What makes sense to write today? Some would ostentatiously answer anything, meaning the limitlessness of creation, some would say nature poetry because nature is just being destroyed by us, some would answer poems realising a new social and identity imagination because human empathy at the level of society is failing. And poems about war are ubiquitous. At the same time, writing anything may very well mean freely focusing on one particular theme, just as someone decides to pursue, say, existential poetry or poetry exploring language. If we dismiss some topics as fashionable, we could just as well dismiss any other subject that has been pursued by more authors for a longer period of time. After all, authors who write environmentally critical verse, for example, usually also write about a whole network of other topics at the same time, and so criticism of fashionability tends to be vague and simplistic. As a result, it seems that it is indeed possible to write anything. But the question is what makes sense to write today, not what is possible.
To answer this question in a more meaningful way, we must take a different point of view. From a literary perspective, it is not possible to write just anything, but only what makes sense as literature. That is to say, what is in contact with the literary tradition, but also with the current state of thought, what, when read, creates a meaningful dialogue with the world around us. By that I don’t necessarily mean directly responding to contemporary issues, however pressing they may be, I’m rather speaking in terms of what the current state of the world portends, in terms of the current assumptions about writing that are perhaps still taking shape but already influence our perception and thinking. The discovery of new themes and approaches to creativity never took place as a simple seizure of strategies that had not been used before; it always went hand in hand with the new possibilities of thinking and ways of looking at the world at a particular time. It always made sense. So what makes sense today?
Contemporary authors write in an age in which humanity is groping for its not just possible and distant, but probable and near finitude. Francis Fukuyama’s end of history, which in literature has a parallel in the inability to imagine development after postmodernity, has turned into the end of history indeed. It is not that history has lost the ability to evolve; it is that history is culminating. This realisation is banal, profane, embarrassing, and naturally leads us to doubting man as such, to reassessing our self-image. It is a tendency that goes beyond environmentalism, it affects spiritual or existential literature as well, and it would be hard to find a contemporary collection that does not explicitly contribute to the reassessment of humanity in one way or another. Also, there are authors who may even distance themselves from various contemporary fashions (especially environmentalism and political engagement), yet somehow fall within the aforementioned tendency, which may seem too broadly defined and vague, but that’s only because it is all-consuming right now. They don’t choose the fashion (mode), the fashion chooses them. The integration of such fashionable thematic trends into Czech poetry is on the rise, justifiably so, seeing that authors who write about the environmental crisis, migration or, for example, social inequality, do not merely ignore the existence of these topics. Rather than a question of the dreaded writing on demand, which in Czechia always has the bitter taste of our communist past, it is a matter of not suppressing the topics.
New awareness of time
Another phenomenon related to this is the new view on time. With its observable finitude, it ceases to be orientated toward the present and the future, because it seems that there is no space within it to make something happen anymore. When we think of the future, we no longer think so much about where the timeline will lead, but how much will be done. Paradoxically, part of the reason that corporations and governments are not looking at long-term sustainability could be because long-term is not a realistic horizon anymore. What do you mean by future generations? The future is too finite to indulge in fantasies of duration and evolution. On the contrary, it increasingly calls for psychological displacement. Attention is therefore drawn to the past, which is no longer exotic or distant, because now it holds, above all, the answers to the question of what man was, and therefore is and will be, and whether his or her existence in the world was, and therefore is, worthwhile. The past is suddenly immeasurable, indeed almost infinite, compared to the horizon of the two or three generations of humans after us. The fact that there are references to different periods, cultures and literary traditions in the poems is no longer an expression of an awareness of the relativity, but of relevance.
It is not a matter of whether the end of Western civilisation as we know it or the collapse of the ecosystem will occur. It is a matter of what the situation looks like right now and how that affects the assumptions of writing. Quite often in contemporary poetry we encounter prehistoric or even more ancient cosmic perspectives, poetics that reach back to different eras and bygone language layers, which, however, do not seek to recall them or make them new, but rather to illuminate what the thinking, aesthetics and reality of the era had to say about man as such (Murrer, Borzič, Wudy, Hruška, Topinka, Heinrichová, Chlíbec).
In the poetry of Ladislav Zedník (CZ) human culture (anthropocene) is confronted with the perspective of million years of geological periods. Tereza Bínová (CZ) speaks casually about a time when our Sun will become a red giant, while watching her family enjoy everyday life. Olga Stehlíková (CZ) imagines what Mother Earth would say to mankind despite her not being one to talk. The planetary perspective is used here to make fun of our tendency to measure matters of nature with human yardsticks. Dominika Moravčíková (SK) focuses on the earliest human history to create a myth about the first settlement. Purity is very quickly confronted with the implicit human lowliness and the whole trouble of going back in time seems irrelevant because everything would be the same if it were to happen today. Maria Ferenčuhová (SK) begins her collection Černozem with the Big Bang and although she soon gets to human things, she continues to observe everything non-human and inanimate force its importance on man. Ewald Murrer (CZ) uses somewhat outdated language and vintage or even steampunk aesthetics to bypass the question of actuality or historicity and create his own stage. Adam Borzič (CZ) in his book Západo-východní zrcadla tells short stories of the lives of famous historical personages from the East and the West, such as Lorenzo de’ Medici and Ibn Arabi, ignoring time and space and focusing on the meaning of their lives for themselves. Petr Hruška’s (CZ) latest book takes us on a trip around the world with Ferdinand Magellan only to show how futile it was, again focusing on symbolism of the feat itself rather than on historical data.
While I wanted to mention some Czech and neighbouring authors, I would also like to refer to some who write in English. Anne Carson’s (CAN) exploration of the past goes beyond ancient Greece. When she brings up Stesichorus or Gertrude Stein in Autobiography of Red or Samuel Becket and even the beginning of time and space in Lecture on the History of Skywriting, she does not really have to go back in time, we feel like we are already there. Similar approach to going back in time without having to actually go anywhere I also see in poems of Jana Prikryl. For example, the poem ‘A Package Tour’ from her book After Party is remembering several generations of grandmothers from the past and taking them for a walk together to emphasise their existence rather than genealogy or chronology. The poem ‘The War of the Worlds’ looks like one about slicing our planet while in fact it speaks about new life in women’s womb, suggesting a perspective that takes into account the world itself. John Ashbery in his poem ‘Breezeway’ also seems to struggle with processing of time: ‘I said we were all homers not homos / but my voice dwindled in the roar of Hurricane Edsel.’ The last author I would like to mention is Ariana Reines. In the version of her poem ‘Save the World’ which she read at Berkeley in 2009, two years before publishing the final version in her book Mercury, she takes the now somewhat typical space perspective that allows one to think about men not just in the context of human history but in the context of the world as such. ‘Venturing into the Sun to smoke I am proof of nature and all its declarations.’ She then describes being above the things of our planet, identifying with nature: ‘and it is through this mesh of faults that I see, that I see, that I see. It is only through the faults of Earth that I see, that I see, that I see only to pick a scab after world.’
On dark humour
These are not entirely new tendencies but rather something that started after the World Wars, and is culminating now with full realisation of the environmental crisis. Therefore, it is questionable if it still makes sense to write in this way even today, if our work still illuminates this world. It is perhaps possible to think about how to synchronise oneself with the world to observe it more keenly. We have considered the role of the humans in the world in a new and comprehensive way, and our fate still seems just as embarrassingly irreversible. ‘This is where / the power of the spirit / and false maps have led us,’ writes Petr Hruška (Spatřil jsem svou tvář, Host, 2022) in my rough translation, describing Magellan’s predicament after he almost circled the Earth. The realisation of the state of affairs and the acknowledgment of the unflattering nature of humanity is marked by an almost all-encompassing pathos, which has gripped even those authors whose texts have worked significantly with humour before. Perhaps there is nothing left to do but declare this phase over and label every new sneer at the smallness of man as a cliché.
I think we can expect a return of humour and, in general, tendencies that can benefit from and respond to fully realised pathos. This will not be writing that rejects or competes with pathos, but the opposite – the accumulated pathos that is essentially the result of our concentrated efforts to capture the essence of the present can serve as a solid base for further writing. Here I would like to mention Anne Carson again, because it is the humour that moves her writing from contemplation of human nature to exploration and evocation of life itself.
The new insensitivity
In poetry, there is no need to chase novelty, development as such. Yet what is needed today is somehow to attempt to take us out of the grip of conformity, and thus enable us to name the world vividly. The very presence of topical issues in contemporary poems participates in a kind of collective progression towards talking about things, which itself sounds like the very definition of combating stereotypes, and therefore bringing poetry to life. But when some authors attempt to take up such themes without breaking out of linguistic and ideological automatisms, they integrate them instead into conformity, much as the advertising industry has learned to exploit themes of rebellion, revolution, alternative and many others to monetise them while de facto denying them – as David Foster Wallace described it years ago. It seems as though the new sincerity he predicted comes with living conditions on Earth becoming severe. The only problem with that could be that it is somewhat forced on us. And it is not just about the environment. Poems about war are in danger of being turned into kitsch today as Russia is attacking Ukraine, to the point that it seems that nothing is good unless it’s written by someone from Ukraine. Debates arise about whether it is even possible to write poems about someone else’s experience, and many conclude that it is not. But even the Ukrainians themselves who write about the war face the question of how to write about it in words that avoid clichés lurking in their experience as well. Perhaps we have gone so far with the reassessment of humanity that we doubt our own empathy.
It is similar with reflections on the social situation. Young writers in particular are beginning to respond more strongly to the deepening social inequality. They are affected by the crisis of housing or the right to study, for example, but they do not stop there and call for reforms of everything where we as a society have fallen short of in our proclaimed humanism and what is essential for the preservation of basic human dignity, whether it is the right to decent and sufficiently paid work or the personal rights and freedoms of minorities, including the rights to self-determination and orientation. Again, the question is whether someone who is not in the situation of having to buy a home from scratch or who is not a member of the LGBTQ community can write about these issues. Czech independent publisher Adolescent has published a collection of poems in support of the LGBTQ community in response to the murder of two of its members in Slovakia in the bar Tepláreň, and there are also texts by people from the ‘outside’ included, which I think nicely shows that the problem is not one of principle, but simply one of whether someone can write well about a particular topic.
The issue that should seemingly be a unifying one is the question of the climate crisis, but in Czechia even this seems to be explicitly raised mainly by the younger generation of poets. Yet we are all experiencing this together, it is not a generational thing. Fires are fires, floods are floods, famines are famines. The real problem is the difference in the ability of different generations to take a stance towards this phenomenon that is not subject to existing automatisms, or simply to our habit of closing off anything that seems too different from what we have lived in so far. With a bit of exaggeration, the notions of sustainability of the old order no longer seem realistic from one day to another, while catastrophic scenarios do. This contradiction between the generations is something that today’s authors must overcome when trying to write good poetry.
There is talk of the emergence of a new sensibility, especially among the younger generation, to the subtleties of what in our society should be different than it is. And it’s logical: after a long and hardy self-examination of humanity, some lessons should be drawn. But when we look at the matter from a distance and across generations, there seems to be a new mutual insensitivity. The older generation faces extraordinary demands on its ability to maintain its integrity of thought while rethinking not only its civic views but also its poetics. Then there is the younger generation, synchronised with the contemporary world, as it were, by definition, and for whom most of their literary predecessors act not as models to follow and surpass, but as something already surpassed by time itself, and thus not to be taken into account. In this process, the very idea of literariness is in danger, as it cannot be developed from anywhere other than the continuity of literary tradition. And this is what I mean when I speak of a new insensibility. The drama of the world’s development is becoming psychologically untraceable, unfolding not between grandparents and grandchildren, but between people only ten years apart. The new sensibility, then, should be not only a last-minute attempt to correct all that is revealed as inhuman in the history of human culture, but above all an attempt to unify the perception of culture across generations. The new generation carries within itself an implicit understanding of the new world, while the previous ones carry the historical key to understanding man – the literary tradition. What good would the reassessment of humanity be if we simply started anew? And I can already hear the ironic answer: it would be good for nothing.
The end of the end
When I spoke of the idea of the end of the world and what it implies, I was not necessarily referring to any particular form of it, but only to the common knowledge that there are irreversible negative long-term changes in the conditions for life on Earth, which are, moreover, out of control. However, this condition is primarily perceived as ‘the end’ by those who grew up in a time before this scepticism became common knowledge. The youngest generation, however, has a different perspective: they were born into a world that is fundamentally like this. The future has been a source of anxiety from the start for them, and so the deepening climate crisis is not reversing this attitude towards the future, but merely continuing it. Paradoxically, what I wrote above about turning to the past to take stock of human history does not apply to the generation of today’s twenty-somethings and younger. For them, it is not the history of progress that needs to be revised in order to understand the present. Rather, the emphasis is on the future, on trying to break the continuous progression towards the worse, on trying to realise oneself, to begin one’s life even in these conditions. In this sense, the new generation already has a post-apo mentality, while the older generation is still waiting for the end. The older generations are exposed to the tragedy of fate (the impossibility of participating in a future that is ending), while the youngest generation sees the irony of fate (having to participate in a dark future). This imbalance of perspectives may revolve around human age, but it does not lie in the amount of experience gained, in the difference between explosive youth and wise old age. It is a clash of perspectives: what is humanity to do until and against the near end of the world versus what is humanity to do to survive in a world that is and will be continuously destroyed well into the distant future.
Tomáš Gabriel (1983) is poet and literary critic. He published four books of verse: Tak černý kůň tak pozdě v noci (Literární salon, 2012, nominated for Jiří Orten prize), Obvyklé hrdinství (Host, 2016, nominated for Magnesia Litera prize), Prequel (Dusot, 2018), Broňka aneb konec starousedlictví v Čechách (Dusot, 2020), one book of prose: Čest chlapa (Dauphin, 2021) and Czech-Ukrainian book for kids free to download and print Ořezávátko pro Alisu (Dusot, 2022). He was (together with Petr Borkovec) an editor of anthology Nejlepší české básně 2015 (Host, 2015). New book of poems Údolí pokusu o výsadbu bříz is going to be published by Fra in 2024. He is also working on translation of Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson.
Photo by Veronika Králik