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.