Not many poets have won the Nobel Prize, yet Czech literature can boast one: Jaroslav Seifert, who received the award in 1984, “for his poetry which, endowed with freshness, sensuality and rich inventiveness, provides a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man.”
Since 1989, however, the more lyrical tradition of the Czech bel canto — mastered so remarkably by Seifert — has died. Instead, older canons, such as surrealism, have resurfaced, while new forms, combining literature with performance, music, and visual arts, are gaining more ground. The Czech poetry scene has become ever more pluralistic and fragmented, with schools of thought ranging from the highly aesthetic to the socially engaged. The six poems below reflect the multitude of styles and themes that characterise contemporary Czech poetry.
My daughter marches through the forest. She can’t do it herself, so
she uses my legs, my eyes and my fear. Her voice
and her calls for the lost dachshund vanish in the branches.
We’re alone here. Alone and November.
We’re not alone at all. My daughter sees everything, pointing a finger
through a half-decaying gown of vines, into mists in a petrified thicket.
A trumpeter coaxes out the caps, oak apples and late season
mycelium. These all talk later; at exactly three in the afternoon.
I’m trying to be younger.
I’m trying to be younger, I can’t, my daughter marches
through the forest, fingering the handgrip she lures endangered species.
Where did you disappear to, you sweet idiot with a cigarette? The forest abides
these attempts, but the audience is being sick. I sing out of need.
I sing out of need, my daughter marches through the forest,
I always sit on this bench when she sleeps. Always
is the word of infectious craving. You always have seconds,
not giving a damn about your belly fat.
My daughter sleeps in the forest. I’m sitting in a different spot. The surface
is dead, yet the eerie house returns to life. One day someone
will call it home, in the meantime the garden stinks of leaves.
Burrows emerge from under the new fence. The Little Mole
and friends. Into the drenched earth, I trace footprints from need.
There’s no way around it: this forest is small. Any guy could
toss a cricket ball over it, as long as his hands aren’t clutching phones.
My daughter marches through the forest, I say: the forest of her dreams
is bottomless; I say, I talk, arms waving.
My daughter sleeps in the forest.
Jitka N. Srbová is a Czech poet, editor, and author of four poetry collections.
For we Czechs are ingenious
For we Czechs are poltroons
For we Czechs are heroes without fear or shame
We Czechs are harried, harassed by fate
Surprised by nothing
We lop off our noses to spite our face
We Czechs are afraid to resist all authority
We Czechs gave the world the robot and contact lenses,
Comenius and cucumbers from Znojmo,
The Škoda and Kundera and dozens of other inventions without which the world would be flying unseen in invisible fighter jets blown up by our Semtex
We’re the nation of Masaryks
The nation of John Hus
We Czechs are not Gypsies, Poles or Jews
We Czechs are Czech speaking Austrians
We have the most beauteous language in the world for no one but us can pronounce the infamous “ř”
We drink the most beer and with the help of our Allies — who betrayed us at Munich — banished the most Germans from the Sudetenland,
Many of whom we rightfully raped, gunned down or drowned in the river.
We’re a nation of Jan Palachs.
With the temperament of doves.
Our revolutions are all velvet.
With each defenestration we’re saved by the dung.
Each Czech is a musician.
Each Czech is a cosmonaut, communist, footballist
But hockey and tennis are really our games.
Common sense has no truck with the wisdom of Czechs.
We lie our way out of the bombing of our cities.
Neither communists nor dissidents, we muddled through in the grey zone.
Democrats to our toes,
Our humour is black
Our self-irony legend.
We gladly defile our own nest
But woe to those who defile it in our stead:
With mace in hand we’ll retire to the pub and drink ourselves into oblivion.
We’re laughing hyenas.
We know how to suffer, to heil whom we must, sign charters and anti-charters.
We’re anal rock climbers, we know when, what and how, and we speak all the languages of the Tower of Babel.
Many a Czech likes to fish.
Bohemian fish farming is a long-standing tradition.
Little Jesus distributes the gifts on Christmas Eve
And sushi made of carp has become our specialty.
What others can do, the Czech can do better.
We’ve been everywhere, can do anything.
Our philosophers become presidents, and some we torture to death — in this we resemble the ancient Greeks.
We always know how to defy our oppressors.
We’re Czechs! We’ll never surrender!
We have more sex and do it better.
Our women are the most beautiful.
Many Czechs suffered cruelly under the Czechs
While many other Czechs went camping, cooked wieners and sang.
The most notable Czechs were Freud, Mahler, Rilke, Kafka, Jean Marais and Krtek the mole.
We Czechs are die Simulantenbande.
We all know “My Homeland” but meanwhile lament:
“Where is My Home?”
It’s unbelievable how big is the little Czech man.
Tomáš Míka is a poet, prose writer and translator; he lives in Prague.
I kept talking about the winter mansion until you said:
so take me there.
And then I began to make excuses: you might be
it’s in the middle of the fields and there are wild cats in
on the steps there are statues fanning their sex with
you won’t like them.
I confess, I said, that I made some things up.
But you guessed I had made up everything, and you said:
now I don’t think I would like it either,
I don’t like wild cats and no one is waiting for us there,
don’t think about it.
Ivan Wernisch is one of the major figures of Czech poetry, a “living legend”. The poem is from his iconic collection The Winter Mansion.
For as long as I remember I’ve longed
for a weapon
first it was a bow and arrows
the cavaliers dropped like flies
I rooted for the Navajos
then Jack London in a knit cap with a jack-knife
a poor little boy on a ship with wolves
I didn’t get mixed up in a real war till later
but just a paper war
after that I started to carry a knife
and arm myself
with anonymous letters
together with Petr P.
dodging spears in the woods
on Radar Mountain . . . and they didn’t get us.
90 for a machete, 120 for tear gas
and there’s danger everywhere, in everything.
I bought my wife the gas
I want to get her a handgun
she objects, she says: ‘where would we end up
if everyone thought like that?’ and
‘you’d just be spreading more evil in the world.’
We wait for the rapist
on long nights planning how he’ll cross the park
come up from behind on the left
and what about those bastards in the subway
today I saw two heard them say:
‘where’d you cut him?’
‘on his fuckin’ face’ swinging bats
their legs barely reached the ground
they weren’t heiling at the moment
I wished they were dead
‘you’ll never kill them all anyway’ ‘and if
you did you’d be like them’ she says. I force her
to carry the gas at least
but it’s just an excuse for me
not have to wait for her when she comes back from church in the evening
and she’s wrong
I wouldn’t be like them
I’d be alive.
Before he switched to prose, Jáchym Topol wrote unique and imaginative poems. He has become one of the most acclaimed Czech authors, widely translated abroad.
Today we’re grilling ribs
The concert against the end
of the world was not cancelled.
even if no one comes.
I imagine salvation
as a little girl
from Africa, who
Ondřej Buddeus is a young Czech poet and writer working across different genres and media. He is currently teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague.
Eggs, newspaper, and coffee
are the first lie of the world,
saying that it’s
What order, while the whoredoms
of Jezebel, your mother,
and her witchcrafts are many?
said Jehu to King Horam
and shot him
between the shoulders.
What order, when every morning
the ark’s built up,
and the animals outrun
wheedle money, bribe Noah:
Brother, let me in!
Noah’s taken in,
the ark rocks on pity, on grief,
a swift stream, the Okeanos of weeping,
spits it into the pan of eggs
in the middle of the morning.
How the animals shout! How fried they are!
The latest news from the ark! Come and get it!
they squeak from the pan,
and above them, implacable as Jehu, an angel cries:
The news of your heart
is black as night,
ugly as a Medusa!
On the waves of a compassionate coffee,
Noah sails the ship on
past shop shutters slowly lifting up,
around rambling flowers
that open and close
their shining petals,
and breathe out pity
Sylva Fischerová writes poetry, prose, and essays. She teaches Classics at the Charles University in Prague. In 2018, she became the first City Poet of Prague.