In a country as unstable, so prone to invasion and revolutionary change, the poetry of stability has remained just out of reach – George Szirtes
Because I’ve been stuck in my own work and in a new habit of reading contemporary American fiction, I lost site of one of my major goals in spending this time abroad in Hungary: to discover, read and try to make my way through some of the major Hungarian poets, and especially contemporary ones. What I didn’t realize at the onset of making that goal, was that this task was a very, very difficult one.
It has been hard, to say the least, to find translations of a lot of contemporary poets, which only makes me long for the ability to comprehend this language as clearly and luminously as I know the poets deserve. I have read excellent translations of poems by Ágnes Nemes Nagy and Gyula Illyés. László Nagy, István Simon and Ferenc Juhász are phenomenal 20th century poets who have added an incredibly important dimension to what I understand to be “working-class” poetry, which of course has an entirely different meaning in 1950s Hungary than in the United States. These are poets who abandoned romanticism, idealized the onset of socialist policies in the 1940s, and then quite quickly, in the 1950s, were disillusioned and disheartened by the outcomes, all elements that greatly affected the language of their political landscape, especially as many of their work was suppressed by the Stalinist regime.
It is said W.H Auden, among other important poets, critics and readers believed that Ferenc Juhász’s poem, “The Boy Changed into a Stag, Clamours at the Gate of Secrets” was the best poem of the century. Of course I’m skeptical of any such classification, but it is significant that this exclamation exists in the world of contemporary poetry without any (even extremely sophisticated) English readers and writers knowing about it. Sándor Weöres, perhaps one of the best of this generation, was rumored to be considered for the Nobel Prize over 10 times, if only there had been some graspable English translation of his works.
The problem with translation, George Szirtes argues in his article, “Anxiety, Density, Flight: An Introduction to Contemporary Hungarian Poetry,” is the isolation of the Hungarian language. “Ironically,” he writes, “a country that had given so much to music, science, medicine and theory prides itself most stubbornly on its literature, by which it means, primarily poetry. Few, however, outside the language community, have been in a position to vouch for its quality.” Even more troubling is that poets who have been translated widely and well, like Miklós Radnóti and János Pilinszky (who was translated by Ted Hughes) and have entered the canon, have done so only as “witnesses and victims.”
Oh. And where are the women?
Just this week I read The Slant Door by the author of that brilliant article, George Szirtes who left Hungary in 1956 as a refugee. He was 8 years old at the time, and has since gone on to published many books of poetry and translations. This particular book is his first collection, for which he the Faber Memorial Prize. Though after reading his article on Contemporary Hungarian Poetry I feel extremely unqualified to write a substantial review of the collection. I will say, however, that the language is clear and delicate, almost domestic, and it was a delight to read. And since I haven’t posted a excerpt of a Hungarian writer in a long time, here is a excerpt from his poem, ‘The Town Flattened”:
Sun blurs the trees. Along the slats
light rattles like a carriage. The porch
sighs out another century but we maintain
our distance, preferring the panoramic
view afforded by this vacancy
between two paths. Surely if we touched
the trees they would sound like crystal.
If nothing else (especially for my poetry friends out there), I hope that this post will encourage you even more seek out writers who you may have never heard of from faraway places with names that are difficult to pronounce. Like the rest of you, I too often panic that there aren’t enough hours in a lifetime to read all of the books I want to read, or feel I’ve missed out on. But I think there’s additional education in learning the pleasure of writers addressing familiar topics and theories but from a totally different experience in the world. Word!
One of the problems as writers — and readers — is that we tend to find a comfort zone and stay there. One of the reasons why the names on the best-selling book lists rarely change. Your post reminds me that it is important — and exciting — to discover the work of other writers. It’s a big world out there. Even in small book stores.
I really appreciate your comment on this, especially because I so often get books and texts to read that I otherwise would never read. (I’ve made it through two of the three books you saved for me this summer, and feel so much better for it!) And small book stores– yes– luckily I have finally, after a year, discovered some of the best little nooks to finding hard to reach books. 🙂