Jaroslav Seifert—A Man of True Words
History - World Released - Jun 11, 2017
Jaroslav Seifert—A Man of True Words
I first read a poem by Jaroslav Seifert in the Christian Science Monitor, around 1980. Entitled “The Royal Pavilion,” it was about his beloved city of Prague. I clipped and saved it. Recently, I was reminded of Seifert and what his poetry meant to the Czech people, while reading "The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall" by Newsweek correspondent Michael Meyer. Learning about him, I was moved by his love for his country and for his fellow man, and ordered a book of his poetry. I was not disappointed.
I'm not generally a reader of poetry, but there is something about Seifert's bluff way with words that touches me, despite being a translation. I never met him, but if I had, I’m sure I would have liked him immediately. This is a man in love with humanity, in love with nature, in love with cities, in love with beautiful women young and old, indeed, in love with all true things. He lived through two world wars, and two brutal occupations, suffered mightily at the hands of ignorant and cruel men, and yet managed to keep his humanity and his dignity, find joy amidst the cruelties of this world, and live life to the fullest.
I ran across this quote from Seifert, in the book’s introduction, about the connection between poetry, sensuality, and freedom: "What we seek in language is the freedom to be able to express our most intimate thoughts. This is the basis of all freedom. In social life, it ultimately assumes the form of political freedom. . . . When I write, I make an effort not to lie: that's all. If one cannot say the truth, one must not lie, but keep silent. . . . Poetry has the subtlety we need to be able to describe our experience of the world. The fact that we speak by means of our human voice causes poetry to touch us personally, directly, so that we feel our whole being is involved."
Seifert won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984–the first Czech to do so. He passed away in 1986, at the age of 85. Four years later his beloved Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) was freed at last from the Stalinist yoke. A man of that much love and sensitively, must somehow know.
For me, poetry takes some time to digest in order to be fully appreciated. Below are five of Seifert’s poems, having been digested, I find particularly poignant:
We wave a handkerchief / on parting, / every day something is ending, / something beautiful’s ending.
The carrier pigeon beats the air, / returning; / with hope or without hope / we’re always returning.
Go dry your tears / and smile with eyes still smarting, / every day something is starting, / something beautiful’s starting.
Remember the wise philosophers: / Life is but a moment. / And yet whenever we waited for our girlfriends / it was an eternity.
The city of factory owners, boxers, millionaires, / the city of inventors and engineers, / the city of generals, merchants, and patriotic poets / with its black sins has exceeded the bounds of God’s wrath: / and God was enraged. / A hundred times He’d threatened vengeance on the town, / a rain of sulphur, fire, thunderbolts raining down, / and a hundred times he’d taken pity. / For he always remembered what once he had promised: / that even for two just men he’d not destroy his city, / and a god’s promise should retain its power.
just then two lovers walked across the park, / breathing the scent of hawthorn shrubs in flower.
THE ROYAL PAVILION
When I gaze out on Prague / and I do so constantly and always with bated breath / because I love her / I turn my mind to God / wherever he may be, / beyond the starry mists / or just behind the moth-eaten setting / to thank him / for granting that magnificent setting / for me to live in.
To me and to my joys and carefree loves, / to me and to my tears without weeping / when the love’s departed, / and to my more-than-bitter grief / when even my verses could not weep. / I love her fire charred walls / to which we clung during the war / so as to hold out. / I would not change them for anything in the world. / Not even for others, / not even if the Eiffel Tower rose between them / and the Seine flowed sadly past, / not even for all the gardens of paradise full of flowers.
When I shall die — and this will be quite soon — / I shall still carry on my heart this city’s destiny.
A lad changed to a shrub in spring, / the shrub into a shepherd boy, / a fine hair to a lyre string, / snow into snow on hair piled high.
And words turn into question signs, / wisdom and fame to old-age lines, / and strings revert to finest hair, / the boy’s transformed into a poet, / the poet is transformed once more, / becomes the shrub by which he slept / when he loved beauty till he wept.
Whoever falls in love with beauty / will love it to his dying day, / stagger toward it aimlessly, / beauty has feet of charm and grace / in sandals delicate as lace.
And in this metamorphosis / a spell binds him to woman’s love, / a single second is enough / like steam in a retort to hiss, / obedient to the alchemist / and drops dead as a hunted dove.
Without a stick old age is lame, / the stick turns into anything / in this ceaseless, fantastic game, / perhaps into an angel’s wings / now spreading wide for soaring flight / bodiless, painless, feather light.
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