“Onto the Margin of a Passion” (translation of Pilinszky’s “Egy szenvedély margójára”)

It is likely that we will be discussing Pilinszky’s poem “Egy szenvedély margójára” at the Pilinszky event in March. I have been thinking about this poem day after day, with new understandings. It tells a brief story of a boy who walks along the beach and finds a favorite stone, one that has been his since the beginning of time and could never be anyone else’s. He grips it tightly, in a moment of solitude, and then hurls it far away. No sound comes out of the gesture, but an ocean murmurs (booms, roars) in reply. This is no isolated event (it “always” happens, thought the “always” can be taken in different ways), and yet it is the most isolated event in the world.

The poem does much more than tell a story. Something happens there in the pivot, the throwing of the stone. Through going back and forth over the poem, you can start to glean what it is. I had a new understanding in the middle of the night.

I don’t want to say too much about it right now, but in an interesting way, Platon Karataev’s new album, Partért kiáltó, gave me an insight into the poem, a way of hearing it that brings all the parts and details together. I had been thinking about how the Hungarian words “egy” (one) and “egész” (whole) have entirely distinct origins; they are not etymologically related at all. The poem is filled with words that have “egy” as their root: “egy” itself (three times, including in the title), “egyetlen” (unique), and “egyedül” (alone); “egész” occurs twice. As long as the boy possesses the stone, he is in a state of singleness, aloneness; as soon as he releases it, he becomes part of the universal. But as with so much of Pilinszky, these opposites are aspects of the same thing.

In November I brought this poem to my classes. One student became very quiet when reading it. Then he looked up. “Pilinszky must have suffered greatly,” he said.

This morning I translated the poem. Normally I would save this and submit it for publication, but in this case I want a few translations to be available for the Pilinszky event, and it can take a long time to hear back from a journal and then to be published after that. So here it is. You can find the original text, and a translation by N. Ullrich Katalin (quite different from mine), on the Magyarul Bábelben site.

Onto the Margin of a Passion

(Translation of “Egy szenvedély margójára” by János Pilinszky)

A child who likes to walk along the beach
always finds one among the many pebbles
that has been his for all eternity
and never could become anyone else’s.

He grips unlosability itself!
His whole heart is throbbing in his palm,
the stone’s so one-and-only in his hand,
and with it he has grown so alone.

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it past the bourn.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a whole sea booms it in return.

Painting: Pebble Beach by Kathy Ferguson.

I made a few edits to the translation after posting it (most recently on March 13, 2022). This translation is not entirely literal; I take a few liberties for the sake of the larger sense, internal correspondences, and rhythm.

I also made a few minor edits to the post itself.

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  1. Meanings of “Mindig” in Pilinszky’s Poetry | Take Away the Takeaway
  2. Past the bourn, and a translation of “Tágul” | Take Away the Takeaway

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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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    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 April 2022, Deep Vellum published 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.

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