(13 September 1923 - 14 July 1998)
Jirí Holý, Charles University, Prague
Jan Culík, Glasgow University, Scotland
Miroslav Holub was not only a poet and a writer but also a practising scientists in the field of immunology. His poetry is intellectual, it is hard-hitting and precise. He was born in Plzen, in Western Bohemia. His father was a lawyer who worked for the state railways headquarters. His mother was a secondary school teacher of French and German and had a very strong influence on her son.
Having completed his secondary school studies, Miroslav Holub could not go on to university study (during the Nazi occupation, the Germans closed down Czech universities) and he worked as a labourer at a warehouse and at a railway station. After the Second World War, Holub studied at Charles University in Prague, first at the Faculty of Natural Sciences, then from 1946 at the Faculty of Medicine.
Miroslav Holub started writing poetry at the end of the war, under the influence of Vítezslav Nezval and the Czech avantgarde. His first verse appeared in the Svobodné slovo (Free Word) daily, in the Kytice (Garland) journal, which was edited by Jaroslav Seifert, and in the Ohnice (Charlock) literary anthology, which, under the influence of poet Jirí Orten was inspired by spiritual values. After the communist coup in February 1948, Holub stopped publishing his work.
As a student, he started pursuing research as a member of an association of the university natural scientists and at the Institute for philosophy and the history of natural sciences. On graduation from university in 1953, he first worked as a pathologist in a Prague hospital. In 1954 he joined the Institute of Biology (later Microbiology) at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. In 1951-1965 he was the executive editor of the popular scientific journal Vesmír (The Universe). As a scientist, from the 1950s, he worked primarily in immunology.
At the time of the cultural "thaw", when hard-line communism became slightly more liberal in the second half of the 1950s, Miroslav Holub began again publishing poetry. Along with several other poets (Jirí otola, Miroslav Florian, Karel iktanc; Milan Kundera was also close to them) they associated around the journal Kveten (May) (it appeared in 1955-1959). Their programme was the "poetry of the everyday". They were inspired by the work of Jacques Prévért and by Italian cinematic neorealism. Holub formulated this programme in his article "Ná vední den je pevnina" ("Our ordinary day is firm land"), which was published in Kveten in September 1956. Holub and his colleagues wished to get away from abstract ideological proclamations, which proliferated in the poetry of the previous, Stalinist period, and wanted to write abou neglected features of ordinary, everyday life. "Only by capturing life around us we may be able to express its dynamicism, the immense developments, rolling on around us and within us," says Holub in this article. This also meant that it was necessary to give up regular, rhymed and melodious poetry and to adopt irregular and free verse. This was the poetics of Holub's first collections, especially Denní sluzba (Day duty, 1958) and Achilees a zelva (Achilles and the tortoise, 1960), His later collections developed it further.
Miroslav Holub brought new themes into Czech poetry, those of people working in research laboratories and in operating theatres (he knew this environment from his own personal experience). The doctors, the researchers and other main characters of these poems are non-heroic, selfless and mostly anonymous enthusiasts, the "pawns of history", who move humankind forward. These themes are expressed in extremely rational terms: he uses free verse which is close to prose. It is effective because it is laconic and semantically exact. Holub deliberately avoids traditional poetic lyricism. He said about this: "I prefer to write for people untouched by poetry. ... I would like them to read poems in such a matter-of-fact manner as when they are reading the newspaper or go to football matches. I would like people not to regard poetry as something more difficult, more effeminate or more praiseworthy." (Vecerní Praha, The Evening Prague, 1963). Although Holub's poetry is highly intellectual and it seems to by under strict rational control of the author, there are elements of surrealism and humour:
Go and open the door.
Maybe a dog's rummaging.
Maybe you'll see a face,
or an eye
or the picture
of a picture. (...)
Go and open the door.
Even if there's only
the darkness ticking
even if there's only
the hollow wind
go and open the door.
a draught. ("The door", Jdi a otevri dvere (Go and Open the door, 1962)
Even these early collections contained poems in which Miroslav Holub seemed to be commenting in implicit terms on the constraints of the totalitarian system and on another level, on the unsatisfactoriness of the human condition in general. These proto-political poems were part of the effort of Czech artists and intellectuals who were attempting, whenever this was possible, to liberalise the communist system from within, by free cultural acts. The origins of this liberalising movement dated to the second half of the 1950s, and at the beginning, it suffered setbacks. Later on, the drive for freedom gained serious momentum in the 1960s, culminating as it did in the Prague Spring of 1968 - which was ended by the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968.
For instance, in the poem Cinderella (Denní sluzba) , Holub presents his own, "modern" version of the traditional fairy tale. Unrewarded, the heroine of his poem dutifully fulfils the assigned task, is resigned to her lot, and that is it. Life is elsewhere:
Cinderella is sorting the peas:
bad ones those, good ones these,
yes and no, no and yes. No cheating. No untruthfulness.
No blood is flowing. Just red birds
from distant parts are clearly heard
as, plumage ruffled, they alight.
No little nuts, no prince that charms
and we all long for mother's arms
yet there is but one hope:
She knows that she is on her own.
No helpful pigeons: she's alone.
And yet the peas, they will be sorted out.
Often, Holub's poems are based on paradoxes. The poem Napoleon (Achilles a zelva) can be seen as a homage to personal experience (and hence natural reality) which always eventually prevails over theory, ideology or interpretations of history. "Children, when was Napoleon Bonaparte born," asks teacher. No one knows and after several unsuccessful attempts at answers, the poem concludes:
Out butcher had a dog
The butcher used to beat him and the dog died
a year ago.
And all the children are now sorry
It was very important for Holub to be able to travel abroad. As a non-member of the communist party, which made him a second-class citizen, he was not allowed to go on research trips and scientific conferences abroad until the 1960s. Gradually, he visited a number of countries, among others Great Britain, Germany, Ireland, China, India, Australia and Mexico. Most frequently he stayed in the United States (1962, 1963, 1965-67, from the end of the 1970s, he was able to travel to the US every third year). His trips to the United States served as an inspiration for two volumes of lyrical travel essays in prose, Andel na koleckách (An Angel on Wheels, 1963) and Zít v New Yorku (To Live in New York, 1969) and also for a collection of poems, entitled Beton (Concrete, 1970). Holub is enchanted as well as worried by the United States, which he sees as a country of sharp contrasts. Typically, America is a paradoxical mixture of the profane and the sacred; this is expressed by the image of the "angel on wheels": it was a statue of a Baroque angel on castors which the author saw at New York airport. In his travel essays, Holub includes authentic quotes from newspapers, as well as graffitti from the New York underground and from the walls in that city (for instance, "God is not dead, he only can't find a parking space").
Under the influence of his visits to the United States as well as the disappointing political developments in Czechoslovakia towards the end of the 1960s, when a Russian-led occupation in August 1968 put a stop to the liberalising reforms, Holub becomes more sceptical and concerns himself more with metaphysical questions. His former faith in man as the creator of history and civilisational progress disappears. This is obvious in his best collection Ackoli (Although, 1969) which includes not only poems, but also lyrical micro-essays and aphorisms:
Although a poem arises when there's nothing else to be done,
although a poem is a last attempt at order when one can't stand disorder any longer,
although poets are most needed when freedom, vitamin C, communications, laws and hypertension therapy are also most needed
although to be an artist is to fail and art is fidelity to failure, as Samuel Beckett says,
a poem is one one of the last but one of the first things one man.
Another poem, "A tram at half past five in the evening", a polemic counterbalance to the optimistic poem "A tram at half past five in the morning" from Holub's first collection is typical in this respect. There are dark, disconsolate images, the depicted world loses meaning.
Miroslav Holub had taken an active part in the reformist movement in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s (he published essays in the main Czech liberal cultural and literary periodicals Literární noviny [The Literary Gazette,] Plamen [The Flame], Orientace,[Orientation]). As a result, he was sacked from the Microbiological Institute in 1970; from 1971 - like many other Czech writers at the time - he suffered a publication ban, was not allowed to travel abroad or to appear in public. His work was banned and his books were removed from the libraries. A new collection of poems Strucné úvahy (Brief contemplations), was destroyed, although it was already typeset. A book of selections from the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Poe cili Údolí neklidu (Poe or The Valley of Restlessness), compiled by Holub, could only be published anonymously in 1972.
Henceforth Holub made a degrading public self-criticism and thereafter could be employed at least in a junior position at the Institute for Clinical and Experimental Medicine (in 1995 he returned to the Microbiological Institute). His literary work could not be published officially in Czechoslovakia again until 1982.
Although Holub was ostracised in his native country, his literary as well as scientific work became very well known abroad. Much of his writing was translated (especially into English and into German, but also to more than thirty other languages) and he received a number of awards, for instance he was made a member of the Bayerische Akademie der schönen Künste and of the New York Academy of Science; he received an honorary doctorate from the Oberlin College in the USA.
In his native Czechoslovakia, he was not very well received even after the fall of communism. Some of his fellow Czechs could not accept Holub's self-criticism, there were even unfounded allegations of his alleged cooperation with the communist secret police (since he could travel to the West in the 1980s while other Czech authors were languishing as non-persons in the dissident ghetto). Some people could not forget that Holub never came out openly against communism in the 1970s and 1980s and became a dissident himself, thus allegedly betraying his liberal credentials from the 1950s and 1960s. Others could not accept his rational, terse poetic style, which foregoes linguistic embellishments and relies instead on the intricate interplay. It so happened that this style is extremely well suited to the English language - English translations have made Miroslav Holub a world famous author.
Holub's late work from the 1980s and the 1990s consists mainly of brilliant intellectual essays and aforisms which are inspired by the author's scientific erudition and which examine the potentialities of the contemporary technological civilisation as well as the place of poetry in today's world (see K principu rolnicky (The Jingle Bell Principle, 1987) Maxwelluv démon cili O tvorivosti (Maxwell's Demon or On Creativity, 1988) or O prícinách poruení a zkázy tel lidských (On the causes of the Degeneration and Destruction of Human Bodies, 1992, etc.) Holub's late poetry, influenced apart from the above-mentioned Samuel Beckett also by the work of T.S. Eliot and by the Czech poet Vladimír Holan continued along the line of development, began at the end of the 1960s. In it, reality is seen as opaque, irrational and full of paradoxes. The meaning of these poems is sometimes hidden and can be taken as ambiguous. Holub's poetic style remains close to prose, it avoids traditional ornamental lyricism, and subjective impressions. His language is terse and matter of fact, based on allusions (the Bible, mythology, contemporary culture), on an effective division of words into lines, on provocative intellectual jokes and punchlines:
Many people act
as if they hadn't been born yet. Meanwhile, however,
William Burroughs, asked by a student,
if he believed in life after death,
- And how do you know you haven't died yet?
(Brief reflection on death, Naopak, On the contrary, 1982)
The latest collection by Miroslav Holub, Syndrom mizející plíce (Vanishing Lung Syndrome) was published in 1990, after the November 1989 democratic revolution in Czechoslovakia. The poems in this collection partially return to Holub's older, communicative poetry, which directly reacts to social problems. The narrator however always retains Holub's typical attitude of an intellectual, which questions everything which is normally regarded as self-evident. For instance, in the poem "Landscape with Poets" Holub develops the concept of the singing of a modern-day Orpheus, who:
underground will sound
the upper harmonic registers
and the words will float like clouds,
across the information threshold,
up to the shallow sky (...)
and there will be
either a new form of life
©Dr Jan Culik, 2000s