The reader takes in hand, with this book, a collection of poems as rich and diverse in theme as they are in form, poems which call to life a chorus of voices which at times seem strikingly familiar and at times are startlingly new. The English translations of poetry by Gyula Kodolányi offer an array of images, styles, metaphors, and metonyms, but most distinctly, voices. Whether one is trying to sort through dream, hallucination, vision, and obsession in the (of course fictional) account of Noah Webster’s frustrated quest to fix the meanings of words (to resolve the ‘promiscuous abundance’ of language) or listening to echoes of Shakespeare’s sonnets interwoven into the translations of sonnets by Kodolányi, one is always vividly aware of the presence of innumerable echoes, whether (for instance) as distinct phrases, surges of florid language, or stark moments of tenuousness. For Kodolányi is heir to and disciple of tradition, more specifically literary tradition, or rather traditions. As a translator, he has an intimate familiarity with some of the finest works of poetry in English, and one cannot read his poetry (whether in Hungarian or in English translation) without overhearing, at times, the vitality and passion of Dylan Thomas, the burgeoning verve of Walt Whitman, or the crisp clarity of William Carlos Williams. Indeed, it is a fascinating tribute to Kodolányi’s poems that, in translation, they seem to enter a dialogue with other poems in English. Could one read, ‘I awake to find myself unmoored’ (from his poem Months Have Passed) without thinking of Whitman? I daresay Ginsberg would envy him the line, ‘I am walking to the rhythm of unsuspecting/ traffic lamps’ (from I Labour in the Existence Trade)?
Naturally, Kodolányi also brings inspiration from the rich heritage of literature in Hungarian, and in some of the most engaging poems in the collection, Hungarian and English occur side by side, as if to remind the reader that a poem in translation is creation, enactment, poetry to be sure, but never replacement. And one is reminded that the poems are at least in part dialogues between poetic traditions, and if one thinks to hear echoes of poetry in English, it is in part because Kodolányi breathes new life into styles both familiar and distant. It is impossible not to wonder whether the phrase ‘cadences within’ in his poem The Breath of Words is not (like the title) from Shakespeare. It is not, but Kodolányi reminds his reader with this line and others that the raw material with which Shakespeare worked, language itself, is still there, waiting for a poet to take it in hand, as he and his translators have done.
It is worth noting that the poems in the first section are not arranged chronologically, but rather according to translator, offering the reader clusters of translations and, in one case, varying translations of one poem, which foreground both the drama of the act of translation and the richness of meanings (and, thus, interpretation) of a true work of poetry. It is intriguing to ponder the challenges the translators must have faced when wrestling with poems so varied in form, from the tributes to Plotinus (not to mention Heraclitus and Plato) to the almost avant-garde style of Crossroads to the restrained yet at times effulgent haikus (and even the intertextual echoes, at times across languages, in Messages from W. Sh.). Some of the translations are also collaborative works done with Kodolányi himself, and I am proud to have been able to make a few humble contributions to this group.
The diversity of themes is no less striking than the diversity of form. The poems capture the wealth of the traditions on which they draw, but at the same time they often touch starkly on the world in which they were written. The ‘caved-in’ faces (or hollowed, depending on the translation) rushing by on the street in the poem Betrayal (or Treason) are the souls crushed by communism in Central Europe, figures recognizable from works by authors like Sławomir Mrożek, Bohumil Hrabal, or Géza Páskándi, and one discerns, in Kodolányi’s often fiercely defiant style, the energies of the absurd and the grotesque, as dynamic in his writings as they are in the work (for instance) of Hungarian author István Örkény, a towering figure of the absurd (though I would hazard the contention that in Kodolányi, these energies, while boisterous, are managed with a craftsmanship that makes richer use of the powers of subtlety and implication). The pre-1990 poems are a reminder that, the Iron Curtain and the continuous presence of the communist secret police notwithstanding, the poetic imagination remained rebellious and free. After 1990, the poems begin to reflect a more classical outlook, with the attempts, bold yet humble, at synthesis inspired, for instance, by Plotinus and Shakespeare, while Kodolányi’s love for the prose poem remains.
One finishes the collection with renewed appreciation for the vigour of language and poetry. In a post-Auschwitz world (I am thinking of Adorno’s popularized dictum that poetry after Auschwitz is impossible), a post-postcolonial, post-postmodern world, in which text at times can seem the tawdriest of artistic materials, one is tempted at times to wonder what place poetry can claim to hold. Kodolányi’s poems may remind us of the phrase attributed by William Carlos William to his friend, Kenneth Burke. Poetry, according to Burke, is ‘equipment for living, a necessary guide amid the bewilderments of life’. If indeed we are all, on some level, at work in the existence trade, as I would contend Kodolányi suggests we are, perhaps these poems are part of the equipment necessary for living.