Meanings of Craving

George Szirtes’s wonderful and bracing essay “Landscapes of Desire” in the second issue of The Continental Literary Magazine sent thoughts twining through my mind. He asks about the differences between words with overlapping meanings: desire, craving, lust, passion. He writes:

One might have a craving for food or drink or tobacco, for possession of an object, or for something more abstract, like comfort, or fame. The word implies a form of dependency in that one cannot live without, or cannot resist, the thing craved. In any case, it suggests something potentially illicit. Maybe, in English, it is simply because the word crave rhymes so neatly with the word deprave. It is excessive, intemperate, well beyond the supposed Golden Mean.

Desire is nobler than that. We all claim to understand and indeed to glory in it. It takes the best out of the notion of passion. Passion and desire are the driving forces of a heroic, if potentially tragic life. But craving? Does that not imply something slavish? Isn’t there something a little humiliating about it?

He goes on to discuss the poems in the issue of the journal in terms of the words he brings up. According to Szirtes, desire is elegaic, aware of the loss it contains; craving is aware only of itself and the moment.

Yes. But not quite.

I use the word “crave” repeatedly in my essay “To Crave the Edges of Speech: Reflections on Cz.K. Sebő’s New Album,” which was published in the online version of the same issue of The Continental. After reading Szirtes, I see that I should have defined the word a little, or maybe justified my use of it. I knew what I meant by it, and no, it isn’t quite as enclosed and delimited in my ear as it is in Szirtes’s. Instead, it’s sharp, compelling, and possibly pure.

There’s a kind of spiritual craving where you want something so badly that you are set in motion willy-nilly, even though you may have many reflections on what is going on. There is nothing humiliating about this. It can be surprising and enlightening. It can open up years of learning.

Hermann Hesse writes of this in Demian: “If you need something desperately and find it, this is not an accident; your own craving and compulsion led you to it.” In the original German, this reads, “Wenn der, der etwas notwendig braucht, dies ihm Notwendige findet, so ist es nicht der Zufall, der es ihm gibt, sondern er selbst, sein eigenes Verlangen und Müssen führt ihn hin.” Now, “Verlangen” could be translated as “longing,” but “Müssen” suggests urgency, compulsion. So the sharpness of craving comes through.

Or take Walt Whitman’s “Song of Prudence,” with these lines: “Whatever satisfies souls is true; / Prudence entirely satisfies the craving and glut of souls, / Itself only finally satisfies the soul, / The soul has that measureless pride which revolts from every lesson / but its own.” Here’s a paradoxical idea: that you can crave your way into prudence.

That is exactly where the beauty of craving lies. If we only had longing, desire, etc., we would sit around and do nothing but contemplate the yearning and the loss. Craving sets a person in motion, which can be toward the good. Yes, in craving you are carried. You do not necessarily know where you are going, even if your object seems clear. Some of the best changes in life happen because of this.

It has happened to me with music. I remember distinct times over the decades. Music touches on everything and goes past everything; its motion brings everything along with it. I have been hurled by music. Into the unknown, into new ways of life.

There is nothing humiliating about being hurled into uncertainty. Craving may be certain and specific in some ways. But in others it’s a complete unknown. What you think you want may only be the catalyst.

Craving is immoderate, yes. But even moderation must be taken in moderation. Only excess (not all kinds of excess, not excess to the extreme, not excess that blocks out thought, not excess that treats others badly, but still a certain kind of excess) allows a person to tip over, and sometimes this is the best thing that could happen.

It has its dangers too. People seized by craving can discard responsibilities, histories, awareness of others. But danger lies everywhere, even in the safest of things. It is possible to live too carefully, too courteously, too containedly. Moderation, too, has its excesses. A certain kind of craving keeps them in check.

But that’s not really craving you’re talking about, someone might say. It’s more like a state of spiritual urgency. Well, then, to settle that question (or to unsettle it), let’s look up “crave” in the beloved Online Etymological Dictionary.

Old English crafian “ask, implore, demand by right,” from North Germanic *krabojan (source also of Old Norse krefja “to demand,” Danish kræve, Swedish kräva); perhaps related to craft (n.) in its base sense of “power.” Current sense “to long for, eagerly desire” is c. 1400, probably through intermediate meaning “to ask very earnestly” (c. 1300). Related: Craved; craving.

What is prayer, if not craving of a sort? Where would craft come from, if not from a certain craving?

Art credit: Michael Pickett, The Old Piano.

Looking Back on My Books

Twice, while in NYC, I left a teaching job to write a book. Teaching was too consuming to allow for that kind of writing in spare time; each time, I needed to focus fully on the book. It’s different here in Hungary; teaching here is consuming too, but not nearly as hectic or exhausting. Anyway, in both cases I left the job completely; I didn’t keep any benefits. It was impractical, but it was the best decision for me. Thanks to the second departure (though I had no idea this would happen at the time), I was able to come to Hungary. At that point the book was almost done, and I was ready for a new plunge.

The first book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture (2012) came partly out of my experience teaching in NYC schools, where teachers were expected to incorporate group work in the lesson regardless of the topic or content. The insistence on small group work (in an already noisy environment) came at the expense of sustained thought, dialogue, introspection. The group emphasis was apparent not only in schools, but in the surrounding “culture” (I put it in quotes because it’s a tricky word) and social media. The book also took a closer look at solitude and its complexities, with forays into Petrarch, Sophocles, Newton. In that sense the book came out of something longer and larger: a life of involvement with language and literature, a life of solitude (in many senses of the word) and companionship.

Some people complained that it was too much about education; others complained about the literary and other digressions. Still others complained that it wasn’t like Susan Cain’s Quiet. (Why on earth should one book be like another one?) But overall, it found a wonderful audience and has been quoted in books and articles that I respect. And when I return to it, I am surprised by its details and depth. Work, thought, and life went into it.

With my second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, something went wrong with the marketing and readership. In some ways (though not all) I think this was the better book: tighter, punchier, more concise, but also long-lasting. Unfortunately it reached the wrong readers before it reached the right ones. The initial reader reviews were written by people who clearly hadn’t read even the introduction, or if they had, they had skimmed through it, making their own judgments instead of paying attention to what I was saying. Here’s the full text of a review I received on Goodreads:

When I saw this title on NetGalley I felt it my duty to read this and write the slangiest, most sarcastic review possible. Unfortunately, Diana Senechal has sucked the passion out of my plans. Mind Over Memes is basically a snooty English teacher’s collected opinions on how young people do, and especially how they say everything wrong.

I do have to emphasize that the author is thoroughly learned in what she is writing, and the passion of hers is clear. The problem is that this comes across as incoherent babbling to me; pretentious, holier-than-thou, grammar nazi, babbling.

There are so many tangents and grammatical anecdotes that I really struggled to keep focused on the topic at hand. And really, none of these anecdotes seemed to have any relation to her points. Also, to be frank, this book made me feel like trash, like stupid, illiterate, memeing trash. Here I am, the Meme Queen, crying as I reign over my garbage domain. I try to see what’s up in the adult world and I get slapped in the face. God, this book is depressing.

First of all, the book isn’t about young people or young people’s language at all! All the words and phrases I take up are used by people across the generations. When I did bring up young people in the first chapter, it was sympathetically. I told a story (imaginary, but based on a true story I had been told) about a summer internship interview where high school students had to summarize a project in thirty seconds. I thought this was unfair to those who could not express themselves quite so quickly or glibly. The pressure to be glib is hard on the young and old alike, but maybe especially the young, who are competing for college admission or for their first jobs.

Second, the book isn’t telling anyone, young or old, what they are doing wrong. The point is to call certain words and phrases into question: to think about where they come from and what they mean. There’s no finger-pointing, no English-teacher snootiness here. And for God’s sake, there’s no grammar-Nazi babbling. As for digressions, the chapters are tightly structured and focused, with a little bit of whimsy too.

Third, the review doesn’t mention anything specific about the book. Not a quote, or a detail, or even an overview. What kind of review is that?

So what went so badly wrong? First, there was the problem of the title. I had wanted it to be Take Away the Takeaway, but the editor said the marketing team found that too vague (and subject to misinterpretation in the UK—not that it has received much distribution there). My next choice was Verbal Resistance, which almost made it, but at the eleventh hour the marketing team rejected that as well. They finally settled (with my halfhearted consent) on Mind over Memes, with that lumbering, confusing subtitle (Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies). There are two problems with this: first, the book has nothing to do with internet memes; second, the subtitle gives the impression that a lot of chiding and correcting will be going on. In fact, it seems that the book will be criticizing passive listening and toxic talk themselves. (Not so: one chapter questions whether listening is passive at all, and another questions the overuse of the term “toxic.”)

Another problem was the write-up on the back cover. The endorsements are great. As for the book summary, I wrote the initial version, but then someone on the publisher’s end changed some of the wording. In particular, this inserted sentence could throw the reader off: “Too often our use of language has become lazy, frivolous, and even counterproductive.” This really does sound snooty, old, and weary; it doesn’t convey the tone or content of the book.

Still another problem, I think, had to do with where the galleys were sent for review. NetGalley is not the best place for this; reviewers receive a free advance copy in return for the review but are not bound by any obligation to be thoughtful or even to read the book carefully. The book did receive thoughtful reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Quartz, as well as a superbly insightful review on Amazon by Dana Mackenzie, but beyond those, a few nice comments elsewhere, and the dismissive reviews mentioned earlier, there was silence. I think people were steered away from the book before finding out what it was. (The book events are another matter; I had lovely events for both books, at bookstores and at the Dallas Institute.)

Both books have their flaws. Sometimes I get so carried away with a turn of phrase that I don’t realize how silly it sounds in context. If I were to go back, I would change some of the ornate language to something simpler. Also, Republic of Noise has too many quotes; I could have relied more on my own language and observations. But on the whole, both books are highly readable, and the subject matter is at least as relevant as it was then.

My point is not to complain about the publisher (in both cases, Rowman & Littlefield, though the first was specifically R&L Education). They accepted both manuscripts without the intervention of an agent, they were very nice and responsive along the way, and I continue to receive small royalty checks. Nor do I think I could have insisted on a different title (I tried hard) or back cover description; those are areas where the publisher does have the last word. But I think one lesson to learn from this is that the publisher and author must have a common understanding of what the book is. If there’s a misunderstanding, then the publisher will be pulling to present it in one way and the author in another.

I shouldn’t forget, though, what an accomplishment it was to write and publish these books. So many people talk about writing books, or start writing them and never finish. I know that I can pull off something like this and will rearrange my life as needed in order to do so. Also, both books opened up new eras of my life. The first book led to the Hiett Prize and a long association with the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture; the second, in some ways, brought me to Hungary. Who knows what the next book will be and where it will lead.

Yes, indeed, what about the next book? Well, there has been a book of translations, Always Different: Poems of Memory (Deep Vellum, 2022) which was every bit as big a project as these two books. My next book or two will likely be translations too. But then what, after that? I have been submitting stories for publication; if a few get taken up by journals, then I may be able to publish a collection as well. Poems, too, come now and then, and they are getting better. I also have an idea for a nonfiction book, but as with my previous books, I don’t want to talk about it until I have at least a manuscript in hand (which may be a few years from now). In any case, I expect some books of different kinds in the coming years.

That is why I treasure this time at home in the summer; so much is possible in this stretch (which goes by fast). Even though I don’t get as much done as I’d hope, I do a lot. I love the peacefulness of it: having the whole day to focus on things, without having to rush anywhere. This is hard to explain to people who don’t live in this way, but do I have to explain it? No, just live it, and do as much with it (at the different levels of doing) as possible.

I made some additions and edits to this piece after posting it.

An Award, A Poem, and Two Concerts

Twice in my life (so far) have I received a translation prize. The first was when I won the Scott Prize in Russian upon graduating from Yale. The prize was in recognition of my senior thesis, which consisted of translations of contemporary Russian poets and commentary. The second came just the other day: an Honorable Mention in the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize, for “Scissors,” my translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Olló.” This Honorable Mention was even more honorable than it may appear; usually this prize has only one winner, and this honorable mention comes with a cash award and an interview. But beyond that, the poem is one of my favorites in Gyula Jenei’s work, and I am fond of the translation too. I am honored that the MR editors and judges loved this poem.

“my grandmother will have other scissors too:”—the poem begins—”smaller, larger, / sharper—but most of all i will love the pair that has, below / the rings, on the wide-opening, ornate handle-necks, / the likeness of a man and woman embossed.” You can no longer make out the faces, but the grandmother claims that they belong to Franz Joseph and Sisi. The poem continues with the grandmother contemplating the two heads through her “one-templed spectacles” and telling stories: of the boy’s own family, of the coronation of Charles and Zita, “heaps / of tales she happily tells.” While she is telling her tales, the boy cuts something or other with the scissors, and the faces come close without actually touching.

only the rings make
a metal clap, and the blades scrape, and then the past
dissolves into the future, and then they bury my grandmother,
and i forget her stories, all i remember about them is their
having been, and only the scissors have remained, and
the sewing box with the thimble, then the thimble got lost too.

It goes on from there to my favorite part, which I won’t quote here, since you can read it. The poem is full of surprising gestures. Here’s a physical object that has remained over the years: the scissors (which I have actually held in my hands, yes, the scissors of this poem)—but they are about as vague as memory itself, since the faces have been worn and polished over time. But through this wearing down, some essence comes through: a statement, a retraction of sorts, and a final image and truth. The poem has tenderness, memory, forgetting, a sweep of history, and a pair of scissors whose clapping and scraping you can hear even if you never get to hold them.

I remember translating the first draft of this poem during a long break in my school day on a Wednesday morning (I think it was a Wednesday, in the fall of 2018). I remember thinking: How do I go back into the world after this? But I did, and it worked out well.

So, that’s what I wanted to say about the award and the poem. As for the two concerts, yesterday I had an exceptional evening. First I went to hear the Platon Karataev duo at the Esernyős in Buda. What a beautiful concert it was, and what an attentive audience. Several times they mentioned how much they appreciated the audience’s quiet attention. Here’s a photo taken by the venue’s photographers, I think.

Sebő then had to rush across the Duna (and southeastward a bit) to the Akvárium’s Petőfi Terasz, where he gave a wonderful Cz.K. Sebő/capsule boy concert. Many of us likewise went, as audience members, from the first concert to the next. There I did take a picture. But much better pictures and videos were being taken (see below); if the official video ends up on YouTube, I’ll include it here too. I loved hearing the songs and sounds find their way: a song he wrote that morning, some songs that are changing over time, some songs still in the works, songs ceding to sound and sound to songs, songs leading into songs, all together forming something joyous, thoughtful, and melancholic that I could get swept into alertly.

At that concert, the (very large) audience was listening closely for the most part, but there were a few loud people as well. Two young women planted themselves in front of me—when they could have stood to the right of me, blocking no one’s view—and proceeded to talk and gesticulate. The woman sitting next to me (around my age or a little younger, and intensely listening too) motioned that I could sit closer to her and see. I was grateful for that. The Petőfi Terasz, being outdoors and free, draws a mixed crowd, some there for the concert, others for entertainment and drinks. The music and listening won out; it was a beautiful show. But I don’t understand people who talk loudly without even bothering to move to the side or the back. (Update: From the photos I later realized that one member of the noisy pair is the lead singer of a band whom I have never heard live but three of whose albums I have. That’s even more disappointing. In the future I’ll just ask noisy people to move or be quiet, whoever they may be.)

So this leaves me with the thought that attention—in the form of reading, listening, conversation, or something else—isn’t just one of the best things to give or receive; it’s also essential. Where would any of us be without it? Isn’t despair the sense that no one is paying (or receiving) attention? And if we can’t give attention to everything (at least I can’t), isn’t it good to have a few people, things, and occasions to devote it to?

I added a little to this piece after posting it. The last picture is by Dávid Bodnár, courtesy of the Akvárium Klub Official. You can see the whole album here.

Setting Poetry to Music (25th ALSCW Conference seminar, October 2022)

In October 2022, at the 25th ALSCW Conference at Yale, I will hold a seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music.” Paper proposals have been coming in; for those still hoping to participate, the deadline for proposals is June 10 (please follow the instructions in the Call for Papers)! So far, the seminar participants include three invitees from Hungary and a number of other presenters (from both Hungary and the U.S.). The full roster will be established by the end of June.

The seminar description is as follows:

What questions and problems do composers encounter when setting poetry to music? How can music enhance, transform, or distract from a poem that already stands on its own? How might the music follow or depart from the poem’s inherent rhythms and tones? How might the musical rendition become an artistic creation in its own right? This seminar will explore these and other questions in relation to a wide variety of poems and music. Papers may take one of two directions. Those analyzing others’ musical renditions of poetry should plan to present a short paper (5–10 pages), possibly with an accompanying sound recording. Those presenting their own musical renditions or poetry should play it (through or a recording or on an acoustic instrument) and then comment on it briefly. The poems considered may be in any language, but any poem not in English should be accompanied with at least a basic translation or summary. The presentations should be prepared with a general audience in mind. Composers, songwriters, musicians, poets, scholars, teachers, students, and others interested in the subject are welcome to submit proposals. (Note: This seminar is not about songwriting or poetic song verse in general; it focuses specifically on poetry set to music.)

This seminar will differ in some ways from a literature seminar in that we will spend some time listening to the musical renditions of poems (which participants will either perform or play through a recording). Also, the topic is flexible; some presenters might take it in visual and other directions. I am eager to see what proposals come in.

I am honored that the three featured guests at the Pilinszky event in March will be the featured guests in the seminar as well! Csenger Kertai, Gergely Balla, and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly will all be presenting; they all won Petőfi Literary Fund grants to cover the trip. In addition, Gergő and Sebő (the Platon Karataev duo) will be performing at Cafe Nine in New Haven on October 23. We also plan to hold an event in NYC featuring Csenger as well as the duo. (We will have more details once they exist.)

The ALSCW (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers) “seeks to promote excellence in literary criticism and scholarship, and works to ensure that literature thrives in both scholarly and creative environments. We encourage the reading and writing of literature, criticism, and scholarship, as well as wide-ranging discussions among those committed to the reading and study of literary works.”

I have attended ALSCW annual conferences in Worcester, Nashville, Dallas, and DC. They are not only interesting but lots of fun. I have held and participated in numerous seminars (sometimes three different seminars in a given conference) and especially love the range of topics, the geniality, the participants’ willingness to hear contrasting views and approaches. Also, the ALSCW supports poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers through grants, prizes, and publications; the poetry and other readings at the conferences have introduced me to writers who have since become favorites. And let us not forget the Saturday night banquet, where the conference comes to a jovial close (there is an ALSCW Council meeting on Sunday morning, but otherwise no conference activities). I am especially excited about this year’s location, since Yale is my triple alma mater (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.), and I spent about fifteen years in New Haven all together (including two years from 2019 to 2011, when I wrote my first book, Republic of Noise).

This year’s conference has many other exciting seminars and panels as well, on topics ranging from Proust to Ulysses to “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture” to “Figures of Civil War” to “The Art of Confession” to “Aesthetics of the Sublime in Japanese Literary Arts.” And it will be our first conference since 2019, since we had to cancel twice because of Covid. Many thanks to David Bromwich, the president of the ALSCW; Ernie Suarez, the executive director; conference committee member Rosanna Warren, and others for bringing this to pass. While nothing is certain until it actually happens, this conference will take place unless a large and unforeseen obstacle arises. It is now only five months away.

Photo of Yale’s Harkness Tower by Chris Randall.

Update: So many people submitted paper proposals for the ”Setting Poetry to Music” that we will have two sessions! The presenters include composers and songwriters, poets and other writers, visual artists, scholars, teachers, and combinations of these. Six of the participants are from Hungary and twelve from the U.S. I look forward to the presentations and discussions!

A Festival, a Book, and a Conference

The Shakespeare festival is arriving soon! On April 22, the Verseghy Ferenc Public Library and the Varga Katalin Gimnázium will hold a day-long event filled with acting (by students from six different schools), sonnets, songs, games, lectures, workshops, an art contest, a jury, and more. Everyone is welcome! (At Varga we have no classes on that day.) This festival has been in the planning for two years. It had to be postponed a year because of Covid, but now we can actually hold it, in three weeks and a day from now!

Next, my translation of Gyula Jenei’s poetry collection Mindig más (Always Different: Poems of Memory, published by Deep Vellum) now exist; the publisher has already received copies from the printer! Gyula and I will receive five complimentary copies each, and I am ordering many copies for events. We intend to hold at least two events here in Hungary, and if everything works out, I will give readings in Dallas and NYC as well. The official pub date is still a few days away (April 12), so I will make a new announcement then.

Finally (for now), the ALSCW has released its Call for Papers for the October 2022 conference, which will take place at Yale. I will be leading a seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music,” which may feature guest presenters from Hungary, if everything works out! More about that later—but in the meantime, if you are interested in presenting a paper in any of the seminars, please follow the instructions at the top of the document.

I should have a few more announcements very soon, but that is enough for now.

(The photo is of my students’ performance of Hamlet scenes at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár in June 2019.)

Does More Talk Equal More Caring?

Does more talk equal more caring? That’s a rhetorical question, which by its nature points at “no.” But more talk doesn’t mean less caring, either. You can talk a lot about something you care about, or not. The lack of talk does not necessarily mean indifference; the abundance of talk does not necessarily mean love or concern. Or the opposites. In addition, people go through phases with talk; sometimes they want or need to talk a lot about something, sometimes not. Or maybe they talk in some contexts but not others.

Now that the whole world seems to be talking about Ukraine, this is worth remembering. First of all, talking or not talking does not mean feeling or not feeling, thinking or not thinking. Second, talking is helpful at times but only goes so far. Third, it’s important to stay independent of talk-trends, even when participating in them. That is, there’s no obligation to talk about something just because others are doing so.

I am very worried about the war in Ukraine but also wary of the current surge of talk. Some of it is useful. There are people with inside information and good insights. There are times when it’s good to talk just to clear and clarify your thoughts; I have been making time to discuss the situation in some of my classes. But I also distrust the social tendency to get enraptured with a topic as long as it’s hot, then move on obliviously to the next thing. Today it’s Ukraine; a few months later, it might be something else entirely.

Some say: judge people not by their words, but by their deeds. But words are deeds in a sense. Better still: don’t jump to judge people. Some degree of judgment is inevitable, even necessary, even good, but there’s usually more to people than we know.

Image credit: iStock.

What is “leyning”?

I have mentioned leyning (Hebrew cantillation) on this blog a number of times and have occasionally explained something about it. I devoted a chapter of my second book to it. But it’s such a beautiful practice, and so little-known outside of Judaism, that I will explain it again, in brief.

It is the practice, going back many centuries, of chanting text from the Hebrew Bible. The melodic phrases are determined by the syntax of a particular verse. There are six melodic systems: Torah, High Holiday, Haftarah (Prophets), Ester, Lamentations, and Festival (Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes), but they all follow the same principles, which I studied in a year-long advanced cantillation course at the Jewish Theological Seminary (in 2016-2017). I have been leyning for about eight years in all. I brought an enormous reference book with me to Hungary: Joshua R. Jacobson’s Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation. It comes in handy when I’m reviewing some of the theory or unusual melodic phrases, and it’s enjoyable reading too. Its 1000 pages are still only a fraction of what could be said about the subject.

Leyning is only part of what I do at Szim Salom, but it’s the part that requires the most preparation. You need to learn the text and melodies in advance: not by memorizing them, but by understanding the syntax and the relationship between the verses. When leyning Torah, you chant from the scroll itself, which has no vowel or cantillation marks. Beginners might take months to learn a few verses (often through sheer repetition combined with text and trope study), but over time you reach a point where you can prepare in a few days. There are even those who can leyn with no preparation: who know the text so well that they can simply look at it and glean the melodies on the spot. The mistakes they typically make, if any, have to do with the location of the verse endings.

But how can you look at a text and figure out the melodies? I will explain with the example of two verses from yesterday’s reading, from Exodus 37. This is a description of the “menorah” (candlestick) that was made for the sanctuary.

כ  וּבַמְּנֹרָה, אַרְבָּעָה גְבִעִים מְשֻׁקָּדִים כַּפְתֹּרֶיהָ וּפְרָחֶיהָ20 And in the candlestick were four cups made like almond-blossoms, the knops thereof, and the flowers thereof;
כא  וְכַפְתֹּר תַּחַת שְׁנֵי הַקָּנִים מִמֶּנָּה וְכַפְתֹּר תַּחַת שְׁנֵי הַקָּנִים מִמֶּנָּה וְכַפְתֹּר, תַּחַת-שְׁנֵי הַקָּנִים מִמֶּנָּה לְשֵׁשֶׁת הַקָּנִים, הַיֹּצְאִים מִמֶּנָּה.21 and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, for the six branches going out of it.

The first thing to know is where each verse breaks in half. Most Hebrew Biblical verses consist of two parts, which mirror or balance each other in some way. There is a melodic phrase, the “etnachta,” that indicates this division. (In the Torah melodic system, it consists of two notes a fifth apart.) This melody, and the one indicating the end of the verse, are classified as Level 1 trop (“trop” or “trope” in this context refers to the melodic phrases that act as units of cantillation).

In Verse 20, the division comes after “four cups” (“arbaa g’viim”), because the rest of the verse describes those four cups.

In Verse 21, the division comes at the third occurrence of “one piece with it,” (“mimenna”) since all of this describes what will go under the six branches (named in the second part). So in this case the first part is much longer than the second, but semantically they are of equal weight.

So, once we understand where the main divisions are, we proceed with the next subdivisions and connections (disjunctives and conjunctives), each of which has its own melody. This takes much longer to explain, but the principles are the same. In Verse 21, why is it that each iteration of “and a knop under two branches of one piece with it” has a different melody? Aren’t they equivalent? Actually not. They are treated as though each one were nested in the next, The third iteration ends in a Level 1 disjunctive, the “etnachta”; the second, in a Level 2 disjunctive, the “zakef katon”; and the first, in a Level 3 disjunctive, the “revia.” As the numbers go up, the disjuntives are softer–that is, less emphatic. The idea here (and elsewhere in the Bible) is that repetitions are not equivalent. Each iteration involves the previous one in some way.

The reader does not have to figure out what the levels melodies are; they are indicated in a “tikkun,” a study book that provides the text in parallel, one version with markings and one without. (Cantillation marks are found around the letters themselves; there is no sheet music, except in some instructional materials.) But knowing how it all works will allow for quicker learning and better delivery.

The two verses then sound like this. (Keep in mind that even within a given trope system, the specific melodies vary from place to place, synagogue to synagogue, and even person to person, but the principles stay the same.)

The cantillation brings out the structure of the verses, and along with that, their meaning. It signals not only “punctuation” but weight and emphasis. Precision is essential: in a Torah reading, if a mistake is made, the reader (chanter) is supposed to go back and re-chant the word or phrase correctly and then proceed. If the reader does not catch it independently, one of the gabbaim (the two people positioned on each side of the scroll, with Torah books in hand) will quietly correct the reader, who will then go back to the mistakenly read word and read it correctly as necessary. Even the most advanced readers make mistakes, because there are so many that can be made. Some mistakes don’t have to be corrected: mistakes with the melody (if this does not lead to confusion) and minor pronunciation mistakes that do not affect meaning. But other than that, mistakes must be addressed and fixed.

Someone who practices for months should be able to read with no prompting at all and no mistakes. But it doesn’t necessarily work this way; the text in the scroll might not look like the version used for practice. The overall layout may be different; the letters may look slightly different. In a scroll, to achieve left and right alignment, the scribes sometimes elongated certain letters; that can throw a beginner off. Also, different scrolls have different calligraphic styles, some of which may be much clearer to a beginner than others.

Later on, a reader has to determine how much time to devote to preparation. I generally need just a couple of evenings, but it helps if I start getting the text in my ear as early as possible. So when I have leyning coming up, I run through it about a week in advance, then practice briefly every day for the next couple of days. By then, I have pretty much learned it, and in the last day or two I spend more time on it (or the other way around: I practice a lot earlier on, then review it briefly every day). In a pinch I can prepare from scratch a day or two in advance, but it’s much more solid with some earlier repetitions. Also, if I spend more time with it, I see things in the text that I didn’t see before, or come to hear it in new ways.

Why do people choose to learn to leyn? Some learn it for a particular occasion, such as a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. Typically others participate in the leyning as well, since the full text is quite long. (My cousin Julian is now preparing for his bar mitzvah, which will take place in Portland in April; I will have the honor of leyning some verses over Zoom.) Others are drawn to the practice and become regular readers at their synagogue. I started with a special occasion (a Haftarah that I wanted to chant, Ezekiel 37:1-14) but knew from the start that I wanted to keep on leyning.

A Torah reader reads one or more sets of verses known as “aliyot” (plural of “aliyah”). For each aliyah, someone (usually not the reader) is called up to the bima to recite the blessings that precede and follow the reading. This is an honor given to members of the congregation. In the olden days, the one called up for the aliya would also read Torah, but over time, with the decreasing numbers of people capable of doing this, the reading was separated out and assigned to someone else. Reading Torah is not considered one of the formal honors during a service; the aliya is the honor. But in another sense, it’s one of the greatest honors a person can experience in shul (or anywhere).

In the moment, when done correctly, it really is reading in the liveliest sense. You focus on each syllable, the progression of the phrases and verses, and the full sweep. It comes as a surprise, even after hundreds of repetitions over the years.

Art credit: Ashkenazi Torah reading by Geula Tversky.

I added to this piece after posting it.

Things to Look Forward To

With war in Ukraine and worries across the border, there is much to cherish and attend. A glimpse of the next week:

Tomorrow in Budapest I am leading a Szim Salom service with Rabbi Kelemen. I still have to practice my leyning but am confident about it.

Next week we have oral entrance exams—three packed days—for students applying to our bilingual program. That will be intense and packed but enjoyable too.

On or around March 1, the Winter 2022 issue of Literary Matters will come out—with my translations of two of Csenger Kertai’s poems, along with many other interesting and beautiful things. (I have seen the proof.)

On March 2, if I finish with the oral exams early enough, I will hurry out to Budapest to hear a Platon Karataev duo concert (Gergő and Sebő).

On Friday, March 4, I will go to the Idea record release show.

On Saturday, March 5, I will head off to Pécs to hear both Dávid Szesztay and Cz.K. Sebő in concert. Any reader of this blog knows what this means to me, or has some sense of it. I will stay overnight in Pécs and come back to Szolnok in the morning.

Then various things over the following weeks, including a visit to the Sipos Orbán vocational high school for Women’s Day. And then the Pilinszky event on March 20.

This seems like just a list, but there is more to it than a list. There are sounds, thoughts, memories, hopes, works, drafts, anticipations, departures.

The photo at the top is from an event I attended last night at the Nyitott Műhely, a place I hope to visit again many times. Csenger Kertai, accompanied by Lóránt Péch on piano, read from his novel-in-progress. Then Péch performed solo.

I added to this piece after posting it.

Meanings of “Mindíg” in Pilinszky’s Poetry

It’s easy to assume you know what a word like “mindig” means. It means “always,” and we know what “always” means, correct? Not necessarily.

Yesterday I started thinking of Pilinszky’s “mindig” (which he spells “mindíg”) in more than one way. (By the way, speaking of ways, the Pilinszky event is three and a half weeks away!)

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

A tengerpartot járó kisgyerek
mindíg talál a kavicsok közt egyre,
mely mindöröktől fogva az övé,
és soha senki másé nem is lenne.

I have translated it as follows (taking liberties for rhythm and sense):

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

I first took this “mindíg,” “always,” to mean that the child does this every day—that he has claimed, loved, and thrown away stone after stone. But there is a different way of hearing the “mindíg.”

It could also suggest an archetype, an eternal state of things. There is “always” a child doing this, it is happening now. The “mindíg” brings space and time together into the current moment.

Why is it spelled “mindíg” in Pilinszky’s poetry, when the supposedly correct spelling is “mindig” (without the accent over the second “i”)? I asked my students this question recently, and they thought that it was a way of giving emphasis to the word. If that is so, then there’s even more reason to suspect that Pilinszky’s “mindíg” is not the everyday “mindig” but something else.

This applies to other Pilinszky poems as well, including “Egy szép napon” (“On a Fine Day”).

These thoughts came to mind yesterday after our short technical run-through for the event. I intend to bring up “mindíg” when the time comes.

I am looking forward to it so much and have so much to do in the meantime. You can already download a program containing the Pilinszky poems and quotes that we will be discussing, with English translations. We might not get to everything on the program—and the event includes a lot that is not listed in it—but it should help you follow along.

A tangentially related thought came to mind: if you are in New York, and enjoy frequenting the Hungarian Pastry Shop, you can easily attend the event from there! Just get yourself situated with a pastry and coffee, don the headphones or earphones, and join via Zoom. I last visited the place three years and a day ago (a couple of hours before my event at Book Culture) and can vouch for its pastries and atmosphere.

Wherever you attend from, we look forward to seeing you.

Photo credits:

Pilinszky image credit: Pilinszky János, Szép versek 1971 (published 1972). Photo # 44.
Photo of Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly by Pál Czirják, published in
Kortárs Online.
Photo of Csenger Kertai by Dénes Erdős, published in KULTer.hu.
Photo of Gergely Balla by Márton Ficsor, published in Mandiner.hu.
Photo of the Hungarian Pastry Shop by Clayrey. Published in Wikimedia Commons.

Seven Reasons to Come to the Pilinszky Event

It looks like lots of people are coming to the Pilinszky online event on March 20! But if you are undecided, here are seven reasons to come:

  1. János Pilinszky (1921–1981). Whether you grew up with his work or haven’t heard of him until recently, this event will introduce (or re-introduce) you to a few of his poems.
  2. The guests and hosts. This is a rare chance to hear Csenger Kertai, Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly discuss Pilinszky and perform from their work. For the hosts—Diana Senechal and the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers—this event is an honor and a joy.
  3. The languages. How often are literary events held in both English and Hungarian? The discussion will be mostly in English, with some translation back and forth; the poems, in both Hungarian and English, and the music, in one or the other. And speaking of that….
  4. The format. Instead of having a discussion followed by a performance, or vice versa, we will be combining discussion, poetry, and music. Literary events in Hungary are often conducted in this manner. It’s exciting because of the unexpected connections that arise between the various parts.
  5. The ease of attending. All you have to do is log in via Zoom. There is no charge. The instructions are on the website and the Facebook page. To find out exactly when the event starts in your area, go here. We have also prepared a downloadable program (containing the Pilinszky poems and quotes that we intend to discuss).
  6. The lack of dogma. We are not trying to drive home a particular message about Pilinszky or his world. The discussion will be inquisitive rather than didactic. We have a few working ideas but do not know where they will lead.
  7. The chance to ask questions. We will save time at the end for a few questions and comments. We can’t promise to get to all of them, but we do hope for some exchange with the audience.

The list could go on and on, but instead I will leave off with a quote from the poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy (whose centennial is now being celebrated in Hungary, a year after Pilinszky’s). I would only combine it with a suggestion that Pilinszky’s poetry contains exhilaration too, the exhilaration of facing the spectre.

“Pilinszky added a dimension to our lives (all our lives, now, the life of poetry), he enriched us with want, with being lost, the dearth of existence pared down to the bone. The extraordinary catharsis of his poetic power arched over such dearth. It would be good to look now into those places to which he opened a breach, look in through the inner doors of the ante chamber, to those places where destruction is spread out like the sky.”
 
—Ágnes Nemes Nagy, “János Pilinszky: A Very Different Poet” (1981), translated by Rudolf Fischer

“Egy dimenziót csatolt hozzá Pilinszky az életünkhöz (most már mindnyájunk életéhez, a költészet életéhez), meggazdagított a hiánnyal, elveszettséggel, az egzisztencia csontig, képletig letisztított ínségével. Költői hatalmának kivételes katarzisa ilyen ínségre boltozódott. Most volna jó benézni oda, ahova ő nyitott rést, benézni az előszoba bentebbi ajtaján, most volna jó oda, ahol a pusztulás úgy terül el, mint egy égbolt.”
 
—Nemes Nagy Ágnes, “Valaki más” (1981)

P.S. Seven reasons, but eight books? Yes, well, the eighth reason is up to you.

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

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    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.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    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.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

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

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

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

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

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