Stretches of Time, and Illusions of Unimportance

The winter break is coming to an end, and as usual, the thing I’ll miss most about it is the stretch of time, the room for doing things (or not) without rush or interruption. But some of this can be brought into the everyday. The time is sometimes there. Not always, but when so, it can be taken.

It was a great treat last night to go to Budapest for a “törzshely” concert evening featuring Tomi Gimpel and Grand Bleu, with Gábor Molnár officiating. This was one of a series of informal concerts set up to benefit beloved small pubs and clubs in Budapest. Gábor Molnár and Cz.K. Sebő have also played at events I have attended in this series. The atmosphere is friendly, and with these lineups, you can’t go wrong. Grand Bleu was fantastic. I enjoyed Tomi Gimpel too; he told funny stories around his songs. (I especially enjoyed the story about how he won a prize for setting an Attila József poem to song, when he had never done this—they had mistaken the lyrics of his József-themed song for a József poem.)

I got to the area early so as not to be late and so as to have a burrito beforehand. I had enough time for a short walk, so I walked up the hill (in Buda). This, to the left, was a picture I took during the walk.

The event was great, and afterwards I took the 11:43 train back and read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (well worth the lug). I have just started, but I am enjoying it and finding it oddly comforting. “Comforting” is an odd word to use for the book, and probably not one he would have liked, but I think others know what I mean. It’s discomfiting and disturbing too; there’s nothing placid about it. But in that book the non-placidness has a home, and that might be what’s comforting about it. (So far.)

But for the most part I spent vacation at home: translating, writing, reading, listening to music, recording And that leads to the second theme of this post: illusions of unimportance.

Our internet and celebrity cultures have shamed us into thinking that if we’re not famous, we’re deficient. Look at those “important” people doing “important” things! Look at all the “important” people who gave eulogies at David Foster Wallace’s funeral! Look how many followers other people have! Look how few reviews your book has gotten! Look how few people care what you do, unless you post a picture of a cat!

This is a diseased attitude, and it spreads outward and inward. It throws off our balance and perception, affecting people who know better (famous and unfamous alike). Now, hold on, I am not looking for comforting clichés like “It’s who you are as a person that matters,” “Famous people are unhappy,” or “But your work is appreciated!” Hold on, give me room to sort this out.

Fame, recognition, popularity (all slightly different from each other, but related) can come in response to actual quality. Not only that, but they can lead to money, opportunities, invitations, introductions to others.

But often these have nothing to do with the most important things going on in our lives. Just this past week, a new friend underwent cancer surgery. Another friend lost a family member suddenly. Who cares about fame in these situations, or even the daily ups and downs that we all have?

But there’s more. Success and fame, even when well deserved, can confuse, bewilder, distort.

In his 1947 essay “The Catastrophe of Success,” Tennessee Williams wrote, “You know, then, theat the public Somebody you are when you ‘have a name’ is a fiction created with mirrors and that the only somebody worth being is the solitary and unseen you that existed from your first breath and which is the sum of your actions and so is constantly in a state of becoming under your own volition—and knowing these things, you can even survive the catastrophe of Success!”

He was right; if you are “successful” in the eyes of the world, you must not take it too much to heart, because it has little or nothing to do with your work or life, suffering or joy. Fame comes in response to something static, something already made, whereas you are continually coming into being.

Suppose you have several projects. One of them has a big following, another a much smaller one. Is the project with the smaller following inferior? Not necessarily; it might be a place where you take certain risks with your work. The size of the crowd is not the measure, even if at times it tells you something. But we have been insistently conditioned to think that “likes” and “hearts” and follower numbers are something to take seriously, especially on the grander scale.

And how many people have had their work more or less ignored during their lifetime? Popularity feeds itself. People often latch onto things (partly) because they are already popular. People often feel insecure about using their own judgement, listening to something, reading something because it appeals to them, not because others are doing so. So many people and their work get ignored, simply because they aren’t popular.

Beyond that, everyone has a life that goes far beyond their work, or at least far beyond what others perceive as their work. How many of us know what is going on even with our close friends? Some things we will know, others not. A person has many levels and layers. Are the unknown, private levels less important? Sometimes they are the most important, sometimes we don’t know, have no way of knowing, how important they are.

What makes something important, anyway? What does it mean for something to be important? Does it mean there’s a clamor around it? Or does it mean, rather, that a certain necessity moves it, sometimes in the background, sometimes without anyone noticing?

Returning to Wallace, here is a quote from The Pale King, spoken, I think, by a substitute instructor: “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.” A little later: “Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

This is a character speaking, not Wallace himself. Quotes like these often get ripped out of context and misused as life wisdoms; moreover, any maxim like this has its limitations and countermaxims. One could just as well say that the important things in life are the things that reach others.

But maybe Wallace’s character is talking about the willingness to do things without knowing exactly how important they are, without needing the stamp of acclaim, even from ourselves.

If importance continually takes shape, if we ourselves cannot define it fully, if our sense of something’s importance is only approximate, then maybe importance (internal or external) isn’t the main guide. It isn’t enough to say, “What matters is that it be important to me.” I might not know fully what is important to me.

It might make more sense to set aside the importance or its lack (not completely, just enough so as not to get swept up in it), and do some combination of what I have to do, what I want, what others have asked of me, what I don’t even know I am doing, and what I one day will no longer do—and all of this without a preponderance of the “I.” No one finds the perfect combination of these five; there is none. We (simply or not so simply) do our best, without fully knowing what that means.

Credits: First photo by me, taken last night. Second photo by Mark Thompson.

So before you

A Quietly Extraordinary Year (2022)

I don’t think I’ll do any of those countdowns or “Top 10” lists. In a future post I’ll talk about some favorite concerts, recordings, readings from this year. But in terms of projects alone, this has been one of the most exciting years of my life, even though it all seems so quiet now.

There was the online Pilinszky event in March. Months of planning and preparation went into it, and then it was just so beautiful. The audience (from the U.S., Hungary, and elsewhere) took interest, and the conversation and performances came together in a magical way.

A few weeks later, my translation of Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Mindig más was published by Deep Vellum. I am very proud of these translations and love the original poems. The collection went largely ignored, unfortunately, aside from some wonderful Amazon reviews—but the one official review it received was a review to dream of. Also, one of the poems, “Scissors,” won honorable mention in the 2022 Jules Chametzky Prize. (This particular translation was first published in The Massachusetts Review.)

A couple of weeks later, we had the Shakespeare festival, the first of its kind, a joint event hosted by the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library on Kossuth Square in Szolnok) and the Varga Katalin Gimnázium. The day was filled with performances (of Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs), as well as workshops, games, and lectures. Many thanks to everyone who took part in this and helped to bring it about. We will hold the second Shakespeare Festival in April 2023.

After that, I was concentrating almost exclusively (outside of teaching) on the upcoming trip to the U.S. in October, for the ALSCW Conference at Yale. The three featured guests from the Pilinszky event—Csenger Kertai, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, and Gergely Balla—were all to take part, along with three other Hungarians and twelve panelists from the U.S., in my seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music.” The planning was intense, continuous, and detailed, with several bumps along the way that added to the suspense but that all got worked out. I am still amazed at how it all came together and how joyous and interesting it was. One of my favorite parts was the visit to Dwight Chapel, where Gergő and Sebő played a few songs on guitars they had borrowed from friends of mine in New Haven.

There was also Folyosó (the spring and fall 2022 issues), a mini-concert I organized at Varga, and lots of translating. Eight of my translations of Csenger Kertai’s poems were published (two apiece) in Literary Imagination, Literary Matters, Asymptote, and Modern Poetry in Translation; two more will be published soon in the online version of the Continental Literary Magazine.

All this on top of “regular” teaching and daily life (and another big translation project that is complete but in limbo). And here I was thinking I had been lazy this year!

And yet it all returns to quiet. It all becomes part of something else. In the larger world, with a war and other serious crises on the one hand, and, on the other, heaps of commotion over things that don’t matter much, there are probably few who care that any of this happened. There are those who do. There are those who were part of it, who experienced it along with me, who attended it. Who know that this wasn’t just some quaint pastime.

But mattering and attracting crowds are not the same thing. Deserved recognition comes to some, but most of the time, you have to be willing to accept the quiet, because the alternative is ugly: scrambling and fighting for attention, making it all about you. Or, if you’re rich, paying people to pull strings for you.

The quiet has its hidden scrolls and sounds. Those who come upon them will know what they have found. Those who pass on by them will not know what they have missed. That is how the world’s clamor deceives, again and again: it proclaims its own importance and offers its loudness as proof. Quiet, on the whole, can be trusted more. But loudness and quiet can contain each other, and there the matter gets complicated, as most things do.

On Nonconformity

Nonconformity for its own sake means nothing. The only nonconformity worthy of respect is nonconformity over something specific: a refusal, out of principle or character, to follow certain rules. Is this true? Not entirely. I will return to the first sentence a little bit later.

American (U.S.) culture has an old strain of nonconformity that I love: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson, Twain, Frost, O’Connor, Baldwin, Dylan, and on and on. But it also has traditions of extreme conformity: not only in small towns, but in urban enclaves. Being “cool” really means that you belong to some refined and rarified group, real or imagined. You stand out, but in a way that is fully accepted by the others in your group.

Hungary seems more conformist, on the whole, than, say, New York City, Boston, San Francisco. But compare Hungary (excluding Budapest) with a rural section of the inner U.S., and you might find similar levels. By “conformity” in this case I mean a strong belief in—and desire to follow—a set of codes regarding marriage, childrearing, gender roles, home life, and national traditions, in addition to clothes, activities, and so forth. Overall, with exceptions, people take pride in doing things the proper way.

So do they in many sectors of the U.S. Every religion, to some degree, opines on the right way to do things. So do social classes, ethnic groups, local traditions. Small towns and sophisticated political in-groups can both be stifling in their ways. Even groups of nonconformists can be stifling.

But when is nonconformity needed and respectable? The most obvious case is where the social rules are patently unjust (as in the case of segregation), hypocritical (as in the case of “religious” people who engage regularly in nasty gossip), or terribly dated.

Beyond that, few rules work well for everyone. An example: In the classroom, I might give my students a writing task, and a student might tell me, “I’m writing it in my head.” I often accept this, because I would have been the one saying it as a teenager. I was able to compose pieces very well in my head and resented being told to write them down when I didn’t need to. Most of the time, when a student says, “I’m writing it in my head,” this is true. (Later I ask to hear it out loud.)

Now, some will say “I’m writing it in my head” to get out of doing it at all. Then the question arises: does the student find the task dull or inane? Does the problem lie partly with what the student is being asked to do?

A few years ago I had a student with particularly strong opinions who also seemed angry a lot of the time. He resented the textbook tasks because he found them superficial. I spoke with him individually and welcomed him to write about something else if the particular task didn’t interest him. He started turning in exceptionally interesting and thoughtful essays.

Granted, we often have to complete tasks that we don’t particularly like, or that aren’t quite what we would do or say if given a choice. It’s important to learn how to do this, but not all the time. The act of not following the instructions just might be the secret combination in the lock on the door that opens up to the constellations.

What about a larger, longer nonconformity, such as being unmarried, single, childless? Hungarians have a disparaging loanword for single women—”szinglik”—that conveys some sort of narcissistic languishing. These “szinglik” have presumably chosen not to marry or have kids because they thought they could have more freedom on their own. But instead of freedom they have misery (according to assumptions).

But singleness—its reasons, origins, nature—has many more dimensions than that. There are all sorts of reasons why a woman might end up alone; the condition is neither pitiable nor permanent. Nor is a single woman necessarily cold and unloving (or unattractive, for that matter). It’s possible, living alone, to do good, take part in your surroundings, enjoy life, make something new, sustain friendships, and deepen your own understanding. It’s also possible, even later in life, to find a partner who is right for you.

What about people who don’t like small talk? They may seem “socially awkward” to some, but is that such a horrible thing? Maybe they have more to say than others, if you strike up a conversation on an actual subject.

What about artistic nonconformity, where you break with a given form or convention, subtly or strongly? Every good artist breaks in some way with what has come before, while also honoring it in some way. The breaking and the honoring are different for each. I am moved by the full-length album by Dávid Korándi (Cappuccino Projekt) that just came out. It’s spoken and sung, dreamy and driven, but it does more than encompass those oppositions: it goes on a voyage, with friends, through a destroyed world. Its directions surprise me. I will write more about it soon.

Still, so far, it seems that there’s nothing to be said for being different just to be different. But maybe there is. At the ALSCW conferenee, a participant who has listened to a lot of my music advised me, “Try changing keys once in a while.” (I do change keys at times. But I think she meant more than that: experimenting with different keys and key changes.) Sometimes, if you break your own patterns just to see what happens, something surprising will emerge.

It’s fun to start a story in a new way, or give a slightly different inflection to a monologue, sometimes whimsically, to see what will happen. It’s fun, on a bike trip, to take a detour just to see where it goes.

To learn a language well, you have to break rules of language-learning.Yesterday I went over to my friends’ place for (lunch) dinner and a long, wonderful conversation (all in Hungarian, of course), which went longer than seven hours. At moments during that conversation, I thought about what I needed to do to bring my Hungarian closer to fluency. I can express myself on complex topics, but I don’t necessarily use the verbs correctly. The forms: yes, most of the time. The prefixes: not always. The subtle differences between synonyms: not always. But more than that, sometimes my tongue gets stuck even when I know what to say and how.

A language has infinite angles: just about anything you do in the language helps you speak it better. If I listened to Hungarian songs all day, every day, my Hungarian would grow better. If I read all the eighteenth-century Hungarian literature I could, my Hungarian would grow better. But for these weaknesses in particular, I think I need a combination of radio shows and drama, to get the needed verbs and phrases in my ear, to practice speaking them. Something of an Eliza Doolitle approach, without Henry Higgins and without the goal of being taken for royalty.

In addition, I need to get hold of the Hungarian language textbooks that are used by Hungarians in Hungarian language and grammar class. Those books are gems.

That’s not particularly nonconformist, but it isn’t standard procedure either. That’s often how it is with nonconformity. It doesn’t have to blast itself from the rooftops or highrises or whatever your standard type of edifice might be.

(What does the photo at the top have to do with nonconformity? I stopped to take it last night as I headed over the Zagyva river. There might be a kind of nonconformity in stopping to notice anything at all. Not because people don’t do it—they do, again and again—but because what you see, hear, or read will always be singular.)

The Stillness of the Holidays

Many assume that solitary holidays are a sad matter. But what if these stretches of time come as a gift? I am very happy to be seeing friends (today, for instance) and to be in touch with family. But to wake up with a quiet day ahead of me, no fragmentation, no rush: this allows me to read, write, listen to and play music, think, clean up my place, take walks.

So far, I have used the time well, but more about that later. It is not even necessary to be doing something all the time; there’s something to be said for doing little or nothing. That’s partly what vacations are for. Long sleep, rich dreams.

But aren’t the holidays (no matter which ones you celebrate) supposed to be a time of togetherness? Yes, that too. It’s possible to combine togetherness and aloneness, and for each person, the combination (actual and desired) will be different.

Aloneness isn’t just about being able to do what you want when you want. That kind of freedom needs some reining in. It’s good not to be able to follow every urge or yearning. Aloneness also allows for the very kind of introspection that makes friendships and other relationships better. This introspection, along with the time itself, a spark of an idea, and a willingness to make something of it, can lead to poems, music, and other things. It allows a person to connect past and present, music and architecture, poetry and liturgy (and infinitely more).

So far during the break, I wrote a poem that I like (but am not publishing here, since I want to save it to submit elsewhere) and a musical rendition of Sándor Weöres’s “Szembe fordított tükrök” (“Facing Mirrors”), which I brought up in an earlier post on ladders. Here is my second version of the recording.

I also wrote a detailed response (in Hungarian) to a book I read in Hungarian (maybe more about that another time). I made final edits to translations of poems by Tomas Venclova, to be published in a new book. I started preparing to translate Ahmed Amran’s story collection A lélek gőze (approximately: Vapor of the Soul). There is much more to do over the next few weeks: start those very translations, translate one or two of Csenger Kertai’s newer poems, plan for the Shakespeare festival, play more music, write more. I want to re-record my musical renditions of five Pilinszky poems and put them all together. And take a few bike rides, go to Budapest a couple of times, maybe take a short trip elsewhere.

It’s a bit of a relief when the formal holidays are over. Last night I lit the last Hanukkah candles. While I am fond of both Christmas and Hanukkah (I celebrate the latter), I don’t particularly like the tensions between the holidays, the tensions within the holidays, and the way everything comes to a stop because it’s assumed you’re celebrating Christmas with your family. Even the holiday booths on Kossuth Square (serving warm food and mulled wine) are closed (or were when I passed by).

If you want food during these days, you’re also out of luck. Today is still considered Christmas in Hungary (it’s a three-day holiday), but tomorrow the stores will be open again. Most of the stores are closed for the full three days; a few were open until noon on Saturday, but this year I managed to plan ahead, and bought enough food on Friday to get me through today. That said, it’s a pain not to be able to run out to a store for some fruit. There’s a 24-hour store that stays open, but it doesn’t have much by way of produce. Now, starting tomorrow, we’ll have a few days of normal store operation.

That’s just a minor inconvenience, though, and there’s something to be said for things coming to a stop. (It means a break for the workers, too.) The roads are quieter, everything’s quieter. We have no snow right now, but at least we haven’t been having terrible storms like in the U.S., where about of a quarter of a million people across the country lost electric power in extreme cold. I had no plans to travel there over the winter break (much too expensive and hectic), but if I had made plans, they might well have been disrupted—not just the flights, but the train, bus, or car transportation from one town or city to another.

Anyway, back to the Hungarian holiday: yes, here there is an emphatic assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas. Individuals acknowledge other possibilities, but the national holidays, the street decorations proclaim Christmas, Christmas, Christmas.

It was like that in the U.S. in my childhood and teenage years too. I remember how, at Winsor (which I attended from grades 8-12, with the exception of tenth grade), we sang Christmas songs in Lower School Glee Club (I remember “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas”) and serious liturgical songs in Upper School Glee Club and Small Chorus. Many of the students were Jewish, some were nonreligious, but it didn’t matter; Christmas was in some way for everyone. I can still hear “Balulalow” (from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, which we performed in full). I also remember, as a member of the Small Chorus, singing in the Boston Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker.

The beautiful part of that was that we could celebrate something specific together, something with centuries of layers of meaning. Over time, especially in progressive towns and large cities, it became more widely known, and more accepted, that not everyone celebrates Christmas, and of those who do, not all do it in the same way. For some, it is a religious holiday; for others still, a time of goodwill and cheer; and for others, a time of frantic spending; tension and fighting; or, as the case might be, stretching out in front of the TV.

That awareness made room for variation, which was good. But in many places you were no longer supposed to say “Merry Christmas”; “Happy Holidays” took its place. The problem is that the Hanukkah and Christmas holidays don’t always coincide (they can be a few weeks apart); moreover, “Happy Holidays” sounds suspiciously generic, as if you were avoiding saying something. I also imagine that a school glee club today would be careful to include Hanukkah and Kwanzaa songs (and maybe others too) along with the Christmas ones—which makes for some nice variety but can also seem a tad cautious.

Both uniformity and diversity can feel forced; so which one is better?

Much depends on the attitude you bring to it. Overall, I am happier when it isn’t assumed that everyone celebrates the same thing in the same way. But there are different ways of being “diverse” too; it’s important to shed the dogmatism of diversity. Hanukkah and Christmas are not equal and cannot be. Hanukkah is a minor holiday within Judaism; Christmas, one of the two most important holidays in Christianity and beyond. In terms of music and international resonance, Christmas has no peer at this time of year, as far as I know. Yes, the music too can get tacky; I hate supermarket Christmas music. But I hate supermarket music in general, except for the unusual song that catches my ear once in a great while.

Hanukkah, though, has a lovely humility to it. Yes, there can be Hanukkah gifts, food, songs, but for many, it’s about the lights, the growing light, the susenance of light, the candles and flames themselves. (That, and making sure your candles stay upright and don’t drip wax onto the table.) And its songs are beautiful too.

The question is not just which holiday you celebrate, if any. As Gyula Jenei explores in his essay “Profán karácsony” (“Profane Christmas”), a person’s relation to the holiday changes over the years. There isn’t just one holiday; there are many within a person, and much too that is unknown. This essay takes surprising turns through jadedness and alertness; it ends with a meditation on poppyseed and walnut bégli.

So, like a song being played over and over again, but heard in different ways, the holidays come around and around, and maybe that’s why they matter at all: because they allow us to rotate through life, with certain pauses or stillnesses, instead of just darting to the end.

A Dream School (Varga)

I have been teaching at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium for more than five years now. By now I realize that things aren’t perfect (I realized this long ago), but in an imperfect world, this school glows.

Let’s take yesterday as an example. We had our annual pályaorientációs nap (Career Day), where people from different professions spoke to students about their work. Teachers not giving a presentation were supposed to be present at a session, help the speaker with any technical matters, and take attendance; we could choose which sessions to monitor. I chose those of my colleague Gyula Jenei, who spoke (to three consecutive groups) about the literary journal Eső, now more than twenty years old, of which he is the founder and editor-in-chief. So in other words I got to spend the entire morning in a discussion of literary journals, poetry, editorship, and more. The students seemed quite interested and asked many questions.

Since it was the last day before the break, the teachers then went to a meeting with the principal, László Molnár, who presented gifts to teachers who had achieved a specific milestone (such as a degree or a master’s qualification). He began by speaking about the difficulties with which we live today: not only the poor teaching conditions, but the lack of recourse for teachers—and the war in Ukraine, and how all of this can give us a sense of limited freedom. He went on to speak about freedom, quoting someone (Miklós Jancsó?) who said that every artistic work was about freedom or the lack of it. While this was perhaps an oversimplification, he said, there was still something to it—and so the gifts he had chosen for the teachers were all works of literature, by authors from around Europe and Russia, that had to do with freedom or its lack. He then proceeded to present each one, explaining why he had chosen that particular one for the particular teacher. The presentation was punctuated by three videos: Omega performing their “Ballada a fegyverkovács fiáról” (“Ballad of the Gunsmith Boy”), János Kulka performing Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluja” (in a stunning Hungarian translation) at the Dohány Street Synagogue, and a Christmas song performed by an a cappella group.

I don’t know how many schools in the world have a principal who can speak with such dignity and sincerity—who can bring together philosophy, literature, education, and the world we live in, who neither minces words nor descends into dogma, and who conveys true respect for teachers, students, and the subjects being taught. I think we are very fortunate.

From there, after a toast (the students had long gone home), we proceeded to the cafeteria for a delicious feast.

On my way home, I ran into a former student who graduated in 2020. I don’t want to repeat all of what she said, because it was so moving and sincere. But she thanked me for what I had brought to the English and Civilization classes—both the spirit and the literature. She brought up Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” which I had introduced to her class and which has been on my mind recently too). I was left with a sense of wonder: that this had all happened in the first place, that it had stayed with her, and that five years had gone by since my first few months at the school (and with her class, which was in the tenth grade then).

There has been disillusionment of a sort. The national situation is distressing: the teachers’ low pay and lack of curricular freedom (does curricular freedom exist in public school systems overall?), the various short strikes that have taken place to no avail, the government’s firing of certain teachers who took part in civil disobedience. For a combination of reasons, I did not join the strikes: I am vulnerable as a non-citizen (if I inadvertently did something illegal, I could get kicked out of the country); it would feel false to strike over a job I love, even though I agree with the strikers on certain points; and I am uncomfortable with slogans and political movements overall, since they don’t fully represent my views. Yet I respect the strikers for acting on their convictions. I think about half of our faculty has taken part in the strikes in some way. I see integrity on both sides (which doesn’t make things easy; it would be easier to believe that one side or the other was totally misguided or fake).

That, and I often wish I were a literature teacher, not a language teacher, so that the literature I brought in would be the essence of the course, not something extra that I add on, time and resources permitting. But maybe there’s something to be said for this quiet insertion. It’s a shame that literature is not a core part of the language courses, but if it were, it would probably be botched by the textbooks. The language textbooks (most of them published by Oxford University Press) are not all bad; they have useful grammar and vocabulary and the occasional interesting text. But the topics are often so condescendingly presented (“Let’s hear what five teenagers have to say about friendship!”) that it’s better that they don’t lay their hands on literature at all.

It is also a strange time for writing. I love working on Folyosó but have yet to reach the point where many students are submitting work on their own initiative. A few do this—and I am grateful—but for the most part I select work from assignments that I give. There lies the problem: I can never be sure that the students wrote the piece themselves. That is, I can tell when it is their own work (a certain character and vivacity comes through, along with non-native use of English), but when I think something isn’t theirs, I have no way of proving it, since the cheating has become so sophisticated, with AI programs and such. Students would have no reason to submit a piece they didn’t write, since submissions to Folyosó are entirely voluntary, but many will cheat on homework. A few students have actually come forward on their own and admitted that they didn’t write a particular piece, but usually I am left to struggle with doubt (especially when a piece is suspiciously polished, without much of a personal element).

But a great thing about being a teacher is that you can open up a different way of looking at the world. The students are paying attention, even when it doesn’t seem so. Or rather, all of us pay attention even when we don’t realize it. I remember explaining to students (a few years ago) why writing was important and not just a dull duty. I mustn’t forget the importance of such explanations. Also, we are all contradictory human beings. I have a student who claims to be interested in nothing but technology and sports, but who makes exceptionally insightful comments about the stories we read. A subject can become interesting at any instant.

I often think back on my years at Columbia Secondary School and the times when the principal, Miriam Nightengale (a wonderful leader and person) would remind me to keep a sense of humor about it all. “Trick them into taking interest,” she would say with a twinkle. In the beginning there, I took the class disruptions too much to heart. There were students with very low patience thresholds, who would shout or chatter continuously. Over time, the students started to trust that the philosophy classes were important and interesting—and showed this in class, philosophy roundtables, Contrariwise, and hallway conversations—but I see now how I might have won them over earlier. I had little sympathy for the disruptors; it’s hard for me to understand why anyone would chatter or call out rudely during a lesson (or talk while someone else is speaking, period), since it’s so jarring. But even they would agree with me; they too wanted calm, focused classes. Once again, we are full of contradictions. The one who shouts may be longing for quiet. The one who interrupts with off-topic comments may take interest when you least expect it.

One of my favorite moments, with one of my most difficult classes at CSS, was when a student gave a speech that was full of rhetorical pathos but absolutely illogical (and he knew perfectly well what he was doing). It was patently an argument that we should be kinder to the homeless, but it made very little sense. The students listened first with curiosity, then with expressions of befuddlement. Then they burst out laughing. Then, in the discussion, they pointed out every fallacy. (This was the ninth-grade Rhetoric and Logic course, for which every student had to write and deliver a speech.)

Another favorite memory from the difficult times was the “Locke and Beads” incident.

But to return to yesterday: after the feast, I went home for a couple hours and then headed to the Tisza Mozi (Szolnok’s art cinema, which also hosts plays, concerts, and other events) for the Híd Szinház performance of Zsolt Bajnai’s play A hagyaték (The Bequest), which I had seen twice before at a different venue. This, too, had connections to Varga; Kata and Marcell Bajnai both graduated from Varga, and Kata was there at the play, visiting from Spain, where she now lives. The director, József Rigó, is the father of Eszter Rigó, who attended Varga as well. It’s a remarkable one-act play, which I understood slightly differently each time.

Earlier in the week, on Monday night, I went to the Tisza Mozi for an inspiring book presentation by my colleague István P. Nagy, who just published a poetry collection. Gyula Jenei interviewed him and the publisher, and István’s wife and colleague, Judit Méri, read aloud from the book. (And last week I went there for an Eső event.)

Let me not forget to mention the annual tradition of caroling, which the eleventh-grade bilingual students perform each year. They travel from classroom to classroom throughout the day, so that by the end of the day, every student in the school has seen the show (which involves a short skit as well as songs). This year’s show was absolutely joyous, with one student leading on guitar and everyone singing with full voice. Here is just one minute from one of the performances.

Several colleagues wished me a happy Hanukkah this week. (I am comfortable with “Merry Christmas” wishes too—I grew up with Christmas and am fond of it—but was touched by my colleagues’ thoughtfulness.)

So yes, Varga is a dream school for me, and for many students too. It’s not hard to see why.

What Does Free Education Look Like?

Many teachers in Hungary have been calling for free education: among other things, freedom to choose textbooks, more local control, and an independent education ministry that represents the profession.

Free education doesn’t exist in large school systems, at least not for long. But it can be found at any level, starting with the mind.

Many perceive the U.S. as a free country with free education. This is a misconception. School systems in the U.S. may be free of cost for students, but the teachers are not free to teach according to their judgement. Setting aside the extremity of the current situation—culture wars combined with the aftermath of Covid—which has many teachers fleeing the schools and abandoning their careers, teachers even in the best of cirucumstances lack pedagogical freedom (except for the glimmers that can be found anywhere).

Teachers in the U.S. may be left at liberty to choose what to teach (for instance, which literary works). There is no national curriculum; even states have generic standards, not curricula. A big part of teachers’ jobs is often curriculum writing, which takes place year after year. But the school districts are dogmatically specific—or can be—about how a lesson should be taught. An “aim” and a “do now” activity must be on the board before the students enter the room. The teacher gives a short mini-lesson on the “skill” or “strategy” of the day. Then the students go into their groups. There must be group work. If a high-level administrator walks into a NYC classroom at any moment and doesn’t see the students in groups, the principal might receive a talking-to about this state of things. At the end of class, the groups “share out,” and students complete an “exit ticket” that shows that they learned what they were supposed to learn. This model, while useful in some cases, precludes sustained, focused discussion and questioning (of a math proof, say, or a literary work). There’s little room for a student to think independently, since the group and its chatter press from all sides.

In addition, teachers are expected to keep the classroom decorated with recent student work, in the name of a “print-rich” environment. Supposedly, if students are “bombarded” with print, their literary will increase. And never mind the mandated bulletin boards in the hallways (which in certain districts have to follow a specific format). The student work gets torn down inadvertently by students pressing through the halls.

Add to that the extra duties (hallway, cafeteria, etc.; meetings at least several times a week; contact with parents—all teachers are expected to keep parental contact logs) and the general hecticness (2-5 minutes between classes, long days, noise) and the goal for many becomes to get through the day, then the week, then the year.

But even in the U.S., even under such pressures, a certain freedom can be found, when the principal and colleagues are sympathetic, the teacher knows and loves the subject, and the students want to learn it. There’s an old secret known as ignoring the nonsense and going to the heart of the subject. You can get away with it—not all the time, but enough to make the profession joyous for you and meaningful for the students. You can, for instance, teach a work of literature.

You can also find greater freedom if you accept lower pay. For instance, if you teach part-time, you are exempt from many of the bureaucratic demands and have more flexibility in the day. You may actually put in as much time as full-time teachers do (this was the case when I taught philosophy at Columbia Secondary School), but at least you have room to focus on the subject itself, the students and their work, and projects and activities under your care.

I sympathize with the demand for free education. But show me a country that has it. Finland? Finland was overidealized, propped up too high as the model of All Things Good. Recently its schools have been showing declines. Even if we take Finland’s system as an imperfect but promising model, it costs tax money and requires an intensity of teacher preparation that may not suit Hungary’s social structures well. In Hungary, maternal and childcare leave is so generous that a parent—typically the mother—can take two years off per child (while receiving 70 percent of their salary), plus maternal leave, and even a third year with support from a separate fund. A seriously liberalized school system, where teachers designed their own courses, would need not only more preparation (beforehand and every day), but also more continuity and funding.

Also, what does freedom mean? If I had my choice, the upper-level language courses would be literature courses (as they were when I was in high school). Students would no longer be using a textbook at all. There would be a grammar reference book, but the course materials would otherwise be the works of literature themselves, unadapted. The students could choose from an array of courses: “Shakespeare’s Tragedies”; “The Picaresque Novel”; “The American Dream”; “Stories of the Sea”;”Innocence and Experience”; “Mystical Literature”—you name it. Each of these courses would be filled with excellent literature—not so much that the students would be overwhelmed, but enough for focused reading and discussion and memorable encounters with language.

That would be my dream, and to me it seems natural. But few would sympathize with it. In Hungary, just as in the U.S., the principle of “usefulness” predominates. Both teachers and students assume that the curriculum should be pared down to what the students actually “need.” Some students consider literature essential to life, others consider it at least interesting, but the majority would probably balk at the idea of literature classes in foreign languages, unless the universities required them or gave special credit for them. Literature, in the eyes of many, is not “useful”—especially literature in a foreign language. Many in Hungary will grant that they should know their own literature, and certain works in translation as well. But why spend additional time reading? they would ask.

So, what I see as curricular freedom—or a form that I would like it to take—probably would not fly with the majority of my colleagues and students. Teaching literature also requires being immersed in that literature, which in turn would require a different kind of teacher preparation from what now exists. Those preparing to teach English must currently read a lot more literature than their counterparts in the U.S. do—but many treat this as a task they have to get through, instead of something essential.

Where is curricular freedom to be found, then? Surely some structural changes would assist it, but aside from that, people have to find it where they can. Supplement the lessons, find ways to follow the official curriculum while also giving it substance. In a good school, principals recognize the need for this and support teachers who add to or improve upon the official plan. I am not talking about teachers who (in the often insulting terminology of pundits) “indulge” in their own ideological slants and propaganda. It’s possible to depart from the script for the opposite reason: to encourage students to think deeply, in more than one way, about the subject.

For the student, freedom consists (partly) in the realization that it’s their own choice whether to find a subject interesting or not, useful or not, regardless of how it is being taught. Any subject can become interesting through a tilt of mind. That doesn’t mean that they—and others—should not demand changes to the curriculum. There are problems with the current state of things. Students have to cram too much material into their minds, mainly for the sake of regurgitating it at the exams. They should have more choices and electives. But it’s a mistake to think that such a change would not bring its own problems and constraints. Nor should education be confined to what students and others consider useful.

Granted, preparing for an eventual career is nothing to scoff at. In poor countries and countries with depressed economies (like Hungary), people do not have the luxury of learning subjects just because they’re interesting. That concept is largely absent from the universities (with some exceptions) and also unpopular in high school. Students are understandably worried about where their income will come from. But even then, education is also there to open up and tune the mind, to help us understand our own lives and life in other places and eras, to awaken the soul.

This shared understanding, if built and nurtured somehow, will bring great freedom to schools, but even then, things will not be perfect, not everyone will be happy, and there might even be enough discontent to tear down what has been built up.

Last week I taught several of my classes O’Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi.” They recognized something special about this story, in the graceful but idiosyncratic language, the unusual images and similes, the narrator’s ability to see the truth of seeming opposites, and much more. One student said, at the end, “Thank you for this wonderful lesson.” Then this week, with one of the classes, we read a “story” in the textbook (involving a cell phone and teenagers—it had clearly been written with teenagers in mind, so that they could relate to it). That story wasn’t even a story; there wasn’t anything compelling about it, nothing that makes us see life in a different way. It was just a dutiful narrative about someone who had dialed someone’s number without realizing it, so that he heard in full a conversation about a birthday party. The accompanying “task” was for students to write a story like that, involving a cell phone. My students completed this task dutifully (or not-so-dutifully, in a few cases).

I doubt the day will come where stories by Poe, Hemingway, O’Henry, Wolff, Carver, and others—as well as poems, plays, songs, novels—are taught in English language class, officially, as part of the school curriculum. There is neither the will nor the money for such a thing; priorities lie elsewhere. But teachers can still find ways to work such stories in, and when this happens, it is a form of freedom, for them and the students.

Another form can be found in the moments of calm during the day. I think sometimes my colleagues see me as a bit aloof, because I am not all that conversational during the breaks. But I love to take a few minutes here and there to think. This is much more difficult in U.S. schools, where teachers rush from one class to another (with 3-5 minutes between them). The lack of time to think is one reason why I would not go back to teaching in a typical U.S. public high school (even though my starting salary would be at least four times what I make here). The room and time for thinking is so important to me that it’s even worth a lower salary. Now, I see the fault in that logic. Why should I assume that a teacher can’t be paid more and have a tranquil day? Why have I not assumed, all along (in the U.S. and here) that I deserve a higher salary than I am receiving? Why have I not fought along with others for big salary increases, or at least sought out jobs with higher pay?

I have had jobs with higher pay (higher, that is, than my highest teacher salary in the U.S.)—not only when I was a junior programmer at Macromedia, but also when I briefly worked as an education consultant, writing a sample curriculum, and (unconnected with this) when teaching at the Dallas Institute in the summers. The Dallas Institute was wonderful, but the other jobs’ high salaries came at a cost. In the tech industry, you are often expected to be available around the clock, work long hours, and take part in the team’s social life. Some of this was enjoyable, but I had other things I wanted to do with my life. In the curriculum writing project (in which I was involved for a few months), there were pressures to make the curriculum look more like what teachers were already used to and what they thought students could handle. They (the teachers we consulted) considered my proposed curriculum too hard. But why write a curriculum only to replicate and touch up what already exists? I saw their points as well; how could they be expected to teach works that they didn’t know and that seemed extremely difficult to them, never mind the students? A curriculum has to come with study; the teachers need room to immerse themselves in it and find its meaning.

I do not mean to imply that I knew more than they did. Rather, I had a comfort with ancient and old works, with works that bring a bit of bafflement at first. I love the initial bafflement and the understanding that comes with time. At the same time, I see some of my own misconceptions; I had assumed that the literature curriculum should be arranged in chronological sequence, but other arrangements would have made more sense. I, too, needed time to think this through. In any case, you can’t just write a curriculum and expect schools to use it. To use a curriculum well, a school has to know it deeply and have some say in it. (By “curriculum” I do not mean a script; I mean a basic outline of the works and concepts that will be taught.)

That was when I learned that not all teachers want the same thing, and that my dream curriculum would be a burden (at best) for others. In education you have to seek out kindred people and structures. When you find them, that still is not the end of the story. You may need more: a higher salary, better conditions. You may still yearn, justifiably, for greater freedom. But for some, freedom is found in a class discussion, a book in the hand, a few quiet minutes in the day.

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

The Conundrum of Plagiarism

Let’s establish one thing: An absolute prohibition on plagiarism would mean the end of art, since nothing is completely original. All art draws on art, directly or indirectly, and artists find their own way learn through certain kinds of imitation and reworking. In addition, covers, renditions, adaptations are art in themselves; when you play someone else’s song, you both give it honor and turn it into something new. Nor can art credit all its sources; there are too many, and the footnotes and credits would be pedantic. In some cases, an allusion is supposed to be familiar to the reader, viewer, or listener; spelling out the source would ruin the recognition that the listener, reader, or viewer might experience.

So any approach to plagiarism has to account for the millions of instances where it is not plagiarism at all, or where there is room for doubt.

Why, then, does plagiarism cause such a cluck-cluck-clucking? Why do people get shocked and ruffled when they spot it?

The reason is that it can amount to shameless stealing. When a novelist lifts entire passages from someone else’s work, passing them off as her own; when a published poem turns out to have been copied from elsewhere; when dissertations turn out to have substantial lifted portions, the person doing the lifting is receiving some kind of credit or benefit without giving credit in return. In addition, the person has evaded at least part of the work involved in creation. For this reason, schools used to have strict rules against plagiarism.

I say “used to” because even though plagiarism is still prohibited across most school systems, few bother to take the time to enforce the rules. Students have become savvier: instead of simply copying from the internet, they might run a text through Google Translate, retrieve something from deep in a fanfiction site, or even use an AI writing tool. I have asked my students what they think about this—and while some of them say plagiarism is wrong, others just shrug their shoulders and say that if it helps them get their homework done, “oh well.”

Teachers, too, need to get their grading done, so a lot of the time they will look the other way and assume that the piece wasn’t plagiarized, even if their gut tells them that it didn’t come from the student.

It’s not a question of being too “good” to come from the student. Sometimes the language seems peculiarly canned or even—beneath a veneer of platitudes—profoundly nonsensical. Take, for instance, the following three sentences (generated by The Good AI): “Humor is a form of communication that uses wit and sarcasm to make people laugh. It’s also used to communicate with others, as well as in everyday life. Humor can be found everywhere: on TV, in movies, books, magazines and even in the news.” They are entirely uncontroversial, but weird if you look at them closely. If humor is a “form of communication” (as established in the first sentence), why bother adding that it is “also” used to communicate with others? And what about that “everywhere” in the third sentence? Do “TV, movies, books, magazines, and …. the news” come close to constituting “everywhere”?

This kind of plagiarism involves not only laziness but cynicism (because someone is playing someone else for a fool). But the cynicism goes beyond the agent. Everyone takes part in it. Rituals like homework often take too much time to take seriously, so both the teacher and the student skim and skimp. Or, if the teacher doesn’t, the school does, and if not the school, then the disciplinary code. Students caught plagiarizing are typically given the benefit of the doubt and a chance to redo the assignment (which is the way it should be, until this too becomes an automated ritual: the student changes a few words so that the piece isn’t copied any more, credit gets given, and the matter gets dropped).

Like any teacher with more than a hundred students, I often grade homework quickly. But I also take time with students’ writing, and the time I take is only a fraction of what the students need. They are not learning to write. The language textbooks and tests emphasize short “writing tasks,” where, for instance, they must respond to a hypothetical internet post, fulfilling certain specific requirements. If they fulfill all the requirements, make no mistakes, and use appropriate vocabulary and tone, they get a top score. That kind of writing is so bland by design that it exists for the sake of the task alone, nothing more. On the test, you can’t copy from elsewhere (except through clever cheating), but on homework—the student figures—why not?

But what about subjects other than language? In public schools in Hungary (and, I suspect, in many European countries), high school students (and even university students, up to a point) are not expected or assumed to have original ideas in subjects where ideas come into play. To prepare for literature or history exams, they do not need any individual angle on the topics involved; instead, they need to know what has already been said about these topics. A teacher might encourage them to develop their own ideas or to compare two different perspectives, but in general they are expected to learn what the textbook says, period. In the U.S., much more lip service is given to students’ “own ideas,” but far too little to what it means to have an idea of your own (to the extent that it can be your own).

So copying from elsewhere doesn’t even have to come from laziness; it can come from the belief that you have nothing of your own to say anyway, or that no one really cares what you think.

That leads to the question: Why do some people choose to write? After the homework is done, after the work tasks are over, some people take to the notebook or computer and spend hours with words, maybe because they enjoy putting words together, maybe because they have something to say. How do you know when you have something to say, and how do you know that it is in some way yours? You don’t know, and yet you do. You figure this out over time, with certainty and doubts combined.

In that light, who can blame those who really don’t feel that they have anything to say, yet have to churn out some “writing task” anyway, if they take some of the burden off of themselves?

Yet everyone should learn the basic skills of writing—at least to the point where they know how to construct a coherent paragraph out of coherent sentences. (Many times in my life I have been able to resolve a business complaint or other official matter with the help of a strong letter.) They should also learn the skills of attribution: quotes, indirect references, footnotes, endnotes, bibliographies. They should practice certain kinds of creative writing—because the best essays and letters have an imaginative spark to them, and stories are essential to life. For the sake of these skills, there must be several major writing assignments per year, with several drafts (the first draft perhaps starting in the classroom). The rest is up to the individuals and how seriously they choose to take writing in general.

That’s a big undertaking for everyone, but with reasonable pacing, it can be done. Language itself is at stake here. Plagiarism at its most automatic, its least thoughtful, amounts to a regurgitation of clichés. It feeds on apathy and generates still more. When you think out a sentence, when you put it on paper and test it for sound and sense, you send the apathy scampering away. You may also get a temporary headache, or a sensation of thinking too hard, but language will tip its hat in awkward thanks, and over time the graces will grow.

The picture above shows one of Bob Dylan’s paintings, featured in his Asia series at the Gagosian Gallery on NYC’s Upper East Side in 2011, next to a 1950 photograph by Dmitri Kessel. This and several other likenesses (discovered after the exhibition went up) resulted in some controversy. My own opinion: This particular copying was dishonest in that the Gagosian claimed that the paintings were of scenes from Dylan’s travels, from his direct observations of life. But I do not perceive Dylan as the most honest fellow, and that is part of his particular genius. There would be no Dylan without a bit of trickery. Does that excuse something like this? No, but excusing is beside the point. Dylan is, and the world is richer for it.

Thoughts on Religion and Return

Any true religion is poetry translated into bodily action. That is, religion approximates—and can only approximate—a level of life that cannot be expressed in words. Wars between religions result from taking these approximations too proudly and literally, treating them as flat truth rather than path.

I do not believe Judaism has an edge over Christianity or vice versa. That Judaism is now my form of religious expression does not mean that I believe much of it literally at all. And yet I believe that it points at something, and that its rituals and texts have centuries, sometimes millennia, of practice and wisdom behind them. The conflict between the concept of a single God and that of a Trinity can be (partially, tangentially) resolved if we consider how far God lies beyond our comprehension in the first place. That is one of the central tenets of Judaism: that God is far greater, far more glorious than anything we can imagine. Even the Shechina (the manifestation of God in the world) is barely at the edge of our perception; God’s other levels are so deep and immense that at most we can apprehend the existence of the vastness.

Christianity ritualized and championed the concept of conversion; while Judaism has had converts here and there all along, Christianity made conversion its central premise. Any Christian is (supposedly) a convert, since to be a Christian, you must willingly turn yourself over to Christ. There’s a beautiful openness to this, but also a temptation toward condescension: toward the view that those who have not converted are, at best, poor lost souls.

I do not see a necessary conflict between Judaism and Christianity (within an individual). I know that the two religions are historically and theologically incompatible, and painfully so. I know that not only the Catholic Church, but also Protestant churches have traditionally portrayed the Jews as the killers of Christ—which evades what I see as the true sources of the crucifixion: human nature, tragic misunderstanding in all directions, and political expedience. (Not to mention that Jesus the historical figure probably came across as a bit of a gadfly.) But I have room for internal reconciliation, not only between the religions themselves, but between what they have been for me. I have no desire to be a Jewish Christian. I have an aversion to movements such as “Jews for Jesus” that claim a Jewish identity while proclaiming Christ. I reject insinuations that Christianity is superior to Judaism and other religions. But it isn’t for nothing that the trope of Christ has moved people around the world and inspired astounding art. Treating people kindly, no matter what their status, feeding and healing them, encouraging them to lay their sins aside and start over, and speaking in parables that point to our own deepest contradictions and deceptions—that’s profoundly compelling and confounding. To me it’s no surprise that this man was described as the “son of God”—but that term has led to all kinds of grief.

Judaism, for its part, can overemphasize the tribe and tribal identity; while many congregations are moving away from this and trying to welcome people of different backgrounds, you can still feel distinctly left out if you do not know the many codes of Jewish life. Yet Judaism is not self-enclosed; tikkun olam (roughly, helping to repair the world), hesed (lovingkindness, charity), and welcoming the stranger are among its central practices.

The intensely communal quality of Judaism can also be difficult for those (like me) who treasure solitude and who see solitude as central to religious life. On the surface, Christianity gives more overt attention to solitude—but both traditions have mixtures of solitude and community. Solitude in Judaism exists (you can hear it often in the Torah, the Psalms, the Prophets), but you have to look for it and find your own way to it. Christianity, for its part, also emphasizes the group, sometimes to an extreme.

In my late teens and early twenties (starting toward the end of high school, and then at Yale) I attended church and was baptized and confirmed (by turns Episcopalean, Lutheran, Catholic). But my life was in upheaval; my family was breaking up, I was asserting early independence, and trying to figure out who I was in myriad ways. I lacked even basic self-confidence. Being Jewish wasn’t even in my consciousness; I knew only vaguely that I was Jewish according to Jewish law, and knew close to nothing about what that could mean. Once, with a friend, I attended several Jewish services at Yale, but the more traditional services seemed remote from me, and the Reform service seemed like summer camp. Christianity, in contrast, was open-armed and engaging, up to a point. I say “up to a point” because I never felt comfortable with churchiness, with the idea of being a “good Christian.” To me, the point of religion, or part of it, was never to become pat and staid.

Much of my searching took place at Dwight Hall, and in Dwight Chapel itself: not only services, but late evenings when I would sit there alone and listen to the organ, At Dwight Hall (Yale’s center for social service and social justice), I took part in many activities—prayer services, community service, political advocacy, Cabinet meetings, support groups, get-togethers, events and discussions—and endured a few heartbreaking crushes. I was mixed up and unmoored, so badly in need of company that I neglected my studies, and so unsure of myself that I made friendships difficult if not impossible. But I met remarkable people and have rich memories of that time.

Two and a half years into my studies and extracurriculars, I took time off from Yale and worked at Sterling Memorial Library for several years; the work kept me in contact with the university and brought regularity and responsibility into my life. When I returned to Yale as an undergraduate, it was with clear focus; I did well in my studies, graduated with distinction in the (Russian) major, and went on to graduate school there (where I ultimately earned a Ph.D., with a dissertation on Gogol, and translated a volume of Tomas Venclova’s poems). I had distanced myself from religious practice; from the age of twenty-four or so, I no longer went to church. It took another twenty-five years before I would start going to synagogue and learning Jewish liturgy and cantillation.

My entry into Jewish life was different from my earlier explorations, though not entirely. For one thing, I had solid footing; for another, the impulse came not only from an internal yearning, but from a perception of history. A series of events brought me to my first encounters with Hebrew and Jewish liturgy: in particular, a recording of the “Blessing Before Haftarah,” which had a strong resonance for me, a memory of something I didn’t remember. I found meaning in those very syllables and melodies; because of this beginning, and because of the richness of the learning over time, I have been a practicing Jew for almost ten years, and serving as Szim Salom’s lay cantor here in Hungary for five. This way of life is for the long term, with increasing responsibilities, so now I have room to look back and pull things together. It is essential for me to do so; I have changed and learned a lot over the years, but everyone has a unity between past and present, and I am ready to face my own.

When we visited Dwight Chapel with the Hungarian group in October (during the ALSCW conference at Yale), when Sebő and Gergő (the Platon Karataev duo) played a few of their songs there, old memories started to come up for me, but the music in the room was far more important to me right then. Still, it was only because of this past, my readiness to return to it in some way, and the helpfulness of the Dwight Hall staff that we were able to be there at all. Also, maybe the possibility wouldn’t have occurred to me if we hadn’t had to cancel the concerts, and if Gergő and Sebő hadn’t been so willing to play this unofficial, informal session for its own sake. On top of that, if Tim and Jenn hadn’t been able to lend their guitars in time for this, there would have been no music, though we might still have stopped inside. The songs themselves, or many of them, have to do with internality, searching, intuition, self-loss, but are not religious per se—so there was no statement here, no pressure to believe this or that. All of these conditions together allowed for this beautiful occasion, and now it too has joined the layers of life.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it (and added a paragraph about solitude).

Preparing for a Ten-Minute Concert

During the long break this morning, we held a little performance in the hallway, outside the teachers’ room. Two groups of students sang four American and British folk songs; I accompanied them on cello. The singing was full of spirit (and in tune and on time). The audience’s enjoyment came through, both then and throughout the day.

Because of the coordination involved, it took weeks to prepare this ten-minute concert; the participating students were from different classes, and we had only one rehearsal all together. Also, my cello playing was dismally out of shape even a week ago; I had to coax it back. But coax it back I did.

This morning, to take the bus to school, I needed to be out the door by 6:30. I managed this and got to school before 7. I went to the drama room and warmed up for about half an hour.

The cello playing barely figured in the concert, though. I played introductions to three of the songs, then accompanied the students with pizzicato. They hardly needed the accompaniment; they held their own and sang with full voice.

This was the fourth short concert that my students and I had held at Varga during a long morning break. The first was in 2018, with class 9.A; the second, in the spring of 2019; the third, the following December, and the fourth today. There was a stretch in 2020-2021 when, because of Covid, we were not supposed to sing at school at all. So it was good to sing again and know that we could.

I have a lot to do in the next week—particularly editing and putting out the autumn issue of Folyosó. Once it is published, I can give attention to writing and translation again—and music too, but played on my own.

This little concert reminded me indirectly of Keith Vincent’s lecture on “Haiku and the Japanese Novel” at the ALSCW Conference: about the novelist Natsume Sōseki, who initially was a haiku poet, and how the haiku prepared him for the longer forms. This concert was the haiku: demanding intense concentration in itself, and part of something larger. Many people, hearing about a ten-minute concert with students, would say, “Oh, that’s so nice,” or “How lovely,” but there’s more to it than the “nice” and the “lovely.” It’s a way of approaching the larger projects as well.

I am weary of all the opinion pieces about how “we” have given up the madness of around-the-clock work culture, how, after Covid, “we” have started to demand something saner. I gave up that kind of work culture long ago. Anyone who knows me knows that I work hard—but at the things I have chosen, not at jobs where I am at someone else’s beck and call. Over the years I have turned down or ignored jobs and opportunities that would have paid more but put me at the company’s mercy. Yes, a teacher has to fulfill requirements, but at the school where I am now, they are not too onerous; there’s room for music and literature in addition to the standard material. The salary is dismal, but I can manage with it here. People may think I’m independently wealthy, with a lot in the bank, but that is not the case; I have very little. Rather, I can live simply, and why not do so? The greatest challenge right now is exhaustion in the evenings—not exhaustion, but simply falling asleep. Another challenge is affording travel when I need it; a trip to the U.S. costs me a lot, relative to what I have.

So a ten-minute concert is also a possibility, among many others, and in that light, something worth doing more often. When you lift up the possibilities, they change what can be found in the minutes of a day.

I was sorry not to go hear Grand Bleu last night, but by the time I realized there was a concert, it was too late to go out to Budapest and get to the concert on time, and besides, I needed to rest and catch up with things. I have been meaning to mention that I heard them and Gábor Molnár in a wonderful concert at Sejribizli, shortly after returning to Hungary from the big trip. I was still a bit jetlagged but loved the music and atmosphere; the audience included many Turks and Indians as well as Hungarians and others, and there was a great cheer to it all. I leave off with a picture from that concert and a link to “Emlékszem még,” one of my favorites of their songs.

A Few Days at Yale: ALSCW Conference Memories, Part 2

These three posts—the one about the trip and the two about the conference—barely skim the surface of all that happened. But it’s important to say something while the memories are fresh. The slower, more private reflections can take their time and probably won’t take the form of prose. So here we go: Saturday, October 22.

In the morning I attended the Shakespeare plenary session, which I loved. (My summaries might be slightly inaccurate, since I was holding a lot in my head at once and the day was so full.) Rebecca Rush spoke about the different kinds (and meanings) of rhyme in Shakespeare’s plays, with particular attention to Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In particular, she examined how rhyme can express traditional doctrine and mores on the one hand and spontaneous desire on the other. Robert Stagg spoke about the unfortunate tendency to smooth Shakespeare’s verse into perfectly regular iambic pentameter; he made an argument for honoring Shakespeare’s syllables. Then Lee Oser gave a lecture titled “Providential Groping in Hamlet,” which considered, among other things, the possible unity of the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy and the “providence” monologue—and with that, the unity of the play as a whole. (There was much more to it than that.)

After that, I skipped out for coffee with Martha. I came back for lunch. Then came the second session of the “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar.

If I were to do one thing differently, I would have asked the presenters to send me any slides, recordings, etc. a week in advance, so that they would all be on my laptop, ready to go. (But then, that probably wouldn’t have worked; people often have last-minute revisions or prefer to use their own devices.) There were a few small glitches with people connecting and reconnecting their devices—and for Lara Allen’s piece, I initially opened the wrong file. None of this really distracted from the session, though; it was all promptly resolved. It just meant that we had a little less time for discussion at the end.

The session opened with Lara performing an excerpt from her interdisciplinary performance piece The Hairy Eyeball and then speaking about Harry Partch’s music and its influence on the piece. Except for the glitch that I caused, it was riveting. (You can see more of her work on her website.)

One of the great highlights of the conference for me was the presentation by Fruzsina Balogh and Panna Kocsis, on the artist Lajos Kassák and the composer Béla Bartók, and artistic responses to their work by students of MOME (Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design), where both Panna and Fruzsina are studying. It looked at how the arts can translate into one another; in this sense it tied in with all the others and evoked many responses later.

Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly’s presentation on two ways of setting Pilinszky’s poems to music (accompaniment and song) brought us back into the realm of the seminar topic. He spoke of the many definitions of poem and song, the close relationship between them, and how he had set two Pilinszky poems (in the English translation of Géza Simon) to music. He played both pieces; it was moving to listen to them again, there in that room. He also talked about the personal nature of the act of setting poetry to music: how it comes from a deep response to the poem, a sense of recognition and shock. He spoke of his experience setting Csenger Kertai’s “Balaton” to music, and about the wordless, intuitive nature of the encounter between poem and music.

I am not going to be doing any justice to the other presentations; there’s much to say about each of them, but I don’t want to weigh this down. Piotr Gwiazda’s presentation on Grzegorz Wróblewski—and the musical-visual setting of two of his poems on YouTube—stood out for its attention to the other presentations and papers (he referred to many of them as he went along). Many strands and sounds came together as he spoke. I enjoyed the fearless straightforwardness (and complexity) of the presentation, as well as the video itself. He brought up the idea—central to several of the presentations and to the seminar’s theme—that you can listen to a poem in a language entirely unknown to you and grasp something of its essence. Here is one of the videos (©Archiwum Literackie 2014).

Mary Maxwell then spoke of the challenges involved in setting the Roman woman poet Sulpicia to music. She introduced the concept of standing outside the writer and judging her in a way, for the sake of understanding and portraying her better (the way many actors study a role). Ultimately she sought to convey the humanness of Sulpicia’s poems. (This notion of “judging” requires nuanced explanation; she discussed it in more detail during the discussion.)

Next, the poet Jennifer Davis Michael and the composer Nathan Davis spoke of their work “Bell of Silence,” in which the former’s poem was set to music by the latter, as a piece for SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and handbells. During the presentation, Nathan Davis sounded a bell; we listened to its long fade into silence. It was still dimly ringing, very dimly, when he muted it. You can listen to the piece here.

Kimberly Soby then spoke about the Korean-American composer Earl Kim and his musical setting of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem “Listen to it rain” (“Écoute s’il pleut écoute s’il pleut”) in his 1983 work Where Grief Slumbers. There was a fascinating visual aspect to this: the text of Apollinaire’s poem runs vertically, like falling rain, and the melodic lines, too, convey a sense of falling. Soby explained how it worked musically, with the sparseness, instruments, and pitch intervals. (You can listen to it here.)

We were unfortunately running very low on time when Iris Zheng gave her presentation on musical settings of Tennyson. She brought the seminar together into a unity; her presentation brought back memories of Emily Grace’s from the day before, but also spoke, as others had in different terms, of the role of the composer as critic, one who delves into the poem and comes back with an unexpected insight.

The discussion afterward was brief but exciting, since people had so much to say and ask in response to each other.

I then headed to the neighboring auditorium, along with others, for the plenary session on Japanese literature, which got better and better as it went along, culminating in a talk by Keith Vincent on “Haiku and the Novel”—about the novelist Natsume Sōseki, who initially was a haiku poet, and about the relation between the shortest of poetic forms and the much longer form of the novel. He suggested that for Sōseki, haiku writing was excellent preparation for novel writing, since the novel, like the haiku, demands intensity of compression (a point that in turn brought Gergely Balla’s presentation to mind).

And then the banquet! We walked up to the Divinity School, where it was held, found our way in, and arrived just shortly before the delicious feast began. There were remarks by David Bromwich, the outgoing president, and David Mikics, the vice president and incoming president (each conference has a new president). Then Rosanna Warren introduced Ishion Hutchinson, who gave the much-anticipated poetry reading. Then Lee Oser, immediate past president, gave closing remarks.

I will close with a recommendation: Read Ishion Hutchinson’s “The Mud Sermon” (which he read, among other poems, at the banquet), “Little Music,” and “Reading ‘The Tempest’“—and then take your own road through his work (to the extent that any road can be anyone’s own, and to the extent that it actually is a road).

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

  • “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