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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Poems: Before & After

Miroslav Holub

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To purchase Poems: Before & After

Title: Poems: Before & After
Author: Miroslav Holub
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1958-86
Length: 272 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: Poems: Before & After - US
Poems: Before & After - UK
Poems: Before & After - Canada
  • Collected English Translations, by Ian and Jarmila Milner, Ewald Osers, and George Theiner. Additional translations by Stuart Friebert, Dana Hábová, and David Young.
  • Foreword by Ian Milner
  • This collection is a sampling from 11 of Holub's Czech collections, chosen by Holub.
  • Most of the Before section was previously available in the collection The Fly (Bloodaxe, 1987)
  • Most of the After section was previously available in the collection On the Contrary (Bloodaxe, 1984)
  • This collection also includes most of the poems from:
    • Selected Poems, trans. George Theiner and Ian Milner, 1967
    • Although, trans. Ian and Jarmila Milner, 1971
  • In addition this collection includes -- generally in different translation -- many or most of the poems in:
    • Sagittal Section, trans. Stuart Friebert and Dana Hábová, 1980
    • Interferon, trans. David Young and Dana Hábová, 1982

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Our Assessment:

A+ : a large, stunning collection, covering much of Holub's broad poetic output.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Spectator A 4/5/1990 Erik Svarny
TLS . 4/5/1990 Oliver Reynolds

  From the Reviews:
  • "If his work is representative of anything beyond its own startling originality, it should be seen as embodying the authentic spirit of European humanism, with its traditions of learning and unfettered intellectual inquiry." - Erik Svarny, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Poems: Before & After is a collected works of sorts. Poems from many of the other collections available in English are included (though not all of them, and often in different translations). Taken from eleven Czech volumes, much of the original poetry is still missing. Nevertheless it is a splendid introduction to Holub's poetry. Spanning his entire poetry-writing career, it also documents his evolution as a poet.
       Divided into two sections, the point that divides Before and After is basically the 1968 Prague Spring (though two of the collections from which selections are included in the Before section were actually only published in 1969 and 1970). The Before section includes selections from nine of Holub's poetry collections, though a few are represented by as few as four poems. The After section contains two larger collections, basically in their entirety.
       Holub's poetry impresses throughout. The variety here also adds to the effect. The early poetry, tending to be more playful, simple, and direct, shows Holub's creative efforts at conveying his stark statements. Carefully cloaking his poetry in myth and allegory, it still surprises how much he got away with under the eyes of an oppressive regime, especially before the thaw of the sixties.
       There is less emphatic erudition in these poems, neither of the mythical-historical nor of the scientific variety, though Holub does use these as well. Finely hewn, with equal measures of poignancy and humour, these earlier poems are enough to make any poet's reputation.
       The After section contains two larger collections, On the Contrary (poems from 1971-82, only published in 1982) and Interferon, or on Theatre (1983-6). On the Contrary includes many of the Brief Reflection poems: "Brief Reflection Accuracy," "on Charlemagne," etc. There is a greater complexity to these poems, and a darker, less hopeful outlook in them.
       Interferon, or on Theatre turns more theatrical -- to the puppet-show stage, with Punch and Judy, as well as center stage with a number of short dramatic scenes. The Faust-myth is used in several poems, and the Gilgamesh epic too.

       All in all this is a stunning collection, with many highpoints. Not completely comprehensive, significant chunks of Holub's poetry are not included, but it is an ideal introduction, preserving a chronological continuity and presenting samples of Holub's varied work.

       A brief note on the edition and translation: Holub does not suffer from a dearth of translators. Unfortunately, this causes considerable confusion, especially when varied editions present varied translations of the same poems. Oberlin Press has also published Interferon, or on Theatre, translated by David Young and Dana Hábová (see our review). To confuse matters more both the Interferon section of Poems: Before & After and the Young/Hábová edition contain poems not included in the other. And the Interferon section of Poems: Before & After, translated by Ewald Osers, also includes several of the Young/Hábová translations (which were not originally in the misleadingly titled Bloodaxe volume, On the Contrary -- which included both poems from On the Contrary and Interferon). Is your head spinning yet ?
       As to the quality of the translations -- it's a hard call. The Young/Hábová translations are certainly more American. Osers, Theiner, and the Milners bring a more English feel. There are bizarre differences -- the poem titled United Flight 1011 (according to Osers) becomes United Flight 412 in the Young/Hábová edition.
       There are other differences. To take an example from Sand Game: EO writes "Oldster", Y/H write "Grandpa". EO writes "Mad as a hatter", Y/H write "Nutty as a fruitcake". EO writes "Didn't I say you were mad ?", Y/H write "Crazy as a loon !". It clearly ain't the same thing.
       We do offer one further piece of evidence to prejudice you against the Young/Hábová translations. In his introduction to his translation of Interferon David Young writes about "the Sanskrit epic Gilgamesh", a statement of such breathtaking ignorance that it disqualifies the writer from any association with literary activity for all time. (Note that Young has a Ph.D. (from Yale) and is currently a professor, filling impressionable young minds with this sort of stupidity.)

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Poems: Before & After: Miroslav Holub: Other books by Miroslav Holub under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Poetry under review

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About the Author:

       Czech poet and scientist Miroslav Holub (1923-1998) was one of the major Eastern European poets of the post-war period. He earned both an M.D. and a Ph.D. and was a noted immunologist with more than 150 academic papers to his name. Much of his poetry has been translated into English.

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