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What the Swedes Read: Jaroslav Seifert

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Jaroslav Seifert

Daniel Handler
16 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Jaroslav Seifert (1984, Czechoslovakia)
  • BOOK READ: The Casting of Bells, translated by Paul Jagasich and Tom O’Grady

The Casting of Bells is probably the slimmest book in my mountainous Nobel pile, and it was a great relief to me that I found this little item. Far too many Nobel-winning poets’ works are compiled in hefty Collecteds or even Completes, and it can be difficult to get through those immense overviews. One ends up marching through the poems like middle schoolers through a museum, missing the beauty on the way to the finish line. I don’t like to read a book like I’m punching a clock. I just kept The Casting of Bells on my desk, reading two or three poems whenever it struck me, and in a couple of weeks I was done.

I was grateful for this pace, and for the slim edition that encouraged it. Although my copy of The Casting of Bells has a little mention of the prize on the cover, the book doesn’t arouse the suspicion I had of some other Nobel volumes, that they were thrown together at the last minute, to cash in on a writer suddenly called to prominence in the English-speaking world. Nor does it conjure up, as the enormous volumes do, the image of building a monument, the sort everyone sees but nobody thinks about. The Casting ofBells feels like a labor of love. In the brief introduction, the translators say, “His range of mind and whimsy overwhelmed us” and that “what is offered here is a rendering into English of a rich sensibility, not an exact and finished poetry… We encourage others to continue with his work, to better shape it, to hone it, someday, into that real, precise voice living in another world.”

I found this charmingly modest—and you don’t see a lot of modest charm in introductions to works by Nobel Prize–winners, believe you me—but also a little melancholy. To hear straight out from the translators, one an American poet and the other a Hungarian academic, that they were too overwhelmed to communicate a singular voice felt like a statement of the difficulties of translation but also like a sad little math problem. If two writers could not illuminate one writer, then we need more than twice as many artists working on the translation of every other artist, and most people in the world seem like they already have a lot to do. The tiny gesture of an English The Casting of Bells, however enthusiastic its intention, has its own futility built right into it. I looked at some of the articles in the Hungarian academic’s bio—titles like “Why Romanian Should Be Considered a Major Romance Tongue”—and wanted to buy him a drink, just so he could talk to someone who was interested, and I was not very surprised when I searched for the publisher on the Web and found that the Spirit That Moves Us Press had gone out of business, and was no longer offering such books as The Actualist Anthology and Nuke-Rebuke: Writers and Artists Against Nuclear Energy and Weapons.

Seifert’s poetry has all the qualities his translators and publisher exhibit: modesty, yearning, and a wry, sad sense that it’s not going to work. Seifert spent much of his career as a journalist, critiquing the Communist Party and, with Vaclav Havel and other compatriots, planting the seeds of the Velvet Revolution, a nonviolent movement that helped convert Czechoslovakia from a one-party government to a true republic. Seifert didn’t live to see the Velvet Revolution, though; he barely lived to receive his own prize, news of which was largely suppressed in his homeland and which he had to send his daughter to pick up for him.

It’s an Eastern European story if ever there was one, and Seifert’s work has the sad cadences of stolen moments of beauty against gray and endless suffering. I like it a lot. His tone resists, quietly but firmly (like the Velvet Revolution, maybe), the indulgences taken by so much poetry as a personal flight of fancy, while remaining mindful that poetry is, really, a personal flight of fancy. Here’s one poem in its entirety:

I don’t look at people’s souls.

—and here I have to interrupt, because is this not the very opposite of so much poetry? Anyway,

I don’t look at people’s souls.
I say to myself, “We’ll see.”

—and I’ll interrupt again here, because I like the balance Seifert strikes, on one hand turning its back on the heartfelt impulse—which some would say is the only requirement of writing a poem—in favor of a careful consideration of surface, but on the other, the poet is talking to himself, which might be the only other requirement. But then watch:

I don’t look at people’s souls.
I say to myself, “We’ll see.”
But the sounds make us hurry.
They keep repeating: love, love,
As if today there were nothing else.
Many a time I admit my verses
Were flying from illuminating ceilings,
And became dancing letters—

So here is the wild impulse after all, “flying,” “dancing,” but tempered by that cautious, almost pessimistic voice, hedging its bets with that “as if today” and “many a time I admit,” so that “love, love” feels breathless and alive but also mournful and impossible. And then we get a kicker:

I don’t look at people’s souls.
I say to myself, “We’ll see.”
But the sounds make us hurry.
They keep repeating: love, love,
As if today there were nothing else.
Many a time I admit my verses
Were flying from illuminating ceilings,
And became dancing letters—
Even when shootings started in the streets again.

Taken like this, we’d have a good poem, that violent political twist at the end making a straightforward case for its contradictory impulses. But then there’s a last little stanza that tilts the whole thing at an angle I can’t calculate:

She who so often
Danced on Labut Lake
Has gotten frozen toes
And suffers.

I’d never heard of Labut Lake, and I tried to grasp what Seifert might have meant by bringing it up. Is it just a Czech landmark, making the stanza a local proverb about suffering? Is “she” the nation itself? Is there some political significance (like Gettysburg?) or just recognition (like the Grand Canyon?) that would make the lines clearer? Online searches were of no help, but eventually I found myself locating it on a map, in the hopes it might teach me something, and there it was, as plain and inscrutable as the stanza itself.

I wasn’t going to get it, I could tell. When the very next poem called up “Machov Lake,” I didn’t even check. I knew, as Seifert’s own translators knew, that this was a precise voice in another world. It was futile to try and grasp it exactly, but I was grateful to the labors that had brought Seifert’s “rich sensibility” to me, the poet-academic team, the noble and doomed publisher, that left me on the shores of this little lake, confused but content, admiring poems without being able to look into their souls. 

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