August in Bratislava saw a dramatic increase in the number of long-haired, bushy-bearded, wild-eyed and Birkenstock shodtourists walking the streets of the capital. It was the occasion of the 18thWorld Congress of Poets, held from August 19-23 under the auspices of the World Academy of Arts and Culture and UNESCO.
Over four fabulous days, over 200 poets from around the world introduced their work at readings in Bratislava gardens and courtyards, creating a very special atmosphere between readers and listeners. Bratislava audiences applauded such presentations as 'Poetry from Three Continents,' 'With Young Breath' (on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Czechoslovakia occupation) and readings by Italian poets in cooperation with cultural foundations like Societé Dante Aligieri and Comitato di Bratislava.
The Bratislava Congress focused on interesting themes like Vitalism in European Poetry, Poetry of Central and Eastern Europe since 1989, Taboo and Modern Poetry in Traditional Forms and poetry on CD-ROM and the Internet.
Dubbed "A New World of Peace and Poetry for the Closing Milennium," the festival was held in honour of Ján Smrek (1898-1982), a famous Slovak poet and a noted translator. His work made him one of Slovakia's leading cultural lights in the 20th century.
Smrek established a group called the Young Slovak Writers in Prague and edited the literary monthly magazine Elán in the1930's. His work showed a sensual and vital approach to the world and a deeply humanist view of life, whose central pillars were women and love. He was also attracted to avant-garde tendencies in European poetry.
The Second World War period introduced darker, graver tones into Smrek's work. After the communists came to power, Smrek was compelled to be silent, returning to poetry only in 1958. The International Ján Smrek Prize was awarded in Bratislava to celebrate the centenary of Smrek's birth. The winner was Tomas Tranströmer from Sweden, with Michael Kruger from Germany placing second and Ludvík Kundera from the Czech Republic third.
The first Congress was held in 1969 to unite nations in an effort to achieve world peace and understanding through poetry. It was taken under the wings of the World Academy of Arts and Culture in 1973, and then registered and incorporated as an non-profit corporation in the state of California in 1985.
The latest prestigious gathering of world poets and critics was inspired by the invitation of Slovak poet and Nobel prize candidate Milan Rúfus. Rúfus, who was named the Honorary President of the Bratislava Congress, said that "art, as well as poetry, can say of itself that it performed the task of human testimony long before science entered the world". The 18th Congress was organised with the cooperation of the City of Bratislava, the Slovak Ministry of Culture and the National Centre for Slovak literature.
Ballad of the Cherry Blossom
The grove rustles and blood sings
and all are on fire; words and lips.
Her burning lips are touched
by the blooming cherry twigs.
To the cherry blossoms they went,
the maiden's breast rose and fell like rye.
His caresses are not tender
and don't make her cry, make her cry.
Her waist bends like a shoot,
his kiss settles on her throat
and her arms do not throw off
two snakes sliding, holding tight.
Somewhere this has been repeated,
somewhere else it starts.
A faun whistles through cherry branches
to cast a spell on young hearts.
When the cherry blossoms flower
it's hard to know the will of fate.
The brief flare of youth blinds us
to wisdom until much too late.
In a month in the place of leaves
the cherry shoot will bleed.
My beloved, don't be sad
that I tore you off with such greed.
Ján Smrek (1898-1982)