Czech environmental poetry – declarations of love for houseplants, trees and wrens
Author of the Week: Czech Republic
Poetry and the environment
The year is 2018. I’m in Brno, reading as a guest at the launch of Radek Štěpánek’s Eroze (Erosion), a long poem published as a standalone booklet, eventually becoming the first piece of a remarkable free verse cycle. While this isn’t a major event, it is significant for me. What I take from Radek’s reading that evening is that his poetics is very close to mine, closer than I thought when I accepted his invitation. And then we talk with the poet Pavel Zajíc who expresses a similar sentiment. The proximity stems from a poetic interest in the environmental – in a sense both broad and, at times, very specific. And while Radek has written on this topic for years, for me it’s something very new and in a way almost exotic. Radek has got a degree in environmental studies, he is a hiker and a fisherman. For him, environmental poetry – in the broadest sense – originally wasn’t a choice as much as a natural way of relating to the world. While this made him feel like a solitary figure in the context of contemporary Czech poetry, this is bound to change.
What brings Pavel and me together is our desire to engage with the environmental in our writing. To turn our attention to landscape. Independently from one another, we have taken on the same task, prompted by the sense that, while we used to consider the environmental crisis mostly a matter of scientific discussions – even if we were concerned about it, at least in theory – now it has become something we can see and feel in our everyday lives, something unignorable.
Paradoxically enough, I began to write about landscape in order to shift away from explicitly political poetry I was associated with after my first two books. I wanted to do something a little bit different and I felt the need to focus on the landscape, on nature, on the environmental – but not in the political sense. Rather, my intention was to work with my childhood memories, for instance – landscapes that, coupled with powerful past experiences, become a part of who we are. I also wanted to explore the role landscapes and nature play in the cybernetic worlds we inhabit – a paradox of alienation but also of profound desire. What I didn’t intend to do, at least in the very beginning, was to address the environmental crisis.
However, I soon realised it was impossible to focus on the landscape without also focusing on the environmental crisis, even if not explicitly. My attempt to write a couple of less political poems very quickly turned into my third book, Země slunce (‘The Land of the Sun’) – a book that, if anything, is more political than its predecessors. The post-apocalyptic cyberpunk vision of Reál (‘reality’ or ‘real life’), my previous book, moved out of the environment of the city but has retained its acuteness. Země slunce is a vision of a world at the end of civilisation. There is a war on, presumably between remnants of the industrial capitalist order and humans who decided to form communities that take the side of the landscape, perhaps even become a part of it in their own, new way. Human characters blend in with the woods, proceed in a way that may perhaps seem almost feral. Despite certain bleakness, it’s not supposed to be a dystopia. If another world is possible, as the popular anarchist motto goes, this book is an exploration of how it may emerge. In it, humans become an integral part of the pulsation of the landscape. Values such as love, friendship, community but also certain approaches to the divine – possibly considered primitive and/or superstitious by the industrial civilisation – are of utmost importance. In that sense, it could be also easily described as a utopia. These categories, however, prove to be rather insufficient.
What matters is the need to take sides. To feel the landscape, to understand the importance of a tree or a boulder by the river. There is a conflict going on. Understanding this conflict leads to what has been described as environmental grief. However, there is also environmental anger that provokes us to take action. And there is environmental joy felt at the mere presence of other living beings, rocks, bodies of water, etc., thriving in spite of the system that doesn’t understand their importance.
My approach was just one of many. The urge to write about these things became widespread, especially but not only among millennial and zoomer poets. For a moment, it almost seemed a movement was being born. The term environmentální poezie (‘environmental poetry’) was coined to describe these efforts. As with any such adjective, I suggest that the problem with the term is that it misleads people into reading the poems through a single reductive lens. While I can say I do write ‘environmental poetry’, it has never been only thing that I write, and I’ve never intended it to be. In a 2020 article for the magazine Tvar, provocatively titled Pravda o environmentální poezii (‘The truth about environmental poetry’), I wrote that while the term could be useful as an analytical tool, ‘environmental poetry’ in the Czech Republic didn’t really exist in the sense of how the authors perceived themselves and their work. In the end, there was no movement or a specific way of writing. Only a sentiment, albeit significant and strong.
What was equally strong was a certain fear – that the term ‘environmental poets’, for want of a better one, was aimed at telling people how and what to write, how and what to read. Such fear – sometimes perhaps even panic – led to absurd situations: one of the reviews of Jonáš Zbořil’s Nová divočina (‘New Wilderness’), definitely one of the crucial books of Czech ‘environmental poetry’ published in 2020, went to great lengths to claim that the book was some sort of green propaganda, comparable to Stalinist poetry of the 1950’s. When you read the fragile poetry of a fresh father who, first and foremost, observes the world around himself with remarkable sensitivity that, indeed, includes concerns about the future, it seems downright preposterous to label it as too political in any way. And I have heard some people from the environmental movement complain that the book isn’t political enough.
Here lies one of the reasons why there hasn’t been any actual movement of the “environmental poets”, why nobody even published a manifesto or anything of the sort. It is distrust of organised efforts when it comes to poetry – and to some extent art in general – in Czech society. A distrust that is to a large degree indeed a remnant of compulsory activities imposed by the regime before 1989. A distrust in some way shared even by the poets themselves, including myself – even if we don’t buy into the moral panic of labelling any political and/or activist sensibilities in poetry as anti-poetic or even dangerous.
Another reason is the sheer variety of what may count as ‘environmental poetry’. There is the speculative approach of authors such as myself, and there is a very different one, taken by Tomáš Gabriel whose vaguely sci-fi visions seem to take place in a new world that is being terraformed long after the demise of the old one. There is Klára Krásenská who, in a very intimate way, describes terrifying changes of her surroundings, with machines destroying the forests becoming something of mythical monsters. There is, of course, Radek Štěpánek, a poet of experience, a poet who knows nature and wants to speak about it. In his own paradoxical way, he is one of the most optimistic ones, a witness of the beauty that hasn’t disappeared. There is Magdalena Šipka who draws from direct activist experience and radical thought, coupled with disarming romanticism. There is Adam Borzič, a poet who is able to fall in love with a tree and when he tells you about it, you believe every word. There is Marie Iljašenko, passionate about distant mountains and houseplants, bringing them together. There are also poets who don’t really participate in discussions of the day and yet their work is very relevant to what I try to think about. Some of them include Pavel Kolmačka with his poems about beekeeping and the matters of the heart, or Jitka N. Srbová who has always wandered the woods and embodied their voice. And then there are many others, everyone exploring their own path towards an expressing our increasing concerns. Not primarily as an ideology but as an aspect of everyday experience.
The less interesting debates about ‘environmental poetry’ actually mirror similar discussions held approximately ten years ago. At that time, the issue of the day was angažovaná poezie, ‘engaged poetry’ – in the sense of being engaged with the social and the political. The term itself is controversial because of its use by the regime before 1989 but the question itself – that is, whether or not poetry can (and/or should) address social and political issues – doesn’t seem to be relevant anymore. Today, there is a wide consensus that these issues are (or aren’t!) a part of a poet’s world and as such a natural element of their writing. The dichotomy between ‘engaged’ and ‘non-engaged’ poetry is no longer seen as relevant. And yet, there is still some anxiety. We are once again seen as somehow controversial. To some extent, it’s generational. To some extent, it’s not only about whether or not the poet may write things that may seem related to an ideology but also what ideology it is. But we don’t write poetry to manipulate anyone into thinking what we think or feeling what we feel.
The logical question, then, is: what do we want? What are we trying to achieve? I believe that in this sense – and ultimately in any other sense as well – we aren’t that different from other poets. We want to share a piece of our world and we hope to find people whom it may touch. And we want to change the world, obviously. That is a very natural poetic aspiration.
The way in which poets – or artists, generally speaking – want to change the world obviously differs from the way a politician or a scientist would want to change it. And that’s precisely why it is so important. Poetry – or art, generally speaking – is deeply personal, unlike science or pure political activism. Scientists, politicians and activists are train in the difficult discipline of not being personal.
They claim to present things as they are which is always, in essence, a problematic endeavour. We, on the other hand, consciously present things as we feel them, as we see them. In her book The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin said that a scientist can hide behind their truth – unlike a writer. We have no truth to hide behind, we can only embody a different kind of truth. While a poet can simultaneously be an activist (or a scientist, for that matter), a poem is always a testimony of a very personal truth.
In various debates about ‘environmental poetry’ organised in recent years by magazines and platforms such as Tvar and Psí víno, there have often been voices concerned about the danger of ‘ideological’ environmentalist poetry that abandons the personal and poetic for an overly straightforward message, or exploits a current mood in order to gain popularity. However, what popularity or even financial profit, as some insinuate, there is in Czechia for a poet to gain, is indeed a mystery. Even the staunchest critics somehow never mention examples of these dangerous writings.
The world of Czech ‘environmental poetry’ certainly isn’t activist. It does overlap with activist efforts here and there, and this is important in its own way, but the approach is different. Furthermore, there is no actual movement, no unifying style. There is, however, a shared desire to address what we feel is important.
The stage of the environmental crisis in which it directly influences our daily lives has only just begun. For many people, it leads to the belief that it’s necessary to approach the world in a radically different way. It is not merely a question of day-to-day political decisions such as when exactly coal mining should be terminated, but a more profound existential and spiritual question of how to relate to the world. It would be very strange if poets weren’t a part of this process.
Jan Škrob (1988) is a Czech poet and translator living in Prague. Author of the books of poetry Pod dlažbou (2016), Reál (2018) and Země slunce (2021). Co-winner of the Dresden Poetry Award for the year 2018. His poems have been translated to several languages and appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, both home and abroad. He is a member of the Czech Association of Writers (Asociace spisovatelů).
Photo by Barbora Klimszová