dimanche 18 novembre 2012

Modern Poetry in Translation 5 (1969)


Used bookstores like Pele Mele in Brussels offer the reader many inexpensive, serendipitous encounters with literature that even the biggest standard bookstores cannot provide.

Take “Modern Poetry in Translation 5 (1969)”, which features Czech poetry written in the decade that saw the rise and crushing of liberalizing tendencies within both the government and its citizenry. This movement, known as the Prague Spring (1968) inevitably/understandably came to colour the artistic output that followed; this slim volume of poetry offers us an entry point into the psychology of an era. In fact, when approaching a text from the past like this one, a quick read through the editorial and publication information and any added notes regarding problems with publication or distribution can conjure of a feeling for the times that a history book can't really do...

MPT 5 was founded by British poet laureate Ted Hughes and fellow poet, educator and translator Daniel Weissbort. Auspicious beginnings. Hughes was only 39, Weissbort 34, London was “swinging”, the Beatles had arrived, the government was Labour and people were suspicious of the Soviet Union's intentions and tactics. So, the editorial reads a bit like a political pamphlet admonishing our poets for infusing their poetry with “hallucinations, ultimately self-indulgent”, a product of our “easy democracy” while our Eastern brothers are “in tune with the rhythms of their people in a direct, dynamic way”. Histrionics aside, the poetry is a pleasure to read.

There are, of course, direct political statements made - no question about what Jiri Kolar intends in his poem entitled “Advice for a Sycophant”, when every second line reminds collaborators to merely “Blame it on the Party”. The “Romeo and Juliet” poem by Jiri Sotola is completely different. It is a cinematic, romantic, intimate telling of the famous story where the here nameless lovers meet for the last time on a tram, between two trains:

They touch hands and leave,
each on his own, for their compartments, their tombs,
switch off the light, pull shut the sliding door, to sleep,
to sleep, or rather: to lie watching the ceiling,
listening to the rumble of the wheels
and the beating
of the heart.

I was struck by how well my impressions of this stunning artifact were encapsulated in the final two lines of “The Twentieth Century” by Antonin Bartusek:

You see, we took snapshots as we went.
The truth came out in negative.


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