Monday, April 11, 2005

Boldog Születésnapot Attila!

Boldog születésnapot Attila! On this day, 100 years ago, the great poet Attila József was born in Budapest. Notice I did not say, "great Hungarian poet." I believe that in time he will come to be recognized as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

Attila had a painful existence: his childhood was marked by poverty and tragedy, and his adulthood was plagued by depression and psychological instability. At the age of 32, Attila committed suicide by throwing himself under the wheels of a freight train.

But I do not want to focus on his death; rather, I would like to focus on the way that he is still living, and that is through his powerful poetry. The poem for which he is best known is "A Dunánál," or "By the Danube." It was with this poem in mind that the Attila József sculpture was created beside the Parliament building. A large marble plaque features two lines of this famous poem:

And just like my heart's high tide
the Danube was murky, wise, wide.

Every Hungarian is well-acquainted with his life and his poems, and most of them seem to know one or two of his poems by heart, having been required to memorize his verse as part of their education. I sense a certain tenderness in the hearts of Hungarians, young and old, when I speak to them about Attila. This tenderness is contagious, and his words are now dear to me. I wanted to have a 100 birthday party for him tonight, at which everyone would read aloud their favorite poem-- but I have been ambushed by an unexpected visitor, so the birthday party must be delayed.

Another famous poem is "Tiszta Szívvel," or "With a Pure Heart":

I am fatherless, motherless,
godless and countryless,
have no cradle, no funeral shroud,
and no lover to kiss me proud.

For the third day I have had
no food, not a piece of bread.
My strength is my twenty years--
I will sell these twenty years.

And if no one heeds my cry,
the devil may choose to buy.
My heart's pure, I'll burn and loot,
if I must, I'll even shoot.

They will catch me and string me up,
with the good earth cover me up,
and death-bringing grass will start
growing from my beautiful, pure heart.

Attila was forced to leave school, the University of Szeged, because of this poem. Years later in Attila's "Birthday Poem," he remembers the words of the dean who expelled him:

"You sir, as long as I am competent,
will not teach on this continent,"
he blustered,

But Professor Horger, if it gives you cheer
that this poet is not a grammar teacher,
your joy--

I shall instruct a whole nation,
not only the high school population,
you'll see
you'll see.

Yes Attila, and not only a whole nation, but beyond that. Would you have known that your words would be in the heart of a woman born in Birmingham, Alabama? Would you have known that she would grip your poems in the crook of her arm as she slept? You are in many hearts, in many shades of purity, your words are buried in the dark places and they are still on the tips of tongues. You are living still. You were not alone in your suffering or separated by your time. You are here, Attila.

Quotes from By the Danube: Selected Poems of Attila József, a bilingual edition. Translated by John Bátki. Published in 2002 by Corvina Books Ltd.


At 8:43 PM, Blogger judyjudy said...

my school's name is József Attila Gimnázium, and Attila also studied here. Of course then it had an other name (: so his talent was recognized when he was a student in our school, and he is very important here. now we had a huge celebration, and there is a great interactive exhibition about him, what was before in Paris.

At 8:54 PM, Blogger svm said...

what always amazes me is how the translators can not only form a truly poetic translation but also have it rhyme (if that was the original format)!

At 2:50 PM, Blogger Indeterminacy said...

Thank you for sharing this!

At 4:04 AM, Blogger Andy said...

Hello, thanks for passing on the poem, it's really interesting. I just dropped by as I noticed you liked 'Ada or Ardor', and I liked your the movie reference/anagram you picked as your name. Good stuff!

At 9:40 AM, Blogger JB White said...

I'm an American a few months away from Budapest. Would like to ask a few questions if possible.




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