An October of Octobers Ahead

October is my favorite month and has been for decades. It has the foliage, the songs, the jumbled sounds. Bells clanging. A coat wrapped around the body. An urge to walk uphill. To dance against the wayward wind, thrilling in strength. Mourning a little.

But this will be an October of Octobers. First, this school year has started off especially well. I am starting my sixth year at Varga, but it feels in a way like a new arrival. The students are thoughtful, funny, very bright. I have a lot planned. Normally, under these circumstances, I would not want to be absent for eight school days in a row. If someone were trying to send me off to some special program, I’d say, no, no, I have too much to do here. But this October is different.

As I mentioned before, eight adults and a baby are traveling together to the U.S. for the ALSCW Conference and two Platon Karataev duo concerts (the Platon Karataev duo is in our traveling group). The basic details and any important updates can be found here. Still, such details do not come close to summing up what this has been and will be. We have been planning this for six months straight, almost every day, but all the planning in the world doesn’t tell you what it will be like.

There will be New Haven in autumn: for me, memories upon memories, and for them (and me too), something rather new. There will be the conference itself, full of interesting things, and within it, my double-session “Setting Poetry to Music” seminar, which is turning out even richer than I expected. (See the lineup at the bottom of this post.) Then the Platon Karatev duo concerts: at Cafe Nine in New Haven (on Sunday, October 23), then at Arlene’s Grocery in NYC (on Monday, October 24).

Still another exceptional event has presented itself. The duo will be recording on October 24 (during the day) at Leesta Vall Sound Recordings in Brooklyn. You can order your own personalized 7″ lathe cut vinyl song. But hurry—it’s almost sold out!

Here’s the seminar lineup. You can read the full conference program here.


Setting Poetry to Music: Session 1 (Friday, October 21, 10:30-12:30 a.m.)

Gergely Balla, Independent Musician/Songwriter, “It Cannot Answer: A Platon Karataev Song Inspired by the Oeuvre of Sándor Csoóri”

Claudia Gary, Independent Writer/Artist, “Song as Conversation”

Emily Grace, Catholic University of America, “A Study of the Interpretive Potential of Two Settings of John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart'”

Todd Hearon, Phillips Exeter Academy, “‘Caliban in After-Life’: Reimagining Shakespeare’s Monster in Words and Music”

Kata Heller, Eötvös Loránd University, “Rap as a New Type of Poetry? A Discussion of the Genre within the Scope of Holi’s ‘Roadmovie’ (‘Sírok és nevetek’)”

Anna Maria Hong, Mount Holyoke College, “H & G: From Novella to Opera”

Csenger Kertai, Independent Writer, “Kaláka’s Musical Interpretation of Attila József’s ‘Tudod, hogy nincs bocsánat’ (‘Mercy Denied Forever’)”

Alyse O’Hara, University of Connecticut,“Performing on the Theme of Consent in Sir Walter Ralegh’s ‘The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd’”

Setting Poetry to Music: Session 2 (Saturday, October 22, 1:45-3:45 p.m.)

Lara Allen, Independent Artist, “And All Round Me Spirits: Invoking Harry Partch”

Fruzsina Balogh,Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, and Panna Kocsis,Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design,  “Music and Poetry in the Language of Contemporary Hungarian Visual Art”

Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Independent Musician/Songwriter, “Accompaniment or Song: Two Musical Approaches to János Pilinszky”

Piotr Gwiazda, University of Pittsburgh, “Listening to Grzegorz Wróblewski on YouTube”

Mary Maxwell, Independent Scholar, “Setting Sulpicia’s Songs”

Jennifer Davis Michael, Sewanee: The University of the South, and Nathan Davis, The New School College of Performing Arts, “Bell of Silence”

Kimberly Soby, University of Connecticut, “Examining Word Painting in the Vocal Works of Earl Kim”

Iris Zheng, Independent Scholar, “Composition as Criticism and Creation” 


Art credit: Leonid Afremov, October Park.

The Pixies in Budapest

After buying a good ticket (up on a terrace, with an excellent view) about a year in advance, I almost didn’t go to the concert last night. I was tired and in the mood for rest and reflection. But come on, now: this was the Pixies, playing in Budapest for the very first time in their thirty-six years of existence. I was introduced to their music in late 1991. It changed my idea of what a song could be. There was no one like them, and they influenced huge swaths of what came afterward. Their lyrics: morbid, funny, endearing, bizarre, full of curious stories and verbal twists; their music, driving and dreamy, screaming and whispering, fast and slow, sometimes all of this in a single song. All four band members brought a lot to it: a special drum sound, a screeching, wailing, minimalist guitar, Black Francis’s (the lead singer’s) utter conviction in his own words, and Kim Deal… well, I think most Pixies fans have been at least slightly in love with her down-home brilliance. I never got to see them live before last night, but I listened to their albums over and over and saw the Breeders (the band Kim founded) many times, and even contributed lyrics to their song “Head to Toe.” Back to the Pixies: Black Francis broke up the band in 1993. They reunited in 2003; Deal left the band in 2013.

So yes, this was to be my first Pixies concert, more than thirty years after first hearing them. I got out the door and onto my bike and zipped off to the train station. Getting to Budapest Park from Szolnok is a bit of a challenge when you’re in a hurry. I took the train to the Keleti station, took the M4 metro from there to Kálvin tér, switched from there to the M3, which I took out to Népliget, and walked from there (20-30 minutes) to Budapest Park. Fortunately they started about ten minutes after the announced time. I had missed the opening band, but no matter. The Pixies took the stage and plunged right in with “Gouge Away.” It gave me a strange thrill to be hearing them after so many years, among thousands of cheering, dancing fans. The terrace was less crowded than the ground level, and the people around me were having a great time. Many of them knew the lyrics.

I knew all the songs from their albums through Trompe le Monde (1991) and none of their later songs. The earlier songs included (in no particular order) “Caribou,” “Ed Is Dead,” “Bone Machine,” “Break My Body,” “Gigantic,” “Where Is My Mind,” “Velouria,” “UMass,” “Planet of Sound,” “Subbacultcha,” “Debaser,” “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” “Here Comes Your Man,” and “Hey.” Actually, I’m not entirely sure that they played “Hey”; my memory might have interpolated it. There’s some catching up to be done, though not an awful lot (it has been quipped that the Pixies have become a Pixies cover band—slightly true, but not really justified, as they are still releasing new albums). I love their “new” bassist, Paz Lechantin, who first joined them as a touring bassist and became a permanent member of the band in 2016. She’s a tremendous musician, and it’s clear that she honors the legacy of Kim Deal while bringing herself to the songs.

I remember trying (here and there) to introduce people in Kyrgyzstan to the Pixies back in 1993. One couple, who became friends with me, took a liking to the songs; I remember walking with them late at night in downtown Bishkek, drinking warm champagne, and talking about all sorts of things. They were joyous that such music existed.

That is what the Pixies left with me, both thirty years ago and last night: the music itself, the knowledge that it is possible, and the many different times and places of listening, and friendships formed through that. And along with it, who knows what else. I listen to different music today, I think of music differently today, but something has carried on from that era, and something has been let go.

Note: Officially the band is “Pixies,” not “The Pixies.” But everyone I know says “the Pixies,” including top-level Pixies connoisseurs. In the context of a sentence, “Pixies” without the “the” sounds strange.

Escape into Truth

Music at its best is an escape into truth: an escape from noise, distraction, circumvention into something that you recognize and know at your core but also learn right there and cannot fully explain. That’s what Cz.K. Sebő’s concert last night at the Központ was like. A full room, most of the audience seated on the floor. A hush. A quality of attention that you don’t often find. A rich, beautiful performance: his own songs (including favorites such as “Out of Pressure,” “Hart,” “Eternal Home,” “Wide Eyes,” “Debris,” and a Hungarian/English rendition of Pilinszky’s “Egy szép napon”) and an array of covers (of songs by Jackson C. Frank, Blaze Foley, Current Joys, Sebő Együttes/József Attila, and Damien Jurado). The covers were an act of gratitude and love, and an opening into music we hadn’t necessarily heard before, or heard in that way.

There was something I learned at the concert, but I can’t explain it. It was a flash of “You must change your life” stretched into an hour. But changing your life doesn’t mean doing everything differently. It might mean, simply, a new alertness, a new way of hearing things, or to borrow from Art of Flying, timeawakenness. It is nothing to take for granted; you have to build room for it and defend it against everything that would chip away at it or knock it down.

So I’ll end here with a beautiful recording and video of Damien Jurado playing “Abilene.” I love how the song ends with a question.

Two Miles (and Who Are We, Anyway?)

This morning I ran over two miles (close to four kilometers) for the first time in years. It used to be my minimum distance, but I haven’t reached it in a long while. Biking is different; I can bike a hundred kilometers in a day without much trouble. With biking, the only thing that really tires me is the position: my hands, back, and rump get stiff after a while. But running’s in some ways the opposite; the elongated posture is relaxing, but the stamina takes time to build. Two and a half miles is a great daily standard; if I can keep it up, I will be in good shape. I was ready for it earlier this summer, but the heat kept me to two kilometers daily. Today, in the blustery weather, I kept going and going.

In childhood, I thought I was not only bad at sports, but fundamentally different from the jocks. The jocks were one type of person, I was another. (How wrong that was—but more about that in a moment.) I couldn’t react quickly on the field. If a ball was thrown my way, I panicked. Some adults told me that this was a sign of intelligence: that people who hesitate are brighter than those who don’t. That’s wrong too; quick thinking and reflexes are a form of intelligence. Anyway, I thought that it was my fate to be bad at sports. And then I discovered that I was good at things that required endurance, such as running. A lot of kids hated running so much that a mile seemed way beyond the pale. I started running a mile daily, out on the sports field.

After a while, some of the older girls—whom I admired to the skies—asked if they could run with me, because I could keep their motivation up. This was great for me; I was thrilled that I had something to offer them, something they weren’t as good at. And a sport, no less! We had conversations while running; I still remember some of them.

But I was still considered an “intellectual” type (and therefore not other things). There is a tendency in American culture to divide people into types. There’s a little less of that here in Hungary, I think, but no matter where you live, some form of typecasting happens. It’s limiting and dumb, because no matter what particular talents and weaknesses any of us has, these do not sum us up or predict what we will do.

Self-knowledge: in some ways a futile pursuit. We can get to know ourselves better over time, but there’s more to each of us than the self, and more than we see at any given moment. Recognition happens here and there in life, maybe often. But it is not necessarily self-recognition. It could be recognition of the truth, or of others, or of correspondences between things. I recognize something when listening to favorite music—but not necessarily myself. Maybe I hear something ancient, maybe a hint of a faraway memory, maybe a crack into a new understanding, maybe a basic sorrow or joy or something murky, maybe a cryptic pattern. Maybe sound and rhythm following and breaking their own rules.

Highlights of the Week

One of the great highlights of this week was reading John Cheever. I bought a big collection of his stories; this was inspired by Benedek Szabó’s online recommendation of “The Swimmer.” Before buying the book, I read “The Swimmer” and two other Szabó favorites, “Goodbye, My Brother” and “The Country Husband” (all three are fantastic) and reread two, “The Enormous Radio” and “Reunion.” Once I had the book, I started opening up to a random place and reading that űstory; in that way I have read (so far) “Clementina,” “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” “A Vision of the World,” “The Music Teacher,” and (my favorite of these five) “Metamorphoses.” Although the female characters sometimes lack depth (and not always), these stories are both brilliant and addictive, a great combination for someone who doesn’t very often sink into reading for sheer fun. My reading is usually slow and preparatory; I am getting ready for class, translation, leyning, or something else. I enjoy that kind of reading, or I wouldn’t do it—but it’s great to have this thick book of Cheever and to know that I’m going to read it fast.

I have already brought up some of the other highlights of the week, but one of them deserves a repetition. Cz.K. Sebő’s instrumental song “4224” is gorgeous. Listen to it here. The cover art is by Fruzsina Balogh.

Two interviews were published or announced this week, one from last week, one taking place next Thursday. My Chametzky Translation Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, summer intern at The Massachusetts Review, can now be viewed on YouTube.

And next Thursday at 2:30 p.m. EDT (8:30 p.m. in Hungary), Matt Barnes and Keil Dumsch will interview me about my ten-year-old book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. Everyone is welcome; to join, you need to be registered on LinkedIn.

Yesterday I had a beautiful day. I went to Budapest for two performances: first, Platon Karataev at the MOMkult, for the opening of the exhibition in memory of Tamási Áron. It was an absorbing and dreamy performance; I think “Tágul” was my favorite, though it’s hard to say.

Then I walked briskly to the Városmajori Szabadtéri Színpad to see the premiere of a musical adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (in Hungarian: 80 nap alatt a Föld körül). It was lively, funny, and inventive, with colorful song and dance, umbrellas, digital scenery, and a terrific cast. The libretto is by Réka Divinyi, and the music is by the band Lóci játszik. For years I had wanted to see Around the World in 80 Days on stage, having read about a performance in NYC. Here are some photos.

And there was much more: translating, writing, running, preparing for the ALSCW conference and October trip, listening to music, spending time with the cats, thinking, walking around Budapest, discovering new places and buildings. And now the sun is setting, and I will try to rest a little. Shabbat Shalom.

Listen Up: Sonny Smith (and the Sunsets too)

It was late 2000. I was soon to leave San Francisco, where I had lived seven years. Carrie Bradley’s band 100 Watt Smile was playing at Café du Nord. Someone by the name of Sonny Smith, who I had never heard of, was also playing. I was tired and didn’t want to hear two shows; I just wanted to hear Carrie and her band. But since I didn’t know who was playing first, I showed up early, awkwardly early. Then someone started playing who whisked all the gloom and exhaustion out of me. The music had a funk-rap feel (which he soon departed from), and his mordant, playful words spilled out like relaxed magic.

After his set and before 100 Watt Smile, I ran up to Carrie and said, “Sonny Smith was fantastic!” She motioned to her left, and there he was. I felt so awkward I couldn’t say anything more. But that was okay. I have never met a musician who doesn’t understand awkwardness at all. Later we collaborated on a project. But more about that later.

The songs he sang that night are mostly on his early album who’s the monster… you or me? which isn’t available online. I have it on CD but wouldn’t upload it; I think he would have done so if he wanted to. He has so many albums and projects at this point that it’s going to be hard to do them justice. But others have written about him very well, and I’ll take a little of their help. For instance, in a San Francisco Weekly article from January 2001, David Cook writes about the song “Pass the Wine” (one of my favorites to this day) and others. The article begins:

“The secret of writing is in the rhythm of urgency,” noted Jack Kerouac. No Bay Area songwriter understands that principle better than Sonny Smith. His peculiar lyrics pour out in a cascade of images, conjuring crazy characters such as Officer Scalletti, who was “killed by an iron hurled by the lover of his wife/ Who bleached her hair and pierced her tongue for the funeral”; darling, dipsomaniac Molly, “swinging a neon series Louisville Slugger/ Bat chin just a little bit higher than a rave rat’s/ Chance of pulling up his pants”; and Frank, who chased Molly to Dublin but preached “this whole boy meets girl/ Boy gets girl/ Boy loses girl/ Boy spends all his money chasing girl around the world is overrated.”

The amazing thing is that Smith writes the songs almost as quickly as he raps them at local clubs and bars. “It’s like having to tell somebody about these things that happened,” he says of his songs. “You’re just telling somebody really fast, like a little kid telling his mom, and you can’t even get it all out, you can’t possibly do it all justice.” Combining these urgent raps with an authentic funk/blues beat, Smith’s music is as natural sounding as it is unique.

Sonny’s creative energy and bounty breaks norms. By 2000, some of my favorite bands were slowing down or breaking up. Some had been disappointed by the false (or at least contradictory) promises of the 1990s, when indie music seemed to be catching on and so many musicians seemed within a few inches of “making it.” Many musicians reject the conditions for such success: the excessive focus on publicity, the grueling (and sometimes poorly matched) tours, the record deals that fall through or turn out to be ripoffs, the big breaks that ended up embarrassing in one way or another.

But Sonny was on his own roll. Playing, writing, mischief-making. Taking new directions and new projects. I’ll get to those in a minute. But first, it would be wrong to go any further without giving you one of his early songs. Here is “Way to Go,” from his beautiful, low-key album This Is My Story, This Is My Song (2002). Just listen to what happens at each stage of this song. The guitar, the backing vocals, the piano, the humming, the way the lyrics go into your own life and out to the lives of others.

there was a red bird flying
above a black-top road
there was a pinto trying
to pass a motor home
there was a woman singing
on the radio
there was a long, long way to go

Yes, so when I was living briefly in Tucson, I contacted Sonny, imagining he might have some stories to contribute to my new literary journal, Sí Señor. He replied by sending me ten or so. (There were many more to come.) They needed some touching up, so I offered to edit them. He accepted (and liked the edits). So there we were. Sí Señor had catapulted into near-existence. While the first issue was still underway, I moved to NYC, gathered more writing and art, put it all together, sent it off to the printer, and planned the inaugural event, which would consist of a reading and a music performance. Sonny came out to NYC to play. Jack Rabid’s band played too. It was terrific fun.

Oh, yes, but the music part of the event was at a tiny club with a tiny stage and a long bar. People at the bar were talking loudly, and at one point Sonny (in the middle of his set) told them to shut up. A friend grumbled to me that he shouldn’t have done that, that if people aren’t paying attention, it’s the performer’s fault, but I disagreed and still disagree. Sometimes people come to a club to talk, not to listen to the music. That isn’t fair on the musicians or the people who are there to listen. Sonny was right to say something. That reminds me of the one and only time I went to hear Vic Chesnutt (opening for Bob Mould). We were all standing around. He said, “Sit y’all asses down.” No one moved. He said it again, and we sat down, and the room became hushed and focused. It was a gorgeous show. But back to Sonny.

At this point I am going to start getting the chronology a bit mixed up, because various projects overlapped, and each one came in stages. I probably have old emails that could point me to precise dates, but they are stored on old computers, which are locked away in storage in NYC. Anyway, a few years after the Sí Señor event (he played at another one too), Sonny won a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts (in Sausalito) and was staging his project One Act Plays (an album of songs that were just that: one-act plays in the form of songs). It was through this that I first met the voice of Jolie Holland. Here’s one of my favorites, “Donkey Killed the Crow” (featuring Peggy Honeywell, Andy Cabic, and Holland):

I believe Sonny released One-Act Plays at least twice: first on his own, and then through a label. The performance at the Headlands must have happened in between the two. My sister and I went to see it, along with my friend Igor. It was terrific and historic, and afterwards Sonny threw a rollerskating party on the premises. (My sister can rollerskate; I can’t, but I enjoyed watching people go round and round. The DJs were good too.)

I’m pretty sure that the 100 Records project also came out of the Headlands residency. (There had been a few other releases in the meantime.) For this project, he made up a hundred band names and two song titles (an A side and a B side) for each band’s 45 record. A hundred artists then created the album covers, which were given an art exhibit, and Sonny then wrote the 200 songs (his goal was to step into the minds of these fictional bands). He and the artists worked more or less independently, yet the combination worked perfectly. Just poke through Volume 3 to get a sense of the versatility here. And watch the video below to see the gallery and hear Sonny talk about the project.

Around this time, Sonny formed the band Sonny & the Sunsets, who have had a “revolving-door cast” of members (or, as Sonny puts it, “a pretty small, flexible group of disparate personalities”) but have kept on going to this day (and will soon be touring Spain). His description of the band: “Sonny & the Sunsets are a beautiful west coast thing. Birthed from the sand, the surf, and twilight campfires down in Ocean Beach, Sonny & the Sunsets’ busted beach-pop songs spark recollections of doo wop’s otherworldly despair, a dose of goofball humor from the Michael Hurley school, and positive possibilities exuded by Jonathan Richman.”

I heard them play live once, in 2015 (I think), in an out-of-the-way Brooklyn warehouse. The first band was terrible (ear-splitting, uninteresting stuff), the second much more interesting, and then when Sonny & the Sunsets came on, the place was packed, people were singing along, and they played one heck of a show.

I’ll introduce just a few of their songs here. Oh, by the way, in 2018 Sonny founded a record label, Rocks in Your Head Records. They have about eleven releases at this point. (They are under no pressure; they put out music when they want to.) One of their recent releases is the 2021 album At the Time I Didn’t Care by Virgil Shaw, one of my favorite musicians from the Bay Area. Listen to “Wish You Had Come.”

But before this gets much too long, let’s hear the Sunsets. First, from their 2010 album Tomorrow Is Alright, here’s their hit song “Too Young to Burn,” in a fantastic live performance by Sonny Smith, Old Light, and others. I love this video because the musicians are having such a great time. Also, the song’s a classic now.

Jumping ahead nine years, here’s “Someday I’d Like to be an Artist” from their Hairdressers from Heaven album. I like the music’s upbeat, dreamy moroseness, the ambiguity of the lyrics (they seem part satirical, part something else). And the instrumentation is rich and sparse (piano, violin, vocals, bass, drums, handclaps, keyboards, background conversations, etc.).

someday I’d like to be an artist and give myself away
write in my notebook in my bed and listen to the rain
think about the way things could be
and how things really are
wake up from my dreamin with a work of art in my arms

give myself away, give myself away, give myself away,
everyday…

someday I’d like to be an artist and give myself away
sit at the bar and talk to the other artists all about art
talk about the world and know that it all falls apart
give myself away, give myself away, give myself away

Now I come to a difficult choice. One more song. (After all, you can browse their repertoire and read more about them whenever you want.) Let it be “The Letter,” the last song on their wonderful 2021 album, New Day with New Possibilities. Dear Sonny & the Sunsets, whoever you may be right now, I hope you keep hearing and playing new possibilities for years to come, and I wish you a great tour in Spain. One day, come to Budapest and play a show with you-know-who! Until then, keep on doing what you do. And diverging from it too. Sincerely, Diana. That’s my letter.

For more posts in the Listen Up series, go here.

Songs, Towns, and Time

Cz.K. Sebő’s new instrumental song “4224,” released yesterday, has so much in it that I don’t want to try to sum it up in any way. I love the sound-filled silences and pauses, the beguiling chords, the changes and returns, the acoustic guitar sound, the ending. It is my favorite of his instrumental (wordless) songs so far; three other favorites are “First Day Without,” “Maybe I Should,” and “Interlude II,” but I think this one takes a new musical direction. Fruzsina Balogh’s cover picture is beautiful too.

I first heard it on the road to Szentendre, where I went yesterday evening to hear Galaxisok. Have you ever arrived in a town you have never visited before, and gone off looking for the concert you are about to attend, only to hear them doing soundcheck in the distance and playing “Gyuri elmegy otthonról” (“Gyuri is leaving home”)? And then you know you’re heading in the right direction.

And what a great show it was—on the outdoor stage at the Barlang, with ivy behind them, fir trees, colored lights, and a thrilled, dancing audience. They played so many songs that I love, including “Janó és Dzsó,” “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” “Mondo Bizarro,” the aforementioned “Gyuri elmegy otthonról,” “Focipályák éjszaka,” “Húsvéti reggeli a Sátánnal,” “M6,” “Ez a nyár,” and others.

I left immediately afterwards (to get back to Budapest in time to catch a late train back to Szolnok) but look forward to returning to Szentendre soon.

And now for the subject of time, which the post title promised. It is common to think and say that “summer’s almost over,” “time’s running out,” and so forth, and to bewail how little we got done when time was in abundance. And all of that has some truth. Summer really does come to an end quickly, and most of us don’t get everything done that we plan or intend (including relaxation and fun). But I actually did a lot: not only translating, writing, getting ready for October, but taking care of the cats (who went to the vet on Friday for shots and flea treatment), seeing friends and family, running every day, cleaning my apartment thoroughly, going to some wonderful concerts, biking around Tihany, leading Szim Salom services, and going to Szentendre for the first time. Moreover, the phenomenon of time running out is just mortality, which there’s no getting around anyway. Yes, make the most of “your” time, but is it really yours, and is there any way of knowing what “the most” is? Sure, set goals and deadlines, but also realize that such control is partly vain, and we’re always capable of being slightly wrong about what’s important.

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.

Weekend of Weekends

This summer break has been fruitful in all kinds of ways. I have been translating, writing, planning for October (the ALSCW conference, the two Platon Karataev duo concerts, and the whole trip), going running every day, and spending time with Dominó and Sziszi. I’m astounded that there are still two more full weeks before we go back to school for our initial meeting—and then more than another week before the school year actually begins. So there’s still time for projects and fun.

But speaking of fun, this weekend was hard to beat. On Friday evening, I first went to a talk and Kabbalat Shabbat service hosted by Bét Orim, our sister congregation. Lee Gordon, co-founder of the Hand in Hand schools in Israel, spoke about the schools, which foster friendship and cooperation between Jewish and Arab children. According to their mission statement, “Hand in Hand’s mission is to build partnership and equality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel through our growing network of integrated Jewish-Arab schools and communities throughout the country.” The work sounds promising and successful. I was glad to learn about it. The service itself was lovely.

I was a little bit worried about the time, since I had planned to go to a Kolibri concert afterwards, which started at 9:00 p.m. in a different part of the city, across the Danube and southwards.

But it all worked out; I stayed all the way to the end of the service, through the kiddush, and got to the concert a few minutes before it started. I think it was my favorite Kolibri (Bandi Bognár) concert yet. He seemed so much at ease, and the songs were full of soul. Péter Massányi accompanied him on cello; his playing blew me away. The plucked parts were often arpeggios and chords; I loved their timing and sound. The bowed parts had a soft, understated tone, perfect for the songs. I think I will often think back on this candlelit concert at the Kis Présház.

Then I checked in at a hotel next to the Déli Pályaudvar, because the next morning I was taking the train to Lake Balaton (where I had never been before)! At the end of the 2021-2022 school year, two graduating students gave me a wonderful present: a gift certificate for the “Káli esszencia” Balaton bike tour. As it turned out, I wasn’t able to schedule that particular one, but the BBT managers offered me the Tihany fröccs tour. (Tihany is a historic village on Lake Balaton; fröccs is wine mixed with sparkling water, a Hungarian summertime favorite.) I worried a little that I had chosen something too easy, but that worry disappeared on the tour itself. The tours use ebikes; more about that in a moment.

On the train, I saw a whole car of Hungarian faces light up as soon as the lake came into view. Hungarians love and yearn for big bodies of water (as do people around the world). They don’t have an ocean, so Balaton is essentially their sea. As a result, Balatonfüred (where I got off the train) was very, very crowded. I walked around for a few hours and saw lots of fat ducks and swans (they get fed by the tourists). I even went in the water, but basically determined that the next time I come to Balaton, I’ll go somewhere other than Balatonfüred.

Then I made my way to the meeting place for the bike tour, and the whole day changed. I got there just on time; the group and bikes were all there waiting, and the tour guides were giving some tips on how to use the ebikes. We would be bicycling around the hilly village of Tihany, in particular to some places that aren’t visited by tourists at all. And that’s exactly how it was. We took off and rode through a forest, up and down hills, on bike trails and dirt roads, and alongside the lake. The ride was quite vigorous, even with the ebike, which helps greatly on the hills. It was like riding a silent motorcycle and still getting a workout. The bike’s balance was superb, so after a little bit of overcaution in the beginning, I became more confident with the dips and turns. There were seven of us (including the leaders) in the group, and we seemed to hit a pace that was comfortable for all of us, neither too fast nor too slow.

We saw a few historic places: a rock where a man used to stand and wave a flag to signal to the fishermen; the ruins of a garden where lemons, oranges, and other fruit were grown during the socialist era; and other interesting things. At one point we parked the bikes and walked up a hill and up to the top of a wooden lookout tower. Here is a view from that tower. But unfortunately it doesn’t capture the sense of height and dimension that you experience from up there. In fact, taking pictures was particularly difficult, because so much of the beauty had to do with the three-dimensionality.

After the wooden tower, we bicycled right next to the lake (about a meter from the water) for a stretch, then into woods and up and down hills again, until we came to the fröccs place. There we relaxed with our beverages for a good long stretch, and then wound our way back to the starting point, pedaling faster than ever. It was a delightful ending.

About an hour later, I took a train back to the Déli Pályaudvar in Budapest, took a metro from there to the Keleti station, then took a train to Kőbánya Felső, where I transferred to another train that ended up breaking down in Tápiószele. But another train came to pick up the Szolnok-bound passengers, and I got home not terribly late (around 1 a.m.).

There will be pictures of the bike tour; one of the guides took many and is going to send them to us. I will add at least one of them here.

So, yes. This was a weekend of weekends.

“nem beszélem nyelved, de beszélek emberül”

I would like to look at the magnificent Hungarian language through Platon Karataev’s magnificent song “Elmerül” (the ninth song on their 2022 album Partért kiáltó). This is a song about the place beyond language, but its language resonates inward, outward, and from every angle. I am writing for people who don’t necessarily speak Hungarian, so I will take this slowly and might not touch on all of the song.

I’ll start with one of the refrains:

követ kötök köré, az elme elmerül
nem beszélem nyelved de beszélek emberül

This could be translated roughly as “I tie a stone around it, the mind sinks down / I don’t speak your language, but I speak the human tongue.” Look at the beautiful alliteration and assonance of “követ kötök köré.” “Követ” is the accusative of , “stone.” “Kötök” is the first person singular of köt, “tie.” “Köré” is the directional preposition meaning “around.” Each of these words comes from a different Proto-Finno-Ugric root. The alliteration and assonance is even stronger in “az elme elmerül”; “elme” means “mind or intellect” and “elmerül” means “sinks.” In the second case, the “el-” is a prefix; in the first, it is not. I tried to track down the etymology of “elme” but found nothing; even a Hungarian online etymological dictionary states, “Régi szavunk, de eredetéről semmi biztosat nem tudunk.” (“It’s an old word of ours, but we know nothing certain about its origin.”)

Then comes this beautiful, simple complexity (and an allusion to Pilinszky’s Apokrif): “nem beszélem nyelved, de beszélek emberül” (“I don’t speak your language, but I speak in the language of humans.”) “Beszélem” and “beszélek” both mean “I speak”; why the difference? Most verbs have both an definite form (used with specific objects) and an indefinite form (used with nonspecific objects or no object at all). It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the basic principle. Here, “beszélem” is the definite form and “beszélek” the indefinite form. The definite form is needed the first time because “nyelved,” “your language,” is a specific object, even without an article preceding it. But “emberül” isn’t an object at all; it’s an adverb, so the second time around, the indefinite form is needed.

This refrain actually alternates with a similar one: “követ kötök köré, az elme elmerül / most szembenézek azzal, mit találok legbelül” (approximately, “I tie a stone around it, my mind sinks down / now I’m looking straight into the face of what I find farthest inside”).

After these, the next refrain is just as linguistically rich, though in a different way: “kérdeznem nem kell / egy vagyok a felelettel” (“I don’t have to ask / I am one with the answer”). There’s the alliteration of “kérdeznem” and “kell” but also the -em suffix, which indicates the first person singular. “Nem kell mennem” means “I don’t have to go”; “kérdeznem nem kell” means “I don’t have to ask.” The second part also has subtle alliteration: the “gy” of “egy” and “vagyok” as well as assonance (the repeated “e” sound). There’s also a play of zeroes and ones: the zero of “nem” and the one of “egy.” In addition, these two parts have a kind of mirror symmetry (especially visible in the lyrics book), where “kérdeznem” and “felelettel,” the two longest words, mirror each other as questioning and answer. (In the photo here, the text is slightly skewed; that’s because I was holding the book open.)

But all of this is later in the song, after the three stanzas or short verses, which have to do with the place beyond language, and which is likewise rich with Pilinszky allusions. Here is a rough translation:

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
nem jelöl mit a hangalak
a pusztában hagytalak

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
a lélek önmagába les
a végtelen dadogni kezd

mit találsz a szavakon túl?
hol nyelvharang már nem kondul
a válasz torkomban rezdül
a káosz mélyén rend ül
what do you find beyond the words?
where the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the phonetic form signifies nothing
i leave you in the bare wild

what do you find beyond the words?
where the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the soul spies into itself
the infinite starts to stutter

what do you find beyond the words?
there the tongue-bell no longer tolls
the answer vibrates in my throat
in the depths of chaos, order sits

“Nyelv” means both “tongue” and “language”—but in English, “tongue” can mean “language” too, so I translated “nyelvharang” as “tongue-bell.” This is a Platon Karataev neologism, as far as I know; it could be a play on “nyelvhang,” “lingual consonant.” That would tie in with the word “hangalak,” which is a linguistic term meaning “phonetic form.”

I think the rest explains itself. There’s much more to say, but I don’t want to weigh this down with words. Just returning for a moment to the start of the first refrain: I tie a stone around what? Maybe the answer, maybe the order sitting in the depths of chaos. Maybe the two are the same.

Now listen to the rhythm of the words; so much more will come through the music and sound. The song itself leaves words behind, not just once, but again and again.

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

  • “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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