Bridges Between the Local and the Universal
Drawing: Cecile Wadlow
by Ondra Lysohorsky (1905 – 1989)
On bridges are stated the limits in tons
of the loads they can bear.
But I’ve never yet found one that can bear more
than we do,
although we are not made of roman freestone,
nor of steel, nor of concrete.
It’s the twentieth century we bear
across the chasms of the universe,
each one of us
a small, narrow bridge
on which the heaviest weight is yet to fall:
the future evolving from this era
in which the greatest evil flourishes:
the lie of power and the power of the lie
in the quagmire of meanness
in the high Alps of arrogance,
in the ocean of blind folly.
And the computer calculates perfectly
In the shadow of the nuclear reactor
Ondra Lysohorsky is far more profoundly the poet of all mankind and a practical, maturing, struggling and suffering humanity because he had bound himself to that region where he was born. He had chosen to create in the dialect of his native province of Lachia in what was later Czechoslovakia. Just as Frederic Mistral did for Provencal, Lysohorsky has raised up Lachian to the flexibility of a literary language. Lachian is a tongue understood without translation by about one million people, some Poles, Slovaks and Czechs. Lysohorsky was influenced by the example of Mistral and his work for the revival of the culture of the south of France through poetry and art.
He was born Erwin Goy in 1905, ninth child of a coal miner, at Frydek, near Ostrawa, the capital of the Lach area. The poet grew up with poverty and commercial exploitation following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. He started working in the coal mines at seven. Somewhat later, he contracted polio and so could no longer work in the mines. His intelligence was noted by local schoolteachers, and he was granted a scholarship, first to the German Lycee at Frydek and later to the German University at Prague where he took his doctorate in Philosophy and European Languages. He spent some time at the Sorbonne University in Paris for he was both rooted in his local culture and open to the wider currents of European literature. He was an admirer of Romain Rolland and Rolland’s efforts at building bridges between cultures, between France and Germany, between Europe and India.
Lysohorsky began writing poetry in 1922, binding himself closely to his native region, its people and its soil, yet always seeking the moral and spiritual dimensions which make for the fuller life. Thus his advice to himself on the deeper aspects of poetry:
To a Poet
Poetry is termed
Growing, creative, resistance.
If you grow only in height and breadth
Not in the deeps too,
The first storm uproots you.
Upon the invisible work
Under the earth
All springs. (translated by Hugh McKinley)
He took the literary name of “Ondra Lysohorsky” from the regional mountain Lyso Hora. He was a founder-member of the anti-Fascist group Blok and worked against Nazi currents among German speakers in Czechoslovakia. At the start of the Second World War, he left for Poland and was there when the Germans attacked. He was able to go to the Soviet Union, first to Moscow and later Tashkent in Central Asia. While in Moscow and Tashkent he made friends with writers and poets and grew aware of the many styles of poetry circulating in the Soviet Union, not all of which could be published. His Songs of the Sun and the Earth was published in Moscow in 1945, translated by Boris Pasternak and other leading poet-translators.
Lysohorsky was always concerned with the link between time and eternity. Here is his meditation upon the Danube Room for All translated by the poet who shared many of his themes, W.H. Auden:
From my source the gathering waters have been flowing since time began
Hundreds of wars have I seen, and millions of warriors,
Led, clad, weaponed differently in every century,
But always spilling the same blood.
What do the hills around me
And the sky above me still harbour?
I hear the people on both my banks.
They build no bridges for reconciliation.
But I must flow,
But I must hear;
But I must see,
From the source to the ocean
For in me there is room for all.
He was the poet building a bridge between local and the universal. As he wrote “True love is maturity, and maturity is equilibrium, measure, order.” After the Second World War, he taught in Czechoslovakia but had difficulties with the government authorities because he insisted in writing in Lach rather than Czech. Thus his poems were widely known in other countries having been translated by respected poets: Boris Pasternak in Russian, W.H. Auden and Hugh McKinley in English and Pierre Garnier in French. Garnier also wrote in Picard, a dialect of northern France. Garnier saw in Lysohorshy a kindred soul in developing a literary form of a minority language.
For Lysohorsky poetry was a bridge to understanding among cultures. As he said in a talk on world brotherhood and peace through poetry “ Poetry has an intellectual and spiritual task which includes and concerns the whole world, and the whole of humanity, all its inner life and outward actions. Poetry is concerned with the Whole, with all life, with all countries, peoples and ages, with all our human brothers and sisters of yesterday, today and tomorrow, and we hope of the day-after-tomorrow too! Poetry is the path of reconciliation, of neighbourly love. The whole of mankind needs it.”