There Still Stands a City

There Still Stands a City
Frederick Turner

The Lost Rider: A bilingual anthology
THE CORVINA BOOK OF HUNGARIAN VERSE
Selected by Péter Dávidházi, Gyo?zo? Ferencz, László Kúnos, Szabolcs Várady
Corvina Books Ltd., Budapest 1997

The Colonnade of Teeth
MODERN HUNGARIAN POETRY
Edited by George Gömöri and George Szirtes
Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1996

One of the great cultural legacies of the world is at last beginning to come to light.  A linguistic community numbering little more than ten million today, perhaps a few million more if one counts emigrés and those stranded outside the border by war or treaty, the Hungarians have produced in the last couple of centuries a body of poetry that is the equal of any in the world.  With these two collections we get a glimpse at the riches that have been hidden from the rest of the planet by the formidable barriers of a strange language, a limited number of native speakers, and a political and historical presence almost always obscured by foreign domination.  It is indicative, in fact, that the editors of the Hungarian Quarterly felt it necessary to turn to a reviewer as unqualified as myself—I do not speak more than a few words of Hungarian, and am not a Hungarian expert but a British-American poet, interdisciplinary scholar and translator.  I hope that the naïve view of a sort of poetic Candide may be valuable in assessing the impact of these anthologies on a public woefully ignorant of Hungarian poetry.

In Hungary small children can recite, with charming expressiveness, great swathes of their nation’s verse.  Poets are held in high regard—when this reviewer travels there, he is made to feel like a foreign prince, and the names of the poets he visits are well known to taxi-drivers.  Only the Chinese and the Irish, in this poet’s experience, show such great respect for the poor rhymer.

Why is poetry so important in Hungary?  Perhaps part of the answer is that the earliest Magyars were, like other central Asian tribes, a shamanistic people, led by poet-healers, ritual impresarios who sang the world into being.  Once settled in the Danube basin, the Hungarians lost their independence in the sixteenth century and seldom regained it until today; all their revolutions except for the last one—of 1989–failed, and their political leaders were usually murdered.  Flooded again and again by waves of settlers, Hungary could not preserve any racial homogeneity even if it were in its cultural tradition to do so, which it is not.  The only thing Hungarians had, then, to preserve their identity, was their language, which must survive amid, as they say, an ocean of Slavs.  And it was the poets—the successors of the shamans–that kept the language alive.

In The Lost Rider, which covers poets born from 1554 to 1923, the force of the poetic tradition is obvious.  There seems to be an almost unbroken succession of poetic apprenticeship and shamanic inheritance, older poets acting as mentors and welcome influences for younger ones.  Even when, in the case of Attila József’s rejection of Mihaly Babits, the thread is apparently broken, the younger poet comes sadly to see his error in doing so, and rededicates himself to the common work.  There is a rhythm or cycle in which we can see Hungarian poetry emerge from the simple Magyar Skeltonics of Bálint Balassi, and civilize itself by exposure to the French and classical worlds in the work of Csokonai and Berzsenyi, the first evoking the delicate rococo of Fragonard and Watteau, the second the worldly yet high-minded humanism of Horace and his later Christian followers.  Then in Vörösmarty, Arany, and Peto?fi we find the first great flowering of the fully integrated European/Hungarian voice.  The tragic romantic philosophy of Vörösmarty and the Beethovenian cultural nationalism of Peto?fi are for this reader eclipsed by the grandeur of Arany.  I wish there had been more room for narrative poetry in both collections, and this is especially so in the case of Arany, whose verse stories, with their astonishing economy, make meaning in a way beyond the reach of prose.  With Ady, the rough Hun strength of the tradition is now humanized, sensitized, transformed from the inside into a vision as refined as a cultivated flower yet as robust as the hardy stock it is grafted to.

In Babits and Kosztolányi Hungarian poetry reaches its apex.  For this reader no poet in the world is Babits’ superior in evoking that mysterious shiver of beauty that is the choicest reward of poetry, beyond any moral or mental insight yet including both.  Babits is one of those extraordinary writers–like Ben Jonson, though Babits is the better poet–who are able not only to create a magnificent oeuvre of their own, but also become a father to many other poets.  And Kosztolányi’s “Dawn Drunkenness” is perhaps one of the three or four most moving poems in the Hungarian language, one of the great poems of the world, taking us as it does, without any lapse of intellectual integrity, to the very gates of paradise.

Nurtured by these examples, and by others of the time scarcely less influential, comes the last astonishing flowering of the tradition in József and Radnóti, whose apocalyptic vision of the century just ending—a vision both of cosmos and of psyche—is for me a key to the next.  Although giants like Vas and Weöres survive up to the dawn of Hungarian liberation, the tradition seems to this reader to have been at least partly broken, and something else has been struggling to be born.  That struggle is, I take it, the major focus of Colonnade of Teeth, which collects the major poets born after 1900.

The tradition makes itself felt in a variety of ways.  As soon as Hungarian poets mastered the western European meters, they began to combine them with traditional Magyar measures, and explore the very different metrics of the classical Romans and Greeks.  They built up an unequalled repertoire of metrical forms and modes of innovation, such that with the exception of the sonnet and a handful of stanzaic patterns, it is almost impossible to find a form repeated without variation in the traditional Hungarian canon.  Paradoxically, in fact, it is the advent of free verse in the twentieth century that begins to make different poems and poets sound alike in these anthologies (though this may be the result of problems in translation).

The tradition also generated a group of set-piece genres, partly overlapping with those of the rest of Europe, but largely indigenous to Hungary.  They include the following:

The lament for lost love.
The multi-part elegy, in different tones and voices, often including those of the dead poet when appropriate.
The poem on hope.
The anthem of tragic patriotism (there is no other kind of patriotism in Hungary).
The miraculous vision that appears in the midst of ordinary life.
The ars poetica.
The autumn poem.
The poet’s birthday poem.
The sickness or mortality poem.
The panoramic philosophical meditation.
The political protest.
The love-poem to the wife.
The mysterious catalog-rant, expressing the overwhelming richness of life.
The poem of bodily selfhood.

Poets take on these genres when they feel ready, as arenas for paying tribute to predecessors, to challenge them in emulation, to declare their membership of the tradition, and to bend the genre to their own personal style and vision by significant variation or new genre combinations.  Thus János Vajda in “Twenty Year After” and József Kiss in “Oh Why So Late” take on the lost love theme of Csokonai’s “To Hope” and Ady’s “Graceful Message of Dismissal,” while Vas’ “Approaching Fifty” combines the birthday-poem motif of Kosztolányi, Radnóti and József with the mortality theme of Peto?fi, Arany, and Füst—and the theme appears again in Zoltán Jékely’s “To My Bones,” incorporating the bodily-selfhood theme of Radnóti’s “Foamy Sky.”  Or again, consider how Kosztolányi’s angels in “Dawn Drunkenness” echo Erno Sze?p’s in “A Solitary Night Ramble,” which in turn inspires so many of József’s lonely meditations; and how Árpád Toth’s angelic beloved in “Evening Radiance” reappears in so many of Radnóti’s poems to Fanni.

We can now see that this condition of close collaboration with older poets and with the dead is not given to all poets.  As I have already suggested, the tradition in Hungary seems to have been broken in the Forties; it had been shattered elsewhere in the West long before.  For poets of my generation, the task is to rebuild it, piece by piece.  If we do not have a Jonson or a Babits, we must find one or become one.   Hungarian poetry actually survived the modernist revolution longer than most; but in The Colonnade of Teeth we can see the transformation clearly, as we move from those poets still in the classical tradition such as Illyés, Radnoti, József, Szabó, and Vas, through transitional figures such as Weöres and Pilinszky, to the poets of the contemporary postmodern avant garde.

In what does the rupture consist?  Formally, a deliberate abandonment–or unmourned loss–of a range of traditional poetic characteristics, the most obvious of which is regular meter.  Unlike the free verse poets of Western Europe and the America, who were already a generation removed from poets who could pass on their metrical skills, Hungarian poets did not, on the evidence, lose their actual ability to write in meter. The Colonnade of Teeth shows writers occasionally working in strict form through the whole period, if the translations are to be trusted on this score.  But the lute is so often unstrung that something is perhaps lost in the process of retuning.  The metrical loosening is accompanied by several other changes, that add up to a clear difference from the earlier tradition: a discarding of clear central argument and logical progression; an abandonment of sequential plotting in those poems which describe events; abandonment of the Aristotelian beginning-middle-end structure; diminished control over length and relevance; abandonment of grammatical completeness; loss of moral clarity; and a relative absence of that quality of joy and hope that is so characteristic of earlier Hungarian poetry.  As Radnóti put it prophetically in “A` la Recherche,” “fragments of poems multiplied” in those days.  In subject, too, there are changes: poems of possessive desire, physical obsession, and transient sexual encounter replace poems of love and devotion, bitter political satire replaces social and cultural idealism.  Shouting replaces singing.  As is found throughout the Iron Curtain countries of the time, poets go underground, their tone takes on a cynicism about any public values, and they retreat into the privacies and obscurities of dream, idiosyncratic imagery, and the confessional.  Ferenc Juhász composes his great poem “The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets” in which the son, now transformed into something utterly alien and inaccessible to social culture, rejects the anguished call of his mother, couched in the traditional imagery,  to come back to her; and if the notes to Colonnade are to be believed, loses his creative power thereafter.

This last paragraph may sound like an indictment.  It is not: there is in the new poetry an intensification of the imagery, new qualities of surprise in tone and diction, and a variety of new subjects and personalities.  There are moments of staggering beauty, such as Weöres’ “Lost Parasol,” and the gorgeous ending of Zsuzsa Rakovszky’s  “Addict.”  Gyo?zo? Hatar’s “Vampire” is outrageously funny.  There is a spare intellectual elegance in the work of Szabolcs Várady.  The old qualities are not, moreover, being abandoned inadvertently: one can imagine plausible arguments against meter, logic, grammar, structure and so on, such as: those old forms are oppressive, they are, literally, what Radnóti called them ironically, “ancient prisons,” whose results are all too clear in the present tyranny.  Or: a new age calls for new forms, and since all such forms are socially constructed and in turn construct readers in their image, if we would have a new human nature we must have new, freer, artistic forms.  Or: the public world has given us the brutal reality of tanks and a murdered president: the only way to thwart the inhumanity of the collective is by a retreat to the inaccessibly private.   Or: all hope has died, let us live entirely in the moment.

What caused the great interruption?  In Hungary there are so many reasons that the change is overdetermined.  There was, of course, the general iconoclasm of world modernism, the dismantlement of all the old artistic forms of musical melody, poetic meter, visual representation, dramatic mimesis, and sequential narrative, under the belief (mistaken, as it turned out) that they were mere social conventions without a basis in human nature.   More obviously still, there was the tragedy of the Second World War, and its aftermath, the gigantic disappointment of Soviet “liberation.”  There was the atmosphere of optimistic public lies, totalitarian oppression, and private compromise (so finely captured in many of these poems, such as Nagy’s “Squared by Walls”).  More devastatingly still, there was the huge ugly burden of repressed and denied guilt at Hungary’s role in the Holocaust, a drag on any celebration of the heroic identity of the nation.  But perhaps even these shattering handicaps might have been overcome without breaking the poetic tradition.  Peto?fi sings from under the hooves of the Russian cavalry, and Hungarian poets have always flourished in defeat.  But the decisive break may have been one of simple mortality.  Within the space of seventeen years, from 1928 to 1945, Hungary lost by disease, suicide, and murder, seven of its greatest poets, the seed-corn of the tradition: Árpád Toth, Dezso? Kosztolányi, Gyula Juhász, Attila József, Mihály Babits the father of poets, Miklós Radnóti and György Sárközi.  There is a pause in the late forties and early fifties in both anthologies; and when poetry begins again it has a different tone.

Hungarian poets seem well aware of what has happened to them, as a few random quotations demonstrate.

And even if
sleep comes, will tomorrow waken anything?

–Ferenc Juhász, “November Elegy”

history consists
(it said) of four seasons
spring summer
autumn and winter

now winter is drawing near

–Sándor Kányádi, “History Lesson”

rock of mother-daylight, take
me back again into your womb.
Being born was the first error

–Sándor Csoóri, “Barbarian Prayer”

In Ruritania
there are no plugs in the baths
lavatory seats aren’t sat upon but vomited over
offices smell of cabbage
culture of cheap eau de Cologne
With thickly padded shoulders in a jacket cut too straight
the writer stalks about in the field of Word
he bends down picks up a piece of reality
sniffs at it and chucks it away grimacing

–Gyögy Gómóri, “From a Traveller’s Notebook”

“you think yourself a seer because you’ve been disappointed.  And in your infinite wisdom you bawl at me like some cheap whore.  You come back with your dowry, your naïve ideas, your bloody revolution!  Bring back God, the family, tradition, and kick me out!  But are we not one person?  And isn’t your imagination the whole problem?  The wheel of time remains indifferent, you are a squirrel in the cage rushing round on the wheel which like a lathe turns out the centuries.”

–Ottó Orbán, “The Spirit of the Age”

there at the frontier
is the sacred lie: which is hope.

–Domokos Szilágyi, “Frontiers”

Well, rest in peace there: time goes on its way.
That’s quite enough rhyming on pain now for one text.

–György Petri, “In Memoriam: Péter Hajnóczy”

In Petri’s fine poem “Electra,” echoing Sartre’s The Flies, Electra decides to kill Aegisthus not out of loyalty to her father Agamemnon, the source of her tradition—for her Agamemnon is a “gross geyser of spunk/ who murdered his own daughter”—but out of contempt for her new apparatchik father-in-law with his “trainee-barber’s” face and for her “whore” mother.

Radnóti’s sonnet written on March 27th 1944, “O Ancient Prisons” (not included in either anthology) is again prophetic:

O peace of ancient prisons, beautiful
outdated sufferings, the poet’s death,
images noble and heroical,
which find their audience in measured breath–
how far away you are.  Who dares to act
slides into empty void.  Fog drizzles down.
Reality is like an urn that’s cracked
and cannot hold its shape; and very soon
its rotten shards will shatter like a storm.
What is his fate who, while he breathes, will so
speak of what is  in measure and in form,
and only thus he teaches how to know?

He would teach more.  But all things fall apart.
He sits and gazes, helpless at his heart.

István Baka echoes him in “The Mirror Has Broken:”

The mirror has broken.  From its fragments we
May piece together something like a view,
But earth and sky will not be welded—see,
The darkness comes before the night is due.

The view has broken, from its shards somehow
The mirror may be put together yet,
But earth and sky have changed positions now,

The dark has spilled over the day and set.

I think I detect among some of the younger poets, especially Zsuzsa Rakovszky and Gyo?zo? Ferenc, a gradual return of hope, and with it a recommitment to the ancient crafts of meter and argument; there are even moments of piercing beauty.  The future of Hungarian poetry presents a great question: can Hungarian poets recover the glory of their tradition, without compromising the hard-won insights and freedoms of their long national nightmare?  The problem is that the last Hungarian revolution was won not by military heroes, not by noble nationalistic principles, not by intellectuals and not by poets, but by business people, technocrats, families, bourgeois civil society.  How does one celebrate the patient growing of wealth and culture, the slow processes of cultivation, virtuous discipline, democratic compromise, economic federalism, wise environmental management, the evolutionary chaos of the market?

Hungarian poetry may be in a better condition to find a way out of the failing conventions of modernism and postmodernism than are most current national literatures.  It has many large advantages.  Its technical skills have been honed by translation.  The traditions of the city of Budapest, in which scientists, artists, writers, psychologists, mathematicians, philosophers and social thinkers meet and talk in the coffee-houses, has largely averted the two-cultures ignorance of the West.  The people love poetry.  The geography and history of the nation compel it to think in terms of Europe and the globe itself, and do not permit insularity.  A brilliant entrepreneurial spirit will provide the national wealth.  But above all, its own poetic tradition is an inexhaustible resource and warrant for the future.