A Classic Hungarian Essay

What is poetry? Humankind spoke in verse before it spoke in prose. When the first human opened its eyes in the cradle, which was the entire planet earth, it cried out in amazement that it had been born into this world, burbling rhythmic words of passion, pain, and rapture. Only later did its offspring learn prose. The historians of Greece, the so-called logographers, plucked the facts of the histories from the poems of Antiquity. Poetry is our common mother tongue.

Words as articles of common use. Today words seem for the most part to serve as a means with which to communicate our thoughts to one another. Our language has become the tool of reason. Its elements are articles of common use, much like common currency. The materials of poetry, however, happen to be the same as the materials of everyday speech. The words of a letter or an advertisement very much resemble the words of a poem. And this is why poetry is far more frequently misunderstood than for instance music, the substance of which, musical sound, indicates from the outset that we have risen to a higher atmosphere. Since people use language according to their whims and wishes, and since they regularly utilize it to express logical relationships, the identity of the material itself misleads them, and they look on poetry with the same rationalist gaze, thereby inevitably searching for the logical message: political inclination, “nobler” sentiments, “original” ideas, etc.

Content. The question, “what is the poem about,” is as important to a poet as the question of whether he has carved a sculpture out of white or red marble is to the sculptor. The subject of a poem is not at all the same thing as the poem itself. The moment a vowel has been moved from its place, the poem is different, not a little different, but entirely different, the magical house of cards falls in a heap. The idea is unimportant. Newton and Kepler had “original” ideas. The originality of poets is rooted solely in inner form. If one were to translate one of their immortal verses into the language of reason, it would be plainly evident that the foundation is a hackneyed “idea” that has been written down a thousand times. Precisely for this reason the poem has no content. From the perspective of logic, every poem is “contentless.” The more poetic the poem, the more organically it springs from the ancient soil of words, the more contentless it is. Its content is that it is what it is. Its content is that it is equal only with itself, it is not a whole that can be divided into smaller units. Its content is that it lives in its simple mysteriousness like a grain of wheat that may sprout. A poem is a sensory wonder.

Incomprehensibility. I have heard it said that a poem is incomprehensible. Every poem is incomprehensible if we approach it with the implements of reason. I am not thinking of the works of poets who have made a trade out of obscurity.

I understand their poems, for their lamentably purposeful intentions are immediately apparent. And I look on them with disdain. The truly incomprehensible poems are the poems that are pure, simple. How transparent, for instance, is Petőfi’s idyll Téli éjszakák (Winter Nights)! Yet if I seek to know why such a magical mist envelops the objects that now appear before me, why they have such a wondrous affect on me, this I cannot understand. I shine the blind lantern of reason into the room in vain, the riddle is no less mysterious. Something incomprehensible always remains, what brought the poet to write this unusual thing of beauty, what the poet expressed directly, without analyzing it. Had Petőfi completely understood what was beautiful about his theme, he would not have written the poem. If we were to understand completely what is beautiful in the poem, we would not find it so beautiful. Poetry is what we cannot completely understand.

Life. Sometimes I am amazed that people read poems. Poems offer them no useful advice, they guide them neither left nor right. From a practical point of view they are utterly useless and irrational. But is humankind such a rational being? True, with reason we have conquered the world. If someone were to travel here from another planet, clearly the first thing he would notice would be the geometrical figures. Much in the world around us speaks of the triumph of reason. We rise in the morning and go to bed in the evening. We have coats so that we will not catch cold and appointment calendars so that we do not forget our errands. But statistics show that most people spend more on their passions than they do on bread. The worker who on Saturday drinks his wages for the week is as human as Achilles, who chose the brief intoxication of glory over a long and contented life. Humankind itself resembles them. It fights against cancer, yet it wages wars. And indeed what sense does it make that someone should die at five years of age, and what sense does it make that someone should die at fifty years of age? No, life is not a rational process. In its smaller details, viewed superficially, perhaps it is, but in its profound essence, from the necessary distance, it is irrational. A stroll is rational, but life is not. The equivalent expression of irrational life is the irrational poem, the form of speech most worthy of humankind.

Wonders. I once saw a crippled actor! I once saw a deaf and dumb opera singer!

I saw a blind painter! I saw a contented poet!

Experiences. If someone feels something and then speaks it, this is not a poem. The work of the poet is for the most part unconscious. In composition, deliberateness is more of a hindrance than a help. The poet cannot seek out experiences like the writer of a travelogue, who journeys to foreign lands and writes down what he sees. The experience of the poet is more distant, in the land of the unconscious. If he finds it, he has already lost it, if he understands it, he already fails to understand it, if it comes to mind, he has forgotten it. He can only happen across it if memory becomes the sensory consummation of art itself, and indeed he only knows what it was he sought to recall when the poem is finished.

His estates and harvest. The poet spoke out in the tax office: “I have to pay taxes? I have no land, no vineyards, no estate. All told my estate is the few square centimetres of cerebrum that I carry in my skull. And the harvest is extremely uncertain. If a hail storm batters my life, then I reap the harvest. But what shall I reap if there is no hail?

Scholar and poet. I knew many scholars who in their private lives were solemn and dignified and always kept the final goal in mind, passing reality by indifferently. How opposite the poet, every poet! In his private life the poet is petty and particular, feeble, gossipy, curious, meddlesome, testy, sometimes even faithless and false. Of the multitude of trifles, he creates something grand, a world. The scholar, conversely, makes of the grand, the whole world, a small truth.

Translator’s Note: The following excerpts are from an essay by Dezső Kosztolányi on poetry and the poet. Published in 1928, the essay can be said to reflect a prescient sense of changes in attitudes towards language that took place over the course of the 20th century, as aspects of form and style gradually came to be regarded as pretence and mannerism and poetry itself came to seem something of a relic from the past. Born in 1885 in Szabadka (today Subotica in Serbia), Dezső Kosztolányi was one of the most prominent Hungarian novelists, poets, and essayists of the 20th century. Though in his essays Kosztolányi expressed doubt concerning the potentials of translation, he was himself a prolific translator from many languages, whose translations of Shakespeare, Moličre, Goethe, Byron, Oscar Wilde, and numerous other authors exerted a strong influence on subsequent Hungarian literature. In 1936 he died of cancer at the tragically young age of 51. (Thomas Cooper)

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