Ivan Blatny: the strange story of a Czech poet in English exile

Welcome to Czech Books. Ivan Blatny is one of the most interesting but most neglected Czech poets of the 20th century. He was born in Brno in 1919 and died in England in 1990. In his twenties Blatny was one of the central figures in the cultural avant-garde, alongside the likes of the artist and poet, Jiri Kolar, and the painter Kamil Lhotak. But when the communists came to power in 1948 he defected to Britain, much to the fury of the Czechoslovak authorities. In the years that followed his mental health gradually deteriorated and he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, spending most of the rest of his life - all but forgotten - in various psychiatric hospitals in England. He was still writing poetry on the day he died. Martin Tharp is a scholar of Ivan Blatny's work, and has translated many of his poems into English. For the rest of the programme, with the help of fellow Blatny scholar Rachel Mikos, he tells the strange story of Ivan Blatny's life in England.

(Editorial in Rude pravo, March 30th 1948)

The Czech writer and poet, Ivan Blatny announced on Monday in London that he had resigned from his function as the delegate of the Syndicate of Czech Writers, and stated that he had been forced to this decision by the alleged "cold terror" that the Communists had brought into his native land...

Among that human refuse who in time will be buried by those whom they have decided, for a moment of fame, to serve, there now can be found a Czech poet of no small talent, a poet pampered and spoiled, who received more than he could ever repay. Not even a coward, but a sniveling poltroon, who in comfort and with state money decided to escape by airplane to England and there ostentatiously and pseudo-heroically to spit upon those who made his trip possible. An embezzler not only of government money, but of the trust which he had as a Czech poet, and of his very own talent... His name is Ivan Blatny. And his fate? Only such as the fate of the newspapers that in three-inch headlines cry out the 'heroism' of this rascally act. Both will end up only in the rubbish.


Nocturne

In the night, when the grain is lit
In the granaries the moonlight forms
Each granule of wheat shines by itself
The witches aloft on their brooms are borne.

The village eccentric, who thinks he will never die
Arises and departs heading toward Morton Morell.
I follow him partway. I accompany him.
We meet with two summer guests.

(tr. Martin Tharp)


Summer Evening

Like an antler of gold,
Lighthorne,
it lay drowsing behind its sheds

Past the clutch of stables could be heard in the silence
the buzzing golden wood
as it cracked

The landscape stood
like fresh-drawn milk
with a light motionless foam of hillocks

(tr. Martin Tharp)

Rachel MikosRachel Mikos
Autumn 1948: Blatny is for the first time hospitalized in the psychiatric ward of the Friern-Barnet Hospital in London, then at the Claybury Psychiatric Hospital in Essex; towards the end of the year, Czechoslovak Radio announces that he died in England.

1948-1954: External co-worker with the BBC and Radio Free Europe, learns Italian and Spanish, continues to write poetry but eventually stops.

1954: Again interned in Claybury Hospital with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Five poems are published in Paris in a volume of poetry by Czech exiles, "Invisible Homeland".

On the Verandah

On the verandah in the rustle of old bean-pods and seed catalogues
young Everard reads old detective-stories
Edgar Wallace Agatha Christie Simenon
Twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea
The verandah sets sail like summer the last summer
with Captain Nemo dead in the sand beneath the sea

If only it were not yet the last summer
if only we could remain forever
happy in the maternal womb
in the rustle of seed catalogues.

(tr. Martin Tharp)


Evening

In the distance the lights hatch forth the horse homeward turns
darkness rises between the dwarfs in the gardens
Highgate Wood is closed and other green cages
the station Cranley Gardens is deserted and quiet
the nineteenth century slides past on the rails

When they laid this line through the fields
fallow ploughland pasture and hillocks
the men with levelling machines theodolites banderoles
levelling-lathes and geometrical parasols
resembled a small military battalion at exercises

Three village chapels
the Anglican, the Presbyterian and the Baptist tabernacle
greet the returning strollers

Queen's Wood
without a gate
remains open even at night

(tr. Martin Tharp)

Martin TharpMartin Tharp (Czechoslovak State Security Forces. Section Five. Prague, October 21st 1958. Agreement granted: Maj. Drabek [handwritten]; TOP SECRET! [rubberstamp] Commanding officer of the 1st division of the Interior Ministry)

Re: Proposal to acquire NEWT for return to Czechoslovakia

I, the undersigned, 1st lieutenant Premysl Hanousek, reference officer of the 5th section of the 1st division of the Interior Ministry, hereby present the proposal for the acquisition of NEWT for return to Czechoslovakia.

NEWT, correct name Blatny Ivan, born December 21, 1919 in Brno, poet, unmarried, last residence in CS Brno, Obilni trh no. 8, now residing at the address Claybury Hospital, Woodford Bridge, London.

Explanation:

NEWT is a poet, a known personality in Czechoslovakia and abroad. Before his defection to England, he invariably presented himself as a progressively minded artist.

In recent years, NEWT has lived in England in very poor material conditions and fallen victim to severe psychological depression. The situation is highly favourable to his acquisition for a return to Cz., to active propagandistic use, and to clarification of the actual situation within the émigré community to the Czechoslovak public...

The return of NEWT and his declaration would have an influence primarily on workers in the area of culture, who would recognize the actual situation in the West as regard the material circumstances and creative possibilities of artistic personalities.

Method of operations:

The action will be performed by means of civilian collaborator KOLARIK, who will in the near future leave for England. His journey is suitable for legalization by justifying it as a visit to relatives.

KOLARIK has known NEWT since childhood... Based on this fact, it can be assumed that NEWT will be with regards to KOLARIK completely open, and thus it will be possible to ascertain during the first conversation what his actual thoughts are and whether there will be any realistic chance of his acquisition for return.

... Major KOLARIK tried to awake in him some interest in Czechoslovakia and offered him several books, that he would send via a friend. NEWT displayed interest in the books, but said that it would suffice to send them by post, perhaps having a fear of contact with normal people, since no one visits him in the institution and except for the staff, he is surrounded only by the truly insane. About a return to the CSSR, KOLARIK only spoke in general terms, and according to NEWT's reactions to various indications in this direction, it would seem that he could not imagine a return to the CSSR and does not plan to do so, because he continually repeated that he was satisfied in the institution. According to the statement by KOLARIK, NEWT is in fact insane.


To Speak Is Silver

The hunt for treasure continues
on all islands
To leave at least a map for them to find it
after my death
to let fall the anchor
that the pirate ship could stand
motionless in the inlet
crossed bones and skull on the black banner
Long John Silver that's me

(tr. Martin Tharp)


1969: In February, Blatny's cousin Dr. Jan Smarda visits him in secret, as the first visitor from Czechoslovakia in 11 years. In June, he is also visited by Vladimir Barina, a secondary-school teacher of Czech from Brno and an admirer of his work. Blatny begins again to write poetry, both in Czech and English.

1977: On January 29th, transferred to St. Clement's Hospital, Bixley Ward - Warren House, in Ipswich. By pure chance, Barina meets with Miss Frances Meacham, a nurse from St. Clement's Hospital, in Brno, during a visit to a friend who had served with her in the Royal Air Force medical corps as part of the Czechoslovak brigade during the Second World War. Barina and Smarda ask her to take specific care of Blatny, and until his release from the hospital she regularly visits him and takes care of his manuscripts.

1979: Blatny's seventh volume of verse, Former Homes (Stara bydliste), is published by Sixty-Eight Publishers in Toronto, the first in 32 years.

1982: The BBC and Norwegian television air documentary films about Blatny. His eighth volume of poetry, Bixley Special School (Pomocna skola Bixley), is published illegally in Prague; two of its editors are subjected to police questioning.

1990: During the first official visit of Vaclav Havel to Great Britain in March, Frances Meacham presents him with Blatny's congratulations and a communication that he will remain in Britain. On August 5th, at 12:45 a.m., he dies in the Colchester General Hospital of "chronic obstructive illness of the respiratory tract, accompanied by an inflammation of the lungs;" only a few hours before his death, he is still writing poetry.

According to a statement from the Czechoslovak Ambassador in London, Blatny was once again considered a Czechoslovak citizen at the time of his death.


Message

Lanskroun is now an entirely Czech town
Lands Kron
the crown of St. Wenceslas without its one hundred and twenty oxen
will turn to beef

Beef in tomato sauce with dumplings
the scraps of dumpling this evening will be reheated

For a mite of silver alas for the Germans
alas for the Germanised territory
alas for bilingual towns
A python can have even three tongues

The frontier guards are without work
national associations dissolve

(tr. Martin Tharp)


Wimbledon

Perhaps now Drobny's playing Wimbledon
The pleasant chill that summer lawns
brings tired heads has lightly tuned
the rackets' strings to their evening tone

Leaf-hued comfort, all my blessings, my salutes
The celebration now is held, Jaroslav, with your two lutes
From Wimbledon Common, from meadows yet beyond
through the television channel I hear their sound

If you but could in this welcome heat
find my Rapunzel-tower by some feat -
tennis-courts lie nearby, surrounded in leaf

Come, before these days too flee
hidden like Verlaine in the grass

(tr. Martin Tharp)

 

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.