Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Poetry's Birthday

The young poet
Some know, some don't, but the Day of Hungarian Poetry is on April 12 each year. This is also the birthday of the famous poet, Attila József (really, he is well-known). His prominence in early 20th century Hungarian literature is unquestionable, and it derives from his political, proletarian poetry and his mental illness, which characterized his work and later led to his suicide.

Attila József lived in Budapest most of his life. His father abandoned his family and soon his mother gave him and his sister to foster parents. The troubled childhood had taken its toll: the poet had to deal with severe mental and emotional issues. He later ended up receiving treatment for his schizophrenia and borderline depression, but the efforts did not seem to have helped: he jumped on the tracks and was killed by a train at Lake Balaton. His death is claimed to be a planned suicide, but still, some argue that it was just a terrible accident that ended the life of one of the most talented Hungarian poets.

The infamous poem By the Danube (A Dunánál) describes the poet's relationship with the city but even more importantly it draws a parallel between the river of Budapest and time. The message of the poem in my interpretation is phrased in the following lines:

I am he who has gazed a hundred thousand years 

On that which he now sees for the first time. 
One moment, and fulfilled all time appears
In a hundred thousand forbears’ eyes and mine.

By the Danube is such a prominent poem of Attila József that his often visited memorial statue is placed on the bottom step that from the wharf descends.

A drawing of the proletarian poet
Like many of his predecessors, Attila József too expressed his thoughts about his own poetry and the status of poetry in his age. He dedicated his Ars Poetica to Andor Németh, fellow writer and columnist at the literary magazine Szép Szó. He wrote the poem in the final year of his life. Ars Poetica also criticizes the typical poet of the early 20th century, who often creates poetry drunk. Another point in the poem is that he is not willing to give up on his political views and he will keep expressing those in his poetry. Note the reference to his condition by saying time oozes down.

One is his earlier poems, Mother (Mama) is often recited, as it is short and the rhymes make it easy to remember. Also, the emotional filling makes it comprehensible. Attila József had relatively little time with his mother, so he includes some early childhood memories in the poem. It is easy to see that the poem is written from the point of view of a child, longing for his mother, and the poet's nearly 30-year-old self. I personally like how the mother is described as a hero, climbing up to the attic.

Now that I mentioned an often recited poem I cannot leave out the other one: With a Pure Heart (Tiszta szívvel). It is one of the poems that you cannot talk a lot about as it is all there in the lines. The imagery of the poisonous grass growing on the grave is really vivid and I can't skip pointing out to the paradox in it. I chose Kabdebo's translation over another one by the same translator. Here, you can see the difference between the poetic and the word for word translation, my choice being the poetic one. The significance of this poem is that Attila József was expelled from college for its revolutionary message. This is also important as you will see the reference to it in the next poem. 

The poet's memorial in Balatonszárszó, the place of his death
In 1937 the poet gave himself -and us- an exceptional birthday present: he wrote a poem, For My Birthday (Születésnapomra) as a gift. The poem's message is that despite he was kicked out of college for his poem, he will teach the people of his country-even better. Apart from this, For My Birthday is characterized by those little witty synchronized words at the ends of each stanza. Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, the translator of this poem did an excellent job, the English version reflects (although not completely, but that is impossible) the puns and rhymes in the original. This poem is also a source of several paraphrases or remixes, to use the modern terminology of the music industry.

April 11 is the Day of Hungarian Poetry since 1964 as a tribute to the poet and as such, last Friday was dedicated to him and all the other Hungarian poets in the form of special exhibitions, recitings, forums and memorial events throughout the country.