A Nation Dismembered
A poet is compelled to write, even if only a grey sparrow. And my feathers will be whirling down, with ink dripping from the ste
Árpád Farkas, ‘Open Skies’, 1991
This selection of work* by thirty-seven Hungarian poets, stretching from 1918 to the year 2000, was based on the earlier selection of Zoltán Bíró, and here translated into English. The explicit intention is to contribute to the perennial question of what it means to be Hungarian. In a nation with a large diaspora, ‘what tough tasks await our intellectuals. The service of timely national consciousness’ (from the postscript by Gyula Illyés, ‘In Answer to Herder and Ady’—which was also included in Béla Márkus’ book, What is the Hungarian?, in 2018). But the question of what it means to be European lurks in the same article, written in 1977:
Anyone who wanted like Ady and his forerunners to be a loyal European and yet … ‘a loyal Hungarian’ is caught in a tight corner. Louts threaten them from all sides. But can we say anything less: what the ‘loyal Hungarians’ see, the clearer they see it, the more European they are?
That final question mark, of course, is the poet insisting that the reader ask the question for herself. It is nowadays courteous to acknowledge that half of those readers may be female. In this book, there are just three women writers, which is perhaps a sign that if women have only recently been fully accepted in the English- speaking world of literature, this may also be true of Eastern European countries.
There are occasional references to nineteenth-century Hungarian poets like János Arany and Sándor Petőfi, the latter also becoming a figurehead of the 1848
* A Nation Dismembered: The 1920 Treaty of Trianon in Hungarian Poetry, selected and edited by Csilla Bertha and Gyula Kodolányi, and published by Hungarian Review and the Batthyány Lajos Foundation (Budapest, 2019).
Revolution and War of Indepedence against Habsburg rule. These and other references to historical events are well footnoted, and the book has been carefully edited, with introductory chapters by Donald Morse and Béla Pomogáts.
As for the poems themselves, they are both interesting and strange. Interesting, because they speak of a nation’s history, indeed its soul. Strange, because only in the later poems does the language and style seem to engage with the way poetry in English changed during the twentieth century. The poems which lament Trianon are stately, occasionally stilted in translation (more on this below), without a hint of the ‘make it new’ of Ezra Pound or the experimental language of Gerard Manley Hopkins and T. S. Eliot, two poets who would have shared the religious commitments of many of the authors. Nor is there any sense of the radical style of the Scottish author Hugh MacDiarmid, or the quirkiness of the American modernist Wallace Stevens, who both emerged in the interbellum years. It is as if the trauma of Trianon had a freezing effect.
So for a foreign reviewer to read this book is to enter a different world—not alien, but certainly different. The concerns of English poetry in the inter-war years did of course include the political, but the only comparable focus would be the 1914–1918 War itself, and how it changed society, and the ‘losers’ for us, in addition to those who died, would be the women left without partners present or future, the returning soldiers who never saw the social changes they deserved, and the communities in Scotland especially who lost a high proportion of their young men.
When an anthology spans nearly a century, it will bear witness to how poetic style changes. The early poems are formal, the later poems reflect the modern era, but the concern is as much with a cultural and political theme as with poetry as such, and these two factors inevitably make the quality of the poetry a bit uneven. Contrast the early: ‘What tank of sullen doom rumbles across / the Scythian lands … ?’ (Árpád Tóth) with the more contemporary—yet written back in 1971—‘Being villa pool money / water milk oil honey’ (István Domonkos), which seems to work better as a poem. (To be fair to Tóth, some of the imagery is striking and unfamiliar, as in the title of his poem ‘Holy Cripple, Rise Up!’) Yet in contemporary poetry, the taste of the reviewer has to a frightening extent become arbitrary, so that instead of a rounded look at form and content, assessment often boils away to something like (a) does this writer already have a reputation? and (b) does this poem move me?
However, it would be hard not to be moved by some of these poems.‘We scream to the world in a strange mother tongue’ (Kosztolányi 1919). ‘And only in a pocket can it form a fist’ (Reményik). ‘I must go home, the land has summoned me’ (Dutka). ‘Unbelieving again i call upon you my lord’ (Gál). ‘We dying one and all / always on the wrong battlefield’ (Domonkos). And there are recognisable images, like ‘Janus-faced Magyars live there already’ (Mécs) a trope which political philosopher Tom Nairn milked when he considered nationalism in Scotland to be Janus-faced.
Some of the ideas in the poems translate well to different contexts.‘What kind of country is the one / that holds another in its bosom?’ (Sándor Csoóri, ‘A Vision in Broad Daylight’). Such layered meaning, this unexpected link between the contradictions of what has happened, and the possibilities of rebirth, certainly is relevant to my own country of Scotland, even if we escaped the incoherence of the Soviet era, remembered in ‘While the Record Plays’ (Gyula Illyés, 1965) which compares it with the French Revolution.
If some of the poetry seems uneven, this may reflect the quality of translation, for Hungarian is an exceptionally hard language to translate into English, both on account of the agglutinative Hungarian language being unrelated to English (I find it closer to African Bantu languages myself), and the differences in history and culture. The poems involving Péter Czipott as translator usually work very well, for example:
Even your fate’s fed up with your lot of pain and damage, and will release your pinioned wings to let you soar.
László Tompa, ‘Fear Not’, 1929
Whereas in one poem there is actually a mistake in translation:
and as the Bible itself proclaims the Son of Man will be weighed
Albert Wass, ‘Message Home’, 1948
The Hungarian uses the generic ‘son of man’ for humankind—as Hebrew, but not English, does—so it simply means that every person will be assessed, but unfortunately it has been translated literally and with capitals, which of course turns it into something quite different in English—the capital letters make it into the apocalyptic figure of the Old Testament book of Daniel, which in turn is used of Christ in the Gospels.
The inclusion of a controversial figure like Wass, who has been associated, though perhaps unfairly, with antisemitic views, would be a sensitive issue in Britain, where there is a move to pull down statues of celebrated leaders now known to be involved with slavery—even the philosopher David Hume has had his name removed from an Edinburgh University building, which has been widely condemned as a knee-jerk reaction to current political fashion. We do not have a ‘Memento Park’ for suspect statues! But since the poems of Albert Wass feature in Hungarian school curricula, it is unsurprising to find him here.
It is noticeable how often God features in the poetry. While this is less true of recent poems, it still does not reflect the degree of secularization found in Britain today. You do find God invoked in early nineteenth-century English poetry, but the ‘war poets’ of the 1914–1918 War in the end largely destroyed that kind of jingoism. Hymnody in English took longer to change, but there is now a new appreciation of the role of lament which I suspect was never lost in Hungarian poetry—‘Where are you, God, warlord of times past?’ (Tóth) comes straight from Psalm 89.
In the Old Testament book of Psalms, there is a marked change from early Psalms where the nation has a king who wins their battles, to the late Psalms where God alone is king—reflecting a time when the people were either in exile or had to live back in their land under foreign rulers. It is worth considering Jenő Dsida’s ‘Psalmus Hungaricus’ in this light, as it clearly reflects Psalm 137 and a sense of exile.
As well as showcasing Hungarian national poetry, a book like this is always part of a wider cultural and political agenda, which engages the two questions, what does it mean to be Hungarian today, and how should this be played out in a modern European context? I found this—though others might see something different— in four lines:
These verses in Hungarian could have been done – under orders to evacuate his house – by any man’s son.
László Vári Fábián, ‘Ady’s Twilight’, 1988
The same year as this collection was published (2019), the Scottish historian Norman Stone published a short history of Hungary, acknowledging Trianon early in the book, describing the irony that only Hitler offered (for his own purposes) any possibility of actually revising Trianon, but from that point leaving the tragedy behind—as many Hungarians today might wish to do. This book is a deliberate and poignant revisiting of Trianon.
I write as a Scot. We have nothing like Trianon in our history, although our relation to England has some parallels with Hungary in the Habsburg era.
So we too are wrestling with questions of national identity, having to decide between our older history as an independent nation (which lies behind the more pragmatic case for independence today), and the past three centuries of incorporation into the United Kingdom. To collect what our poets have said is a relevant and important task, and Hungarian Review should be praised for having published this collection in English, which will not only display the work of a variety of Hungarian poets but also bring the present situation of Hungary and its diaspora to wider attention.