Poems translated with an Introduction by Tony Brinkley and with a Note by the author



Each of the five poems from Gyula Kodolányi’s Messages of W. Sh. is titled by a corresponding number from Shakespeare’s sonnets, and in Messages, phrases from Shakespeare’s sonnets recur both in Shakespeare’s English and in Kodolányi’s Hungarian translations. Kodolányi’s Hungarian sonnets are seeded by these translations from which the Hungarian poetry grows. Or, to change the metaphor, as Shakespearean English and phrasing recur in Hungarian, they offer an impulse or pneuma, a spark that gleams in the verse. “Sparks gleam in me”, Kodolányi writes near the beginning of Messages.

How to characterise this impulse? Shakespeare’s poetry and plays were contemporary with translations of the Bible that were shaping what English could become when it was still, in Virginia Woolf’s phrase, a “young language”, translations that made a Biblical sense of blessing fundamental to the feel or spirit in English writing of literary power. In Shakespeare a synonym for “blessing” might be “readiness” (Hamlet) or “ripeness” (Lear). Perhaps it is as blessing,readiness or ripeness, that phrases from Shakespeare’s sonnets appear and translate into Kodolányi’s sonnets. To translate these eloquent poems from Hungarian into English, then, is to begin with theirart of translation, to discover in turn how the Hungarian phrases that translate Shakespeare’s English can as they translate in turn become blessing, readiness or ripeness in English. And very beautifully, I think, they can. They can even offer a possibility for a poetry in contemporary American English that I believe is uniquely their own, indicative of readiness. Translation is enabled by the stories that translators tell themselves, that partially convince them, perhaps, that translation is possible. If there is a Shakespearean narrator – and I think there is one, common although silent to the plays as well as the other poetry – then as Bakhtin says of Dostoevsky, this narrator is manifest as a mode of listening, not of speaking. When we speak of what Shakespeare says or means, I think, we are referring to this way of hearing which Hamlet may uniquely approach in his soliloquies and which for Harold Bloom involves Shakespeare’s “invention” of the human (he invented a way of hearing ourselves ashuman). This listening is dialogic, it hears many voices as incommensurate complements in their various sympathies and antagonisms which to the narrative listener has the expression of rhythmic impulse. In translating Kodolányi’s sonnets, what I experienced as a point of departure was Kodolányi’s sensitivity to this rhythm, a human listening, and I have tried to listen for ways in which his poems might translate as dialogue into English.

Shakespeare’s sonnets offer the poetry Kodolányi is listening to – for example, from Sonnet 72, “niggard truth”. Kodolányi’s sonnet “72” offers a poetry that begins as he listens to Sonnet 72 and to himself, reading and listening to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 72 and to the poem in Hungarian that is emerging, beginning with fukar igazság (the Hungarian translation for “niggard truth”)I in turn have tried to listen to both so that you can listen as well – to Shakespeare’s English, together with Kodolányi’s Hungarian translation, together with the Hungarian verse that emerges, and now, in addition, its English translation. Perhaps another word for this way of “listening” is “readiness”, and that in turn offers the blessing, the intensifications of more life, that is Shakespearean poetry’s Biblical gift. So that – in the words of Shakespeare’s and Kodolányi’s Sonnet 58 – you are “where you list”, or if you like, where you will (Shakespeare’s pervasive pun on his Christian name):

Be where you list. Járj merre tetszik,

where you would like, recording angel…

… now

while our time is running out. Lift your arms.

Step into the air. Open your wings. Leap.

I do not know of any other English poetry that has quite this force, and not the least of Kodolányi’s gifts is this force with which his Hungarian poetry can return a Shakespearean blessing to English.

The fifth and last poem in the sequence, sonnet “51”, sustains the remarkable “leap” with which “58” ends, what Emerson would have called “shooting of the gulf” and “darting to an aim”. “In my dreams / how often did we leap, step out into the air together”, Kodolányi writes. And: “Are we leaping over / finally? Szárnyalunk? Or kept here / by the wonder, fate, disgust, and magic, are / we still held back…” Kodolányi is an accomplished translator of 20th century American poetry into Hungarian and knows the climactic sublimity in Wallace Stevens’ Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction when Stevens listens to the exuberance of his own angel: “If the angel in his cloud, / Serenely gazing at the violent abyss… Leaps downward through evening’s revelations… Am I that imagine this angel less satisfied?” It is a measure of Kodolányi’s poetry that the meaning of his sonnets can become so many poems in English, that in the light of his sonnets so many poems in English read differently. “In winged speed no motion” – “Szárnysebesen, mozdulatlanul”, Kodolányi’s “51” says. The phrase from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 51 allows for a beautiful rereading of Stevens by recalling the end of Wordsworth’s Prelude where imagination is “the very spirit” by which “higher minds” become Prospero-like, and “from their native selves can send abroad / Kindred mutations; for themselves create / A like existence; and whene’er it dawns / Created for them, catch it, or are caught / By its inevitable mastery, / Like angels stopped upon the wing by sound.” How beautifully in Kodolányi’s “51”, after “flight preludes” perhaps, and a “rehearsal”, he and his recording angel “step out into the air together”, perhaps “leaping over finally” or (still in question), perhaps “crossing back… kept here – detained here by half- / sentences, the drawer half-open, eyes wide?” For me – like the “sparks [that] gleam in me” in “72” – these intimations between mortality and immortality reread Wordsworth, his “something that doth live”, “joy” in the “embers”, a returning ripeness. In translating Kodolányi into English, I also find myself listening to an English poetry that I could not have heard – or translated – in this way before. Another blessing? The readiness of Kodolányi’s “messages”.


Niggard truth

Fukar igazság

No shame nor guilt, my love, to love

this verse – things nothing worth,

its worthlessness – haszontalan dolgokat 

and not to be afraid of faults, defying niggard

truth – fukar igazság – the miser-world’s

realities. Sparks gleam in me – and I love every-

thing – though in this season of Pharisees. Why

must they bury my poem with my corpse?

Resurrect the words, nursed alive again.

The world is cold and blind. Dazzle

this tarnished country with a smile. Devise the loving

stories colourfully about me. Tell virtuous lies.

When truth is niggardlove things nothing worth.

Te dicsérj csak erénnyel. Fukar az igazság.


Make thee another self

Másik ént

Make thee another self – másik ént, a second

fire. To murd’rous hate enslaved, solitary

in your Hell, in life-in-death, an animated

corpse – gyilkos gyűlöletmurd’rous hate

is strangling you. You fantasized superiorities,

your right to judge life from a height, you

who denied a dying friend, you and the rest

with your conceits – ruminating cattle – while

the priest prays for the dead – a woman you may

have loved. Ruinaterombolni, urinate, vizelni,

on the roof above the room where you received

a second chance. Fallible transience. Make

thee another self – a second spark, stranger

in waiting, másik ént – while you may.


The world-without-end hour

A világ-végtelen órát

Nor dare I chide – a világ-végtelen órát –

the world-without-end hour. I do not blame

an hour. Waiting is a world. Gazing at

the pattern of worn fringes – hole

in the carpet near the leg of a sofa –

once again I see – a cat sharpens

its claws there, a favourite spot, starting

now and then the way a memory claws

the shins of my precursor – shattered

mirrors of a child’s gaze, new world-

patterns, textured by painfulness,

a világ-végtelen órát, this world-without-end

hour – exiled – as from absence, on

a void, I weave the pattern from a chasm.


Be where you list

Járj merre tetszik

Be where you list. Járj merre tetszik,

where you would like, recording angel,

I will be there too. Merre tetszik?

Where you list? Though it was written

once that you would follow me, tame

to my sufferance, until the crossing?

And truly you have followed faithfully, my

inmost friend who whispered, “Wait, now not

another step”, and nudged me gently in my need

to turn toward light-intervals, figures of the light.

Járj merre tetszik – be where you list, life-angel,

so long my guardian – now I will serve you, now

while our time is running out. Lift your arms.

Step into the air. Open your wings. Leap.


In winged speed no motion

Számysebesen, mozdulatlanul

Lift your arms, step into the air, open your wings

and leap as Raphael saw and painted you. In my dreams

how often did we leap, step out onto the air together

while our time was spun. Flight preludes? A rehearsal?

Recollected? Evocation? We flew szárnysebesen –

in winged speed. No motion – mozdulatlanul. Ultimate –

take-off – is that time come? And will we step

now with perfection finally, leap as Raphael drew

the lines of flight in ochre? In urn-colours mixed

from blood and light? Are we leaping over

finally? Szárnyalunk? Crossing back? Or kept here

by the wonder, fate, disgust, and magic, are

we still held back, detained here by half-

sentences, the drawer half-open, eyes wide?

Translated by Tony Brinkley


To Erzsébet Katona Szabó’s homage in a visual medium a literary project is connected. Recently, as apoet and translator of poetry Ihave been writing asequence of unrhymed sonnets, intended as variations on phrases and lines from Shakespeare’s cycle of sonnets.

The initial inspiration for this project came from the intense visual beauty and immense resourcefulness of Erzsébet’s “Messages of W. Sh.” collages series, (some individual pieces of which she has exhibited in Hungary and abroad). I first saw them in her studio in mid-2005, and while I urged and encouraged her to continue her project, I began to think about a parallel venture in poetry. I started to write my first variants in 2006, but the work only began in earnest in late 2007, after reading myself back into the Sonnets, into Shakespeare’s entire work, and Shakespeare biography and scholarship for two years.

The project has also led to a collaboration of the two of us, partly in the form of discussing our experiences of reading Shakespeare, and partly discussing each other’s ensuing new work.

My writing venture is no doubt audacious, and an almost certain recipe for poetic failure. It is only with extreme caution that any poet should get involved with Shakespeare’s texts in such an intimate way. Yet there is an easier way offered to a Hungarian poet than others, perhaps. Translating Shakespeare has become a national tradition for our major poets during the last 170 years, and translation in a postmodern sense leads to free variations.

In language it is hard to use a process of collage that would exactly mirror the work of Erzsébet. Collage unfolds in space freely, while writing is constrained by a stricter two-dimensional sequentiality, rather. But a text can have several layers,too, and it can suggest a spatial dynamics like sheets of papers with calligraphies, pasted over each other.

Like Erzsébet, I pick out passages from the Sonnets – or rather, they find me. I build these passages into my own sonnets in both their original English phrasing and in a Hungarian translation, and then repeat or dissolve or modify or truncate them, sometimes continuing the Shakespearean theme, sometimes contradicting it. Multiple possibilities of irony emerge, too. In English versions of these sonnets, the respective quotations recur in Hungarian, naturally.

The challenge for me is to create original poetry from the inspirations and words of these Shakespearean fragments, these dissociated messages from a distant but living presence – works which attempt to be as complex and contemporary as Erzsébet’s calligraphical collages.

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