Hungarians and poetry: Attila József and his endangered statue

When I told an American friend of mine that in terrible cold hundreds of people gathered around the statue of Attila József, a great Hungarian poet of the twentieth century, and for thirty-two hours and forty minutes recited his poems, she just shook her head in disbelief. She tried to imagine something like that happening in the case of a great American poet, let’s say Emily Dickinson, but came to the conclusion that it was unlikely.

She would have been especially surprised to find out that six or eight-year-old children stepped in front of the microphone to recite their favorite poems. Yes, Hungarians love their poets. I was thirteen years old when I bought my very first book from my own money. An inexpensive paperback edition of the collected poems of Endre Ady. Years later in the United States I met the mother of one of my students who came to the United States via Auschwitz. The two of us sat in my office reciting our favorite Ady poems. She mostly from memory.

Entering poetry reciting competitions was an everyday occurrence in my student days and I was often chosen to recite poems at school functions. On one such occasion I could see the power of poetry with my own eyes. It was a graduation ceremony and I was chosen to recite Endre Ady’s “Message to My Alma Mater.” In the first row sat all the teachers, among them one who surely didn’t like me. Yet, under the spell of the poem it seemed to me that her severity softened a great deal by the time I finished. She even smiled. A rare occurrence with Mrs. Vadas whose name told the whole story.”Vad” in Hungarian means wild or beast.

Perhaps because of the underdeveloped nature of Hungary’s political structure and the often less than democratic nature of the political regimes, poets and writers also served as quasi political leaders or catalysts. Endre Ady, whose poetry I so cherished as a teenager, was politically controversial even when my father was a teenager. He told me about the fierce discussions in school about Ady. The pro-Ady faction included the progressive boys while the conservatives hated him. And that was in Ady’s lifetime. The controversy over him and what he represented didn’t end with his death in 1919. He was vilified by the right all through the Horthy regime.

Attila József was not as well known in his lifetime as Ady, but his fame spread rapidly after the war, especially because for a short period of time he was involved with the illegal Hungarian Communist Party and wrote a few poems that pegged him as a “proletarian poet.” He came from the lowest stratum of Hungarian society. His father left for the United States when he was three, never to be heard of again, while his mother tried to support her three children as a washerwoman. He wrote his Curriculum Vitae in 1937, the year he died. There are several English translations of this autobiography and I picked out one for those of you who are interested in the very hard life of this young man. He was born on April 11, 1905 and died on December 3, 1937. He committed suicide. April 11 today is designated the Day of Poetry in Hungary in Attila József’s honor. Given the dates of his birth and death it is clear why the marathon poetry reading lasted 32 hours and 40 minutes.

Here is the controversial statue which according to current plans should be removed from Kossuth Square in front of the Hungarian Parliament.

 

It is very possible that Viktor Orbán and his team decided on the reconstruction of the square to show its state prior to 1944 very early in the game because after Orbán became prime minister and went to see his new office he remarked that the whole square looked terrible. Attila József’s statue was the least objectionable because “at least he wrote a decent poem about the Danube.” So much for József’s immortal poem “At the Danube” (A Dunánál). I am astonished time and again at the boorishness and gaucheness of this crowd.

There was no need to use the CD of Attila József poems for the poetry marathon. There were plenty of people who recited their favorite poems by heart. There was one woman who learned József’s “Belated Lament” (Késői sirató) just for the occasion. Some of József’s poems, by the way, were translated by Lóránt Kabdebó, including “Belated Lament” and “Mama.” Unfortunately, Kabdebó is no Attila József.

There were many high school students, middle-age people, and the older crowd with their own volumes of József’s poems. The organizers (Facebook) served hot tea, mulled wine, and, what else, bread with lard.

What will happen to the statue? Who knows? Géza Szőcs, undersecretary in charge of culture, said “Hands off Attila József!” but I don’t think that the politicos care very much about the poet Szőcs’s opinion. He has no political weight and has little influence over matters. People actually wonder how long he is going to last. It is very possible that he will leave before György Matolcsy.

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Jano
Guest

This is surely very disturbing and awesome at the same time. Awesome because this protest shows something I keep in very high regards about being Hungarian. On the other hand the thought of getting rid of JA-s statue only because somebody suddenly couldn’t help himself coming up with the idea that JA was a communist (which he wasn’t, sure he had leftish ideas in general, but his involvement with the commies was not as serious as the communist propaganda tried to picture). Up until this scandal I thought of JA as one of those few praised by everyone regardless of politics.

Paul
Guest

First time my wife has liked one of your posts, Éva! She was reciting along with the reader on the video
To anyone watching the video – chose the ‘Watch on YouTube’ option, as that can be made full screen. (And it’s surprisingly good quality.)
Pity it’s such a short video though (and so stunningly badly edited!). I love the sound of Hungarian being spoken well, I sometimes have Kossuth Rádio on – even though I don’t understand a word of it!

Paul
Guest

PS – exactly why are Fidesz putting Kossuth Tér back to the 40s? My wife asked, and I couldn’t remember!

Kirsten
Guest

Because of their deep respect for traditions. Malicious gossip has it that there might be some link to the statue of Karolyi…

Ron
Guest

Paul: PS – exactly why are Fidesz putting Kossuth Tér back to the 40s? My wife asked, and I couldn’t remember!
Because they want to re-live the Horthy times.
http://esbalogh.typepad.com/hungarianspectrum/2011/10/stopping-time-back-to-the-horthy-regime-kossuth-square-1.html

Guest

On my first visit to Hungary I was shown this statue of JA and given a book of his poems with both the Hungarian and English.
The statue so moved me~~especially the shoes without laces, the thinness of the subject, his whole posture. (I hate to refer to it as a “statue”, it seems such a living, vital thing.)
To me, this is not the strong, vital ‘farming and pig-raising’ Magyar that Orban wants to people the country. Not the role model he seeks~~hence its removal. Seeing it, people may wish to reflect on their country and their lives.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Paul”: “I love the sound of Hungarian being spoken well”
I often wonder what Hungarian sounds like for people whose mother tongue is not English.
I’m glad that your wife liked something I wrote.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Gretchen: “The statue so moved me~~especially the shoes without laces, the thinness of the subject, his whole posture.”
This was very moving. Thank you.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Jano: “This is surely very disturbing and awesome at the same time.”
Yes, it is very disturbing and very moving.

An
Guest

“And so I’ve found my native country,
that soil the gravedigger will frame,
where they who write the words above me
do not for once misspell my name.”
From:
Jozsef Attila: Ime, hat megleltem hazamat/ And So I’ve Found My Native Country… Zsuzsanna Ozsvath and Frederick Turner
More at http://www.mathstat.dal.ca/~lukacs/ja/poems/poems.htm

Paul
Guest
He published his first volume of poems at 17. I don’t know about others on here, but I wouldn’t dare publish anything I’d written at 17 – even a shopping list! He was an amazing talent, but (apparently) not a happy (or well) man. Éva, Hungarian sounds wonderful, especially if spoken well by actors, announcers, etc. But even as spoken by the average man or woman in the street it sounds so much better than (for instance) UK English. It’s partly the rhythm produced by the regular emphasis on the first syllable, and partly because Hungarians tend to speak more quietly/softly (at least in public), but it’s also more than that. Hungarians tend to pronounce their words better (they don’t have the English way of speaking with their mouths closed), and you can hear the individual words. There’s also a definite rhythm to sentences as well, although I’m not musical enough to explain what I mean, and there are more noticeable pauses than in other languages. The overall effect is regular and melodic and very easy on the ear. It’s not in any way a harsh language, it doesn’t grate, even when spoken badly. My wife constantly complains about the… Read more »
peter litvanyi
Guest
Dear Eva, thank you for your current post. I am an Ady Endre fan myself /being a poet how else I could be?/. Jozsef Attila is unparalelled in our cultural history, since his death only Hervay Gizella came close to that pure and deadly light he contained in his frail body for way too long for a human being. Perhaps only Arany Janos in his own slow way, if anyone else. You hinted at me leaving your post. I considered that option. We are no longer childeren. Let me know how I can help you to bring the “MSZP criminazation” issue to Helsinki and what we can do so that Attila’s sculpture is not being destroyed. We have a lot to discuss here and we should return to those topics. The list ranges from local food production to the nearly but not quite defunct IMF. There is a lot to talk about, actually. I was merely asking you not to drag University Karl Marx/ Corvinus where it didn’t belong. If you wish to open that particular subject some time please contact Dr. Sugar Andras, Dr. Cserhati Ilona /presently Corvinus/, Ziaja Gyorgy /private contractor/, Kelemen Sandor /he is running a resort… Read more »
peter litvanyi
Guest

In memoriam of J. A.:
XCV
megelem veled a holnapot
mert egyszemelyes nem lehet
s amig gyavan idehazudjak
csak magunkban remelhetek
sem szegfum sem indulom
kapaval kiforditott koponyak
igazaban hiszek amig elni hagynak
az eggel egyutt lazad fel a nyar
/Hervay Gizella/
PS: Gizi always came on Wednesdays. Then her and my father would go down and a have a drink at the local kocsma, chat for a while. One day she didn’t come; turned the gas oven high up and was no more. If anyone, she can talk to Attila.

Karl Pfeifer
Guest

Eva I was moved to tears to read your article. I remember I was 14 years old, when in 1942 József Attila’s sisters arranged a meeting to remember him in Vigado (a big concert hall in Budapest)where I an other leftwing youngsters were present.
A few months later I left Hungary.
Today his probably most actual poem is his welcoming Thomas Mann in Budapest.
“Fehér emberek között Europai”?

Joseph Simon
Guest

Ady: ‘he was villified …’ For a more sober assessment of his poetry, you should read Kosztolányi’s criticism of him.
No one questions József Attila and Ady as poets but we should not politicize them. In the Horthy years, JA could write ‘vérlázitó’ verses, publish them, then board the Orient Express, go to Paris, come back again and continue where he left off. I often walked past his statute in front of the University of Szeged, where I worked. How would he relate to the communist regime, I asked myself. Great poets, yes, they should have a place in our emotions but not in public squares.

Member

Joseph Simon: You are kidding me. Tell me, you are kidding.

Member

I don’t think Jozsi is kidding.
These guys are capable of molding there own world according to the FIDESZ directives. The real model citizens. Somebody has to tell them what is good and what is wrong. If the party decides to remove the statues of the greatest poets, they will go “yeah, I always thought they have no place in public squares”. When the leader changes his mind later, they’ll be the ones that are clapping when the statues are erected again. Baaaa, baaaa …

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mutt: “These guys are capable of molding there own world according to the FIDESZ directives.”
I think they are intrinsically that stupid. They were born that way.

Member
I had to walk away from the computer for while after reading Joseph Simon’s comment. I had to because I was so upset. Attila Jozsef was a very poor and a very emotionally and mentally disturbed young man. He was schizophrenic also. He came from the poorest ranks of the poor. His father left the family for the USA when Attila was three, and his mother could not support her three children. Attial was cared by foster parents who refused to call him by his real name and renamed him Pista. His mother died when Attila was fourteen. His secondary school was paid by a relative, and although he got into University, he was kicked out because of a “provocative” poem he wrote. (something that Simon refers to, I assume.) ” I don’t have a father, I don’t have a mother, nor a God, nor a Homeland, nor a cradle, nor eye-cover, nor kiss, nor a lover. I haven’t eaten for the third day, neither a lot or a little, My twenty year is power, I will sell my twenty years. If no-one wants it, then the Devil will buy it. I will rob with pure heart, if need to… Read more »
Member

Sorry, I did not mean to publish the four letter words as it is in the last sentence.

Joseph Simon
Guest

Come now, you are being silly, with Eva at the lead, as usual. In Lillafüred at the Palotaszálló ‘függőkertben’, there is a nice statute of JA. He attended a Writers Convention there commemorating it with a poem, reproduced on a slab of oak. It is entirely appropriate that he should be remembered in this way, in a poetic setting, no one would or should think of removing it. That is what I meant.

dvhr
Guest

Paul: It is very kind of you that sometimes you hear the Kossuth Radio, although you don’t know Hungarian. Nevertheless, I suggest that you listen to Klubradio.

Member

@Jozsi … and in Szeged, where the University is named after Attila Jozsef, the statue just doesn’t feel right to you.
Following your logig I would suggest that statues of admirals should be shown only on Hungary’s coastal areas.

Member

Joseph, You do know that it was the University of Szeged that kicked out Attlia Jozsef for the poem I have translated above. You do know that between 1962 and 2000 the University was named after József Attila until integrated with the higher education institutions of Szeged and Hódmezõvásárhely into University of Szeged?
What is your opinion then about Fidesz naming an airport after a composer, Ferenc Liszt?
You do not see any relevance to have a statue of Attila Jozsef at the Danube either?

Paul
Guest

After our chat about József last night, my wife asked her mother why they were moving his statue. Her mother hadn’t heard about this, so couldn’t tell her.
But by this morning she had found out “what was really happening”. It was a lie that Fidesz were moving the statue out of Kossuth Tér for some dubious reason of their own, they were simply moving it to the bank of the Duna, as that was a more fitting place for the author of A Dunánál.
Oh, and “other countries” had apparently forced OV back to dealing with the IMF, it wasn’t his fault. Apparently “everyone” wants to buy up Hungary “because of its resources” – especially Israel.

Member

Paul: “Apparently “everyone” wants to buy up Hungary “because of its resources” – especially Israel.” Did you tell her that Orban already sold it to the Chinese?

Paul
Guest

I did.
Do you think it made any difference?
We are dealing with believers here, not rational people open to debate.
This is the reason I think we need JB on this blog – whatever we might think of his posts and ‘style’, he is far closer to the average Hungarian than we are. We ignore him at our peril.

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