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

It is quite likely that we will be discussing Pilinszky’s poem “Egy szenvedély margójára” at the Pilinszky event in March. I have been thinking about this poem day after day, with new understandings. It tells a brief story of a boy who walks along the beach and always finds a favorite stone, one that has been his since the beginning of time and could never be anyone else’s. He grips it tightly, in a moment of solitude, and then hurls it far away. No sound comes out of the gesture, but an ocean murmurs in reply.

But it does much more than tell a story. Something happens there in the pivot, the throwing of the stone. Through going back and forth over the poem, you can start to glean what it is. I had a new understanding in the middle of the night.

I don’t want to say too much about it right now, but in an interesting way, Platon Karataev’s new album, Partért kiáltó, gave me an insight into the poem, a way of hearing it that brings all the parts and details together. I had been thinking about how the Hungarian words “egy” (one) and “egész” (whole) have entirely distinct etymologies; they are not etymologically related at all. The poem is filled with words that have “egy” as their root: “egy” itself (three times, including in the title), “egyetlen” (unique), and “egyedül” (alone); “egész” occurs twice. As long as the boy possesses the stone, he is in a state of singleness, aloneness; as soon as he releases it, he becomes part of the universal. But as with so much of Pilinszky, these opposites are aspects of the same thing.

In November I brought this poem to my classes. One student became very quiet when reading it. Then he looked up. “Pilinszky must have suffered greatly,” he said.

This morning I translated the poem. Here is my translation, followed by the original Hungarian text. Normally I would save this and submit it for publication, but in this case I want a few translations to be available for the Pilinszky event, and it can take a long time to hear back from a journal and then to be published after that. So here it is. You can find the original text, and a translation by N. Ullrich Katalin, on the Magyarul Bábelben site.

Onto the Margin of a Passion

(Translation of “Egy szenvedély margójára” by János Pilinszky)

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

He grips unlosability itself!
His whole heart is throbbing in his palm,
the stone’s so one-and-only in his hand,
and with it he has also grown alone.

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it into nothing.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
but in retort a whole ocean rumbles.

Painting: Pebble Beach by Kathy Ferguson.

I made a small edit to the translation after posting it.

Translations Published in Asymptote, and More

This is one of those glistening days. First of all, a milestone and an honor: Asymptote is the first to publish my translations of Csenger Kertai’s poems. “Redemption” and “I,”, as well as the original poems and a recording, appear in the January 2022 issue, which came out today. I am thrilled, not only because these are the first published English translations of Kertai’s poems, not only because I started this translation project last July and have been enjoying every bit of it, but also because Asymptote is a journal I admire and avidly read. The January 2022 issue is full of enticing pieces, including an interview with George Szirtes!

(How can a milestone glisten? you may ask. Well, it can. Suppose it has been raining. Then the sun comes out. All sorts of stones glisten then, not only milestones. But milestones glisten symbolically too, in the mind.)

Csenger Kertai will be one of the featured guests at the March 20 Pilinszky event, which is not so far away now. I have enhanced and updated the website and spend much of my time thinking about the poems we will discuss. One of these is Pilinszky’s “Egy szenvedély margójára” (“Onto the Margin of a Passion”). I will write some thoughts about it here soon.

I am at a café in Budapest, catching up on things before heading to the Turbina to hear Pandóra Projekt. (I can’t stay for Damara; I have to head back to Szolnok before it gets too late.) Before heading over to Turbina, I am going to tune in to WFMU’s Continental Subway. (Update: David Dichelle, the DJ of Continental Subway, played Platon Karataev’s “Elmerül”!)

Tonight at midnight Platon Karataev’s third album, Partért kiáltó, is coming out! Along with the album, the band is releasing an illustrated lyrics book (pictured and linked here on the left). They will have their record release show on the 28th; I will be staying over in Budapest so that I don’t have to worry about catching a late-night train back to Szolnok afterwards.

This is just a fraction of the things happening in my life, which in turn is a tiny sliver of lives and deeds in the world. But as far as slivers go, this is pretty good.

I added a little to this piece after posting it. And an update: Partért kiáltó is out!

Writing About Music

Writing about music is both impossible and appealing. I have learned over time that I would not want to be a music reviewer. The pressure to churn out words when I have little or nothing to say would range from unpleasant to detestable. If I don’t like the music or am not truly taken by it, I don’t want to have to say something dutiful and bland about it; if I do love it, I need varying amounts of time to put words together, and sometimes can’t at all. But when I do want to say something about music, I enjoy and value the challenge. Others have brought music to me in this way; it’s possible that I do the same now and then.

The other problem with being a reviewer is that you’re supposed to be “objective,” a losing proposition when it comes to music. How on earth can you be objective with music? If you take it into your life, you already have a relationship with it.

Years ago, I almost had a music essay—about a favorite musician—published in a San Francisco weekly magazine. The editor liked it and started working with me to bring it into final form. Then I made two mistakes. First, I was so eager to make it perfect that I kept sending him new edits, instead of taking my time and waiting for his response. Second, just as the piece was reaching its final version, I informed him that I had accompanied this musician in concert that very week. This had come out of a very new acquaintanceship—just a couple of weeks old—that later grew into a beautiful friendship; we are friends to this day. But the editor assumed that I was writing out of some personal bias, and killed the piece. That felt unfair for a long time. It is common in the music world for music writers to know musicians personally (or to be musicians themselves). Moreover, all of this had happened very recently; a week earlier, there would have been no conflict of interest at all. To make things still worse, another musician—a rather famous indie dude, not particularly known for his kindness—got involved and apologized to the editor on the first musician’s behalf, to clear her name, as if I had done something terrible. In retrospect, all of this was of so little importance….

It’s possible that the editor killed the piece for other reasons, not the apparent ones. But I learned two (nearly opposite) lessons from the experience.

The first is that when it comes to music writing, objectivity is neither possible nor necessary. It is good to know what you’re talking about and to be able to say it well. It is good to avoid hyperbole and meaningless praise (or snideness). But the best music writing comes from those who love the music they describe, who want to bring this music to others.

The second is that a person who loves music (and writes about it) can and should be professional about it. By that I mean staying collected in some way, not turning into a puddle. This person has something to offer and should treat that with as much care and respect as the music itself. There is no self-aggrandizement in that, just dignity. Back then, my two mistakes were probably (1) bothering the editor with two many successive edits, when it was possible to just hold on for a little while; and (2) bringing up the concert, which probably wasn’t necessary, given how recent a development it was, and given that no one would have cared or complained. I could have just focused on the piece.

That was over twenty years ago. Once in a while the episode vaguely stings, but I have long moved beyond it. I have continued writing about music over the years, mostly on my blog and on my own terms. But a new music essay of mine—one I am particularly fond of—has been accepted for publication. If all goes well, it will appear in the next couple of months, and I will announce it when it happens. If all goes well, it will be a great event in my life, not only because of the essay itself, but because I see that it’s possible to learn from and build something out of an old mistake.

Painting: Little Red Radio by Johnnie Stanfield.

Song Series #17: Songs That Pare You Down

Robert Frost wrote in one of his notebooks, “There is such a thing as sincerity. It is hard to define but is probably nothing but your highest liveliness escaping from a succession of dead selves. Miraculously. It is the same with illusion. Any belief you sink into when you should be leaving it behind is an illusion. Reality is the cold feeling on the end of the trouts nose from the stream that runs away.”

There are songs that do this: that take you through the stream, over the stones. You drop things as you whisk along: tasks, worries, ambitions, longings, even things you thought you couldn’t do without. Minutes later, months, years later, when you come back to them, you drop things all over again. There isn’t much to say about them—or rather, there is, but the words get dropped along the way. The songs do their own work.

So this time I won’t say anything about them; I’ll just name them here and include a link to the music.

Platon Karataev, “Elmerül” (from their album, Partért kiáltó, which will be released this Friday, January 21):

Cz.K. Sebő, “Debris” (the final song of the 2021 album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?):

Granfaloon Bus, “Beggar Fatigue,” the first song on their Lucky Curtains album (released in 2003).

Hannah Marcus, “Pain Isn’t Real” (from Meg Reichardt’s 2021 Holiday Recording Party):

And finally for today, though this list is far from finished, “timeawakenness” by Art of Flying, from their 2002 album Garden of Earthly Delights.

Art credit: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold (1875).

For the other posts in the Song Series, go here.

Four of the five artists in this piece are also finished in my “Listen Up” series—in fact, they are the four I have featured so far. I have wanted to feature Granfaloon Bus as well, but most of their songs aren’t available online at this point. Two albums are available on Spotify, but when you embed something from there, you only get an excerpt. So I will have to pick someone else for the next installment of Listen Up.

Keeping Time

The winter break was close to ideal. I had two warm invitations to homes, spent lots of time reading, writing, preparing for the Pilinszky event, listening to music, playing cello, resting, and thinking, and went to three concerts (Jazzékiel, Kolibri, and Idegen/Esti Kornél). There were stretches of quiet time with nowhere to rush to, no deadlines to meet except for my own. Many Hungarians assume that a life like this must be lonely. But no, I thrive in these conditions: for instance, right now. I got up at 4:30, and the sun has not come up yet. Two hours, so far, of quiet and dark. I love company too, in good measure.

I came upon the above painting by chance (by Sally Sharp, a painter I had never heard of before) when looking for something else. It reminds me of Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Got Lost” (the first of three interludes on his album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?). I have listened to the album many times now and keep looking forward to the next time. There’s so much more I want to listen to, too, but this is how I tend to read and listen: over and over, and then slowly making my way to other things.

On December 31 I re-recorded the first of my five Pilinszky cello covers. This is the third attempt and the best of the three. I intend to record them all—whether by myself, at home, or with someone else’s assistance. But I like how this came out in terms of tone and mood.

Tomorrow school resumes. I will try to keep some of this restfulness, but the next few months will be fairly intense. I am planning a Shakespeare festival, scheduled for April 22, with the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library). We don’t know for sure whether it will be possible to hold it, but given that it will be fairly small, we should be able to work it out, unless we enter a new Covid lockdown. The most important thing is to help my students prepare Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs. If we have the content (which won’t be wasted in any case), the rest will come together.

And a month before that, the Pilinszky event will take place! Lots of people have shown interest on Facebook, but there’s no telling until the event itself how many people will attend. In any case, now is the time for me to step up the invitations, in addition to continuing with the preparations. You, too, can invite people. We welcome anyone interested in poetry, songs and songwriting, translation, languages, Hungarian, and Pilinszky himself.

That’s in addition to regular teaching, Folyosó, translations, writing, and much more. On April 12, my translation of Gyula Jenei’s Mindig más will appear! (Publication was originally scheduled for February, but there were some delays.) Also, very soon, six poems by Csenger Kertai, in my English translation, will appear (two apiece) in Asymptote, Literary Imagination, and Literary Matters.

Now the sun is up, though dimly. Time for me to go on to other things. First of all, because it’s on my mind, and because I might not have time or presence of mind for this over the coming weeks, I want to watch the first of Laurie Anderson’s Norton Lectures. A friend has been recommending them for months, but I kept missing them while they were going on. Now they can all be watched online. Happy New Year to all!

Art credit: Sally Sharp, “Walkin Out” (oil/cold wax).

2021 Concerts and Thoughts

I have been to wonderful shows this year and am grateful for them all. I will mention most of them. First, Galaxisok, whose show tomorrow was postponed until March because of Covid. I got to hear them twice this year: first, at the Kobuci (above), where they played their record release show for Történetek mások életéből (Stories from the Lives of Others), and then later at the Kolorádó Fesztivál. I come back to their songs again and again. Benedek Szabó is a brilliant songwriter—understated, wistful, slightly outrageous—and his bandmates bring riches to the sound and songs.

On a related note, one of the most beautiful concerts of the year for me was Benedek Szabó’s solo concert in October, opening for Péter Jakab’s record release (also great). Szabó played the keyboard and sang. As for Péter Jakab, I had the joy of attending that show and two Jazzékiel shows (one at the Monyo Land in August and one at Turbina last week).

There were a number of other musicians I got to hear twice this year: Kolibri (whom I will get to hear for the third time tomorrow evening, if all goes well), Marcell Bajnai (solo), Idea, Cataflamingo, Felső Tízezer (whom I will also get to hear a third time, this very Thursday, along with Esti Kornél). And a few I heard just once this year and look forward to hearing again: as mentioned, Benedek Szabó, Péter Jakab, and also Pandóra Projekt and Noémi Barkóczi.

I also attended two synagogue concerts played by members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, one in Szentes and one in Szekszárd. They are part of a series of synagogue concerts that began in 2014; I have attended eight since 2017 and look forward to many more.

I had only heard Dávid Szesztay play once before this year, so it was great to be able to hear him three times: twice in Budapest and once at Fishing on Orfű. I have yet to attend a Santa Diver concert, though I want to very much. I meant to watch their streamed Barcelona concert, but somehow couldn’t access the streaming when the time came. (I probably missed the instructions or tuned in at the wrong time; I was extremely tired that evening.)

Hearing Cz.K. Sebő for the first time, at the TRIP Hajó, was a life-lifting experience for me; I loved every minute of it, wrapped myself in the sound and surroundings, and was joined at my table by Zsuzsanna, Mesi, and Atti, who have become my friends and whom I often see at concerts. I attended four Cz.K. Sebő’s concerts this year; one solo concert and three with his band. The record release show on December 16 was absolutely beautiful (and the album itself is one of my favorites ever, and definitely my favorite of the year).

As for Platon Karataev, I got to hear the full band six times, the Platon Karataev acoustic duo three times, Gergő solo once, and Gergő twice at literary events. Each event had its particular character and beauty. I am listing them for myself, so that I can remember them later, years down the road.

  1. Platon Karataev at MiniFishing on Orfű (June 18, 1:20 a.m.): the first time I ever heard the whole band in person. I had been listening to them a lot over the previous year and had heard the duo and Sebő in concert. There were sound problems, because Sebő’s amp broke at the beginning, but the concert was beautiful and thrilling. Here’s the video.
  2. The Platon Karataev acoustic duo (Gergő and Sebő) at the TRIP Hajó (July 5). I didn’t want to describe it then and don’t now, either. But here are some pictures.
  3. Platon Karataev at Kobuci (July 28): About as perfect as a concert and a day can get. I also heard Kolibri live for the second time. (The first time was in 2020.)
  4. The Platon Karataev acoustic duo at Papírkutya in Veszprém (August 11). I remember the warm sound and atmosphere, the gorgeous songs, the treasuring. I mentioned it only in passing on the blog, but here’s a picture. (After a while, I stopped taking pictures at concerts, though I make exceptions now and then.)
  5. Platon Karataev at Kolorádó (August 12): Great show. No pictures, nothing. But I happened to be standing next to Kolibri (Bandi Bognár), who was dancing his head off, and I danced mine off too.
  6. The Platon Karataev duo on the water at Fishing on Orfű (August 26): One of my favorite concerts of the year and beyond.
  7. Platon Karataev at the Grand Café in Szeged (September 24): A very special occasion because they hadn’t played in Szeged since 2018. A large and enthusiastic crowd, a terrific show.
  8. The Platon Karataev record release—a sold-out double concert—at the A38 Hajó (October 23-24): Glorious, delirious, intense, and so happy. This was the release for Atoms, since the original release had been canceled due to Covid. I was lucky to be able to go both nights. That was the last Platon Karataev concert I heard this year.
  9. Gergely Balla played a solo concert at Központ on November 22. It was originally going to be a duo concert, but Sebő had to cancel due to illness. This was the first time I had heard Gergő play solo, except at the Krúdy Irodalmi Szalon (and later at the Csoóri-Szalon). It was stunning.
  10. I also attended two events that Platon Karataev held for people who had contributed to their fundraiser. Those were down to earth and relaxed, with a focus on the music itself.

But I didn’t come here just to list concerts. That isn’t the point. Together, they built into something. With Platon Karataev and Cz.K. Sebő in particular (but others too), I came to learn how “whimsical and warmhearted” they are (a Cz.K. Sebő quote), how much they give to their art, and how highly they regard their audiences. They show profound humility and respect. Sure, they party sometimes. They have lots of friends, acquaintances, fans, and admirers. I imagine that they enjoy the popularity up to a point. I would, too, up to a point. But they are about a lot more than that. They take time for introspection. They need solitude. They read and love literature. They lead lives with conundrums, adventures, frustrations, losses, joy. They want much more than to belong to a youth music scene (or any music scene, for that matter), though that too can be fun and important.

These concerts, musicians, and audience members have created something together, something that will last and grow. I’m not sure how I attended all these concerts (traveling from Szolnok) on top of teaching, translating, medical stuff, and so on, but I think that’s the point. We don’t really know how these things come about. But I am glad and amazed that they did.

Is Music “Entertainment”?

In Book V of the Odyssey, Odysseus, shipwrecked, bereft, and alone in the sea, ends up swimming to the island of the Phaiakians. After meeting Nausikaa and being welcomed into the palace of Alkinoös (now already in Book VIII), he is treated to a musical performance by “the inspired singer Demodokos” (θεῖον ἀοιδὸν / Δημόδοκον), in whose singing and lute-playing the Phaiakians delight. But when Demodokos sings of the origins of the Trojan war, Odysseus starts to shed tears. No one notices but Alkinoös, who decides to cut off the music and bring everyone outside for contests. Later, after the contests, celebration (with music—again by Demodokos), gifts, and a bath, and feasting, Odysseus asks Demodokos to sing a third time: this time about the wooden horse that Odysseus filled with men. He sings, and Odysseus weeps like a woman “lying over the body of her dear husband.” Finally Alkinoös brings himself to ask the stranger who he is; Odysseus’s answer fills the next four books of the Odyssey.

When listening to music, we all have some combination of the Phaiakians and Odysseus in us. We delight in it for its beauty, we receive it as entertainment, but also, to some degree, we want it to confront us with a truth. We want to face ourselves, or the world, or death, or the divine in it. The kinds of entertainment and truth are many and layered, and people differ in the proportions they want. Some go to music primarily for entertainment, others primarily for confrontation. But somehow both elements have to be there, if the music is good and if we are listening closely.

The word “entertainment” is richer than it may seem on the surface. It comes from the French, and before that, the Latin inter- (“between, among”) and tenir (“to hold”), the latter of which derives from the Proto-Indo-European *ten- (“to stretch”). To be entertained is to be held for a time. In contrast, the Hungarian word for entertainment, “szórokozás,” has the root szór, “to sprinkle, scatter”; it’s a calque of the German zich zerstreuen. But maybe, if you scatter yourself into something, you can be taken up by it. But what kind of taking up do you want? When I listen to Cz.K. Sebő’s album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? I am taken up and even scattered; I dissolve into it for a while. I love the sound itself and the many changes it undergoes; I look forward to hundreds of moments. But the album also carries me into a new sense of life.

To an extent, differences in musical tastes come down to this: what are we seeking in the music? What do we find in it? Music is not a “customer satisfaction” project, thank God, so there will always be a discrepancy between what we seek and what we hear, and that is good. The music will even change what we are seeking. But we go to music with a longing of some kind; our differences of longing lead us to different kinds of music and different encounters with it. Still, sometimes there’s a sense of musicians and audience coming together, being there in the same moment for the same thing. “Ezért a mondatért jöttem, ezért a mondatért….” (At the Csoóri event last Saturday, Gergely Balla told us about the origin of these lyrics.)

Last night I went to hear Jazzékiel. The concert was glorious. I especially loved the early set, in which they played their 2011 album Téli mesék (Winter Tales). There was so much subtlety, playfulness, and dark humor to it. The later set had bigger, rapturous sound. I marveled at the keyboard player and each of the musicians, the way they were so fully committed. I left just before the encore, since I had to catch the 10:45 train back to Szolnok, but was happy about having come out for this.

The other band (who played in between Jazzékiel’s sets) didn’t agree with me at all. I am not naming them here, because I don’t wish to put them down. They had a very enthusiastic crowd, so they are clearly appreciated. But it was so far from what I like and love in music that I had to go to the back of the room, sit down, and think about what was going on. Jazzékiel seemed to like this band a lot; they had promoted them enthusiastically in the days leading up to the concert, and I see that Péter Jakab (Jazzékiel’s lead singer) directed at least one of their videos.

I think it was partly that they tilted a bit too far in the “entertainment” direction for me. But that wasn’t necessarily so. I go back and listen to one of their songs now, and I hear more going on in it than entertainment alone. For some, their songs might be transcendent. I think it has more to do with their heavy metal sound. It shuts me out, for the most part, instead of bringing me in. There are exceptions. It isn’t that I need or want music to be pretty all the time. I love a good dirty sound in the right places. This is all difficult to define; it depends on how it’s done.

Sometimes the entertainment is so intense that it becomes something else, something otherworldly or utterly in-the-worldly. I feel that when listening to Pandóra Projekt. They have a light touch to them, both musically and lyrically; they’re having so much fun when they perform. But their voices, rhythms, creative song forms, and passion come together into something profoundly human. To me it’s miraculous that they have accomplished all of this in the one year that they have been playing together. (They formed a duo, then a band, in the beginning of 2021.)

The “entertainment” aspect of music cannot be boxed up and separated from the rest; at its best, it leads into the rest. Musicians have to be able to sweep the listener up. Into what? That will depend on what they themselves bring, what the listeners are willing to receive, and what else is at work in the air.

Image credit: Demodocus playing the harp in an illustration of Homer’s Odyssey by John Flaxman (1810).

I made a few additions to this piece after posting it. I could add more and more; the subject is vast. But I’ll leave it at this.

Happy Celebrations

The students of class 11.C gave their caroling performance today, which they had planned, organized, and rehearsed all on their own. All their homeroom teacher and I did was give them time to prepare it; they handled all the rest. In accordance with our annual tradition, they went from room to room, performing it for different classes and for the faculty. I watched five of the performances. They were spirited, well danced, well sung (the singing was recorded in advance, because of Covid restrictions), and full of humor and goodwill.

That was most of the day for me; in the remaining time, I had conversations with my classes, but Tuesday is a short day for me anyway. Then, in the afternoon, we had a lovely faculty celebration. Several faculty and staff members were honored, the principal spoke kindly to us, we greeted each other at a reception, and then we all headed down to the school lunchroom for a tasty meal.

At the end of the evening, there were gift bags waiting for each of us. Each year we receive a gift bag for the holidays, but this one had a special element: a personalized “Christmas passport” made for each of us, with a collection of anonymous positive comments about us from our colleagues. Somehow I overlooked the announcement that these comments were being collected; I would have had a lot to say about others! But the comments I received were so warm and heartening, they give a lift to the holidays and the new year. Thank you, all of you. I am so honored to be working with you.

I think back on 2017 and 2018, when we had our most recent Christmas concerts, organized by the music teacher, Andrea Barnáné Bende, and held in the Református Templom. Those were glowing events, filled with student performances—choral music, guitar, other instruments—and a faculty number or two. Here we are singing “Hymne a la nuit” at the December 2017 concert. It was a great welcome to the school.

In 2018, the faculty song was in Hungarian, “Karácsonyi álom,” and we had a few students singing with us too. I was so excited to do this that I memorized the song and practiced it a lot. But I had no idea that a surprise had been planned. You will see what I mean.

In 2019, everyone was so busy that there wasn’t time to prepare a concert like this. Then came Covid. But this year, even without a concert or live singing, we had celebrations that brought us together. As before, there was a genuineness and beauty to them. Thanks to everyone for this.

The Right to Be Astonished

Lazy days do not come often for me, but I love them when they come. A time for slow movement and stillness. A time to look at the paintings on my wall. A time to think things over. A time to listen to music without having to rush anywhere afterward. A time to go on a longer run than usual. I do have a few things to do today, but with the exception of one assignment I need to create for my students, there’s no immediate deadline. And the winter break (short but substantial) is around the corner.

Thoughts pass through my mind, weaving around each other. I think about an essay that a student wrote about human abilities. The essay concludes (I am quoting with the student’s permission): “In the end we shouldn’t forget that to be amazed by something or give an opinion on it is also an ability. Day after day we keep getting impressed by others. We should keep going like this, and affect the future, who will also have the right to be astonished.”

The right to be astonished! I was astonished by the phrase itself. Astonishment is often put down as naive. People hesitate to show it or even feel it. What a shame and loss. People hold back from astonishment because they don’t want to be embarrassed or look like fools. But the world would be better with such fools. Awe and astonishment are indeed abilities, and they are real. They mean that something reached you, some kind of beauty or meaning, and that you were able to receive it. No single person receives it everywhere, but each of us takes part in a larger perception.

If we hold back out of shame or self-consciousness, the student suggests, we are not only denying our own astonishment, our own ability, but affecting the future too. To say (in words or otherwise) that “this is beautiful” is to allow such things to be said.

A few things have astonished me in the past week, including Cz.K. Sebő’s album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?, the Torah portion that I chanted yesterday (Genesis 50:15-26), the Sándor Csoóri event that I attended yesterday (a discussion, held at the Petőfi Literary Museum, between Miklós Vecsei and Gergely Balla, with music by Balla—a song he wrote that draws on nine Csoóri poems), a video premiere of the Platon Karataev duo performing “Partért kiáltó,” and passages in Hamlet, which my eleventh-grade students are close to finishing now.

Then last night I came upon something that topped it all off. A student had posted a new photo of herself on Facebook. (Here it is common for teachers and students to be “friends” on Facebook and even to use Facebook for classroom-related communication, so I see these updates from time to time.) Another student commented, “you caught my eyes just like the pirates caught Hamlet.” (We had just read the scene where Hamlet tells Horatio in a letter about having been captured, and thereby rescued, by pirates.) What a beautiful Hamlet reference! That’s why it’s possible to read Hamlet again and again; there’s no end to what it can evoke, what associations it can form in different minds, lives, stages of life.

Oh, and I forgot one other thing. After the Csoóri event, I had a little time before my train back to Szolnok, so I walked to the Keleti station and had two slices of pizza at a nearby chain restaurant. It isn’t always easy to find good pizza in Hungary (by which I mean pizza with a crackling thin crust and light, fresh toppings), but this place has them, and this time they had plain (tomato sauce and cheese) slices. And those slices were so delicate and delicious that I could have eaten two more, but by then it was time to catch the train, which was just as well, because I also had chicken soup waiting for me at home.

So yes, I claim my right to be astonished, and I will not give it up.

The photo is of three paintings by Cz.K. Sebő. Instead of selling physical CDs, he is selling a series of tiny mood-paintings, which come with download codes (so that they include the full album as well as two forthcoming demo songs). I bought this series of three and intended to give two away as gifts—but love what they give to the room and will not part with them.

“Ez lesz”: Playing Cello at the Eső Evening

About two weeks ago, Gyula Jenei invited me to take part in an event for the Eső literary magazine, of which he is the founder and editor in chief. Eső has been important to me since the fall of 2018, when I first became aware of it; I have many of the issues and have learned about many Hungarian writers by reading it and attending the events. He wanted me to play cello between the pieces, and a thought came to mind: what about playing a few Pilinszky miniatures—that is, Pilinszky poems set to cello? I hadn’t chosen the poems yet, or worked out the cello and singing parts, but I knew I could pull this together.

Gyula put me in touch with the event organizer, the kind and ebullient István Turczi, who had a grander plan: there should be five short Pilinszky pieces and a longer classical piece at the end. I had my work cut out for me for the next ten days or so.

I was going to play everything from memory, but for the classical piece, I needed to practice from sheet music at first, and that narrowed the choices considerably. I chose the first movement of Bach’s third cello suite, with some trepidation, because the piece is relentless and I don’t know that I have ever performed it. In addition, I had barely touched the cello all fall, because I have been working on two translation projects, one of which, the Jászberényi, is now done (a draft, that is).

So, on the days when I could, I practiced two to four hours. For the Pilinszky, I would hum and play rough drafts until something took hold. The five poems I chose were “A tengerpartra,” “Akár a föld,” “Amiként kezdtem,” “Metronóm,” and “Ez lesz.” The melodies and atmospheres did in fact take shape; once I had them in my mind, the real practicing began. Here’s a recording of one of them (it isn’t perfect, and I intend to make a better recording of all five, but it gives a basic idea).

As for the Bach, the challenge was different and in some ways much greater, since there was the piece, written centuries ago, and there were my fingers, not quite up to it. I worked on it from different angles and heard it getting better day by day, but didn’t know if it would be anywhere close to ready by Monday. On Sunday I felt a kind of panic and was tempted to contact István and cancel the Bach. But i didn’t.

Then came the event. Such a warm and interesting occasion, in the lovely Szigligeti Kanapé, a performance space with raked audience seats (sloping upward, so everyone can see), a carpeted stage (great for the cello, no chance that the peg will slip out of place), a great program, and the greatest audience in the world: Varga students, a few Varga teachers, and a few others. István Turczi interviewed the writers (Gyula Jenei, Magor Molnár, and Ahmed Amran), and each of them read from their work; at certain transition points, I played a piece. The Pilinszky went over beautifully, even better than I had hoped; it miraculously worked. I tried to relax in between the pieces and listen to the readings, but this was only partly possible; I was making sure in my mind that I remembered the upcoming piece. At one point I thought I had forgotten the third line of “Metronóm.” What was it? What could it be? Then it came back: “a szálkák mozdulatlan jelenét.” As it turned out, “Metronóm” may have been the best of all the pieces. But two pieces later, Ahmed Amran (a Yemeni author who has been living in Szolnok for about twenty-five years and writes in Hungarian) read his story “A földdombok,” which I had read a few times before, and I was surprised to realize that the very ending was going to connect perfectly with the Pilinszky piece that followed.

Azok a földdombok ereszkednek le hozzá, amelyek mellkasukat nyítottak neki, hogy meglelje gyermekkori örömét és a halal végtelen csendjét.

(Those hills descending down toward him are the ones that bared their breasts to him so that he could land upon childhood happiness and the infinite quiet of death.)

And then, immediately afterwards, and closing the Pilinszky series, “Ez lesz”:

Ez lesz

Oszlás-foszlás, vánkosok csendje,
békéje annak, ami kihűlt, hideg lett,
mindennél egyszerűbb csend, ez lesz.

(That Is to Be

Dithering-withering, the quiet of pillows,
the peace of a thing now chilled, gone cold,
a quiet simpler than everything: that is to be.)

And then, after some closing remarks and memories of Eső contributors who had passed away, it was time to finish up with the Bach. “What will be, will be,” I thought, and plunged in. It went a lot better than I had feared. It wasn’t perfect—mostly because I wasn’t anywhere close to perfect in my playing, but also because the cello needed new strings and a higher bridge, which I didn’t undertake before the evening because of all the adjustments involved (not to mention the necessary trip to Budapest). But I played it all the way through without breaking down or losing momentum, and there were some nice moments along the way. In retrospect, I see that I could have chosen something shorter and simpler. But I didn’t know that at the time. I think it was important to do this anyway, because every bit of practicing helped, and it helped the Pilinszky too.

People loved the evening: the readings, discussion, music, and whole atmosphere. Afterwards a few of us went out to a restaurant to talk for a little while. Someone suggested that I record the Pilinszky pieces. I had already thought of doing it, but now I am thinking of doing something other than a home recording, so that it really comes out well. We talked about this and that for at least an hour, and then Marianna and Gyula took me home. I am grateful that Gyula and István invited me to be part of this, and that Marianna took so many photos. And that we had such a good audience. In some way I feel part of Eső now, and the cello has been yanked back into my life in the happiest of ways.

P.S. Speaking of Pilinszky, do come to the online Pilinszky event (hosted by the ALSCW, and featuring special guests Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Csenger Kertai, and Gergely Balla, with me as interviewer and moderator) on March 20! Here’s the informational website, and here’s the Facebook event page.

  • “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)



    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.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


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

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

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

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

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