On the passing of Vaclav Havel


December 18, 2011, marked the passing of an artistic and political leader, Václav Havel. He was the author of more than 20 plays and essays, as well as numerous poems, and for many years a political dissident in Czechoslovakia until he was elected president of that country by the Federal Assembly in 1989. The next year, he was re-elected president by the citizens in a free election.

Through his work on The Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review and many trips with Paul Jagasich to Eastern Europe, retired Poet-in-Residence Tom O’Grady came to know many artists who would go on to become civic leaders, such as Havel and the Lord Mayor of Prague, Jaroslav Kořán. In his 1993 collection of poems, Shaking the Tree, O’Grady recounted how he and then-poet Kořán dodged KGB spies in 1984 en route to a doctor’s appointment in Prague and a subsequent visit from the FBI back home in Virginia. O’Grady found himself in Kořán’s mayoral office the day after Havel’s popular election in 1990 as the former dissidents became government officials.

He recalls “Václav Havel, a poet in power, approaching the problems of his society with a cold, hard logic tempered by the quick wit of a creative mind. And Mayor Kořán himself, sitting there faced with enormous problems of rebuilding the society which was left to wear out under Soviet incompetence, trying to solve his most serious problem of the day: how to make garbage collection more efficient. ‘That’s what revolution leads to,’ he says. ‘You have to pick up your own garbage’.”

“After returning home from the second trip, under the new world order, I kept correspondence up as best I could, but as everyone knows, the Czechoslovakian society faced other problems. Now we’ve seen it split in two: the Czech republic and the Slovakian regime. Everyone knew that was coming. Havel knew it was coming and he did his best to stop it; but rather than let the Velvet Revolution wear itself thin or be roughened into burlap, he decided to step back for a while.

“Kořán, too, I think, has had his time as mayor and is doing something else. [The poet Pavel] Šrut is more journalist now than poet but at least he has a respectable job. I did get a book in the mail, however, that I didn’t expect—a new collection of essays by Václav Havel, the title of which loosely translates: Ideas About Humanity Which Even a Child Could Understand. And it was signed by a great man, just a name, but in colored pen—his name in green and under it a red heart.

That’s the final metaphor, I thought: love. The big high, the great heart. Any people with people with great hearts cannot be controlled, and if somehow they let love—with laughter and civility—maintain itself through the most extreme oppression, the oppression will fade away.

“It’s not as easy as all that, of course; but it is probably true. If the new Czech republic joins back as it should in the future with the Slovakian regime, perhaps the flag will be changed, not too dramatically, but a neat little outline of the human heart somewhere down in the right corner etched in red, trimmed in green—colors of passion, colors of renewal, colors of undying hope.”