffered from a number of ailments, particularly paranoia. Which, as the old quip goes, does not mean that they weren’t out to get him, whether “they” were the authorities who publicly declared him dead on Czech Radio, the agents who kept trying to enlist his service for the Communist regime or the doctors and nurses who appear to have thrown out a substantial body of his work written before the late 1970s. They had learned, as Josef Skvorecký puts it, “that Blatný was a real poet, not just a madman who believed that he was a poet.” We would be hard pressed to find a more fitting allegory not only for the struggle to write these poems but also for the act of reading them.

The Drug of Art thus represents a curious literary event: the first major foray into English letters of a foreign-born poet who spent most of his life in England and who even wrote a great deal in English. As an event in book form, it has a fine orchestration that is not without some hint of theatricality. Editor Veronika Tuckerová enlists four additional translators, a Blatný scholar for the afterword and a cameo appearance (in the foreword) by Skvorecký, author of such novels as The Engineer of Human Souls and Dvorak in Love, which have made him one of the few big-name stars in contemporary Central European literature. All of this, combined with the brilliant visual design of the book itself, helps ease us into the madhouse that will follow.

And it is a madhouse. The poems written during Blatný’s first productive period, from World War II until his 1948 exile, bear the strong mark of his connection to Group 42, a loose association of writers, artists and literary theorists who advocated the use of expressionistic, sometimes surrealistic techniques to portray life as it is happening. The most influential of Group 42’s members was the poet Jirí Kolár, best known internationally as an innovative collage artist. While Kolár sometimes splices a familiar image onto an alien background–one of the more basic compositional techniques in collage–he more frequently reshapes the mundane, offering it in a state of unsettling displacement or disarray: a Dutch oil painting becomes a tin can, a crucifixion scene takes on the outline of a pear. In one image from the mid-1980s, which appears as the front cover of The Drug of Art, a photograph of a woman standing before a mirror is crumpled and flattened so as to fracture the glass and the woman alike.

These organizational principles of collage apply to Blatný’s poems as well, with their mishmash of seemingly disembodied images. Indeed, his best work from this period consists largely of Adamic gestures of naming, slippery attempts to identify those things that have entered his psychic and physical spaces, even as his attention and the things themselves are constantly changing. In the middle stanza of “This Night” (1942), from the poetry collection of the same name, Blatný presents this struggle to label and tag his world as an event always occurring in real time. Here is the opening, in Matthew Sweney’s lively translation:

This night As I say this night
Now for example And what is that little spider called
I get up, I take my old notes
Rouault’s painting I think about
When I will recognize you, I dreamed of you
This day Arising unceasingly everywhere,
on the tracks, in cities, in the woods, on the fronts
Suddenly Ringing from below Embarrassing memory
Insect between the lines
With a thin, yellow ringed abdomen

In his self-interruptions and sudden shifts of awareness, Blatný stages a fundamentally open-ended act of mind: the external world can never be fully internalized, nor can the poet’s internal weather be broadcast without static or interference. The poem is always slipping away from that which the poet most needs to describe, since the world is continuously transforming in time.

The critic Harold Skulsky’s characterization of metamorphosis as “the mind in exile” seems tailored for Blatný. Unable to grasp the constantly changing reality around him, Blatný felt himself cast out from the world–from memory, literary tradition and ultimately from the poem in the moment of its composition–long before he lost touch with Czechoslovakia or, a few years later, with much of reality. The poet expresses this existential homelessness in his well-titled 1947 collection, In Search of Present Time, and most effectively in the poem “Song,” which riffs on a frequently repeated mantra: “Thousands of kilometers away from me.” Here is the poem’s closing, presented once again in Sweney’s exceptional rendering:

Thousands of kilometers away from me, around the chateau granary
around the blinded house growing cobwebs in its windows, around the farm buildings.
Thousands of kilometers away from me, on a small hill named Kristálov,
where bluegreen flies big as glistening buttons buzz over crumpled paper, crumbs, and picknickers’ crap,
there, where the night floods and changes everything, there, where the moon
fills its quiet aquariums
of dungheaps and courtyards paved with cobblestones,
there, where the world and universe is outside me and inside me, and everywhere and elsewhere than everywhere,
thousands of kilometers away from  me.

In its pervasive sense of loss, its dynamic blend of nostalgia and rancor–all those “crumbs” and “dungheaps”–the poem recalls “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved,” the Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet’s widely celebrated, much-anthologized 1962 meditation on similar themes. Without rejecting the universality that Walt Whitman famously extolled in “Song of Myself,” both poets suffer for it, at once lauding and lamenting “the world and universe” that “is outside me and inside me, and everywhere and elsewhere than everywhere.”

In Tuckerová’s otherwise astute introduction, in which she contextualizes Blatný’s contribution to Czech poetry and outlines its potential value for American readers, she presses the point about Blatný’s having been blacklisted from publishing in Communist Czechoslovakia. But the standard paradigm for reading poets from the chillier side of the Iron Curtain, a model that requires the reader to frame every utterance as an expression of the oppressed exile or victim of history, does not apply so well to Blatný, though he strikes a no less tragic figure. Himself a member of the Communist Party, Blatný arrived in England as part of an official delegation, only to announce to the BBC that he had no intention of ever going back. His friends and colleagues, many of whom still believed in the promise of building a great socialist state, felt understandably betrayed. In the coming years Blatný gradually divorced himself first from the life of Czech letters, then from life. His political status, though part of a larger story that has been the impetus for much of the West’s attention to poets from the East, seems trivial against the backdrop of what Blatný suffered as a victim of mental illness, the treatment of which is only now emerging from the Dark Ages.

The poems that make up This Night and In Search of Present Time are by far the most powerful in Blatný’s oeuvre. The sometimes multilingual poems that Blatný jotted down in notebooks and on bits of paper in the years leading up to his death in 1990 are fragmentary and haphazard by comparison. Still, even in these epigrammatic scraps, fifteen of which appear here for the first time anywhere, there are worthwhile glimpses of Blatný’s genius, with the poet once again struggling with the failure of poetry to translate the world into a language that is comprehensible to the self, whether to the poet or to his reader. This is the case, for example, in an untitled six-line poem composed mostly in English: “Queen, drones, bee-workers, život včel/that is the bee-hive’s personnel//Now I must whisper in low tone//I was today a dying drone//But I am fresh and Glück-alive/back in the úl, back in the hive.”

Light in tone, spoken with an unplaceable accent even on the page, Blatný is clearly a man at play, rhyming the Czech život včel (pronounced “ZHIV-ot FCHEL”) (“the life of bees”) with “personnel” and finding more “good fortune” in the German Glück than in its English equivalent. Although the Czech word úl means “hive,” the poet has to use both words, in a sense reminding himself that these different sounds refer to the same thing. Tuckerová notes that in these later poems, “Blatný switches freely from Czech to English, French and German, all within a single poem and sometimes even within a line, as if the languages were all part of one primary or originary language.” Perhaps, though Blatný’s use of different languages to restate or slightly revise the same information suggests his grasping after a clarity that nevertheless continues to elude him. As Blatný flails after meaning, often with a tragicomic linguistic bravado, we recognize the line of continuity between his strongest work from the 1940s and the later poems, which, as stabs in an almost impenetrable dark, are thoroughly interesting despite their lack of polish.

Given that so much of Blatný’s work is about translation in all its guises–semantic, geographic, psychological, philosophical–it is wholly fitting that the publishers of The Drug of Art have paid special attention to the challenges of their collaborative enterprise, carefully noting the translator responsible for each text and, in an especially commendable move, appending a brief statement of aesthetic purpose by each of the translators involved. In this volume, respect for Blatný’s art is commensurate with respect for the process, however virtuous or flawed, of conveying it to new readers. This may be why the editor has chosen to print almost every poem twice: the original is paired with the translation for the Czech poems, a two-tone format for the multilingual poems and a facsimile of the manuscript for those poems printed here for the first time. These English renderings are forced quite literally to face up against their source texts, just as Blatný’s poems confront “originary” experiences that nevertheless seem to elude expression in language.

Unfortunately, some of Blatný’s poems slip away from their translations as well. The earliest poems presented in The Drug of Art, from his 1941 collection Brno Elegies/Melancholy Walks, are composed in gorgeous Alexandrines, the formal virtues of which the Irish poet Justin Quinn has tried to maintain, by his own account, “at nearly all costs.” Admirable as his intentions may be–it is nearly always deflating to see a translator throw up his or her hands in the face of rigorous formal demands–the costs are great. Quinn, whose own poems, especially those in his book Privacy, display greater formal finesse than he shows here, makes an otherwise elegant young Blatný sound like a third-rate Edgar Allan Poe, as in these lines from “While rain went rippling…,” which begins the collection: “Amidst its weeds, there is the grasp and flash/of speechless fishes’ silence, which then goes./And the water mirrors hills and woods awash/in murmurs of the overflying crows.” Or else this stanza, which opens “Above the wooded quarry…”: “Above the wooded quarry are cement-works./I went up there to cut a rose-hip wand./The city faded and the river panned/ beneath the hill, dragging its sluggish murk.” We can actually hear the lines crackling as they stretch to meet unnatural demands in rhythm and rhyme. Of course, the author who employs such formal strategies also recognizes them as unnatural. The trick is to persuade the reader otherwise, and “dragging its sluggish murk” doesn’t quite cut it.

Bad things can sometimes happen in translation–just as they can in any writing–and the remaining contributors (including Tuckerová, veteran translator Alex Zucker and American poet Anna Moschovakis) are more than up to the task of conducting Blatný into English, while Sweney’s efforts, which occupy the lion’s share of the book, are worthy not only of praise but serious study. The weaker poems, meanwhile, make up such a modest portion of the book that they would not be worth mentioning but for the fact that they come first and could easily be taken by the uncommitted reader for a preview of the whole. At the same time, it is strangely fitting that Blatný should be rendered into several different voices. After all, he was himself a tragically fractured poet, unsure of who, where or when he was, and therefore capable of speaking in a number of beautiful ways. Each of them is worth getting to know.

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