It’s the birthday of poet Jaroslav Seifert (books by this author), the only Czech writer ever to receive the Nobel Prize in literature, born in a suburb of Prague in 1901. Seifert came from a working-class family; for their wedding gifts, his mother, a Catholic, gave his father, a Social Democrat, a communist medallion. In return, he gave her a crucifix. “This shows how democratic the conditions were in our family,” Seifert later wrote in his memoirs.
Seifert left school to become a journalist and a poet; he quickly excelled at both. He was a devoted Communist when the party first formed, after WWI, in the newly established Czechoslovakia, and he worked at a number of communist newspapers and magazines. As a poet, he was also a leading representative of the Poetist Movement, the belief that art should have no function or serve no purpose other than art itself, and worked on the staff of several literary journals. These two passions of his existed harmoniously for several years, until Seifert was expelled from the Communist Party for protesting its growing Bolshevik sympathies.
He continued as both a journalist and poet, until the Party gained control of the country in 1948 and forbade him from practicing journalism. Two years later, a collection of his poetry that expressed his disillusionment with Communism was censured for being a “misuse of poetry,” a bitter irony, given his insistence that poetry shouldn’t have an explicit use at all. Seifert continued to fall in and out of the Party’s favor, alternately praised and censored, but the majority of his 30 volumes focused more on everyday life, nature, and love, than on politics.
Having survived Nazi occupation, the Stalinist regime and Communist oppression, Seifert continued writing — and collecting cactus plants — until his death in 1986, just three years before the Velvet Revolution brought democracy to his country.
He wrote, in a poem called “And Now, Goodby”:
To all those million verses in the world I’ve added just a few.
They probably are no wiser than a cricket’s chirrup.
I know. Forgive me. I’m coming to the end.