The rhythm of Pilinszky’s “Keringő” (“Waltz”)

When I started setting Pilinszky’s six-line poem “Keringő” to music, I tried at first to make it waltz-like, but quickly found that the poem resisted this. So instead I followed the poem’s own rhythm, as I heard it. One line kept tripping me up, because it has a rhythm of its own: “szemközt a leáldozó nappal” (“across from the sacrificing sun”). I realized that I could make this a transition into a waltz, and from there a waltz rhythm would prevail. I don’t know how this sounds to a Hungarian ear, but to me this changing rhythm also works with the meaning of the poem. Only the last line of the poem really sounds like a waltz, but then the music keeps on going for a little while.

Pilinszky János, “Keringő”

A zongorát befutja a borostyán,
s a gyerekkori ház falát
szétmállasztja a naplemente.

És mégis, mégis szakadatlanúl
szemközt a leáldozó nappal
mindaz, mi elmúlt, halhatatlan.

In my rough translation, with some minor liberties:

János Pilinszky, “Waltz”

The piano is overrun by the vine
and the wall of the childhood house
is broken up by the sunset.

And yet, and yet, without fail,
across from the sacrificing sun,
all that is past is immortal.

I spent most of the day recording it, but it is still a draft. I now have seven musical renditions of Pilinszky and plan to re-record them all, maybe with a few others. My renditions of “Metronóm” and “A tengerpartra” are also on YouTube (in draft form); I think this is the best of the three, but all three will be better over time.

Friends Are Not Vitamins

In the U.S. it has become fashionable to seek the number of friends that will do the most for your health. Numerous news articles, research summaries, and opinion pieces aim to help readers find their ideal number. Something is terribly wrong here; I recognize that friends can be good for my health, but I do not make or keep friends to boost my health. Many friendships are circumstantial and helpful, but that doesn’t mean I have to view them primarily in terms of what they do for me. I can at least try to consider the friend’s needs too, and the nature of the friendship itself.

Catherine Pearson’s recent New York Times article “How Many Friends Do You Really Need?” has a bit more subtlety than appears at first; toward the end, she suggests that soul-searching may help you more than research findings when it comes to determining the right number for you. She also suggests that different friends bring out different parts of you—so a question may be whether there’s a part of you that isn’t finding expression. Still, the the article generally presumes that we should be looking at our friends the way we consider our diet or exercise: Am I getting the right amount (and the right kind)?

This is wrong not only because quality matters more than quantity, and not only because people differ in their definitions of friendship and the kinds that they want or need. What the article entirely ignores is the responsibility of friendship. Instead of asking “Do I have the right number of friends?” a person might ask, “Am I good to my friends?”

The exercise of responsibility in friendship might do more good, in itself, than the mere collection of friends. Thinking of a friend, contacting a friend, accepting a friend’s invitation, helping a friend in need, speaking frankly and kindly to a friend, speaking well of a friend, giving a friend space—any of these acts takes attention and commitment (attention, moreover, to someone other than yourself). The article says nothing about this.

Also, the article, like many others in its vein, ignores solitude and what it can do for friendship. Solitude complements friendship in that you can bring something of one state to the other. I learned something from a friend; I bring it into my time alone. During my time alone, I read something, listened to something, considered something from a new angle; this I can bring into my friendship, directly or indirectly.

Solitude also helps a person handle the many levels and forms of friendship. Someone with whom you spend less time is not necessarily less important in your life. Pearson quotes research suggesting that friends need to spend about 200 hours together to be close—but there are important friendships that come nowhere near those hours. If you think you “should” be spending more time together, then you might reject the friendship for what it is. Solitude can give honor to the limits.

Pearson also suggests that friends we feel ambivalent about—for any number of reasons—might be bad for our health (and therefore worth dropping, presumably). That relates to the fad of cutting the “toxic” people out of your life. It is true that some people are so demanding, inconsiderate, and self-absorbed that they take the joy out of a friendship. But those are the extremes. Often an ambivalence is worth living with or working through, because all of us are imperfect. Sometimes a friendship needs time to find its proper form and rhythm; until then, it may go through some awkward bumps. That is not a reason to drop a friend.

I brought the Pearson article to my students, because I wanted to show them how to read it critically. First we read it together, just for meaning. Then I asked them to read it again and identify its underlying assumptions, arguments, and conclusions. Finally, I asked them whether they found any part of it questionable—that is, any of the assumptions, arguments, and conclusions. I stressed that questioning a part of it was not the same as dismissing or debunking it; the point was not to attack the article, but to identify which parts or aspects convinced them less than other parts. Their observations were keen; I hope to do something like this again.

In the U.S. there’s an obsession with continually boosting your personal numbers. There’s an assumption that you should always be on the up-and-up, whether with happiness, friendship, jobs, or anything else. Not only does this tend toward superficiality, but it also ignores the importance of rest: not just sleep and relaxation, but the act of letting something be.

A Mistake in the Making: Hungary’s New Teacher Evaluation System

The Hungarian government has given the teacher evaluation system a drastic overhaul. Beginning in September (and even earlier in some pilot schools), barring a last-minute retraction or modification, high school teachers will be ranked in relation to each other. Within a given school, the top 25 percent (according to an elaborate point system, also new) will receive additional pay, on top of the base salary. Some teachers in the middle 50 percent might also qualify for extra pay (if they are above the 70th percentile). The bottom 25 percent receives no additional pay and must complete certain professional development tasks.

This ranking concept will only sour the atmosphere at schools, from what I can see. Teachers who take on extra duties and projects (such as teaching additional classes, mentoring, leading special projects) will be pitted against each other; they will question each other’s motives and competence. When I started teaching here, I was happily shocked by the lack of resentment I felt from other teachers and by the welcome I received from the drama and music teachers, who even invited me, a couple years later, to join the arts “munkaközösség” (working community). It didn’t occur to them to complain that I was stepping on their turf by involving my students in music and theatre; they rejoiced that this was happening.

With the new system, this would change—not immediately, and not with these colleagues, but subtly, over time. By ending up in the top 25 percent, a teacher is ensuring that someone else won’t. But how do you earn those points?

Just as in the U.S., teachers will be rated on such matters as parental contact (which has normally been primarily the purview of the homeroom teacher, the osztályfőnök, not regular subject matter teachers), professional conduct (including online presence outside the classroom—I could be losing points right here), adoption of “new” pedagogical methods, involvement in extracurricular activities and programs, and a host of other matters, including communication with colleagues and the administration, punctuality and general fulfillment of responsibilities, students’ test results, clariand more. Some of the points will be based on self-evaluation: setting goals and determining to what extent they have been met.

Not all the criteria are objectionable; many are what a teacher would strive for anyway, and some are worth keeping in mind. But many lie open to interpretation, and the burden of documentation will add stress to teachers’ lives. Moreover, for many of the criteria, quantity is considered along with quality. This, too, brings burdens; teachers will be under pressure to do more of everything (more meetings, more activities, more phone calls, more, more, more) to rack up the points. Will something like Folyosó (the online literary journal I founded for the students, which takes many hours of my time a semester) be considered “just” one activity? Will teachers be required to document all their meetings and conversations, just as in the U.S.?

The resemblance to certain U.S. teacher evaluation systems must be more than coincidental; I imagine that there are some consultants in the background making considerable money off of this.

I would rather forget about making the top 25 percent and just continue doing what I am doing. But there’s a risk of falling into the bottom 25, which would be not only humiliating, but overwhelming.

I have treasured the tranquility of my school and daily life, which allows me to do my job well and to pursue my interests (literature, music, languages), which ultimately tie back into the classroom. Within the past five years, I have learned Hungarian (not to perfection, but to the point of being able to converse, communicate, read, listen), translated Hungarian poetry and prose, fallen in love with Hungarian alternative music, initiated a Shakespeare festival in collaboration with the public library, traveled with Hungarians to the U.S. for literary events (in 2019 and 2022), and much more—all thanks in part to the tranquility that I found here. The designers of this new system appear not to value such tranquility—in fact, they seem intent on taking it away.

I can only speculate on the reasons, but two possibilities come to mind: first, perhaps the government sees this as an exchange: a higher salary in return for higher accountability (just as in many districts in the U.S.). Second, perhaps the goverment intends this system mainly for new teachers, who, not knowing anything different, will presumably adapt to it. A large cadre of older teachers is soon to retire; perhaps they will leave sooner if put under enough pressure.

Teacher evaluation is a difficult matter no matter what. No system is completely fair. If teachers are paid only according to seniority and degrees, then the question arises: why should a teacher doing the minimum receive as much as one who goes far beyond the call of duty? Beyond that, how do you assign points to such a wide range of pedagogical strengths and styles? To what extent do you ask teachers to adopt specific techniques and tools, and to what extent do you respect their judgement?

In New York City, for instance, there have been instances where excellent teachers did not receive “highly effective” ratings in the area of pedagogy for the simple reason that they led a class discussion (instead of having students lead it themselves). It should never be wrong for a teacher to lead a class discussion; the teacher has perspective that the students do not. From time to time, it is good to have students lead their own discussion—but when a class is reading a complex literary work, for instance, only the teacher knows what questions to ask to draw students further into it. There have also been cases where teachers lost points for not involving technology in a given lesson. But technology should be a means, not an end.

It is the head of the school (the principal) who can set the tone here, guiding teachers while also trusting their judgement. But an overly bureaucratic system takes the principal’s initiative away.

The current teacher evaluation system (under which I was evaluated last year) has its weaknesses too. My evaluation consisted of a long self-evaluation, parent and student surveys, feedback from the principal and colleagues, two observations, and a few other pieces. It all went well—but I can understand the criticism that such an evaluation is weak on evidence. I might give myself a high rating on collaboration with colleagues, for instance, but what if I actually meet with them only once in a while?

Going to the other extreme, though, and requiring so many different activities (and evidence of them) will not lead to better teaching; it will just make our lives busier.

There are those in the U.S. (and here) who would stress that a teacher is an employee, not a thinker. A teacher’s job, according to them, consists of fulfilling duties, not exercising judgement and intellect. But the very same people talk about how students need to be encouraged to think critically, analytically, and creatively. How will they do that, if teachers don’t have room to do the same?

Astonishment (new poem)

Help comes from the most elliptic places.
The very thing that flung me to the far

end of my orbit draws me in again,
or rather, there’s a truth of soul that murmurs

and brays at once, that cloaks itself in red
or orchid, depending on the tilt of light.

Say what you want to that. I still
veer out from my sun because I love

something beyond it. They say by my age
time’s up, humdrum rotation rules,

the habit-hand rotates its morning coffee,
the brain lisps, “looks like another sunny day,”

and the brain conjures its own blessed
provender: a soft, meaningful feeling,

an eidolon of proper task or purpose,
enveiling us away from the absurd.

Lies. Age does not twist the cosmic laws.
Orbs do not cheat their radii. Once tossed

forth, we carry the hurl forever or
until time stops, which may be in the cards

when there is no longer a day, yesterday,
or heyday, no one claiming to be cooler

than anyone else, since nothing will be cool,
everything blazing, pulling into a dark so fierce

that our midnights, in memory, spill forth light,
and nothing looks like what we had in mind.

Everyone will be wrong then. In the meantime,
be bold and kind, I tell myself. Veer forth,

come back, and if they ask where you have been,
say simply: “Only later will I know.”

Against Platitudes

Most of us have gifts that can become faults when taken too far or brought into the wrong context. For me, a combination of seriousness, immersion, excitement, and brazen determination has allowed me to do things, both alone and with others, that never would have happened otherwise. Books, translations, dramatic productions, literary journals, literary events, musical projects, moving to Hungary and learning Hungarian—all of this took considerable enthusiasm and stubbornness. I never wanted to be selfish about it; I wanted to take others into account. Most of the time, people appreciated my dedication and relied on my judgement, even when I was treating the project as the most important thing on earth. Even when I pestered them repeatedly.

But there’s a recurring mistake I make every 8-10 years or so: I get excited about something (happily) and become temporarily insistent and impatient (not so happily). The latter part can throw people off and upset them. I see my mistake promptly, but it is done.

Anyone who knows me can picture this; when I was younger it happened frequently. After I hit forty, it happened three significant times: once in 2005 or so, once in 2015, and once this year (I am not going into details). These stand out because of their importance to me. There may have been smaller instances too, but nothing that reached this pitch.

The two previous times, I talked about the situation to a few carefully chosen people—people with no connection to those involved. Their advice was usually unhelpful (if not downright confusing), along the lines of “So-and-so isn’t worth your time and attention.” That seems to be the default response these days: labeling others as toxic or, at best, “not worth your time.” But it’s just an escape; it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. When a misunderstanding happens, we usually have something to do with it. It isn’t necessarily all our fault; no good comes from complete self-blame. But some sort of fault is there. Also, others have dignity; they don’t deserve to be called “not worth” someone’s time. Everyone is worth someone’s time. That does not mean that everyone has time for everyone.

I had my part in this. It seems that things go wrong when I want something not for a project, but at least partly for myself (and especially when I show any kind of hurt or disappointment). This isn’t because it’s wrong to want something for myself. Rather, others aren’t necessarily prepared for this, and I am not very good at conveying both clearly and gently that something is important to me. Also, others are not obligated to do anything just because it’s important to me; they may feel pushed (just as I feel pushed sometimes). It is hard to express a wish or need without seeming demanding and controlling. I understand this well; I recoil at subtle and not-so subtle personal demands and manipulation.

The ideal approach would be to state that it is important to me, but then let go of it and let the other person do whatever he or she wants. Take away all “shoulds,” take away any rush or urgency (unless there is a real deadline), remove them even internally, and go on with life. This is extremely hard to do, especially in our online hyper-connected world, never mind our culture of entitlement. But it can be done.

People do like to do nice things for others, after all, but they like to do them freely. I do too. The problem is that it’s so hard to ask for anything at all, or convey that it means something, without having it come across as a demand.

But even when you express yourself generously and briefly, you can be misunderstood. As soon as you bring yourself into the picture, people can perceive you as pushy or worse. Or, at the other end of things, your words may go unnoticed because you were so gentle about them.

In the end, how others react is less important than how I handle things. Yes, their reaction is important too. Others’ responses reflect my actions at least somewhat—and I don’t want to bother or hurt anyone. But even if I were perfect, which I will never be, misunderstandings will happen. I cannot always prevent or fix them.

I was thinking about this yesterday when reading Camus’ “The Guest” with my students. In the story, set in Algeria, the schoolmaster Daru is handed an Arab prisoner (accused of murdering his cousin) and instructed to hand him into the authorities. Daru, who lives between two worlds (being of French origin but an Algerian native) does not want to do this. He ends up giving the prisoner a free choice (and the prisoner chooses to walk in the direction of the authorities, to turn himself in). When Daru returns to the classroom, he sees scrawled on the blackboard the message, “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.”

We talked about how even though we are fortunately not in situations where our decisions cost us our lives, the story is true for us too; we can never guarantee that our actions will be understood. People might take them as their opposite. This does not mean that they don’t matter. They matter, not because of how others respond, but because they shape us.

In all three situations mentioned earlier, I did not say a single bad word about the others involved (neither before, nor during, nor after the conflict), did not descend into gossip, and took a serious look at my own part. I tried to reconcile, and succeeded in part, over time.

But where my previous “bad advisors” may have been slightly right was this: It isn’t that the others weren’t worth my time, or otherwise defective; rather, they weren’t in a position to meet my needs, no matter how small or big, temporary or lasting. They had their own lives, worthy in themselves, not really overlapping with mine.

Sometimes my needs are so simple, a tiny gesture can make me happy for weeks or longer. But that isn’t the point. People have their radius of attention and are wary of expanding or overpacking it, because there isn’t time. This I understand well. There’s so much that can wear us out and take our focus away. I too have to limit my focus. I have so much to do and also have to make more room for my life. By “my life” I mean not only my work and projects, but rest, health, and people close to me.

Just look at this day. We had the day off for the March 15 holiday commemorating the Revolution of 1848. I have spent most of the day mulling over the questions of this blog post. It has done me good, but how much else there is to do too.

The mulling, too, is both a gift and a fault. I am good at looking at myself when things go wrong, not to berate myself, but to sort things out and put them in perspective. A person can do much worse than this. But I spend too much time on it. I wouldn’t call it neurotic—neuroticism repeats itself, whereas this moves toward understanding or peace—but still, it’s a bit too much. Also, it’s futile; I could double the time spent, and it would do nothing for the resolution. Sometimes answers really do come when you finally forget the question, as Csenger Kertai suggests in his poem “Dokkolás” (“Docking”). I believe that this will be the case here. Giving it a rest, a true rest, a full rest, will be the best gift, not only to the others, but to me. That in itself may seem a platitude, but it isn’t. Rest is profound and difficult. And needed.

The photo of the Hautes Plaines (“High Plains”, Arabic: الهضاب العليا, in northern Algeria) is courtesy of Wikipedia.

Staying Home Anyway (and This and That)

I had hoped to go hear Dávid Korándi (cappuccino projekt) and then The Roving Chess Club in Budapest tonight, but after an intense week I ended up slightly dizzy—not sick, but just short of robust. Because next week starts out with two important trips to Budapest after school—a Purim celebration at the Ohél Ávrahám synagogue (where I will chant two chapters of the Book of Esther), and an unrelated, eagerly awaited gathering the next day—I need not push it this evening or weekend. I will listen to the cappuccino project album tonight.

It was actually a short week because of a long weekend. On Monday and Tuesday we had no classes, but on Tuesday we teachers took part in activities led by our colleagues. I went first to a poetry workshop, then a drama workshop, both of which I enjoyed. That evening, I attended a gorgeous Platon Karataev duo concert featuring Emőke Dobos’s art for Partért kiáltó (on the screen, moving slowly and rotating). Being able to focus on the rotating images brought the songs to me in a new way, with new textures and associations.

The concert was followed by an interview discussion, which I loved for the way Emőke, Gergő, and Sebő could take any question (posed by Dóri Hegyi) and turn it into something interesting and beautiful.

I got home after midnight, went promptly to sleep, and arrived at school the next day at 7:30, since I was one of three interviewers for the oral entrance exams. We interviewed about 75 students over three days (about 30/30/15); I enjoy doing this but was unsure, from the start, whether a concert on Friday night would be realistic afterwards. It is not, especially since I am not needed or expected there in any way. I like to keep my commitments whenever possible, but this wasn’t a commitment, just something I wanted very much to do.

In addition, I am working on a long poem and an unrelated essay, as well as translations, the Shakespeare festival, and more. It is good to have just a little bit of time for doing close to nothing, letting the thoughts slow down.

Update: The Roving Chess Club will be playing at the Tisza Mozi (in Szolnok) on March 17! I plan to go.

On Preparations and Commitments

Between teaching and serving as Szim Salom’s cantor, I spend a lot of my life in preparations: not so much for lessons (unless there is a lot of grading to do, or unless we are reading a work of literature) as for school performances and Folyosó. The Shakespeare festival preparations have many components: planning the program with Kata at the library, making sure all the logistics are worked out, and (most of all) helping the tenth-graders prepare their scene within a short time (we meet once a week for forty-five minutes). Helping others prepare is much more difficult than preparing myself; I have decades of experience with practicing and know what needs to be done. With my students, I have to plan the details carefully so that we can make good use of the time.

As for Szim Salom, in addition to leading services, I prepare and deliver the Torah cantillation once a month; we have Saturday morning services twice a month, and on the second occasion, others do the Torah reading, without cantillation. I give thought to the services that I lead: any new or alternate melodies that I might introduce, any particular emphasis, any special occasion. Then there are the holidays: for instance, we will be joining with several other synagogues for Purim, and women, including me, will be reading or chanting the the Book of Esther, also known as the Megillah. (I will be chanting Chapters 7 and 8, as well as the last two verses of Chapter 6.) After that, Pesach (Passover) will be right around the corner.

Never mind the preparation that goes into writing, translating, and submitting work for publication: I learned long ago that the more carefully a manuscript is prepared, the more seriously it will be considered, not only because editors are sticklers about font size and such, but because careful preparation implies consideration. They like to know that you have reasons for sending it to them in particular, that you respect their standards, and that your work merits attention.

Although preparations give me mild anxiety (I worry about being underprepared, so I generally go overboard), and although I like to leave ample room for spontaneous and unprepared events, this life of preparations suits me well. I enjoy the immersion, the hours spent with the verses, work of literature, or other matter, and the challenge to come up with solutions. For instance, with the Shakespeare preparations, we ran into a glitch: none of the boys wanted to be Romeo. First I thought we might turn the ball scene into a marionette show, but first of all, that would make it silly, and second, it would take considerable time and money to obtain or make the marionettes, never mind learn how to use them properly. Then I thought of silhouettes. Aha! A silhouette scene is beautiful, and it spares the actors the embarrassment of having to be amorous in front of an audience. The picture to the left is just of our experiment with it; we will refine it later, with brighter light behind the sheet, etc. Before this particular part of the scene, the sheet will figure in one of the ballroom dances. For all of this to work, I have to plan exactly what each person will do. But this also ensures that everyone will have a role of some kind. We will also need back-ups in case someone is sick on the day of the performance. For each detail, there must be at least two people prepared to carry it out.

The difficulty of such preparations is that you don’t always feel up to them. Sometimes I think I have far too much on (and about to be heaped onto) my plate. I haven’t been going on long bike rides lately, partly because there’s so much to prepare for the next day or week. Leading services on Saturday mornings requires leaving my apartment at 7 a.m. to catch a train to Budapest. I continually feel behind with writing and translating. As for teaching, I find joy in it throughout the day but end up quite tired by evening. And what about basic matters, like taking care of my health, my apartment, and Dominó and Sziszi? What about spending time with people? That’s a relative rarity; my days are filled with people, but I don’t often get to converse with friends. I don’t feel lonely in general, but a certain kind of loneliness hits me at times when I misdirect my energy or attention and, as a result, not much comes back.

But you never know, entirely, the effects of your preparations. Two weeks ago, after a Szim Salom service, a woman stopped me as I was heading out the door. “I just want to say, what you are doing now, keep on doing it,” she said. “Keep on doing it even if you get no feedback (visszajelzés) from anyone. You have something that not many people have. I am not talking about musical talent, or a feeling of Jewishness. What comes across is that you are doing this with your full heart and soul.”

This was just what I needed to hear. The funny thing is, I don’t always feel as though I’m doing it with full heart and soul. The feelings don’t always tell the truth, nor do they matter quite as much as we think. That is, there’s a level beyond feelings. Not that feelings don’t matter. They are our guide, much of the time. But they can also mislead, or come in perplexing mixtures. Or else fail to match what others seem to think they should be. Serious commitments have ups and downs; there are times when you feel like doing them and times when you don’t.

There is something beyond feelings, something that keeps us going—or, in some cases, gets us to stop—regardless of whatever emotions happen to be coursing through us. Such emotions deserve attention, but they come and go. I get confused by those personality tests that ask, among other things, whether you make decisions based on reasoning or feelings. I would say both and neither. Some of my most important decisions have come from a kind of intuition (combined with reasoning and feelings). Sometimes I know in my bones that there is something I need to do, or not do.

People often say, “It’s amazing how much you are doing.” But it isn’t. Lots of people do lots of different things, many of them much more actively and prolifically than I. I don’t have to be amazing. I need room to concentrate on what it is I am doing, without worrying about how much or little it is. I also need a break now and then, or maybe more than now and then.

The painting at the top is by Róbert Berény, of his wife Eta Breuer playing the cello. But the curious thing (as Nicole Waldner explains in depth) is that after marrying Róbert, Eta never played cello again. Or rather, in 1939 he convinced her to play, and she agreed—but then played for only fifteen minutes, then threw her cello to the ground and swore she would never play again. Then the war hit, and they went into hiding.

Waldner has many thoughts about what that painting might mean, and why Eta never played again except for that brief burst. I don’t know why Eta didn’t play again, but I know why someone might not. When people ask me “Are you still playing the cello?” or comment, “You used to play so beautifully,” I don’t know how to explain how tangled those questions are. Playing is not just a pastime, and it isn’t just there to please others. You have to spend hours with it—hours that, with a cello, involve awkward posture no matter what you do. Most of the time is spent not sounding beautiful, because you have to work out the awkward spots. Moreover, there are so many sounds a cello can make, rough, sweet, percussive, lilting, dissonant, harmonious. Yes, I do play, but on my own terms, and not for hours a day. I dislike dilettantism and have been tempted to stop playing altogether. But the other day I returned to Art of Flying’s song “Though the Light Seem Small,” for which I played cello, and was deeply moved by it. What an honor to have contributed to this. It’s possible for an instrument to be something other than a hobby (at one end) or a profession (on the other). It’s a question not only of time, but of where you go even within a few minutes, a few seconds. I will end here with the song lyrics and a link to the song itself.

When the bright unspoken light of Winter takes the world
Gathering each solitary day,
All the pages written you won’t need them anymore
Winter comes & Winds us all away
& Winds us all away!

& Though the Light seem small!
Drop by drop drowns us all!

All around a Sacred sound rains sweetness on the World
In the pines & in our minds we lay.
All inventions written you won’t need them anymore,
Winter comes & Winds us all away!
& Winds us all away!

& Though the Light seem small!
Drop by drop drowns us all!

Take the night out of your Eyes & give it to the World,
Take the hinges off the Swollen day!
All the Sacred written you don’t need it anymore.
Winter comes & Winds us all away!
& Winds us all away!
& Winds us all away!

An Exceptional Honor

A few weeks ago, I saw an announcement of a contest in honor of the Hungarian poet Sándor Weöres (1913-1989), hosted by the Maradok duo. Contestants could submit either a poem or an essay, either of which was to reflect on one of his poems. Since I had been thinking every day, throughout the day, of “Szembe-fordított tükrök” (and had covered it on cello), I decided to write an essay about it (in Hungarian). My colleague Marianna Fekete kindly corrected the text for me before I sent the essay in. I asked her to make only necessary corrections. I didn’t want the content, style, or expressions to be changed; I knew the essay would not read as though written by a Hungarian, and that was fine. Most of the corrections had to do with word order. In a few cases, she corrected a word or phrase.

I didn’t win. But my essay will be included in the Weöres anthology! This will be my first publication in Hungarian, alongside many essays and poems that I look forward to reading. If you read Hungarian, order a copy! It’s only 2,500 forints plus postage.

The poem has been resounding in my mind throughout the day, every day. It has associations with Platon Karataev’s song “Létra,” the film Magasságok és melységek, and a book I recently read; it has come up in conversation; and I have carried it alone.

Ten Published Translations of Csenger Kertai’s Poems

About twenty-one months ago, in May 2021, C.K. Sebő released his musical rendition of Csenger Kertai’s poem “Balaton” (in which Kertai reads the poem aloud to Cz.K. Sebő’s accompaniment). I loved it and ordered the poetry collection, which I promptly and slowly read from cover to cover. I had just started reading it when I went to hear Cz.K. Sebő in concert for the first time. A month later, I met Kertai at his poetry reading at the Három Szerb Kávéház. Soon afterward, we started up a correspondence, and the translation project began.

Kertai’s poems are not easy to translate. The language is simple, at times intentionally naive and innocent, but also brooding. Then again, “innocent” is not the right word; the speaker knows all too well of human imperfection and the futility of attempts to be God-like. The poems speak to each other and build something together. Their worldview is both Christian and existentialist, with a focus on everyday matters (that can suddenly become luminous or murky) or on metaphysical events. The “you” in the poems is not fixed; its referent can shift even within a single poem. The translator has to be bold. Hogy nekem jó legyen has received serious and detailed critical praise—not just praise, but reflections and responses. But in English, some of its subtlety can disappear unless the translator recreates it.

Nearly a year later, in March 2022, Kertai was one of the three featured guests in the online Pilinszky event that I hosted with the ALSCW. In October 2022, he presented in my seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music” at the ALSCW Conference at Yale.

By then, I had translated his poetry collection Hogy nekem jó legyen (For My Good); eight of these translations had been published. “Redemption” and “I” appeared (along with a sound recording of Csenger reading the original poems) in the January 2022 issue of Asymptote; “Lake Balaton” and “On Forsakenness” in the March 2022 issue of Literary Imagination; “Constant Slashing” and “Mercy” in the Winter 2022 issue of Literary Matters; and “With Greatest Ease” and “Moon” in the Spring 2022 issue of Modern Poetry in Translation. Then, just yesterday, two more appeared, this time in the online version of The Continental Literary Magazine:Maypole” and the collection’s title poem, “For My Good.”

The full collection will be published in English translation—I am confident of that—but the publisher has yet to be found, and in the meantime I want to tighten some of the unpublished translations. I want this to read and resound so well in English that people will truly read it—because it is so easy (for me and others) not to read something, especially poetry. We have demands on our time and energy, stacks of books (or other items) waiting to be read, and bewilderment over the thousands of books being published around the world every day. Where do you begin? How do you choose? Why should this book take your time and attention?

I am one of the worst in this regard. I don’t come anywhere close to reading all that I want to read. Reading a book, and reading it through, carefully, is a special occasion for me. I can’t read casually and quickly.

So I want the translations to be like the “Balaton” poem and musical rendition—leaving the reader with the knowledge, not just the feeling, that they will read more.

I added a sentence to this piece after posting it.

On Age and Aging, and Thoughts on a Concert

In April I will turn 59. That’s not yet sixty; it’s still barely within the range of middle age. But sixty and older will come, not just to me, but to anyone who lives that long. In this there is no shame. Yes, you start sensing that much of the world regards you as obsolete or overlooks you entirely. On the other hand, you are much stronger and more confident than a few decades earlier. You realize that you can do whatever you want, within internal and external limits; you become more concerned with living fully (kindly, boldly, responsibly, keenly) than with winning approval. Or at least you see the possibility.

It has taken me years to move beyond approval, but I have done it, though I still have blips here and there. Winning approval was my means of defense, during family conflict and at school. I was good at it; people praised me for my intellectual abilities and accomplishments, my interest in languages, my cello playing. But when I hit early adulthood (and even much earlier), I needed to escape the snare of approval but didn’t know how. The things people approved of in me were genuine but incomplete; I hadn’t been faking anything, but I had constrained myself. For instance, I loved certain classical music but also kinds of music that parents and teachers looked down on. I had serious intellectual interests but was not only intellectual. I loved quiet but had a wild streak too. To get my point across, I started doing things that people disapproved of (which missed the point, I later understood). Over time, I learned to care far less about approval: to listen to and play about the music I wanted, write about what I wanted, read freely, speak my mind, stay quiet when I don’t want to say anything at all, and relate to others as equals. How great it would have been to do this earlier! But that’s partly what years are for.

Last night I went to hear Cz.K. Sebő / capsule boy (his electronic project); he was opening for Analog Balaton, a soulful, beatful pop electronic duo. Analog Balaton had a double show, on two consecutive days; both were sold out (and capsule boy was playing only on the second). On Thursday, the capsule boy single and video “Funeral Circular” came out. The song (which Sebő wrote in Spanish) conveys bright light and darkness and reminds me of moments of Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa; the video, directed by Ákos Székely, with graphics and dancing by Fruzsina Balogh, takes you deep into the song and into something else too. Something exciting and important has taken off here; I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Sebő’s songs and performance captivated the (huge) crowd; as the set progressed, more and more people joined in the listening, dancing, swaying, cheering. He seemed to catch on to the response, to relax into it and enjoy it. He seemed fully in his element with the music, bringing the samples in and out, singing and backing away, moving to the beat, conveying the mood.

I had a great time there (with some lovely conversation afterward too); I stayed for a little bit of Analog Balaton but then left to catch a not-too-late train back to Szolnok. I read Cortázar on the way home and arrived a little after midnight.

So yes, it gives me joy to be able to go hear a concert like this, to see and hear a favorite musician taking his directions and being so enthusiastically received. This was only a fraction of my week; on Friday I went to a literary event hosted by Eső, and the week has otherwise been filled with teaching, writing, translating, music, reading (in Hungarian, English, Russian, Spanish, and Biblical Hebrew), planning for the Shakespeare Festival, practicing Books 7 and 8 of Esther, which I will be chanting on Purim, and taking care of various odds and ends. But as far as fractions go, it’s a resplendent one.

Back to the question of age: It is true that at a particular age or stage of life, certain activities are more appropriate than others. There’s something undignified, rude, possibly even destructive, about pretending to be am age you are not. But if you are not pretending, and if the activity is good, then there’s every reason to do it if you want. To listen to music, play music, dance, sing. To be there at great moments. To follow your own instinct and ear. To care and at the same time toss away worries. To leave false assumptions, false oppositions behind. To grieve and rejoice as life will have it, trusting your own rhythms and forms, which others may or may not understand. To be able, at the end of it all, to recall Yeats’s “To my Heart, bidding it have no Fear“:

Be you still, be you still, trembling heart;
Remember the wisdom out of the old days:

Him who trembles before the flame and the flood,
And the winds that blow through the starry ways,
Let the starry winds and the flame and the flood
Cover over and hide, for he has no part
With the lonely, majestical multitude.

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

  • Always Different



    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.

  • Recent Posts


  • Categories