The Pilinszky Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here is an extraordinary translation by Géza Simon:

The Straight Labyrinth
(Egyenes labirintus)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Glass (my essay in The Nation)

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

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

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

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

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

Image source: Cult MTL.

Upcoming Events

This is the busiest fall I can remember in years, and there have been quite a few busy ones. Teaching is in full swing, with all kinds of interesting things: Hamlet, utopia projects (my students read a few chapters of Thomas More’s Utopia and are now creating utopias of their own), The Glass Menagerie, songs, grammar, lively discussions, test practice, the usual textbook stuff, and more.

Outside of school, just as much is going on: translations, writing, events. Speaking of events, I have two to announce.

On October 15, I will be one of the panelists in an ALSCW Zoom event titled “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture,” which will feature an array of speakers, as well as poetry readings by Edward Hirsch and Yusef Komunyakaa. It should be terrific. The full event description and Zoom information can be found here. The event is free and open to the public.

On October 26, I will be the fourth featured guest in The MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series (open to the public for an entrance fee of $10.00; please register in advance). The previous guests were Fred Turner, Sarah Cortez, and Dana Gioia. I will be reciting and talking about poetry and translation (both my own and others’). One of the poems I plan to recite is Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight labyrinth”), both in the original and in the wonderful translation of Géza Simon. To anyone in Hungary: you are welcome to attend, but please know that it starts at 1 a.m. on October 27 here! Fortunately we will be on spring break, so I can sleep in afterwards.

Speaking of Pilinszky, I should have some news, fairly soon, about an ALSCW Zoom event I intend to host in the spring, dedicated to Pilinszky and his influence. Details are still being worked out, so I will say more when there is more to say.

Also, if all goes well, we (my school and the Verseghy Ferenc Public Library in Szolnok) will hold a Shakespeare festival on April 22! We had hoped to do this last year, but Covid got in the way. This day-long festival will feature lectures, workshops, and student performances (in Hungarian and English) of Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs.

Before that, this fall and winter, there will be two new issues of Folyosó. Submissions are now open for the autumn issue; the international contest focuses on the topic of contradictions in life. I look forward to seeing what pieces come in (I have already read a few) and what shape this issue takes!

At Szim Salom, I am leading four services this month. One took place on Friday; the other three will be this Friday, this Saturday, and Saturday the 23rd. In my case, leading the services means singing all the musical parts, all the melodic liturgy, leyning Torah, and leading the congregation through the parts of the service. When I co-lead with the rabbi (on Saturdays), she leads the spoken parts and usually gives a dróse (a D’var Torah, or sermon). This month, the Saturday services will take place in person, at Bálint Ház in Budapest.

There’s a lot more going on, but I think that’s enough. As for other people’s events, this afternoon I am going to Budapest to hear Csenger Kertai (whose poems I am translating) and several other poets: Krisztián Peer, Katalin Szlukovényi, Dávid Börzsei, and Bálint Borsi. Like the event at the A38 Hajó, but differently, this event will combine poetry with music and visual art.

Also, there’s a concert I’d like to hear on Thursday—a double CD release party for Noémi Barkóczi and Mayberian Sanskülotts—but for various reasons I don’t think I can go. I will listen to their music at home, and if it turns out that I can go, I will.

Other things, other concerts are happening this month, but this is enough for now.

The photo is of the Aranytoll (Golden Pen), a pen and stationery shop here in Szolnok. (At least I think that’s what it is; I haven’t been inside yet.)

A Platon Karataev Time Capsule

Last night, when I was listening to a few things on YouTube and elsewhere, a Platon Karataev video popped up that I had never seen before.Beautifully shot by Diána Komróczki, it shows them performing “Prison” on the KERET stage (where I first heard the wonderful Cataflamingo this year) at the Kolorádó Fesztivál in 2017. Their bassist was András Jáky.

KERET is an independent blog and journal about independent Hungarian music. (I support it, by the way, when I can, and I recommend doing the same.) It draws attention to some of the most interesting and gifted—and often little-known—indie musicians performing today. The KERET stage is my favorite thing about the Kolorádó Fesztival. If only there weren’t a thumping drum from a dance area nearby! Although my feelings about the festival were mixed (mostly because of the incessant thumping electronic monotonic drum from several stages and areas there), I would go back for the KERET stage alone.

Anyway, here was Platon Karataev on the KERET stage, playing a song that has not appeared on any of their albums… and why not? Because that was not its fate; it was to transform into another song, “Wide Eyes.” If you listen to this (right here below), and then “Wide Eyes” (below that), and watch these performances too, you will see what an incredible and unexpected journey they have been on. How could they have known, in 2017, where this song and they would go? Also, look at the (sparse and intensely attentive) audience: the young man standing in the very front with two others, the one listening with all his heart, is none other than László Sallai (wearing a “Player 00” shirt, it seems), who would become their bassist in 2019. And I love this “Prison” song; it has a country feel with upbeat, subtle lyrics and the refrain “Let’s look for a better one.” I would have been drawn in on that day.

And now, here’s “Wide Eyes,” which is part of their 2020 album Atoms. I am showing the Live at Gólya performance below, because it’s great, and that way you can see them performing it. It’s slightly slower than “Prison,” the lyrics are mostly changed, but the soul of it is the same, only clearer. The song has found its way. The “straight labyrinth” is a reference to Pilinszky’s poem by the same title, and the reference goes beyond that phrase alone. The song’s essence is close to the poem; when Sebő sings, “Meteors light my mind / I peel layers of my thoughts,” it brings to mind “this free-fall on open wings, / this flight into the fiery / focus, the communal nest” (from Géza Simon’s translation of Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus“).

Besides being part of Atoms and their many performances (I think it’s one of the audience favorites, wherever they go), this song has an extraordinary video starring the actor Ágoston Kenéz, whose zest, instinct, and understanding of the song fill every split-second frame.

On Friday night I heard Platon Karataev play in Szeged, at the beloved Grand Café, where I have previously heard Dávid Szesztay play and Gyula Jenei read. As I listened, I felt how much has happened with them and their music over these past few years. And so much more to go. They had last played in Szeged in 2018. It was a joyous return for them and the crowd. They said they were staying around afterwards to talk with people, and I was tempted to stay and say hi, but I didn’t, even though I was staying the night in Szeged. I actually have never talked with them in person, except to say thank you quickly. I would love to talk with them at some point, but after a show I am a bit shy and don’t really feel the need. I still have the music in my ears and want to carry it for a while. Also, I figured they had lots of Szeged friends waiting to speak with them, and there would be a better time. But I walked out with sounds, thoughts, and pictures in my head (not on camera), one of which was this glimpse of time, of the things that happen that no one expects but that take us closer to our wobbling, plunging truth.

Photo credit: I took it in Szeged on Friday a few hours before the show.

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

An Exceptional Two Days

First, the best news of all: Sziszi is found! Last night I came home late from Budapest, only to find Sziszi gone and Dominó distressed out of his mind. I couldn’t figure out how Sziszi had gotten out of the apartment; a window exit seemed implausible, so I figured she must have followed me out the door at some point. Last night I looked around—in the apartment, in the building, and outside—and couldn’t find her, so I did some frantic online research on escaped cats and read that if they are indoor cats, they don’t tend to go far from home. So I kept my hopes up. Wednesday is my longest day at school, and this morning I ran out the door without my glasses, so during a break I took a cab back home, got my glasses, and went back. Still no sign of Sziszi. When I came home at the end of the day, I looked inside the building, around the neighborhood, and in the courtyard, but no Sziszi. A neighbor came along and tried to help me for a while; we went out to the courtyard again, and out to the front. I brought some cat food, which attracted a large throng of cats, but not Sziszi. It got dark; I decided to try the courtyard once more. I went out there and called her. And then I heard that familiar petulant meow, the meow that could come from no other. She was right there, and she knew I was there; so it was just a matter of minutes before she let me pick her up and take her in. I stopped by my neighbors to tell them I had found her, and then brought her home. She, Dominó, and I are so happy right now. She’s curled up in a cat pouch (pictured above), Dominó is gazing out the window, and I’m here at my desk.

Now backtracking: last night I went to hear Csenger Kertai give a reading to jazz accompaniment by the Hász Estzer Quintet. It was even more than I had expected: interview, reading, music, improvisation all combined. The music, whether improvised or composed, brought out surprising aspects of the poems. The band’s rendition of “Hold” (“Moon”) was phenomenal, the interview went into questions of privacy, spontaneity, creation and more. But these were not separate elements; they interwove, so that the poems themselves, the discussions of the poems, and the musical interpretations formed something new. I have never seen an interweaving like this before, and it is inspiring some ideas. Here is a video of the event.

The previous evening, I had also gone to Budapest: first to a doctor’s appointment, and then to a Cataflamingo concert in the basement of a club in Pest. I first heard Cataflamingo at the Kolorádó Festzivál, on the KERET stage; they were my favorite new discovery there. The lead singer and bassist, Áron Csiki, has charisma that draws the audience in but is never over the top. He reminds me slightly of Prince, Billy Corgan, Kid Dakota, David Bowie—but flies in a space of his own. The band is talented and rich with influences (jazz, R&B, rock); their groove keeps lifting into something new. There’s a warmth to the music too; the lyrics are sad and exuberant at once, and the audience sways and sings along. It was thrilling to be there, and I look forward to much more.

All this was on top of teaching, translation, holidays, and thought, each of these a subject in itself. And the week is not yet over! Tomorrow I go to the Tisza Mozi for a premiere of the movie A feleségem története. On Friday I head to Szeged to hear the beloved Platon Karataev. But I take none of this for granted. It’s a shivering gift.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it (as usual, but I was so tired last night that I really left out a few points that I had meant to make). Also, I changed the Cataflamingo selection (from “Megbocsát” to “Kilincs”), because this video gives a sense of their performances, and I love this song too.

Running, Radio, and Rest

A busy summer vacation filled with translation, travel, and concerts has come to an end, though the translation and concerts continue. We have a faculty meeting tomorrow morning and will then be officially back on board, though the week is fairly light for some of us. The following week, September 1, is when classes start. I am assuming that nothing will prevent me from going to Fishing on Orfű this Thursday, though that could change. I’m going only for a night, since I have to be back before Friday evening to lead an online Szim Salom service. I will arrive at the festival in time to pitch my tent and then hear the Platon Karataev acoustic duo (Gergő and Sebő) play on the water stage. Then I will find my way to the Fonó Borfalu to hear Dávid Szesztay; I will probably stay there to hear Szeder (for the first time), and then walk around and explore. But to do this, it won’t be possible to bring the bike, unfortunately; it turns out that there are no available bike spaces on the trains from Budapest to Pécs. Instead, I will take the train to Pécs (from Szolnok, via Budapest, without a bike), then take a public bus from Pécs to Orfű. That will also allow me to get back home earlier on Friday.

I am looking forward to the school year; I have lots of plans for my classes, and this year, if we are lucky, we (the public library and the school) will actually be able to hold a Shakespeare festival.

But on to the subjects of this post: running, radio, and rest.

Running is my favorite form of exercise after bicycling, when I am relatively in shape. Recently I have been running a mile almost every day, which isn’t much compared to what I used to do at my peak (five miles twice a week or so), but still an improvement over the recent years. I think I could work back up to five miles, but I have to do it carefully. Anyway, running takes off the excess energy, elongates the body, and just feels great. So much for that.

Now, radio. For most of my life, I wasn’t much of a radio listener. It wasn’t on at home when I was growing up, and while my first encounters with radio were enchanting (I still remember the songs that played the day that I stayed home with a fever and listened), I usually couldn’t take that endless stream of Top 40 hits. Only later did I become aware of independent radio, and even then, I preferred to choose what to listen to. But over time, I came to realize how great a well-run radio show can be. If it’s a good show, it introduces you to music you will want to hear again, maybe music you would never have encountered on your own. The DJ not only knows a lot of music and has an enormous repertoire to select from, but also enjoys selecting and commenting on things.

It takes some dedication to listen to the radio. I don’t work with music in the background—I have to focus on the music, if it’s on—so I pick one radio show a week and stay for the whole thing if possible. Most recently, this show has been WFMU’s Continental Subway, with DJ David Dichelle. It’s a fantastic show. He plays music from all around the world, and knows how to pronounce the names and titles. In the third hour, the “Random Road,” he focuses on one country in particular, a surprise location (because he never tells us in advance). Last Thursday it was Bhutan. The music was dreamy. You can go listen to it in the archives if you are curious.

One of the real gifts of the internet is that it allows people to listen to a radio show from around the world and to type comments. So there are regulars from many different places, and short text conversations take place. Also, David welcomes us to write with suggestions. He is very interested in Hungarian bands, and has played some of my suggestions already: the Pandóra Projekt, Felső Tízezer, and the Sebő-együttes, as well as some Hungarian music that was new to me. It is really fun to have my suggestion played, and even more fun to hear music I don’t already know, and kinds of music I don’t usually listen to. I otherwise like to listen to my favorites over and over again, so this is a good contrast.

That leads to the last topic: rest. It is a good thing. But it has many dimensions. Rest isn’t just the absence of work, or the increase of sleep. It also has to do with the redirection of thought. We have many things that we are used to thinking about; turning the attention somewhere else, even for a little while, can be greatly restorative. That’s part of what happens at the end of Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” (one of my favorite stories in the world). The encounter with the baker shocks the bereaved couple out of their train of thought. There is something restful and luminous about the ending.

All of these are luxuries—running, radio, and rest—but luxuries that can be found and built, to some degree, with minimal money. They do take money, but not a lot. That is one thing I love about living in Hungary, where I moved almost four years ago: it is possible to build so much out of a simple life. I don’t have much money at all; my total financial assets, beyond my apartment, would probably get me through one year in the U.S. (if I were careful), and my teaching job pays me the equivalent of thirteen thousand dollars a year, more or less. But not only is it possible to live on very little here, but there’s so much to learn, create, and support. It’s hard to convey this to others, but it’s true: some material possessions are important, but not many. All depends on what one wants to do with them. For me, the apartment, the bike, the books, the musical instruments, the laptop are quite enough, not only in themselves, but in the projects they make possible. So, back to translating for a while.

Time, Time, Time

Getting older (and older and older) is a strange thing; when you’re young, you don’t necessarily know that you’re young (I didn’t, in my twenties and thirties), and then later you see that twenty years went by, just like that, and now you don’t feel old, but for most facts and purposes, and in the eyes of the world, you are. That doesn’t get in the way of much, at least not until the body and mind start to break down, but you know now that you have limited time to work with. That said, a lot can happen during these years: for most of my life I have lived with urgency, but now I do better things with it than before.

But four years go by in what feels like a few months. Four years ago today, and in the two preceding days, I decided to come to Szolnok to teach. I first learned about the opportunity on August 4, 2017—and wrote immediately to Mary Rose, the director of the Central European Teaching Program. In the few days that followed, I looked into it and made up my mind to do it. (I was pretty sure of it that very day, but it was definite, at least in my mind, by August 6.) I had no idea of all the things that would happen over these four years: the teaching, translating, writing, bike rides, music, friendship. What happy years these have been—and they seem like the beginning of much more.

Even twenty years don’t seem so long. Twenty years ago (not exactly, but more or less) I recorded my EP O Octopus at the wonderful analog studio Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. I didn’t release it, because I still had so many CDs from my earlier (homemade) release that I didn’t want to end up with even more boxes. Twenty years later, I think it was actually pretty good; I have uploaded it to YouTube and Bandcamp. All the pressure is off; I don’t have to promote it, but people can listen to it if they like.

Getting older is sometimes easy, sometimes difficult. The easy part is that I have grown stronger over time, with a much clearer sense of what I am doing in the world, and a basic joy in it. The difficult part is that I wish I had at least some of this a few decades ago. I had a terrible lack of confidence—not intellectually, but in other areas of my life, from simple interactions to musical endeavors. Now the confidence has grown, but years have gone by.

This happens to everyone to some degree, but I think my lack of confidence was a bit more than the usual. To others who suffer from that, I can only say: confidence comes from something other than self-affirmation or external praise. It comes from some willingness to be one of billions of people, doing your best and knowing it won’t be perfect: knowing that despite our illusions and fantasies, everyone is filled with imperfections, no one has the answers, and it’s on each of us to do what we can with what we have. But those are rational words, and confidence comes from something else, from daily walking and building. Could it have come to me sooner? Maybe, if I had known what it was.

Not that a person has to be overtly or inwardly confident all the time; there are times of self-doubt, self-criticism, wavering, guilt, regret, shyness. But you don’t have to condemn yourself for these things. That’s really what confidence is about: letting all these things have their place, without mistaking them for the whole. Taking life’s different textures.

I think of the end of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I have quoted here before:

Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself, insomuch that she thought she could perceive no great personal difference between being respected in the nether parts of Casterbridge and glorified at the uppermost end of the social world. Her position was, indeed, to a marked degree one that, in the common phrase, afforded much to be thankful for. That she was not demonstratively thankful was no fault of hers. Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transmit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

Publications, Honors, and Things

Sometimes I forget that this has been a prolific time. But it has been, and there’s a lot more coming this year and next, I hope. Along these lines, a few updates:

I have the honor of being invited to speak as a guest lecturer on October 26, 2021, in The MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series. The other sessions are led by Frederick Turner (July 27), Sarah Cortez (August 31), and Dana Gioia (September 28). These sessions are open to the public (with registration in advance); the fee for each session is $10. I will be reciting and speaking about my poetry, the poetry of others, and a translation or two.

My translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Scissors” was published in the Summer 2021 issue (Volume 62, Issue 2) of The Massachusetts Review; this particular issue is devoted to poetry, and it’s beautiful! You can order a copy here.

My essay “Plessy v. Ferguson and the Dissenting Opinion in the Classroom” will be published by Literary Imagination in the fall and is already available online (to those who have access). This is part of a special issue, which you can order with a subscription to Literary Imagination (which includes membership in the ALSCW). I think it will also be available later as a single issue.

And now for a few reminders:

Gyula Jenei’s collection Always Different: Poems of Memory, in my English translation, will be published by Deep Vellum in February 2022—not so far away any more! You can pre-order a copy.

My poem “Apology in Seven Tongues” was published by The Satirist in June. Read it all the way through, if you do read it; it’s saying something different from what it might seem to be saying at first. A reader wrote, “That’s really good. It takes seven unapologetic verses to get to the bottom of the event.” Another reader wrote, “F***ing gorgeous. Loved it.” And another: “Well, that is brilliant.”

My story “Immemorial” and my essay “I Signed to Protest the Blurring” are published in the wonderful inaugural issue of The Penny Truth / Krajcáros Igazság, Budapest’s Bilingual Literary Magazine. You can pick up a copy in Budapest or order one from Booksellers (just call them up).

A long, long heads-up: If all works out, in the spring of 2022 I will be hosting an online ALSCW event devoted to the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky and featuring two guests: the poet Csenger Kertai and the songwriter and musician Cz.K. Sebő (Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly). I will interview them about Pilinszky, and then they will perform, from their own work, pieces that relate to Pilinszky in some way.

And speaking of Cz.K. Sebő, I learned a lot from recording a cello cover of his song “Out of Pressure” (from his 2015 EP The masked undressed). On July 29 I re-recorded the vocals; you can find the new video here. The Hungarian word for “cover” (in this context) is “feldolgozás,” which also means “working up,” “converting.” I think of musical covers as translations of a sort. If they sound just like the original, that can be impressive, but uninteresting. For me, the interesting part of covering someone’s music is seeing what it turns into, which reveals something about what it already is.

Speaking of musical covers, I have wonderful memories of covering Marcell Bajnai’s (and his band 1LIFE’s/Idea’s) song “Maradok Ember” on cello at Varga and at the Summer Institute in Dallas two years ago. And I have started working on a musical rendition of a Sándor Weöres sonnet.

Speaking of music, I put my unreleased 2001 EP O Octopus on Bandcamp and YouTube. Soon I expect to have it on Spotify as well.

And two new translation projects are underway: of poems by Csenger Kertai and stories by Sándor Jászberényi. More about these in good time!

With all of that, I am glad to have a few more weeks of summer break but am also looking forward to the new school year. There are so many things I want to do with my classes. I hope that we will have classes in person all year long, but no matter what happens, there will be a lot to do.

Politics Are Not All of Life

There are people who, upon learning that I live in Hungary, immediately ask, “What do you think about its turn toward the right?” I then have to explain that the country is not monolithic, that there is much more to it than Orbán, and that people like Gergely Karácsony, mayor of Budapest and one of the opposition’s potential candidates for the next national election, stands for something markedly different from him. But I would go even farther and say that politics are not all of life, that you don’t have to get riled up over politics to live thoughtfully and conscientiously, and that you can find meaning and relative freedom (whatever freedom is—Gyula Jenei has a remarkable new poem on this topic) in other things, without being any more escapist or selfish than most humans out there. Granted, politics cover many areas of life and involve most of us at some point, whether we like it or not. But even so, we don’t have to get caught up in them beyond what is necessary or in our nature. Nor do they make us virtuous.

“But look at what’s happening around you!” people will yell. Yes, but there are many things happening around me. Only some of them could be called political. The over-politicization of life is a prison in itself. Many writers and others have resisted the pressure to turn everything into a political statement, to go around with banners and slogans.

In the thirty or so years since I first read Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, I have often returned in my mind to this passage (in Part 2, Chapter 2, about Karel’s mother, here in the translation of Michael Henry Heim):

But the defect in her sight seemed to explain something much more basic: what was large for them was small for her, what were stones for them were houses for her.

To tell the truth, this characteristic of hers was not entirely new, but at one time it had bothered them greatly. One night, for example, the tanks of a huge neighboring country came and occupied their country. The shock was so great, so terrible, that for a long time no one could think about anything else. It was August, and the pears in the garden were nearly ripe. The week before, Mother had invited the local pharmacist to come and pick them. He never came, never even apologized. The fact that Mother refused to forgive him drove Karel and Marketa crazy. Everybody’s thinking about tanks, and all you can think about is pears, they yelled. And when shortly thereafter they moved away, they took the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother’s perspective—a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.

Kundera does not make this the last word; this is still close to the beginning, with much to follow. Nor is Karel sure that his mother is right; he just realizes that the answer is not as simple as he had supposed.

That is what I have learned over time, too. This does not mean that politics should be ignored, or that it’s entirely possible to do so. There are some issues, such as Covid, hunger, and global warming, that can only be addressed by countries and individuals together, through concerted work and lucid language. In that sense they are political. There are also times in our daily lives when we have to take action on behalf of a person or principle. That, too, could be considered political. And we all have political duties of one kind or another, at one level or another, from voting to taking part in work meetings. (Workplaces have their own political systems.)

Nor do we have to be uniformly political or apolitical throughout our lives; we go through changes in this regard. I cared intensely about politics, as usually understood, in my late teens and early twenties. After that, less so. I came to distrust and resist the pressure to be political on other people’s terms. Even more than that, I came to dislike the judgments that went along with such pressure. But I have been outspoken on education and other issues, over many years, and have received both praise and flack for this.

What do people know about each other, really? Someone who seems apolitical may actually be doing more for others, and more to improve the surroundings, than someone who jumps into every political argument. Or ther reverse could be true. It is not always obvious, and our judgments are often based on meager information.

There’s a need for people who take up political causes, make political arguments, run for office. But if everyone were doing that, or if those doing it all did it in the same way, we’d end up with a dreary and dangerous world. People have different inclinations, different things that delight and intrigue and trouble them; all these things have a place, as long as they do not harm others. So let there be room in life for the ferns at the top of this post, for the poems being read at festivals this summer, for the things that are hard to say, for the struggle, late at night, with a math problem, or for the rush of a musical idea.

Success and Its Contradictions

I have thought and written about success over the years, but right now I am focusing on its inherent contradiction. Most of us want to do good work by our own standards, in some area of life. But we also want this work to be recognized and rewarded. For a while these desires go hand in hand. But at some point they come into conflict: something you consider your best work falls flat with others, or the things you need to do for recognition seem like a waste of time and spirit. Then you have to choose which way to go.

This conflict also affects how you perceive and present yourself. Many musicians, writers, artists, filmmakers, actors, take pride in an indie (independent) identity. But if you want some kind of financial remuneration, you have to give up at least a sliver of your indie-ness. Some people get so afraid of this that they sabotage themselves, lashing out at their supporters and proclaiming the falseness of the world. Others try to play by the rules at least somewhat, for the sake of the art. The question is serious: how far you can go in others’ eyes before you end up selling your soul. But there’s no formulaic answer.

Basic principles can bring some clarity. The work has to be good. There’s no way around that. If it isn’t, it may have a brief heyday, but who cares? It’s more embarrassing, in the end, to come up with a big hit that fizzles, than to create something lasting that fails to catch on. If your work is good, you have a stronghold in it.

But what does it mean for work to be good? We keep trying to make it better and better. At some point we bring it out to the world. That, too, has to be done. But it’s a kind of parting. There’s an understanding that once you publish it, it’s “done.” Nothing is ever done, but at the same time it has to be.

In the end, success is like carrying an umbrella (I had to bring in the photo somehow). You want to stay dry, but you also hope it rains. At least two systems of elements meet each other, and probably three: your own, your work’s, and the world’s. What comes of the meeting is up to chance, dedication, the human beings around you, and earth, air, water, fire.

  • “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 February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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

  • 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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