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Czech Poet Miroslav Holub Had Oberlin Ties
By David Young

 

Miroslav Holub
Miroslav Holub, 1923-1998

 

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF
DAVID YOUNG

 

SEPTEMBER 11, 1998--Miroslav Holub, the Czech poet and scientist who died unexpectedly in Prague July 14, had important literary ties to Oberlin College.

Frequently short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Holub, who was 74, often lived, taught, and worked at Oberlin during his visits to the United States. Holub enjoyed a relationship with the school and the town that grew out of his close friendship with his American translators. , poet Stuart Friebert, professor emeritus of creative writing, and me.

With Holub's sudden and unexpected death we have lost one of the stalwart spirits of our century, a man who was able to survive first Nazism, then Stalinism, while managing to keep alive the rigorous self-corrections of the practicing scientist and the fierce, unquenchable spirit of art--in other words, the two domains of the human spirit that our century's tyrannies and horrors have not been able to destroy.

Oberlin College Press published three of Holub's collections in its distinguished Field Translation Series: Sagittal Section (1980)--the work of Stuart Friebert, professor emeritus of creative writing, who was Holub's first American translator; Interferon, or On Theater (1982), and Vanishing Lung Syndrome (1990). These collections, along with earlier and later work, formed the basis of Intensive Care (1996), a selection of old and new poems encompassing some 40 years. While Holub's fame in Europe made him, especially in recent years, one of the two or three most-admired living poets, these U. S. publications secured for him a loyal American following. Milkweed Press published a collection of his recent essays, Shedding Life (1997), last fall.

Celebrated around the world for his unique fusion of the poet's and scientist's perspectives on history, culture, suffering, and folly, Holub traveled widely to literary and scientific gatherings since the Velvet Revolution marked the end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989.

Famous for his ironic wit and the cool precision of his fantastic metaphors, Holub was sometimes compared with John Donne and the metaphysical poets of the 17th century. His own artistic roots, however, were more contemporary. A strong affinity with the European expressionist and experimental tradition of this century--the artists Miro and Picasso, for example, and poets Jean Arp and Tristan Tzara--has often been noted. His work was also compared with that of other East European writers, including Milan Kundera, Zbigniew Herbert, and Wislawa Szymborska.

Miroslav Holub was born in Pilsen September 23, 1923. He studied medicine at Charles University in Prague after World War II and became known, first in his own country and then internationally, as a distinguished research scientist specializing in immunology. His career as a poet was concurrent; his first book of poems, Day Duty, was published in 1958.

His wife, Jitka, and three children survive. One of his children inspired a typical Holub poem, "Spacetime."