The Doomed Group of Trnava


The Doomed Group of Trnava  – this is the title I gave to my book on the Trnava group to be published this year, borrowing, to some extent, from Verlaine. The Doomed Poets – as Paul Verlaine called the book on the poets of his generation who gave rise to modern French poetry. The Trnava Group accomplished something no less significant in another time and another country. Lacking the universal French glamour and appeal, a few words should then introduce the Trnava Group story to the world.


1945 saw the end of the Second World War, and, as a result of the postwar division of the world. Czechoslovakia found itself within the Soviet realm of interest. In 1948, a Russian-orchestrated political coup took place in Czechoslovakia, “The Victorious February“, and the Communist party rushed to install its totalitarian regime that was to last the next 42 years.

What proceeded was prearranged under the age old Stalinist recipe – the first years of dictatorship were particularly nasty. Hundreds of innocent people executed, thousands imprisoned. People were normally incarcerated in groups; with each group came a certain label: there were the trials of the Bourgeois Nationalists, Capitalists, Major Landowners, Priests, Zionists; obviously, all the trials were kangaroo courts. The rest of society did not fare much better either: whatever you possessed was taken away from you – property, jobs, education, travel, religious life...  In brief, the society as a whole was deprived of freedom.

Culture and the arts, too, were deprived of their freedom of expression. A new – and the only allowed – artistic “current“ arrived from Russia: Socialist Realism. In reality, there was nothing “artistic“ about it: instead, it only meant a total brainwash – to dutifully give up any original ideas and to memorize the phrases and resolutions of the Communist Party, which you were supposed to identify with.

Some artists did not yield to the pressure to write articles in promotion of judicial murders and insist on the most severe punishment for the innocently convicted (including their former colleagues). But some even assisted in drawing up the scenarios for those monstrous trials, writing propaganda brochures – and some poets found it appropriate to glorify these monstrosities in verse.

Before Central Europe could recover from the horrors of war and fascism, a new era of darkness had settled in.

Still, history did not end, and fresh historical events gave a glimmer of moderate improvement. In 1953 Stalin died, and in March of 1956, the 20th Assembly of the Soviet Communist Party took place in Moscow, where Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, unmasked his predecessor’s crimes. A radical political change seemed to be on the way – the Russian writer Ilya Erenburg called this, poetically, the “thaw“ (óttepelj in Russian). Sadly, even this “thaw“ did not last long – in fact, it only survived from March to September before it gave way to a new freeze. As early as September 1956 an uprising arose in Budapest, and Khrushchev resumed the old practice: crushed the uprising with tanks – and the thaw was over.

Yet, the few months of thaw did manage to bring about a little miracle. As if on nature’s whim, when a spell of several warm days arrives suddenly in winter giving blossom to a few apple trees amid the snow-covered garden. So, in Slovak culture, a new generation sprang to a sudden blossom that would ignore the rules of Socialist Realism. With unbelievable speed, new trends and talents were springing up: the music of Ilya Zeljenka, Uher‘s film Sun in the Net (Slnko v sieti), the visual arts of the Galanda’ Group  – and the “belated debutants“ (Rúfus, Válek) and the Trnava Group in literature.

Even though the thaw was over before it really began to settle in, those apple trees did not surrender, and blossomed on.


Back in those days, the very word “group“ used in the name of an artistic association signaled the arrival of a change for the society-at-large.

As indicated above, since February 1948, the word group was used primarily with the adjective “treasonous“. Once included in any “group“ by the State Security, you would usually end up in prison.

            To be correct, however, it should be noted that the use of “group“ in a less dangerous semantic setting was actually propelled by the top ranks. In the spring of 1956, the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party – apparently encouraged by Khrushchev’s revelations – made a surprising declaration that there was nothing wrong with “artists whose views are akin to one another associating in groups“. Yet another surprise arriving from “above” was the green light for journals of the young generation. In Bohemia, the journal Květen began to appear (around a group that defined itself as  “the art of the common day“), and the journal Mladá tvorba would be published in Slovakia.

            Appearing since September 1956, the editor-in-chief of Mladá tvorba was Milan Ferko, and its staff of editors included, since 1957, Miroslav Válek.

            Miroslav Válek (1927) was the son of Democratic Party’s official – a party that was banned following February 1948. A son of a “mukl“, which was prison slang for the innocent victims of dictatorship (short for muž určený k likvidácii – Male-to-be-exterminated) – as those Democratic Party’s officials who hadn’t emigrated were mostly imprisoned. Due to his family background, Miroslav Válek was a “cadre case“, expelled from university and much of an odd-jobber – working an editor of the Farmer’s Daily newspaper. Though he showed his poetic talents prior to February 1948 (as a Catholic modernist), he was banned from publishing after that.

            That, however, proved to be his poetic luck. As one of those who managed to pass by the era of ultimate darkness, escape the brainwashing and breaking of characters, he could – as a belated debutant – enter the Slovak literary scene by publishing, as late as 1959, his Touching (Dotyky) – a volume of pristine, ideologically-free lyrical poetry.

            Moreover, Miroslav Válek – an escapist from the era of “darkness“ – was on better terms with the younger generation of poets beginning to publish their first works.

            This young generation appeared, individually, in Mladá tvorba as early as 1956. It included the poets that were to make up the Trnava Group – Ján Ondruš (1932), Jozef Mihalkovič (1935), Ján Stacho (1936) and Ľubomír Feldek (1936).

            Interestingly, these poets rose to an earlier opportunity to make a name in children literature. Namely, in 1957, the Mladé letá publishing house organized a competition for the best book for the youngest readers. The winner was Stacho‘s Chocolate Tale (Čokoládová rozprávka); the third place was shared, ex equo, by Válek‘s Magic under the Table (Kúzla pod stolom) and Feldek‘s Play For Your Eyes of Blue (Hra pre tvoje modré oči). Even today – with 50 years of hindsight – this competition is still considered a milestone of Slovak children literature, which then, too, broke loose off the dictates of socialist realism.

(And, another milestone of Slovak book illustration – it is no coincidence that both Stacho‘s and Válek’s books were illustrated by Albín Brunovský and Feldek’s by  Miroslav Cipár, then still students at the Academy of Fine Arts – and today seen as top representatives of 20th century Slovak book illustration and co-founders of a major international exhibition of illustration – BIB.)

            It was the “older brother“ of this generation, Miroslav Válek, who – having managed to quit his outsider job in Farmer’s Daily in 1957 and to become an editor of Mladá tvorba – suggested to his junior poets to create a literary group.

            This idea was encouraged also by Mladá tvorba’s editor-in-chief Milan Ferko; Mladá tvorba gave them one entire issue (April 1958) to fill out with their contributions – manifestos, articles, poems, short stories and translations.

            Four young poets eagerly rose to the occasion. As three of them – Ondruš, Stacho and Mihalkovič – came (like Válek) from Trnava, they called themselves the Trnava Group.

            The Mladá tvorba editorial board was very benevolent, and gave the Group just one condition to observe in their issue: several standard rubrics such as “New Voices“ were to remain. The Trnava Group complied, and found one more “new voice“ – the fiction writer Rudolf Sloboda (1938) joined in for that issue.

            This whole preparatory stage took place in 1957 – exactly half a century ago. The Group was established in the Autumn of 1957. The Group issue was prepared in December 1957. Additionally that year, Válek wrote his historical essay The Roads of Poetry (Cesty poézie) that appeared in the March 1958 issue of Mladá tvorba, to pave the way for new poetry whose authors were to present their program in the April issue. In his essay, Válek wrote: Where will that poetry be coming from? It will come from and use the language of the street. It will come from the factories, fields, cafés, from contemporary life, and will speak the language of this life. It will have its bewildered and somewhat child-like, yet seeing eyes. It will discover things unknown and new, and will insist on speaking them. Thus, it will find insufficient both what has been and what is... The old walls will be torn down, yet its new house will not be built on air.“

            Válek’s essay is, until today, not only a remarkable forecast of the development of poetry, but an intriguing testimony of its time long gone by, when the Communist dictatorship, although then already on a moderate path, had to hear that the new poetry will come from “the factories and the fields“ – the formula of nation-building of its time, to be appeased. Yet, Válek adds “from cafés“, a new, cryptic signal of conspiracy that things are a-changing. “Bewildered child-like eyes” foretell the broad range of the upcoming poetry, and, at the same time, its reaching back to modernism – every time when modern poetry was about to release new energies, it did so in close association with alternative poetical values (naïveté, child’s fancy and the like). And by saying that what has been does no longer suffice, Válek signals, inconspicuously, the political aspect what the Group was preparing to present as its manifesto: rejection of Socialist Realism.


So, the apple trees were in blossom, although the thaw had been over.

The thaw had gone – yet, we were young, and paid little attention.

            After the Budapest Uprising had been suppressed in September 1956, it did not take much for the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party to figure out that the indulgence had been a little too quick. It rushed to quash its willingness to tolerate artistic groups, and resumed to view groups with suspicion, as something treasonous that must be monitored and eradicated when the time is ripe.

As a result, the Trnava Group had been preparing to make its public appearance already in adversity, and the timing of its actual public appearance was even worse.

It was heading towards a catastrophe – and was bound not to miss.

The Group’s issue of MT 4/58 contained three program-like manifestos:

A Word on Poetry,  A Word on Children Literature,  A Word on Translation.

            It further included programmatic poems – Ondruš‘ Memory (Pamäť), Stacho‘s Early Morning’s Recollection Between Two Cigarettes (Ranná rozpomienka medzi dvoma cigaretami) Mihalkovič‘ I’ll Put Another One (Priložím) and Feldek‘s Play For Your Eyes of Blue (Hra pre tvoje modré oči).

            The New Voices rubrics was bringing Sloboda’s short story That House Was Entered by a Wide Gate (Do toho domu sa vchádzalo širokou bránou).

            And a number of other texts, articles, translations, glosses – the substantial ones have been named.

            The key issue on the agenda of that poetical manifesto was its refusal of ideologically-biased poetry, which a very slight and transparent euphemism for the refusal of Socialist Realism the Trnava Group wanted to replace with a sensual and concrete vision of the world. (Hence, critics later called the Group Konkretisti.)

            We considered this concreteness of senses a more reliable guarantee of truth than any idea that is all too easily spoiled by ideology. In addition to truth, we proclaimed the freedom of imagination, poetic devices and experiment. And when specifying our refusals, we did not hesitate to refer to some respectable names.

            Those respectable names were instrumental to the power that suppressed our efforts before they saw the light of day.

            The April issue of MT was never published. The Central Committee had its manuscript proofread by around 20 experts (most of them negative) – and, as a result, had the entire publication shut down. What did appear, was only a shell.

            Other kinds of discrimination ensued. Including the loss of my job and forced acceptance of a new job as a manual worker.

The already forthcoming edition of my Play For Your Eyes of Blue was stopped – its 10,000 copies left the printing house and ended up in the dustbin in 1959.

Overall, the political climate got worse. The late 1950s in Slovakia saw another series of monstrous trials, including that of the treasonous Kauzál group and co., which involved the imprisonment of my father.

            In the arts, however, the bad always has its good side, too.

            The blow that was to strike the Trnava Group in its inception proved, in fact, to be reinforcing. The short time given to its birth became the time of its Big Bang, from which its universe developed.


Where does the universe that developed from the Big Bang of April 1958 lie?

Later, The Trnava Group gave up publishing further group manifestos or journals – even if that were possible.

It did something else instead: it lived on as a free and friendly grouping, relying on the individual stories of its members.

Those individual stories would make up novels.

Miroslav Válek became a government minister.

After an almost fatal car accident, Ján Stacho spent twenty years bed-ridden.

Rudolf Sloboda committed suicide.

Maybe sometime those novels will be written.

Yet, the life events were still dominated by the events of literature. Whatever the time was, good or bad, the Trnava Group never surrendered its creative freedom that it was able to enjoy at its onset. Thus, it was principally by its literary practice, not by theoretical postulates that the Trnava Group made a deep impact on Slovak culture.

Needless to say, particularly impacted were the three areas originally targeted in the Group‘s programming – poetry, children literature and translation of poetry.

Just to list what all the Group’s poets have accomplished would fill several pages.

Yet, the essence of their influence has a still deeper foundation.

To capture that, we would need to go all the way back to the roots of Slovak culture, the times of the Great Moravian Empire.

That empire blossomed culturally in the 9th century A.D – the same century of its ultimate demise.

What followed was – or rather appears to be – a half-millennium-long silence in the Slovak cultural history – especially its language-related cultural history. But this silence is only apparent – indeed, the silence only involves written documents. Orally, our ancestors had kept and cultivated huge cultural capital in the form of tales, songs and sayings that is in every aspect comparable with the cultural heritage of other, much more sizable nations. The problem occurred during the revival of national literature. Those who carried on written culture were mostly priests or people with other kinds of limitations, which prevented the revived Slovak literature – practically until the twentieth century – to be on the par with its own roots.

To oversimplify the case – it took long centuries before someone could write a poem whose contents and expressive means would be as free as those of the folk song.

            The case is well illustrated on amatory poetry. In the 19th century a Slovak poem would scarcely feature eroticism, if at all. Sládkovič would ascetically embrace his homeland here and Marína there, and the only truly erotic poem by a poet of Slovak blood is The Lady Inn-Keeper of Hortobágy – written by Petöfi in Hungarian.

            Well into the 20th century the Slovak poet is still at a loss when addressing the man-woman relationship; taking a closer at those parts of the womanly body, whereon already Rimbaud, in his pink little wagon, was cheerily driving his spider of a kiss, is still an anathema to the Slovak poet – although one hundred year’s the former’s junior.

            And suddenly enters the Trnava Group, and, with it, Stacho‘s verse:


                        Just keep on falling, wounded girl, and let the metals ignite.

                        Eh, closer to the moon, little curve of flexible legs.

                        That ridge in the apricot‘s bound to give birth to a child one day,

                        You Queen of dust, you god of common day.

            Paradoxically, it was during the era of utmost deprivation of freedom – the totalitarian Socialist Realism – that we finally broke free of our belatedness.

The accomplishment of the Trnava Group in Slovak literary history can be summarized in a single sentence: it ultimately brought Slovak literature to a world-level.

Although the world has no idea yet.

But read, as you should do, Stacho‘s Reading from the Dust (Čítanie z prachu) or From the Day As Lived (Z prežitého dňa), Sloboda‘s Narcissus (Narcis) or Reason (Rozum), Ondruš‘ Crazy Moon (Šialený mesiac) or Genuflection (Kľak)...

And the rest will be told by bibliographies.

                                                                                                Translated by Ľuben Urbánek