Tom Hubbard: Callouses and Diamonds

TOM HUBBARD (b. 1950) was educated at the universities of Aberdeen and Strathclyde. He is currently editor of BOSLIT (Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation), a research project of Edinburgh University, based at the National Library of Scotland. He was the first librarian of the Scottish Poetry Library (1984-92) and was subsequently a visiting lecturer at the universities of Grenoble, Connecticut, Budapest (ELTE), and North Carolina (at Asheville). A widely published and translated poet and literary scholar, he is the author or editor of several books. His most recent publication is Poetry from Switzerland (Fife Lines, 2002), an anthology of translations by Scottish poets. In March 2003, he attended the premiere of a setting, for voices and organ, of lines from his narrative poem 'Isolde's Luve-Daith' (1998). The concert took place in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, in the presence of the work's composer Ronald Stevenson (b.1928). At ELTE, during the spring of 1996, Dr Hubbard taught an intensive course in Scottish literature and culture 1870-1914, and undertook preliminary research for a feature of Hungarian poetry in translation for the Asheville Poetry Review. His pedagogic work was financially supported by the British Council in Hungary, which also funded a return visit in July 2001. On this second occasion he participated, as a poet, in a Celtic Festival in Budapest. His poems have appeared in Hungarian translation in the review Nagyvilág.

It is said that modern Hungarian poetry began, dramatically, with the appearance of Endre Ady's first collection Új Versek (New Poems) in 1906. The work of Ady is a potent blend of Calvinistic prophecy and Secessionist morbidezza, and the reader might well detect this in the bloodstream of later Hungarian poetry; for example, István Eörsi's 'Abraham and Isaac', here translated, echoes many a stark biblical line of Ady. Even the latter's 'Judas and Jesus' has more of the Old than the New Testament about it.

Ady's background was in provincial journalism, but it was at his base in Nagyvárad in eastern Hungary that he met the older woman who was to whisk him off to Paris and introduce him to cosmopolitan sophistication (as well as to equally cosmopolitan eroticism). In common with his colleagues in music, Bartók and Kodály, he became receptive to French influences as a counterweight to the Austro-German cultural hegemony of the Hapsburg empire. A wide-eyed denizen of the Boulevard Saint-Michel, Ady translated or otherwise absorbed Verlaine, Baudelaire, and that melancholic master of Parisian working-class argot, Jehan-Rictus.

Back in Hungary, he denounced his native land as a feudal backwater and asserted a pan-European avant-garde, both aesthetic and political. Yet, in common with other east-central European writers, artists and composers, he expressed his modernist sensibility through 'primitive' native materials n in his case, these were his country's rich store of folk song and ballad. So, this was not a simple matter of making Hungary desirably 'western'; indeed, far from scorning as backward the 'oriental' trappings of his country, he drew on the rich imagery of Magyars on horseback, on those symbols of an ancestry traceable back to Asiatic nomads. Ady referred to Hungary as 'ferry land', plying forever between both banks of a river, from east to west and back to east again. He was both repelled by, and attracted to, this prospect.

Despite the relative inaccessibility of Hungarian literature, there were a few in the west who recognised Ady as a major European modernist. The American critic Edmund Wilson learned Hungarian in order to read him in the original. 'Memory of a Summer Night' should convince anglophone readers that, together with 'Before Easter' by Babits, here is one of the very great poems to come out of World War 1; it can be set beside Georg Trakl's 'Grodek' as one of the most apocalyptic visions of that time.

Ady's reputation as fons et origo of Hungarian poetic modernism has not gone unchallenged. There are those who would claim that status for Mihály Babits, who was a close colleague of Ady: their common westernising interests are reflected in their association with the leading literary review Nyugat ('West' in Hungarian). However, they were very different as poets and men; a photograph of the two together shows Ady as thickset and sensuous, Babits as lean and austere. Babits was a classicist: the legacy of Greece and Rome meant more to him than what he felt was the barbarousness of the Old Testament. Even more emphatically than Ady, and certainly more sedately, he brought European culture to Hungary. The high points of this process are perhaps his 'History of

European Literature' and his translation of Dante's 'Divina Commedia'. As for literary traffic in the other direction, he objected to the translation of second-rate Hungarian works into other languages; Hungary, he maintained, should present itself to the world at nothing less than its best. He felt that at times texts were chosen simply on the grounds of easy translatability.

If Babits was a 'committed' poet, it was not in any crude, reductive sense of the word. He was concerned to defend centuries of European culture against the threats posed by the twentieth century. In such ideologically-charged times, he was bound to suffer for such perceived loftiness. His death in 1941, from throat cancer, may have saved him from an even worse fate. The translations in the present book convey Babits's tragic sense of the isolation of the poet - indeed of the isolation of the poet as witness. Late in his life, in 'Jonah's Prayer', he recognizes that the poet must leave his ivory tower and take sides when fascism threatens his civilisation. Anglophone readers will also be reminded of T.S. Eliot's 'those fragments I have shored against my ruin'. Mihály Babits is indeed witness to the Hungarian waste land.

Babits suggested that foreign readers might detect in Hungarian literature certain qualities that were unrecognised by the Hungarians themselves; as Robert Burns put it: 'O wad some pouer the Giftie gie us/ Tae see oorselves as ithers see us'. Others might see into hidden depths. It is not fortuitous that the most outgoing Hungarian writers were responsive to Freud and psychoanalytic theory. I would commend Babits's 'Psychoanalysis Christiana', and would urge the reader to linger in the interstices of Dezsô Kosztolányi's 'Dawnstruck'. Kosztolányi, another of Nyugat's contributors, wrote in 1917:

We carry within ourselves our spectres [...] [T]he daring conquistadors, conquerors and missionaries of the soul are now exploring that uncultivated land, that populous, immense empire which is under the threshold of our subconscious: the memory of forgotten impressions, the ancient soil of worn-out sentiments and thoughts.

Attila József attempted to synthesise Freud and Marx and in consequence fell foul of orthodox communism. His poetry sets the tone for much that was to follow: the dry, astringent, yet passionate voice of resilience and survival. In the obvious sense, József chose not to survive: he threw himself under a train. After his death, however, this great poet, admired by Thomas Mann, acquired an exalted - even iconic - status in Hungary. The University of Szeged, which expelled him for his subversive poetry, (see 'On My Birthday') was later named after him . This is a country whose culture - if one may understate - is rich in irony.

József's is a hauntingly musical poetry, above all his incantatory 'The Seventh One', with its deployment of echo, repetition with variation, and refrain. His earliest work, published in Nyugat, attracted praise of which he was characteristically sceptical: he responded that he was 'not an infant prodigy, but an orphan'. His childhood was passed

in proletarian poverty; he went on to evoke the grimy urban peripheries of factories and railway yards at dusk, the neglected spaces given over to dandelions and broken glass.
People in financial straits are constantly obliged by officialdom to submit potted biographies. On one occasion, in the course of completing an application form for student relief, he wrote: 'I have been a tutor, newspaper vendor, ship's boy, street paver, bookkeeper, bank clerk, book salesman, paper boy, stenographer, typist, guard in a cornfield, poet, translator, critic, delivery boy, busboy, stevedore, construction worker, day labourer. I cannot give an account of my earnings.' We could debate the extent to which his poetry's epiphanies are earned in spite of his wage-slavery, or as a result of it. In one poem, questioned about his work, a bookbinder replies that callouses grow on his hands and diamonds in his heart. For me, this resonates above all in 'By the Danube', his tribute to Hungary's (and Europe's) great river, which links the unresolved ethnic tensions between the people of the region to long historical memory and to his washerwoman-mother. Even orphans may invoke their ancestors.

Miklós Radnóti was a friend of József's, and also espoused the values of a humane socialism at odds equally with the barbarities of fascism, exploitative capitalism and doctrinaire communism. He was Jewish, but assimilated into Hungarian culture, and possessed of the cosmopolitan sophistication which is always distrusted by totalitarian and authoritarian systems. This celebrant (like Ady) of the Boulevard Saint-Michel was to spend his last years in a Serbian labour camp. Executed by the Nazis, he was subsequently exhumed and a notebook was discovered in his jacket; here, in his neat, meticulous hand, were found many of his most powerful poems.

'A La Recherche', by its very title, testifies to Radnóti's wide European reading, which included Proust, Ronsard, Virgil and - tellingly - one of his predecessors as a poet-martyr in wartime, Federico García Lorca. This heartbreaking (but dry-eyed) poem contrasts memories of cultured conviviality with the century's horrors in Spain, Ruthenia, Flanders, and now Serbia. Somehow, as in 'Images', Radnóti can strike a lighter note, compounded of pathos and, yes, humour. In captivity, Radnóti addressed searingly beautiful love-poems to his wife ('Seventh Eclogue'), and found it in himself to be affirmative.

One of his other translators, Emery George, has written of Radnóti: 'He is seen, like no one else of his generation, to have the power of synthesizing such polar extremes as tradition and innovation, the local and the cosmopolitan, the Christian and the classical, most importantly the perennial antagonism, in poetry, between engagement and art.' Twentieth-century Hungarian poetry generally is a poetry which confronts extremes. This is true of the work of Sándor Kányádi, who, however, is very much a special case: in this volume, he is the poetic representative of Erdély (Transylvania), the Hungarian-speaking area which has become part of Romania, and which contains Europe's largest linguistic minority within a state. The December 1989 uprising against the regime in Bucharest was sparked off by the persecution of a Hungarian-speaking pastor. Kányádi juxtaposes this apparent backwater with one of Europe's most 'advanced' metropolises -

Vienna, the birthplace of his major poem 'All Soul's Day in Vienna' of rapidly changing stanza forms and moods which relate to the planet, his homeland and his personal world. It's as if Ady's 'ferry-land' had somehow, ominously, shifted further west, without any diminution of the prospect to the east.

Sándor Weöres is a striking example of a Hungarian poet whose roots are in folksong and traditional children's rhymes, idioms which are eminently compatible with modernist grotesquerie and wit. He also displays a deep grounding in philosophy from Plato to existentialism. All these elements converge in the brisk little poem 'Tipsy Furniture'. Readers of German poetry will be reminded here of Christian Morgenstern, a name cited by William Jay Smith in his foreword to 'Eternal Moment' (1988), a collection of Weöres's poems in English translation.

János Pilinszky is a profoundly religious poet whose Catholic existentialism echoes the Calvinist existentialism of Ady. Yet this is not to deny the uniqueness claimed for him by his contemporary Ágnes Nemes Nagy. She writes of him: 'When he walked down the street, one of those dark Budapest streets of the fifties, in his short coat, too tight around the shoulders, he walked like a persecuted legend. That is just what he was. A persecuted legend, pushed out of literature and completely unknown; perhaps fellow-dwellers in the catacombs whispered his name, passing it from mouth to mouth and ear to ear.'

Ágnes Nemes Nagy is the most prominent Hungarian woman poet of the generations born in the early twentieth century. Of her poems in the present book, 'The Sun Went Down' is the one which perhaps most signals her reputation as a metaphysical poet. She is admired by the generation born in those early 1950s which she and Pilinszky knew only too well; indeed, in recent years she has been the object of editorial attention by the poet and literary scholar Gyôzô Ferencz (born 1954), himself a metaphysical writer and expert on John Donne. The poets in this volume continue to be rediscovered by their compatriots of the post-1989 era; we are proud to introduce them to non-Hungarian readers in Peter Zollman's translations which can be enjoyed as luminous English poems in their own right.

Edinburgh, 2003


  © All rights belong to the authors or their heirs. 2004.