As well as appearing in periodicals in the United Kingdom, some of the earliest English versions of the Czech poet Miroslav Holub were first published in the New Zealand Monthly Review and Landfall in translations by Ian Milner. There followed in 1967 a Selected Poems in the excellent Penguin Modern European Poets series which introduced a pantheon of international poets to English language readers. In particular, such poetry gave a human face to the dour satellite states of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe. Erudite and experimental on the page, but also wry and candid, Holub was a recognisable contemporary. Poems of his such as “In the Microscope”, “A Boy’s Head”, “Wings”, “Five Minutes After the Air Raid”, “Prince Hamlet’s Milk Tooth”, “Man Cursing the Sea” and “How to Paint a Perfect Christmas”, variously translated by Milner and George Theiner, became as accessible and memorable a feature of the landscape of poetry in English as the voices of Allen Ginsberg and Ted Hughes.
Meanwhile, of course, another Miroslav Holub, the original, had to make the best of things in Czechoslovakia. Born in Pilsen in 1923, he had been conscripted as a railway worker during the German occupation. Concluding with a PhD in immunology in 1958, Holub gained medical qualifications and embarked on a distinguished career as a research scientist. Remarkable and often celebrated for balancing the two disciplines, he also began writing and publishing poetry in his thirties. Holub’s affinity with the English language and its literature has included the acknowledged early influence of William Carlos Williams, his translations into Czech of the popular scientific essays of Lewis Thomas, the appearance of his poems in English translation long before their publication in his own country, it has also resulted in occasional visiting appointments to American universities and medical institutions.
The third (disruptive) factor and subject in the balance Holub has attempted is politics – the fast-forward kind of politics that rapidly turns into history. Doubly accomplished in science and literature, Holub was doubly vulnerable to the humiliations and compromises imposed by the regime in Czechoslovakia after the Russian invasion in 1968. A neo-Stalinist state was no place to be a tall poppy. One piece of evidence of what happened to Holub is the gap in his bibliography from 1970 to 1982. It is also chilling to learn that as late as 1984 the Czechoslovakian authorities still had a say in what he could publish abroad. Holub puts it another way in the poem “Punch’s Dream”:
and before the puppeteer knows what’s happening
I’ll speak in my own voice …
for the first and last time,
because afterwards they’ll put me back in the box.
Part of Holub’s modernity and early achievement, shared with his Polish contemporary Zbigniew Herbert, was the development of the verse lyric as a cogitative strategy. His longer poem “The Root of the Matter”, collected in 1969, used counterpointed voices to contrast intellectual and daily wisdom, anecdote and meditation. But during the 1970s and 80s Holub’s poems changed in both form and complexity of content. Brief poems expanded into “Brief Reflexions”, then into forms resembling lectures or drama scripts. In another striking long poem, “Interferon”, collected in 1986, the apparently discontinuous narratives give a powerful sense of the processes of things. While medical metaphor dominates in the poems of the late 1980s, it is preceded by the persistent image of the theatre as the stage for a performance rather than an operation – if the two are not the same – that provides active human remedies. His analyses of the world and its inhabitants are ruthlessly factual and mature in their honesty: the central tactic of many of his poems is the deconstruction of illusion. Holub’s continuing theme in many guises has been that of human possibility, and this is what has transcended language barriers, earning him a global audience.
More recent translators have altered Holub’s profile in English, too. Ewald Osers can be very flat, while the current American translators sometimes try too hard to make Holub sound like Charles Simic. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it reminds the reader that the original Czech poem does exist somewhere between the two. In Czechoslovakia, where the debate continues between the rational and the romantic in poetry, younger critics have tended to be sceptical of Holub’s success or simply unaware of its scale. The heritage of Czech poetry, like Poland’s, has been astonishingly rich during the latter half of this century. Only Holub’s modesty would deny him the right to stand among Seifert, Holan and Bartusek as an equal if characteristically individual contributor to an impressive national literature.
A career as complex as Holub’s has necessitated several repackagings of his poems in printed collections or selections. His latest translated volume, Supposed to Fly: a sequence from Pilsen (Bloodaxe, 1996), intersperses earlier and later poems with prose reminiscences of his childhood and youth in his native city. These pieces supply a more detailed autobiographical context for the poems than Holub has made available in the past. As always, his quirky, inquisitive intelligence is engaged and among the recent poems are some of his best for years. If, as Holub remarked in Field (Spring, 1984), “I try not to write poems, but books of poetry”, the cumulative effect of Supposed to Fly – a product of the breathing space opened up by the November 1989 revolution and the establishment of the Czech Republic – is that it is one of the books he has been trying (with interruptions) to write throughout his life.
Most of the rest of Holub in English can be found in Poems Before and After: Collected English Translations (Bloodaxe, 1990; reissued 1995), which is partly paralleled and expanded by Intensive Care: Selected and New Poems (Oberlin College Press, 1996). Also of interest are Vanishing Lung Syndrome and The Dimension of the Present Moment and other essays (both Faber, 1990). Or you can seek out the purple cover of the old Penguin Selected Poems in a second-hand bookshop to recapture some of the excitement of Holub’s first emergence into English. The poems and A Alvarez’s pensive introduction have lasted well, as has Holub’s expressed desire to write poems for people to read “as naturally as they would read the papers, or go to a football game.” The atmosphere in that collection is that of the energy and doomed freedom that led up to the Prague Spring. A time when it seemed that poetry was going to matter so much.
Tony Beyer is a poet who teaches in Auckland.