Ivan Blatný: a Brief Introduction
Anna Moschovakis

Click to read selections and translations from Blatný's Bixley Remedial School

Veronika Tuckerová introduced Matvei Yankelevich and me to Ivan Blatný's poetry in 2003, and before too long we decided to work on a book of Blatný’s poems for Ugly Duckling Presse’s Eastern European Poets Series, with Veronika as guest editor. After these many months working closely with Veronika and with other Blatný scholars (notably Antonín Petruželka) to prepare that book, The Drug of Art, for publication, I may be as versed in Blatný’s biography and work as a non-Czech speaker can become in so short a time, but most of the facts and ideas presented in this brief introduction are stated more thoroughly by others within the pages of that book. The Drug of Art, which includes poems from the full span of Blatný’s publishing career, will be available this summer from http://www.uglyducklingpresse.org/page-Blatný.html.   –A.M.

Ivan Blatný: a Brief Introduction

The Monx speak Monx
I speak czech and english
I have an instrument for getting traffic-wordens out of the drain-pipes
and changing them into an apple-rose

                        —from “Janua Sapientiae” by Ivan Blatný

The poet who wrote these lines had good reason (and plenty of time) to hone his instrument: He spent most of his adult life in institutions, in exile from his native country, denounced or forgotten by many of his former friends, even declared dead back home. And while he was considerably better off than that last declaration would suggest, his publishing career was practically moribund—stalled by the “traffic wordens” of Communist censorship—for more than forty years.  

Born in 1919 in Brno, Czechoslovakia, Ivan Blatný enjoyed early success as a poet, publishing four books before he turned 30. On the heels of the 1948 coup d’etat he defected while in England on a government-funded cultural exchange trip. Shortly after denouncing the new Czech regime on BBC radio (and being severely attacked for it in Prague), he briefly entered a mental hospital in London. Later, he would say that he had suffered a “nervous breakdown” brought on by the stress of his situation. For the next several years Blatný worked occasionally as a writer, collaborating at times with the BBC and Radio Free Europe. In 1954 he was definitively institutionalized, although he moved facilities several times; the last few years of his life were spent in a nursing home in Essex, which is where he died in 1990. According to a statement by the  Czechoslovak ambassador in London, Blatný's Czech citizenship had been restored to him by the time of his death.

Blatný left behind thousands of manuscript pages. In 1969, after years of unproductivity, he had begun to write again in earnest, but most of what he wrote before 1977 is presumed lost; beginning that year at least a portion of his work was preserved, thanks in part to the efforts of an English nurse who had ties to Czechoslovakia. Some of Blatný's manuscripts were transported to people who managed to publish them—either in samizdat, which was punishable in Czechoslovakia, or abroad. The poems presented here are from Bixley Remedial School, a book published in samizdat in Prague in 1982 (an altered and expanded book of the same name was published in 1987 in Toronto).

There is a stark difference between the poems Blatný became known for early on and the ones he would write after spending several years in England. The early poems are lyrical, often elegiac, and filled with details about the poet’s life. Blatný was a member of Group 42, a group of Czech poets and artists founded in 1942 around the tenets put forth by the theoretician Jindřich Chalupecký. The Group's foundational ethos was a kind of existential civilism; Chalupecký wrote that "the reality of the modern painter and poet is the city; its people, its pavements, lamp posts, store signs, houses, stairwells, flats."*

The city, and the poet’s material surroundings, are still present in Blatný’s later work, but the lyric mode becomes less prominent, giving way to a more opaque poetics of collage that engages the reader in a playful hunt, refusing to make meaning clear, never telling the whole story. English (along with French and German) becomes integral to Blatný's writing practice, and many of his poems of this period are thoroughly multilingual: Not only is the code-switching often seamless but the fact of multilinguality itself figures in the poems, becomes part of their subject. “I speak czech and english,” the poet claims in the above-quoted stanza, following Czech rules of capitalization for “Czech” and “English” while following English rules for “Monx,” which is either a misspelling of "Manx" (the name for the people of the Isle of Man as well as their language) or a neologism. In another poem he writes “I am a poet of only one language, but I love foreign insertions,” leaving the reader of his many multilingual (and some English-only) poems to wonder whether it may amount to a lack of imagination to assume the “one language” is to be read literally as Czech, or indeed any other language we have a name for. (Another language Blatný studied was Esperanto, known practitioners of which were persecuted by the Nazis, who  ruled over the Czechoslovakia of Blatný’s young adulthood).

Opinions of Blatný’s mental condition vary widely; some believe he was very ill, perhaps with schizophrenia or something similar, while others maintain that he was quite sane and chose to remain in hospitals because they provided sanctuary and assuaged his persistent fears of being deported. The fear was not without foundation: Czech secret police did, in the late 1950s, attempt to trick the poet into returning to Czechoslovakia to perform propaganda duties, sending a former friend as a secret agent to persuade him. Blatný’s prose-poem “The Game,” written in 1947, tells a nightmarish story of a character called The Passerby who encounters the resistance of border officials as he attempts to cross to the other side of “the Curtain.” The senseless brutality that he is forced to undergo is referred to alternately as a “game” and a “trial”—in the end, the Passerby voluntarily succumbs, vowing to play the game out “until the end.” But the poet, whose voice returns in the final stanzas of "The Game,” turns that apparent act of submission on its head: Poetry, the poet suggests, can constitute resistance to the game, a resistance writ small. For an example he turns to Chinese poetry, which he says offers “very little … nothing more than the sky and a bird flying across it, / a bird flying across it; a bird, but a real one, one that has ceased to play the game, / one that will play no more…”**

Coercion, repression and censorship helped shape the destiny of the author of “The Game”—for the people who published his work, they were the salient facts of life. Maybe Blatný's poetry changed partly in response to the circumstances in which he lived, which could understandably have led to a poetics complex enough to resist cooptation. Maybe his work would have evolved similarly had he lived in “less interesting times.” Maybe it doesn't matter. By the time Blatný wrote “Janua Sapientiae,” though the traffic wordens might still have been hiding in the drain-pipes, his instrument—poetry—was fully capable of rendering them powerless, even sweet.

* Jindřich Chalupecký, “Svět, v němž žijeme,” published in 1940. As quoted in Obhajoba umění 1934-1948, (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1991). 71, 73. Translation: Veronika Tuckerová.
** Translation by Alex Zucker, from The Drug of Art (UDP 2007)

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A Note on the translations

I collaborated on the English versions of Blatný's multilingual poems with Veronika Tuckerová, who provided literal translations of the Czech lines and then patiently answered my questions about tone, usage, and connotation until we came up with solutions that we both accepted. Because of the challenges multilingual poems pose to the conventions of translation (the main convention being that translation somehow carries a text from one language into another), we made a few decisions early on about how to present these poems to English readers: The first was to try to retain some of the poems’ resistive nature by translating only the lines written in Czech (that is, we left the lines written in French or German as they were); the second was to distinguish typographically, in the “translated” text, the lines and words that had been in English in the original. There is, clearly, no substitute for encountering the originals, so we try to present the poems in such a way that the reader is forced into encountering Blatný’s original first, before the translation. This is easier to do on the Web than it is in print, thanks to rollover images: Just move your cursor over the original poem to see the translation.


Click to read selections and translations from Blatný's Bixley Remedial School