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Test for poets and politicians

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The European Constitution in Verse. Two Czech lyric poets participated in the project: Kateřina Rudčenková and Petr Borkovec. In addition to them, another 40 poets from all corners of Europe wrote the poem, which was presented at the Prague Book Fair and in the Literary Theatre Viola at the weekend. “It’s not a frivolous allusion to one political debacle,” according to the initiators of the project, a group of poets from Brussels. “The poetic constitution restores the debate on Europe to the basic principles where it belongs: to the free citizens whom it concerns. As the European Union did not get a political constitution, let’s give it at least a poetic one.”

It may be a joke. Or a project tailored to the needs of one of the European funds. And it may be – meant seriously – even a state-forming gesture. Poetry in service. However, connecting poetry with state, with bureaucracy and the official side of society on the whole, is something suspicious for us Czechs. For us, a poet should be rather dissenting, hostile to the state, subversive, accursed. Take for example the intimidating cases of merited and national artists under the communist regime.

It is not perceived like that everywhere, however. For example, in Great Britain they appoint one versifier to be the Poet Laureate for the period of 10 years. This month, a woman acquired the post for the first time in 400 years. (The post was established under Charles II.) The nomination created excitement because Carol Ann Duffy is openly homosexual. In the past the laureate received GBP 70 a year and a keg of wine. In return, he was to compose odes to the events of national importance: won battles, coronation, births of heirs. Today, the salary has increased to GBP 5,750 annually and the keg has been replaced with 600 bottles of sherry. However, the obligations remain the same and there have been poets who did not accept the accolade, saying they were not able to compose odes to Prince Charles and Lady Di. Even the American White House has its court poets, but only under Democratic administrations: Republicans are allegedly not that into poetry. Robert Frost lauded John F Kennedy, Maya Angelou praised Bill Clinton. The ode to Obama’s inauguration was composed by Elizabeth Alexander. Whether it was quality poetry or not, millions of people listened: “Say it plain: that many have died for this day. / Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, / who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges …”

In the US, the president chooses his bard; in Britain, the Queen decides based on the proposals from the prime minister. It might be a good test for Czech politicians: Name one living Czech poet. And a good test for poets: Write an ode to one event that has had a significant impact on the Czech state recently. Who would manage it?

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