Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus



Miroslav Holub, Intensive Care: Selected and New Poems.
Oberlin College Press [Field Translation Series]: Oberlin, Ohio, 1996.


"The physician and the poet can both be healers. They share a common goal in their efforts to maintain light and order against the chaos of darkness and disease, and to create or restore the beauty and harmony of health: in this quest, medicine serves the body, poetry the spirit."(1)

Trace back far enough, to where history fades into mythology, and all the creative arts are the province of the Egyptian "Ibis-headed Thoth, 'the lord of writing,' from whom we also received astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, music, and the healing arts."(2) As Shelley points out in his "Hymn of Apollo":

I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself, and knows it is divine;
All harmony of instrument or verse,
All prophecy, all medicine, is mine,
All light of art or nature; — to my song
Victory and praise in its own right belong.

Before the human psyche had completely cleaved its unique consciousness from its animal progenitors, shamans, the first physician/poets, imagined themselves as therianthropes. Through the agency of breath (spirit), perhaps with the aid of hallucinogenic plants, they sang in a "secret language (that) is actually the 'animal language' or originates in animal cries," as part of a practice for recovering the souls of the ill. (3) (4) Their visionary journeys also inspired images painted on the walls of caves and the surfaces of rocks that remain a landmark in the history of human creativity.(5)

As "there wouldn't be any people if there were no evolutionary pressures from diseases and death, degeneration and loss of function,"(6) not only wouldn't Homo sapiens have evolved without the challenges illnesses presented, our compulsion for the arts may not have arisen if it hadn't been driven by a healing component.


Miroslav Holub was born in Plzen, Western Bohemia, on September 13, 1923. His father was a lawyer, his mother a teacher of German and French. By the time he was old enough to enter college, the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia and had closed its universities. The young man worked as a laborer until the end of WWII; then he enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine of Prague's Charles University, specializing in pathology and immunology. Earning an M.D. and Ph.D., the excitement the literary avant-garde had caused among intellectuals in Prague between the two world wars drew him into also becoming a poet.

Four centuries before Holub was born, Czech Protestants were defeated by the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II in the Battle of White Mountain. Although a few arts, such as architecture, continued to thrive, basic parts of their culture were lost. It was only in the late 18th Century that they began to regain their language, which had been replaced with Latin and German. Even though recodified, the "new written language had little in common with the vernacular or even with the rich written language of Czech baroque poetry of the seventeenth century which had embraced many of the linguistic forms of the spoken code of the period."(7) Even into the 1930s, the poetics of the Czech language was being hotly debated.

During those fertile years between the two world wars, Czech artists were acutely aware of what was happening in other European countries; in particular, Italian Futurism, French Cubism, and Surrealism. Like the later postmodernists, the Czech avant-garde called for the interweaving of "high" and "low" art across genres. The cafés of Prague were vibrant with discussions and debates between poets and visual artists—until March 16, 1939, when Hitler's Wehmacht goose-stepped in. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Czechoslovakia fell within the sphere of the Soviet Union, and was now governed by an ultra-conservative Communist Party.

All our life
we've been struggling through snowdrifts,
from portal to portal, from left to right.

And at the very end,
breathless, thoughtless, and therefore
weightless, in all that silence
somebody tooted.

Toot, an ember of music. Toot,
music itself.

Holub stopped publishing poetry in 1948, when the Communist dictatorship took over his country. By the late 1950s some freedom of expression was allowed, and he began publishing again. The thaw lasted until 1968 when, led by the Soviet Union, the other Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia and cast a deep Stalinist shadow over the country for the next 20 years. Harassed by the Secret Police, fired from the Microbiological Institute, his books banned, his travel abroad restricted, Holub made a humiliating public statement of apology. Although it kept him working—degraded to a junior position—, he was vilified by fellow intellectuals, many of whom never forgave him. It was not until the so-called Velvet Revolution, in late 1989, that Czechoslovak People gained their freedom.


Like his fellow physician/poet, William Carlos Williams, Holub writes about ordinary life in a direct syntax, although the subject may veer into the surreal. "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." (9) Unlike Williams, who didn't write many poems about his medical practice, Holub was interested in proselytizing science. "Wings," begins by quoting Williams: "We have / a microscopic / anatomy / of the whale. / This / is/ reassuring," then continues:

We have
a map of the universe
for microbes,
we have a map of a microbe
for the universe.

Amy Ling wrote that "one of Holub's favorite poetic techniques is the juxtaposition of opposites, and one of his favorite themes is the macrocosm with the microcosm and vice versa." (10)

We have
a Grand Master of chess
made of electronic circuits.

This poem was published thirty years before May 11, 1997, when IBM's chess-playing computer, Big Blue, beat the Russian World Champion Garry Kasparov. When Kasparov, who had beaten a previous version of Big Blue, accused IBM of cheating, the company dismanteled the computer.

Holub continues: "But above all / we have / the ability / to sort peas, the cup water in our hands,

to seek
the right screw
under the sofa
for hours

This gives us wings.

Again referring to Holub's poetry in general, Ling addresses these lines succinctly; writing that "he revels in the smallness of actions which we are capable of, the patience with small detail which he sees as the special quality which will enable man to soar over constricting circumstances."(10)


In an essay titled "Poetry and Science," Holub's engagement with both these fields is eluciated by his stating that "the common denominator of quality, of goodness, is in both cases the notion of a little discovery, a discovery that is going to stay and attract our attention also in the future, in other situations, and in different contexts."(11) This is an interesting insight, until he gives as an example three scientists who, in 1979, published a paper predicting that Jupiter's gravity tugging at one side of its satellite Io would cause "the interior of Io to yield and create friction and heating, the accumulated heat being sufficient to melt the core, so that widespread volcanism can be expected."(12)

"Three days thereafter Voyager I reached Juniper and transmitted pictures of Io's yellow, orange, and white surface shaped by recent volcanic activity and, later, clouds rising from a giant volcano. The human satisfaction one obtains from this episode equals the satisfaction from a great poem; the poetic quality is in the elegance of the prediction and in the conincidence of timing of the publication and the Voyager I success."

To which Holub added: "No poetic qualities could be found in the paper itself."(11)

If human satisfaction equal to that of a great poem is found in a technical article published in a scientific journal, Holub's humanity is a minute slice of the world's population. Predication itself is an actualization of what the psychologist C.G. Jung called "one-sidedness," "an unavoidable and necessary characteristic of the directed process, for direction implies one-sidedness," which Jung is defining as an aspect of the neurotic personality.(13) Holub goes on to say that "no poetic qualities could be found in the paper itself." Although a good poem may make predictions, as oppossed to the scientific methodit doesn't attempt to describe reality. It is reality. It stands for itself.

In many of his poems there is the beauty of a narrative that is committed to "down-to-earth and wide-open" clarity, something either missing, or abused, in much of contemporary poetry. The distinguished Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, also said that Holub's poems "brim with inventiveness and are driven by a logic

generated out of the friction between two contradictory, equally commanding truths: annihilation is certain and therefore all human endaevour is futile—annihilation is certain and therefore all human endeavour is victorious."(14)

In "The Fly," an exemplary poem of Holub's absurdist genius, we are privy to the carnage of war as seen through the eyes of a female fly who "sat on the willow bark / watching / part of the battle of Crécy."

During the fourteenth charge
of the French cavalry
she mated
with a brown-eyes male fly
from Vadkincourt.

She rubbed her legs together
sitting on a disemboweled horse
on the immortality of flies.

After alighting "on the blue tongue / of the Duke of Clervaux," when the "silence / and the whisper of decay / softly circled the bodies..."

she began to lay her eggs
on the single eye
of Johann Uhr,
the Royal Armorer.

And so it came to pass—
she was eaten by a swift
from the fires of Estrés.


Spanning almost 40 years of Miroslav Holub's poetry, instead of the usual chronological order of such collections, Intensive Care's generous offering of 126 poems translated by eight scholars, including the author, is grouped by subject: genealogy, anthropology, semiology, pathology and tautology. By the time the book was published, Holub was approaching the end of an extraordinary life that had survived two cruel dictatorships and several professorships in American universities.

The Czech physician/poet died in Prague, on July 14, 1998.

And when a poet dies, deep in the night
a lone black bird wakes up in the thicket
and sings for all it's worth."


References and Notes: 

1- Jones, A.H. (1997) "Literature and Medicine." Lancet. 349: 275-78.
2- Weishaus, J. (2006) "The Physician as Poet." Journal of Philosophy, Ethics and Humanities in Medicine.1:8. http://www.peh-med.com/content/1/1/8
3- Eliade, M.(1964) Shamanism. New York: Pantheon Books.
4- On a more contemporary note. "What the Yaminahua shamans (of the Peruvian Amazon) do, above everything else, is sing. Songs are a shaman's most highly prized possessions, the vehicles of his powers and the repositories of his knowledge. They are usually sung under the influence of a hallucinogenic brew..." G. Townsley, "'Twisted Language,' A Technique for Knowing." In, J. Narby and F. Huxley, eds., Shamans Through Time. New York: Penguin, 2001.
5- Clottes, J. and Lewis-Williams, D. (1998) The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
6- Holub, M. (1997) Shedding Life: Disease, Politics, and Other Human Conditions. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.
7- Winner, T.G. (2009) "The Czech Avant-Garde Literary Movement Between the Two World Wars." http://www.thomasgwinnerczechavantgarde.com/uploads/5/8/4/3/5843028/tgwinnerczechavantgardedec2010.pdf
8- Holub, M. From, "Scene With Fiddlers."
9- Holib, M. (1963) "The Evening Prague." This reminded me of the American poet, Lew Welch, who told how the great Chinese poet, Po Chu-i (772-846), used to engage an "illiterate yet very very smart" peasant lady in conversation, in midst of which "he would dump the poem on her and if she didn't recognize that he had just said a poem, he figured that he had written it right. If she had a little 'huh?' about it or something; if it seemed awkward to her or wrong, somehow ungraceful, then Po-Chu-i would go back and fix it." In, D. Meltzer, Editor, The San Francisco Poets. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971.
Ling, A. (1974) "The Uni(que)verse of Miroslav Holub." Books Abroad. (Summer)
11- Holib, M. (2001) "Poetry and Science: The Science of Poetry / The Poetry of Science." In, K. Brown, Editor, On Poetry and Science. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
12- Peale, S.T, Cassen, P.., Reynolds, R.T. "Melting of Io by Tidal Dissipation" Science, 2 March 1979
13- Jung, C.G. (1969) Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 8: Princeton: Princeton University Press.
14- Heaney S. (I1989) "The Fully Exposed Poem." In, The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
15- Holub, M. From, "Interferon."