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Czech Poet Jaroslav Seifert, 84, Dies : Nobel Prize Winner Was Revered as a National Treasure

January 11, 1986|JERRY COHEN | Times Staff Writer

Nobel prize winner Jaroslav Seifert, a Czechoslovak poet who was little known outside his homeland but considered a national treasure by his countrymen, died Friday at age 84 in a Prague hospital of an apparent heart attack.

Seifert, who went through as many phases as a poet as Pablo Picasso did as a painter, for years had suffered from a variety of ailments, including heart problems and diabetes. He entered the hospital Thursday, according to physicians in Prague, where he was born and lived all his life.

"He was a very European poet," said Michael Heim, associate professor of Russian and Czechoslovakian literature at UCLA and currently a visiting professor at Harvard. Thus, Heim said, his work cannot be likened to that of any poet writing in English.

Began Writing in 1920s

His many different phases, Heim said, ranged from "an ebullient period" when Seifert began writing in the 1920s, to a surrealistic phase in the 1930s, to vehement patriotism during the Nazi occupation and, finally, "a mediative, philosophical stage" toward the end of his life.

But throughout, Heim said, a stream of sensuality, "even eroticism," pervaded his writing, just as the celebration of his homeland and his native Prague was omnipresent in it.

His poetry, said James Ragan, director of the USC graduate school's professional writing program, "was at all times optimistic, reflecting a championing of the human self. I think that's primarily why he was awarded the Nobel Prize, because he suggested a new liberated spirit in writing (behind the Iron Curtain) after the Stalin era."

Both Heim and Ragan said Seifert's poems--he wrote 30 volumes--are hard to come by in this country. "Two volumes are available in very limited editions, one poorly translated," Heim said.

Work Has 'Inner Rhythm'

Seifert himself once said that non-Czechs found his work difficult to appreciate because "the inner rhythm" of his poetry defied translation. Critics have said he would have gained international recognition long before the Nobel award had he written in a more widely read language.

Although he was a Communist as a youth, he became disillusioned with the party in the late 1920s. Thereafter, he was in and out of party favor during the turbulent decades that followed in Czechoslovakia. The state-run news agency, in announcing his death Friday, described him as "a prominent Czech poet, national artist (and) winner of the 1984 Nobel Prize for Literature."

Children Accept Award

At the time of the Nobel award, Seifert, who had suffered a heart attack in 1983, was unable to travel to Stockholm to accept it. A son and daughter served as his proxies at the ceremony. They, as well as his wife of 57 years and two grandchildren, are among his survivors.

Seifert was born into a working-class family, and he recounted in memoirs written in the 1970s how his mother, a staunch Catholic, gave his father, a committed Social Democrat, a communist medallion while he gave her a crucifix upon their marriage. "This shows how democratic the conditions were in our family," he wrote.

Seifert's early poetry, Heim said, was "innovative and playful and some say it is his best work." Although, so far as is known, he never was imprisoned during the Nazi occupation, his poetry in the early 1940s was fervently independent.

After he war, he became editor of a trade union daily and edited a literary daily while still producing the lyrical poems that his countrymen found so captivating. But he soon was at odds with authorities--after having briefly praised the Soviet Union in his writings--when he expressed disillusionment with the Communist takeover in a volume called "The Song of Viktorka."

And publication of his new works was suspended after a 1956 speech in which he criticized state cultural policies. He never became active in Prague's dissident scene, preferring instead to live and write in relative seclusion.

However, beginning in the 1960s, he gradually was rehabilitated during the stirrings of the so-called "Prague Spring," when Czechs sought to replace Soviet-line communism with a system that allowed more personal freedom.

Falls Into Disfavor

But when Soviet troops crushed the democratic movement in 1968, he again fell into disfavor, particularly after he signed a human rights petition that called for the government to abide by the Helsinki Accords.

In his later years, dissidents and the government alike paid respect to Seifert, even though he still was not accorded the privileges and publication advantages granted fully approved writers. Some of his work was censored or published in editions so limited that they quickly sold out.

Seifert spent the last years of his life in a villa in a quiet district of Prague, surrounded by his vast collection of cactus plants--and still writing. He once said, "I'm being laughed at for being old and still writing love poems, but I shall write them until the end."

One of those poems, "And Now, Goodby" contained these lines:

To all those million verses in the world I've added just a few.

They probably are no wiser than a cricket's chirrup.

I know. Forgive me. I'm coming to the end.

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