I have been born on this earth for nothing else except to bear witness,
tied down by my weight, my heaviness, and my lightness.
Jiří Orten is one of the key Czech poets of the twentieth century. He belongs with his brilliant predecessors, František Halas, Vítězslav Nezval, and Jaroslav Seifert, and with other great poets from the war-torn precincts of Eastern Europe, such as Miklós Radnóti from Hungary and Zbigniew Herbert from Poland. Thanks to the good offices of Lyn Coffin, his devoted translator, I have been reading his poems for more than twenty-five years now, and I consider him one of the necessary poets from the first half of the century just past. He is a sustaining presence.
Orten is a poet of great intensity—direct, impulsive, unflinching. “The dream I dream is the dream of longing,” he declared. There is something plaintive about his work (“Come to help me, words,” he called out. “Run to me!”), which is wayward and swerves in unpredictable directions. He liked the animism of folklore, the associative method of the surrealists. He structured his poems using the logic of association and feeling (“My lips are extremely dry today, and yet / It’s the blinding dark that sponsors my regret”) rather than of calculated thought.
Orten spoke tellingly both about the heaviness and lightness of being. He was influenced by early Pasternak and late Rilke, who gave him license to speak directly to things. The prayerful opening of his Rilkean “Elegy Number Two” is characteristic of Orten’s immediacy:
Come back, things, which helped to carry
the cross of day, suspended between the breasts of queenly
blue-blooded night, bloodthirsty night.
My paperweights, come back to me again.
It’s hard not having you firm and steady,
it’s hard to call you without burning one’s throat.
From the beginning Orten trusted his intuitions. He loved poetic spontaneity and did not shrink from his own subjectivity, belonging as he did to a generation of poets who took Czech verse in a more inward direction. These writers (Kamil Bednář, Zdeněk Urbánek, Ivan Blatný) experienced the overthrow of Czechoslovakia, the cataclysm of the Second World War. They distrusted grand ideas and general truths, the all-encompassing ideologies of both the Right and the Left. They read the existentialists and clung to personal truths.
Orten’s poetry in particular operates on a decidedly human scale. It is sometimes jubilant, sometimes filled with existential dread, a fearsome angst. It shakes a fist at God, “you bully, who took so much.” It loses itself in dreams and memories, voluntary and involuntary. It summons up the mysteries of childhood. It is intimate and presents an inner tenderness—a dream life—confronting a harsh and unforgiving historical world.
Jiří Orten was born Jirí Ohrenstein on August 30, 1919, in Kutná Hora, an ancient small town near Prague. He grew up in an assimilated middle-class Jewish family that would still be recognizable to us today. His father was a businessman, his mother an actress in a local theater. He modeled himself on his older brother, who wrote poetry and became a theatrical director and dramaturge (Ota Ornest), and served in turn as a model for his younger brother, who became a well-known actor after World War Two (Zdenék Ornest). Orten traveled to Paris for an influential month-long visit—his sole trip abroad—and joined a circle of young poets in Prague. He might have become a playwright or an actor as well as a poet—he wrote plays and acted in experimental theater groups as a teenager—if only he had lived into his full maturity.
I wish Orten had followed his older sibling into exile in Great Britain, as he had earlier followed him to Prague, but he decided not to emigrate, perhaps because he was afraid of abandoning and thus being abandoned by his native language; thereafter the door to exile slammed shut. After the Germans occupied Bohemia and Moravia in 1939, Jews were no longer allowed to travel, and, like so many others, Orten’s fate was sealed. He would become a poet of lamentation, the singer—and the victim—of his tragic predicament.
The noose tightened around Orten’s neck during the war. He was expelled from the conservatory and took a series of odd jobs, such as shoveling snow, to make ends meet. He felt betrayed by his lover, deserted by friends, abandoned by God. Lonely and isolated, he continued to write feverishly until the end of his short life. He suspected that he would not survive the war, and predicted his own end. “I am sowing grain on the headland,” he declared in “A Small Elegy,” a beautiful and nearly unbearable short lyric. “I will not live long.”
Orten knew that his life had been slit. He died in a bizarre accident in Prague in the late summer of 1941. He stepped off the curb to buy cigarettes from a local kiosk; a moment later, he was hit and dragged along the street by a speeding Gestapo ambulance. Orten was refused admission to a nearby hospital because he was Jewish. Another admitted him, but by then it was too late. He died a few days later. He was twenty-two years old.
Before his premature death, Orten published three books of poems. The first, Reader of Spring (1939), appeared under his own name. The other two, The Journey toward Frost (1940) and Charlock (1941), were printed under pseudonyms. He also prepared two more collections that were published after his death. From 1938, Orten kept a series of diaries in which he copied down all of his poems. He also recorded his dreams, premonitions, letters, conversations, daily encounters. He excerpted his reading. He scribbled his thoughts about poetry. He penned aphorisms. He tracked the ups and downs of his stormy relationship with “Vera,” the actress Vera Fingerová. He quarreled with himself as well as with others. And in one excruciating passage, published here in English for the first time, he makes an inventory of all that was denied him as a Jew under Nazi occupation.
But the poems remain the red-hot core of this comprehensive text of life, which show how desperately he wanted to live, in spite of the inevitability of failure. “What are we but runaways from tender executioners?” he poses at the opening of “What Are We?”—also published here for the first time—and concludes by asking “What are we but snow’s endless fall? / What are we but a frozen waterfall?”
Here was a young poet whose faith in life was repeatedly tested. He was sustained by poetry and threw himself headlong into his craft. He was equally gifted at metrical and free-verse poems. The poet Lyn Coffin, working with native speakers, has daringly captured Orten’s different modes, the characteristic rhythm and movement—the rhyming action—of his poems, which became harsher and more dissonant over time. She has worked in his spirit and captured his lyrical directness, delivering Orten to us with passionate exactitude, exacting passion. Ota Ornest described her translations as “the poems Jiří would have written if he’d written in English.”
Jiří Orten was a poet of fatefulness and spiritual longing, of deep God-hunger. He longed for something beyond the human. He was one of the twentieth century’s martyrs, a fantastic dreamer, a religious poet of a high order. In the end, he embraced “consciousness of the end, because it’s ending.” As the poet František Halas wrote about him: “Terribly thirsty for spirit / He grew into the Psalms.”