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“AN ALCHEMIST FASTER THAN THE RADIO”

From Vítězslav Nezval, Moderní básnické směry (1937), forthcoming in Prague Poetics: From 1920 to the Present, ed. & trans. David Vichnar

 

Poetism is a literary and poetic movement that was born in 1923 in Prague and whose founders, Vítězslav Nezval and Karel Teige, emphasised freedom of imagination and the necessity of poetry’s self-containment as opposed to older literature and its stress on ideology, plan and intellectual build-up. Poetism derived lyrical emotion from imagination’s spontaneity and from verbal sources. It considered the noetic, intellectual and tendentious aspects of poetry to be obstacles in its development, emphasising that the key purpose of the poem is to become what it is – a game of imagination, a blossom of life’s corolla.

Apart from poetism’s founders, the poetist group featured Jaroslav Seifert, Konstantin Biebl, and in their first works also Vilém Závada and František Halas. Some poetists became surrealists later on and it was under their initiative that the Prague Surrealist group came into being in 1934 when it manifested itself through the “Surrealism in Czechoslovakia” manifesto authored by Vítězslav Nezval. Poetism had a lasting effect upon the development and perfection of the Czech poetic language and on the elaboration of young poets’ poetic imagination.

 

EXPOSITION OF POETISM WITH PRACTICAL EXAMPLES

 

Poetistic theory anticipates to some extent the surrealist theory with which it was coterminous. This by tackling the new poetic mode as the form’s organic and physiological growth out of notions and their laws of reproduction. Poetism is wrong when contending that the reality of the modern metropolis is what has motivated the inception of visual poetic language, but has a point in claiming that representation is a primary and physiological (or, better said, psychological) correlate. Equally, poetism is correct when contending that the lawfulness of modern poetry is as true to life as the lawfulness of dreams, when speaking of open hypnosis mediated through the association between poetry and its reader, when requiring wings of poetry, when asserting that the meaning of this poetry will be lain bare by psychoanalysts. Poetism, as adumbrated in certain of its aspects in Nezval’s article, “Parrot on a motorcycle,” published in 1924 in Pantomime, divined quite correctly the role of imagination, and it is only in places where, influenced by futurism, it overstates the speed and momentum of the megalopolis reality that it needlessly obscures its correct assumptions.

The abovementioned study documents how poetism viewed poetic work as concerned its expressive means. Evident here is the influence of cubist theory which required works of art to be self-sufficient, artificial wholes without imitating nature. Here, too, poetism was right in refusing to value rhythm formalistically and relating it to the poet’s spontaneous psychology, even though by means of a highly blurry terminology, speaking of a force rupturing the regularity of the pulse. Especially by conceiving of association as the crucial means of poetic thought ties poetism with the then nascent surrealism, whose works hadn’t quite reached Bohemia and whose manifesto was published only after the first manifestations of poetism. The study, “Parrot on a motorcycle,” defines association as follows:

 

An alchemist faster than the radio. As natural as blood exchange. Sparkles jumping from one star to another. The peculiar kind of thought which occurs as we drift down the Acheron, drawn by magnetic mountains opening up vistas. A ride on a carousel inside a cave which has darkness among glass oases, among flowers of light and water fountains.

 

Poetic theory hasn’t been systematically developed. It suggests the problem of imagination while failing to account for it scientifically. Freud was then virtually unknown to us, and so the correctly divined meaning of poetic imagination hasn’t been explained with in a sufficiently scientific fashion.

Poetism didn’t only stress the intensity of the poetic idea. It also emphasised the self-sufficiency of the key features of the poetic elementary form. It requires the necessity of ideological quality of rhyming words. Rhyme, for poetism, should no longer present a mere decorative ingredient to make the poem more picturesque, a subsequent appendix smuggled into the end of verses. Rhyme, just as assonance, is considered a direct building block of the work, similarly to how cubism in fine arts considers as its building blocks the very elementary geometrical components. Rhyme, according to the mentioned study, has as its task to bring closer distant wastelands, times, races and castes through the harmony of the word. It should make “strange friendships” among words.

Assonance receives a particularly prominent appraisement. Emphasised is its magic instability, what is especially valued is how it enables a vast number of associations without burdening them with acoustic bond as legally as rhyme. Rhyme and assonance are considered the two direct connecting links between the poet’s consciousness and his imagination. It is in this point that the poetists differ from the surrealists. Surrealists use neither rhyme nor assonance, regarding them as obstacles to the free movement of fantasy. In France, this has particular significance. In France, with its rich and long poetic tradition, all words have been rhymed, and thus incapacitated to become means of unwitting discoveries. In Czech literature, where the tradition is relatively far poorer, with the use of new rhymes and assonances it was possible to go hunting in the forests of fantasy. New, hitherto unused rhymes and assonances have proven a particularly efficient rod to fish for fantasy and novel poetic images. How a poetistic poem is born through the use of associative thought and elementary ingredients of poetic form can be shown on the following quatrain:

 

May A be called a stark hut,

O palms, transfer your equator to the Vltava bend

Snail’s is a simple house, its horns all stuck-out

and man has nowhere to hang his head.

(Vítězslav Nezval, Alphabet)

 

The first verse arises from a loose similitude between the shape of the letter A and a roof. Through the association of a hut and primitive tents the imagination leaps to the equator and wishes to transfer its climate into our perennially rainy countryside. From the association between “stark hut” and “stuck-out,” the idea of a snail is born, sticking its horns out of its house which it carries along. The “bend”—“head” assonance further reinforces the notions of housing and homelessness.

We can see that the poem was born, not out of some advance plan, but during a complicated process of developing imagination, both restricted and supported by means of rhyme.

We’ve already implied that poetism—in its emphasis on the poem’s free fancy, associative thinking and spontaneous formation—is close to surrealist conception of poetry. However, we also repeat that surrealist concepts, even though published after poetist manifestoes, are far more scientific in their argumentation. The author of this and the abovementioned studies spoke for himself and for the process he witness during the composition of his own poems. His point of departure was intuition rather than theoretical or scientific principles, approaching inadvertently the attitudes of the surrealists.

The other author of poetistic theory, Karel Teige, emphasises not so much the natural human psychic qualities, but rather the cubism-inflected requirement of the self-sufficiency of the poetic work. He points out that the poetic work is an artefact; he speaks of a harlequinade of feelings; calls poetism a bloom of the life’s treetop; and lays stress on poetism’s Epicureanism. He regards poems as artificial self-contained wholes, as syntheses of the heightened activity of human sensibility.

In order to present a kind of résumé of poetism, classifying it within the framework of modern poetic movements which have partially influenced it and which it has to some extent anticipated, let us conclude by observing the following:

With futurism, poetism shared its interest in the megalopolis reality and in speed; with cubism, its demand of the self-sufficiency of poetic expressive means; with surrealism, which it was conterminous with and which it to some extent anticipated, its tendency toward spontaneous expression unordered by advance planning and logical or intellectual requirements, its stress on associative thought and on free, automatic imagination.

Despite opposing strictly the intellectual and moral requirements of proletarian poetry and its inorganic tendentiousness, subduing both the elementary means of the poetic form and imagination, they’ve always adhered to the revolutionary worldview, first founded emotionally, and only later shaped by Marxist-Leninist theory of dialectic materialism.          

 

 

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EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.

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"Modernity today is not in the hands of the poets, but in the hands of the cops" // Louis Aragon
"It is the business of the future to be dangerous" // A.N. Whitehead

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"Poetism is the crown of life; Constructivism is its basis" // Karel Teige

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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
February 2015
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