On Steadfastness

We change gradually and abruptly, often without realizing it; we wake up to find out that we are not who we were ten years ago, or even yesterday. So steadfastness—not just habit and routine, but commitment—offers a counterpoint to the changes. Having something that you return to again and again, that you practice over time, does not make you redundant, dull, or repetitive. Rather, the repetition set against the changes allows you to see and hear familiar things in new ways. Endless novelty would just be exhausting and confusing. Practice doesn’t make perfect (nothing does), but it does make life more interesting, and it allows you to build things.

I sometimes don’t notice the steadfastness, because I am so caught up in meeting the next deadline, getting through the next day. But there have been some long projects and gestures.

In December I will have been Szim Salom’s cantor for four years. Four years! This morning I let the rabbi know which verses I would be leyning on December 4—that is, chanting for the Torah reading—and as I read them again, they rose up. They are some of the most beautiful verses in the entire Bible: when Joseph sees his brother Benjamin and has to go to his room to weep in private (because he does not want to reveal himself yet). I have had doubts and questions about my Jewish practice: what I mean with it, how strict I want it to be, and whether I want to be part of an organized religion, period. But when it comes to the texts and liturgy, there’s no doubt. I know that I want to be with these verses and melodies.

Teaching has been steadfast too. Even though I left it twice to write a book, I came back. Yesterday I woke up with a puffy face and swollen eye, and imagined a rough day ahead. But it got better and better as the day went on. It even started out well. The first two classes were devoted to caroling rehearsal; the students had a full plan worked out and accomplished just about everything they set out to do. They were appreciative of the time that had been allotted for this. Later, in one of my classes, most of the students were out at a competition, so the few of us who were there talked about various things: first sports, then education, then my experience in Hungary. I got to know these students a little bit better, and was happy for that. And in between and afterwards (I teach seven classes on Wednesdays), each hour had something memorable. That doesn’t mean I’ll remember it, but if I do, so much the better. And this morning I woke up thoroughly rested after a thick sleep.

And then there’s the writing, translating, and music. Too much to talk about, but these things persevere too. The photo at the top is of a concert I attended on Monday, a solo concert by Gergely Balla of Platon Karataev. I was hesitant to take a picture at all, and took just one, quickly. It came out blurry and abstract, but I think that’s how it was supposed to be. The concert doesn’t translate into descriptions. Some do, a little bit, but this one doesn’t. The picture reminds me of the hush in the room, the absorption in the songs.

I will be taking part in a literary evening, with cello—more about that soon! The timing is just right, since this weekend I am finishing up a big translation (the first draft, that is) as well as the autumn issue of Folyosó, and will have time to practice and prepare after that, and even before and during.

The Pilinszky event in March is sooner than it may seem, so mark your calendars and spread the word! Also, this very morning at 7:55 we will be having a short commemoration at school, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Pilinszky’s birth. (Some sources say he was born on November 25, others say November 27; but in any case, this is the day to do it, since we don’t have classes tomorrow.) I will give a brief introduction (in Hungarian, of course), and then three students will recite four Pilinszky poems: “Egy szép napon,” “Kráter,” “Egy szenvedély margójára,” and “Átváltozás.” If we record it, and if the participating students give permission, I’ll post the recording here later. And now I must start to get ready.

Update: Here is the video!

Things Not So Readily Understood

Each of us, I imagine, has something, or maybe several things, that others don’t readily understand. We know what they are, because we keep coming up against them. The reason this happens is that no one can step into another’s manifold. It might seem to overlap with our own, but it really doesn’t. “I know what you mean” is one of the most common falsehoods in the world. These misunderstood things, far from being hindrances or flaws, help form the basic compass of who we are.

I can think of three such things on the spot. One is my need for solitude. It doesn’t mean I always like to be alone. But I need room, even among others, to think things out, to take my own directions. And at this point in life, I not only enjoy living alone but need it too, to the extent that it is possible. Hungarians frown upon this somewhat—not all Hungarians, but many. (To a great extent, Judaism frowns on it too.) But solitude and company are always affecting and interchanging with each other, so a person who needs solitude will also need company. It is a great joy when something feels kindred, something “clicks,” or even when it doesn’t but the conversation or common project fills me with thoughts.

The second point of difference is that I have plenty to do and am not looking for additional work or projects. It took a long time to get across that I do not want to give private English lessons; now the same applies to other things as well. My time outside of teaching is scarce and precious, and I need the freedom to spend it as I choose, to the extent possible. I say “to the extent possible” because things come up over which I have little or no control, and it’s good to give in to them at times. But I am not happy when rushing from one task to the next, especially when these tasks come from others. I need, to some extent, to set my own terms. Those terms are my happy terrain, which continually changes and opens: projects come into being, associations form, I find music that I love. I can’t explain this to anyone else, but I won’t give it up either. In short, I have plenty to do, and it’s important to me to do it slowly and thoughtfully instead of cramming my days with more and more. The stretches of time, and the relative freedom to do what I please within it, are much more important to me than money or fame.

The third is that I find politics not only boring, but superficial. Most political arguments, whether on the right or the left, only scrape the surface of things. Some do go deeper, but only when they deal with structures of human relation. Then fundamental questions come up: Who are we, and what are we capable of deciding and accomplishing together for the common good? Where does the common good conflict with individual good? These questions do not run dry, but parlor-talk does. I feel as uncomfortable with left-wing talk as with right-wing talk; and moderates often fall into traps of compromise and equivocation. Most of the time I am left wondering: why so much talk about this stuff? Why the need to have and proclaim an opinion about every current issue? Sure, I have my opinions too, and at times I make them known. But then I get sick of them. Other things I don’t get sick of, no matter how many times I return to them. Why not focus on those? Yes, politics are important; someone has to figure out how our systems will work and who will lead them. But they are not the only important actions, thoughts, or creations.

But these are just some of mine, and I know I am not alone; we all have prickliness of one kind or another, things that stick out, that aren’t exactly what others expect, approve of, or want. I say, live out that prickliness (without being obnoxious about it). Ruffle those feathers, be that jaunty, dreamy bird that struts through the day.

A Beautiful and Historic Ceremony

This last Shabbat, I had the honor of co-leading a Szim Salom service in which Dr. Gábor Iványi, the head of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (a church of the Methodist confession), assumed a Hebrew name. As usual, I led all the sung parts of the service; Dr. Iványi and I shared the Torah reading, and he gave a dróse (sermon). Rabbi Kelemen led the spoken parts, officiated the name-giving ceremony, gave blessings, and set a joyous, soulful tone for the event.

As you can see from the photo, the room was full—and would have been much fuller if it hadn’t been for Covid restrictions. Others followed the service over Zoom. The congregation included regular Szim Salom members, members of the MET, members of Neolog synagogues, and others (including Catholics and Lutherans). This was remarkable, given that only two synagogues in all of Hungary (we and our sister congregation, Bét Orim) would have been able to do this at all. Because Dr. Iványi’s father was Jewish but not his mother, neither the Orthodox nor the Neolog communities would have recognized him as Jewish; he would have needed to convert. But members—including leaders—of the Neolog community were there.

His church is devoted to helping those in need. When we didn’t have a place to hold our services, they shared their space on Iskola utca in Buda with us. We would arrive on a Saturday morning just when they were finishing with a Bible study, so we would mingle in the intercrossing. We held services there for about nine months. Here’s a picture of me and the rabbi outside the building, back in March 2018. But that’s only a tiny fraction of their generosity.

As for Dr. Iványi’s decision to assume a Hebrew name (without discarding the name he has had all his life), this came out of years of research and introspection. When his father died in November 2009, a close friend in Israel asked permission to say kaddish for him, “because he was a Jewish soul, after all.” That gesture moved him profoundly; over time, he grew more resolute in his wish to acknowledge his Jewish heritage and identity, without denying or discarding his work as a Christian pastor.

I am proud that we were in a position to give him a ceremony. For at least three reasons, I feel that this was the right thing to do.

First, this will open up conversations and thoughts. Over the past few centuries, during those periods when Jews were allowed to settle in Hungary, many assimilated eagerly and considered themselves fully Hungarian. But Hungarian anti-Semitism—during the Shoah and at other times—took particularly cruel forms, so today many Hungarian Jews, and Hungarians with some Jewish ancestry, have buried their history, whether by choice or by default. Gábor Iványi’s gesture will give others courage to look at who they are and where they come from.

Second, I see it as an act of integrity. Identity is a complex matter; it cannot be reduced to one or two words. A person can be many things, many entities at once; our ceremony affirmed this. This was not an adult bar mitzvah; Dr. Iványi is not making a commitment to Jewish observance. Instead, he is recognizing who he is, who his family is, in full complexity. I sympathize, because while I am Jewish according to Jewish law and my own not-so-strict observance, I too am a mixture of things and know that many others are too. Instead of pushing ourselves to be just this or that, instead of letting others tell us who we are, we can live out the combinations.

Third, he and his congregation have been kind to us, so I am glad that we could do something for him and them too, something with this level of meaning and importance.

But why stop at three? There is more. This service and ceremony brought people together from different religions, different branches of a religion; and while there might have been some discomfort at moments, still we came together, and the joy overrode everything. There is more to this than I can see right now. It will unfold at its own pace.

Photo credit: Szim Salom Hitközség / Aradi Nóra.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

P.S. See Péter Árvai’s wonderful article about the ceremony.

Too Much Activity

Yesterday morning I listened to a wonderful long Petőfi Rádio interview with Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly of Platon Karataev. It went in many different directions, but one favorite part when they talked about the importance of solitude and about how fruitful the Covid lockdown had been for them (even with many setbacks and challenges, such as Gergő’s fever and hospital stay), and how now, with everything open and available, they have had to set some limits for themselves, not accepting every invitation, not attending (or playing) every possible event, but instead protecting their quiet.

I have definitely been too busy this fall and have had to pull back too. The thing about pulling back is that most people will not understand or accept it. At least they won’t understand your specific choices. In their minds, what they want from you should come first; they don’t realize that you see it differently. None of us has complete control over our lives, but our choices, to the extent that they exist, will never be accepted by everyone.

Yet the vast majority of the world’s population doesn’t care what we do; that’s a bit of a relief. Even those we imagine we’re disppointing terribly have other things on their minds. Moreover, pleasing others (completely, all the time) has no point to it; it brings no satisfaction, because it dries up the soul. To exist in a true sense, you need some resistance. Not random resistance, not automatic resistance, but your own particular friction with the world, which you come to know over time, and which can change a little but won’t go away.

Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Soul selects her own Society” is so well known that it can slip past the mind. But pay attention to the middle stanza:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

The repetition of “Unmoved,” the images of Chariots and Emperor, the sense that both of these are stooping low for her, paying her homage (because they want something), and instead of falling for it, the soul stays upright—that’s something to think on. And then, in the final stanza, Dickinson transforms the initial metaphor of the “door,” turning it into the “Valves” of the Soul’s “attention,” now compared to “stone.” I wonder—this occurred to me just now—whether Wisława Szymborska was thinking of this in her “Conversation with a Stone.”

But sometimes “pulling back” doesn’t require a clap of stone, just a sense of the spaces between the moments or days. That’s part of the meaning of Shabbat (which I haven’t been too good at keeping, but which is on my mind). You just set aside the time for rest, period. Treat it as an obligation, not something you do if you find yourself with time. Also, it’s possible to simplify things on the run, not only in your schedule, but in your mind. Not getting bogged down in thoughts about all the things that have to get done. Just doing them one by one and taking rests in between. My fall break has been quite intense (I attended three wonderful concerts, translated a long story, gave an online poetry reading and talk in the middle of the night, worked on Folyosó, had minor surgery that went well, and lots more), but the last day is rather restful, unrolling quietly before me. And I am not changing that, not rushing anywhere, not trying to squeeze anything in.

The other side to this all is that it’s good, when possible and appropriate, to say yes to things, participate in projects, venture onto new terrain, and so forth. If we could all figure out what to accept and what to decline, life would be simpler, wouldn’t it? But we will never figure it out for good; there is no formula for it. We adjust, readjust, take on, give up, and start over.

Art credit: L.S. Lowry, Going to the Match.

Mark Your Calendars for March 20!

This announcement comes long in advance, so that I can begin inviting people, and so that you can mark your calendars and spread the word! On March 20, 2022, at 3 p.m. EDT (8 p.m. Hungary time), in an ALSCW Zoom event, I will interview the poet Csenger Kertai, Gergely Balla (Platon Karataev), and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Platon Karataev, Cz.K. Sebő) about the poet Janos Pilinszky and his influence on their work and thought. This will be combined with recitations of his poems and performances of the artists’ own work. The Zoom information will be published as soon as it is available; in the meantime, you can stay updated through the Facebook event page.

Here is the official event description:

Straight Labyrinth: János Pilinskzy in the Poetry, Music, and Thought of Three Hungarian Artists (Zoom event)

Sunday, March 20, 2022, 3:00 p.m. EDT

Please join the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), our host Diana Senechal, and our three featured guests for an online discussion, recitation, and performance honoring the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky (1921-1981). Pilinszky is known around the world for his intensity and brevity of word, his grief over the Holocaust, his solitude and longing for home, his combination of Christian faith and despair, and the translations of his work into English by Ted Hughes, Géza Simon, and others. But his poetry goes beyond these descriptors. It stands bare and alone.

Diana Senechal will interview the poet Csenger Kertai and the musicians/songwriters Gergely Balla (Platon Karataev) and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Platon Karataev, Cz.K. Sebő) about Pilinszky’s role in their art and thought. We will combine this discussion with recitations of several Pilinszky poems (including “Straight Labyrinth”) and performances of the guests’ own work. There will be time at the end for a few questions and comments.

The event will be in English and Hungarian; no knowledge of Hungarian is required. We cordially welcome anyone interested in poetry, literary translation, songs and songwriting, Hungarian language and literature, or Pilinszky himself. The event is free and open to the public via Zoom. The Zoom information will be included here as soon as it becomes available.

Pilinszky image credit: Pilinszky János, Szép versek 1971 (published 1972). Photo # 44.

Photo of Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly by Pál Czirják, published in Kortárs Online.

Additional comments: The event is appropriate for people of high school age on up. We will focus on a few Pilinszky poems, considering and responding to them from different angles; thus those new to Pilinszky (and to Hungarian) and those well versed in his work will find something of interest. Discussion, poetry, and music will intertwine.

What you can do now: Mark your calendars, click “Interested” or “Going” on the event page, bookmark the website, and spread the word! And read Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight Labyrinth”) in the translation of Géza Simon or in the original Hungarian.

The Pilinszky Walk

Yesterday I did something I had wanted to do for months: go on one of the Pilinszky walks hosted by the Petőfi Literary Museum and the Anna Juhász Literary Salon. I think they have been happening monthly, alongside hundreds of events commemorating the centennial of János Pilinszky’s birth. I didn’t have time to do this (especially since it involved going to Budapest); I have several deadlines and am under a lot of pressure. But it was more important than the pressure or deadlines. And it was one of the highlights of my four years so far in Hungary.

Anna Juhász and the actor Zalán Makranczi led the walk. We each received an audio transmittor and earphone, so that we could hear them easily as we walked along. Since the earphone went in just one ear, we could also hear the sounds around us. What a difference that made! I didn’t have to strain to hear them, or try to stay up close; I could just walk along in the crowd and still hear every word. The amazing thing to me was that I could follow every bit of it; I knew what they were talking about and was familiar with most of the poems they quoted. They also emphasized the importance of Pilinszky’s prose; Makranczi read many passages of it.

As we walked along slowly-slowly on this golden autumn day, they showed us different places where Pilinszky had lived, where he had gone to school, a café where he and other writers spent lots of time; they spoke of the different times of Pilinszky’s life, of his family, his love of family, his solitude, his grief over the war, his religious faith, and his continual longing for home. Juhász spoke at length about “Apokrif,” which is central to his work. Makranczi read the first part of it aloud.

At the end of the two-hour walk, where we saw Pilinszky’s last residence, Juhász quoted his words that a person is not complete until death: that life and death, rather than being opposites, actually form a unity together: “Életet és halált lehetetlen nem egybelátni. Élet és halál nem más, mint kettétört öröklét, meghasonlott valóság. Egyik nem több a másikánál, csak aki élt és meghalt közülünk, örökkévaló. Hogy kik vagyunk ezek a mi, ezt nem tudom. Életünket mi csak halálunkkal egészíthetjük ki. Egyik a másik nélkül végleges töredék marad” (“It is impossible not to see life and death as one. Life and death are nothing other than eternity split, reality divided. Neither one is more than the other; but whoever among us has lived and died is everlasting. Who we actually are, I don’t know. We realize our lives only with death. One without the other remains a fragment forever.”)

Pilinszky is beloved in Hungary, but not in a “popular” sort of way. The poems demand privacy. Once one of them reaches you, then Pilinszky enters your life for good. And, I believe, your death.

I first read Pilinszky several years ago at a student’s urging (thank you, Isti!). He recommended his favorite poem, “Egy szenvedély margójára” (“Onto the Margin of a Passion”), which I memorized and recited for the class. But only two years or so later did I read “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight Labyrinth”), thanks to Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition. That opened everything up. I have memorized it too and recite it every day. Here you can hear Pilinszky himself reciting it.

And here is an extraordinary translation by Géza Simon:

The Straight Labyrinth
(Egyenes labirintus)

What will it be like, this return flight
that only similes can describe,
like sanctuary, altar,
homecoming, handshake, hug,
under the trees, garden feast,
where there is no first and last guest,
what will it be like in the end,
this free-fall on open wings,
this flight into the fiery
focus, the communal nest? – I don’t know,
and yet, if there is something I know,
I know this blazing corridor,
this labyrinth straight as an arrow,
the heavier and heavier,
exhilarating fact of our fall.

As I have mentioned before, Platon Karataev’s “Wide Eyes” alludes to “Straight Labyrinth”; Pilinszky can be felt in a number of their songs (and is especially important to their main songwriter, Gergely Balla, as well as to the other members). Their “Bitter Steps” (maybe my favorite song on their Atoms album) quotes from Ted Hughes’s translation of “Apokrif”: “[And] this is why I learned to walk! For these belated bitter steps.”

So this October walk, for which I am grateful, brought many things together in one. These are continually opening up into more.

I am planning an ALSCW Zoom event dedicated to Pilinszky and his influence; it will take place on March 20 at 3 p.m. EDT (8 p.m. in Hungary). I will be inviting everyone I can think of: in addition to friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues, all the Hungarian language and literature departments I can find in the U.S. (they exist—at Columbia University, for instance), songwriting programs, radio hosts, writers, and others. The featured guests will be Csenger Kertai, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Platon Karataev, Cz.K. Sebő), and Gergely Balla (Platon Karataev)! The event page is here; stay tuned for official announcements, an event page and dedicated website, and more. In the meantime, mark it in your calendars, indicate interest (if you like), and invite everyone! It is free, open to the public, and appropriate for all ages from high school on up.

Speaking of Csenger Kertai, my translations of two of his poems, “Lake Balaton” and “On Forsakenness,” will be published in the next issue of Literary Imagination!

But speaking of translations, I have deadlines for a different project, so that will be all for now.

The End of the Trout’s Nose

I am tired today! And with good reason: it has been an intense week, with teaching, writing deadlines, school events, a special occasion, two trips to Budapest, and more. Nor am I the only one tired; I sensed the fatigue in my students this morning. Everyone’s anticipating the autumn break, which is just a week away. (For me it will be busy, but still a change of rhythm.)

Sometimes, when tired like this, I still try to get things done, since there’s so much to do. But resting has its place too. Things do get done.

Also, getting things done isn’t all that matters. Why would it matter at all, if there weren’t something worth resting for too?

That’s a somewhat odd notion, playing on a weary brain, but I’ll try to explain it a little.

The things that matter aren’t exactly what we think they are. No matter who we are, we get caught up in certain vanities: getting things done, doing things well, achieving a desired result, all of which are important, but not to the degree that we imagine. I say “we,” but each of us has private distortions.

What does matter, then? It isn’t just one thing; it can’t be pinned down to one thing. Robert Frost wrote in one of his notebooks, “There is such a thing as sincerity. It is hard to define but is probably nothing but your highest liveliness escaping from a succession of dead selves. Miraculously. It is the same with illusion. Any belief you sink into when you should be leaving it behind is an illusion. Reality is the cold feeling on the end of the trouts nose from the stream that runs away.”

Breaking Glass (my essay in The Nation)

Yesterday, for the first time, I had an essay published in The Nation. It’s about the current push in U.S. schools for curricula that reflects the students’ demographic characteristics. I take issue specifically with NYU Metro Center’s Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard, which enables teachers, schools, parents, and others to rate their curriculum on the basis of its demographic representation, social justice messages, and inclusive classroom practices. I considered how Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie, which I have read and reread, loved, and taught over the decades, would fare under such a system.

I see diversity, whether in a student body or in the works that students read, as a good or a means toward a good. But diversity is not just demographic; there’s also diversity of thought and character. Nor does it tower above other considerations, especially when it comes to curricula. A curriculum also needs coherence and progression, as well as imagination and substance. When it comes to literature, the works should have room to exist on their own terms: to surprise and challenge the readers, to take them to new places. Literature does not bend to our expectations or squeeze into our categories. Its beauty lies in its way of taking its own way.

Cultural responsiveness is a little different from diversity. It has to do with reflecting the students’ characteristics. Its underlying premise, or one of them, is that students will be more motivated and feel more affirmed if they recognize themselves in the curriculum. While helpful up to a point (self-recognition can indeed be affirming), it runs into two problems. First, students will not necessarily recognize themselves in works that supposedly reflect their own background. Second, students need more than self-recognition; they also need to be challenged and exposed to new ideas.

I remember my disappointment when I first started reading women writers (beyond the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen). I didn’t relate to them more than to male writers; “women’s writing” did not seem particularly close to me. That said, some of the writers fascinated me (and still do), not because they resembled me, but because they were interesting and brilliant in themselves: Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker (particularly in her short stories), Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and others.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the essay, and if you disagree or quibble with it, that’s fine! And do consider attending tomorrow’s online ALSCW event, “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture.”

Image source: Cult MTL.

Notes for a Course on Phonology (Poem)

This is an old poem of mine, and a favorite. It was published in the Spring 1991 issue of Yale Literary Magazine (a journal edited by Yale undergraduates). On October 26 I will recite and speak about this and other poems as a featured guest in the MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series.

Notes for a Course on Phonology

Diana Senechal

Can I ignore the flagellant good-byes
of flailing trees, who lose as they embrace?
Can I forget the flicker on your face,
the green and blue and auburn in your eyes?
Or will I let it seize me by surprise,
that scoundrel death, who leaves without a trace,
snapping the golden thread that you have spun,
that different reason in the rising sun?

The dance begins with sounds.
Step back, and let the feet perform for you.
The vowels make their rounds.

Some come into the light,
knocking the rest into a different hue.
The pattern blurs my sight;

the artist, steeped in rage,
soaking the paintbrush, draws it lone and stark
across an empty page.

The student is a fool
who disregards the reasons in the dark
to memorize the rule.

The consonants in pairs
come forth, some gliding stoplessly,
the others taking chairs.

Some hold the hands of ghosts,
whose flesh and form can come to be
a question of the company
invited by the hosts.

I envy linguists, chemists, the wealthy ones,
the immortal ones. Peering into the gesture,
breaking the leaves into their particles,
they see the seasons as contiguous,
and similar, and not so harsh. I can’t—
I myself crumble,
for I see the grace
of your veins, your lonely singleness of shape,
your lonely colors. I will hold you close
and whole. The time for dust has not arrived,
though it is near. Then I will hold the dust.
A different reason in the rising sun.

the reasons in the rising
the guises of the seasons
the rise and fall of tidings
the crumbling of our reasons
the reasons for the fall
the falling of the seas
the risings of the tide
the dying of the trees
the scarlet in your eyes
the scars the stains the sores
(would I give up your glance
to analyze your pores?)

Two suns rise together, for different reasons,
and meet. One sees an endless beginning,
and therefore begins with the end: dust,
ghostly with life. Time never ends
in this golden light, nor does it ever begin.
The other sees an end barely beginning,
a trap of beginning and end, embracing you,
dear dying one, dear urgent living one.

My page is blank with forms, yours filled with formulae.
They fall like leaves from the sun, missing each other’s reasons.

Paring Down

Many of us know how satisfying it can be to simplify things, to shed them down to the essential, be it a schedule, a song, a room, or a thought. But this work cannot be unidirectional. We muddle and clutter ourselves up, then let the dross drop. With good reason, too. we want to sweep up the abundance of life, we want to lose it. Again and again. Still, over the long term, a slow paring can happen.

I am going to fewer concerts and other events than I might otherwise this month, because I have so much else to do and want to do it well. I am also thinking more simply, focusing on what I have to do each day (because if I don’t, I am likely to forget something). I have also been thinking of paring down as a principle of poetry—not in the obvious ways (poetry is known for its conciseness) but for the internal shedding that often takes place in a poem, the simplification in motion. A poem is not static. While writing it, you simplify it, but even in its final form it moves into its own kernel.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

  • Recent Posts


  • Categories