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.

Two Reviews of “Always Different”

When Gyula Jenei’s Always Different came out (my first Hungarian-English translation in book form), I was surprised at first by the silence. How could there be no response? But I remember, again and again, that these things take time. Serious reading, any kind of reading, takes time. Writing thoughts about a poetry collection takes time. So I am honored that two wonderful reviews have appeared so far.

The first, written by Claudia MacMillan (Allums) and posted on Amazon, brings out something of the essence of the collection in just a few words.

There is an urgency pulsing under each of Jenei’s poems here, something compelling one forward into the volume. Simple, unflinching words that are also somehow tender create a tone of wistful hopefulness that never fully reconciles itself into hope, although it is far from despair. I love this book of clear-sighted descriptions, lyrical musings that invite one in with a medias res feeling, the “forty years” refrain providing a lens from which to consider befores and afters strange yet familiar to us all. Jenei’s use of unpretentious language and his dogged attention to small details, people, and things remind me that a poet notices what the rest of us do not, until he show us. The title is a little poem itself. Thank you Gyula and Diana, for this lyrical retreat!

The second review, written by Christie Goodwin and published yesterday in Hungarian Literature Online, weaves through the volume with humble, brilliant insight. As I read it, I thought at moments that I was dreaming. Thank you. I quote from the end:

“Homeroom Teacher” seems to offer a metaphoric key to understanding the poet’s unraveling sense of memory and identity. He looks through the old photographs and notices “and only a few pictures identify me / as the one who took the reel”. He says that “as for the view, / i try to edit it. to the extent possible”. He does the same in his poems – presenting a picture, a shifting and “vague” one, punctuated by emotion and sharp imagistic moments. The poet seems to accept the discrepancy between the child and adult voice – his own unreliability – “i still imagine a future that will not come to pass. but forty years later the lack of it will no longer trouble me – slowly i get used to myself.” This fractured, heartbreaking collection makes us consider what and how we remember. Perhaps, as Jenei says in his poem “Passageways to God” we will encounter memory in a similar way:  “afraid of the depths” and yet unable to get our “fill of / the view”. 

Update: A wonderful review by T.M. has appeared on Amazon.

Always Different by Gyula Jenei, translated from Hungarian into English by Diana Senechal, offers a form of time travel. The speaker has more life behind him than ahead, yet he relates his childhood not as someone looking back so much as someone who has reentered the time before and now marches forward again through the years, with the dual consciousness of child and adult. The descriptions are rich with sensory detail, first making the mundane come alive—we are fully on the street with him, and in the barn, and at school—and then, in piercing flashes, revealing the turbulent emotional depths below. Children, experiencing so many dynamics for the first time, often don’t know how to interpret what happens to and around them. The adult comes back and, with careful attention, can sift through “last year’s leaf layer, the one before last year,/ the thick, fat litterfall may show its year-rings like/ an archaeological find, but below it the earth may stay/ slimy, wet and cold, with disgusting crawlers, worms,/ earthworms, cocooned lives, deaths.” The verb tenses are often future or conditional, leaving the reader at the precipice—in digging through the past, some outcomes will surely happen again, but changes are also possible; the meaning we make each time we touch a memory is always different.

An Award, A Poem, and Two Concerts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: Here’s the video of my Chametzky Prize interview with Aviva Palencia, a summer intern at The Massachusetts Review.

Announcements, Dreams, and Travels/Travails

When I come to NYC to visit, I jump right into my element. For a visitor who knows the city well, life here offers itself up like infinite plates of tapas: stores are open around the clock, coffee comes in large cups, your blood absorbs the liveliness of the streets. Having lived here (specifically in NYC) for fifteen years, I know other sides of the city too. But this brief visit does me good. I head out today to Massachusetts, and from there in a couple days to New Hampshire; I come back to NYC just for two days before returning to Hungary. There’s so much to do in this chink of time. I had the fortune of seeing Will Arbery’s play Corsicana last night; I recommend it to all. From what I can see, it is playing through July 17.

This post is a bit of this and that, but it all comes together in the end.

First, a few exciting announcements. The Platon Karataev duo (Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Platon Karataev’s founding members and primary songwriters) will be headlining at Arlene’s Grocery here in NYC on October 24! Mark your calendars, tell others about it, and come out for the show in October! This comes a day after their U.S. debut, their show at Cafe Nine in New Haven. For a sense of the duo, see the video below. Both of these shows are historic even in advance, and the time before them will go by fast!

Next, I am honored that my translation of Gyula Jenei’s poem “The Legend of Lobo” (which is part of the collection Always Different: Poems of Memory, published by Deep Vellum earlier this year), has been published by The Continental Literary Magazine. They will be publishing three more of these translations; I will add the links here as they appear. (Update: “Slap,” “Litterfall,” and “Passageways to God” have been published as well.)

And now for the “travails” part: While I was enjoying the music at Fishing on Orfű (see my descriptions of Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, and Day 4), Dominó, one of my two dear cats, jumped out the window. The person feeding the cats had opened the window slightly (with the top part sliding inward) and thought he had closed it afterwards. Apparently it was still open a crack, and Dominó, who loves to jump onto the very top of that window, managed to get out.

In between the Orfű and NYC trips, I must have searched the neighborhood at least twenty times for him: early in the morning, late at night, and in between. At one point I thought I saw him under a car, but he slid away when I approached. I am distressed about this but also hopeful. We have a good plan worked out: a neighbor who feeds the outdoor cats every day spotted him under a car yesterday, took pictures, and fed him. Between her, some others whose help she has enlisted, and my cat-sitter, they should be able to catch him and bring him back inside, or at least verify his safety until I get back. Poor Sziszi is distressed; I hope she can have her friend back soon. At least the street is very quiet; lots of cats live in the neighborhood.

When I landed in NYC yesterday evening and my phone received its data streams, I received two pieces of good news: first, about the show at Arlene’s Grocery, and second, about Dominó being spotted under a car. That makes for a good arrival. (Update: The evening of my return, I saw Dominó outside! Not only that, but he came and rubbed against me when I called him. So it was fairly easy to pick him up and bring him back inside. He and Sziszi were amazed and ecstatic; I have never seen two cats so happy to be reunited.)

But what about dreams, also mentioned in this post title? Well, besides all of this being stuff that dreams are made of, dreams figure in Corsicana and in a song by Art of Flying that has been playing in my head, one of the most beautiful songs I know, “born to follow.” I will end here with that song. Listen to the slow and subtle way it builds.

born to follow, by Art of Flying

yr tears were golden light upon my hand
you sang the heavens floated on the sea
when beauty rears its ugly head
when every rain drops misery

under heaven the thunder rolls
its messages in shadows hid
don’t waste away yr wind
you were only born to follow

who hides the night? who rides the wind?
who rings the bells of happiness?
whose one invention is the end?
whose wheel brings nothing whose wheel brings death

under heaven…

we poured our blood into the fields
& left with nothing but the air
we could not eat yr promises
& starve to death while no one cares

in yr voice I disappear
& I am held like blood is held
this is the place where jesus fell
& yr only born to follow

arise arise yr work is done
the fields are buried with the dead
& now it looks like no one won
some dreams awaken some dreams are dead

under heaven the thunder rolls
its messages in shadows hid
don’t waste away yr wind
you were only born to follow.

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

What do you miss about the U.S.?

I get asked this question from time to time. People are surprised that I don’t miss the U.S. more. Well, I do miss it, sometimes a lot, but life here has been good to me, and it keeps getting better, even with ups and downs.

Well, first of all I miss people. I don’t want to go into that, because it would feel bad to mention some and leave out others. But yes, family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, former students, former clients, people whose work I love and admire, people I run into on the street, people I have never met but sense around me. This, however, could be true anywhere. There are people I miss in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkey, the Netherlands, France, Argentina, and elsewhere. People I have known for years, and people I have met only briefly.

Then come the places. San Francisco, Tucson, Taos, Dallas, Chicago, Nashville (where I have been just twice), Philadelphia, Ithaca, New York, New Haven, and then many places in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine. The coast of Maine with its jagged rocks and snails. That, and the long stretches in between these places, the long road trips I used to take. Driving along the Salmon River in Idaho. Visiting a friend in Montana.

Then the works. Of literature, music, art, theater, architecture, and more. Not only the famous and long-resonating works, not only Whitman, Faulkner, O’Connor, Morrison, Dylan, the gold of many colors, but the burgeoning projects, the college singing groups, the open mic poets (even the unbearable ones), the newly-formed bands, the scribbled notebooks.

Then the ideas. The idea that it is not only permissible, but even good to criticize your government. (Granted, this can be taken to ridiculous and dangerous extremes, but the principle is dear to me.) The idea (also taken to extremes) that if you want to do something, and have enough determination and smarts, you can pull it off. The raw enthusiasm of the American character. The belief in freedom, even though we have not always honored it by a long shot and don’t fully know what it is.

Then the institutions, form the elegant universities, libraries, concert halls to the hole-in-the wall clubs, shoestring-budget theaters, independent film houses, ephemeral literary journals.

The comedy groups. Improv. SNL. Really good standup. The whimsy, the daring of comedy. The knowledge, contained in every comedian (just ask them who their favorite bands are) that life serves up generous portions of sadness.

Then the religions. The vast variety within each religion. The plethora of synagogues, for instance, ranging in terms of observance, emphasis, atmosphere, congregants. I don’t know that any other country has or could have a synagogue like B’nai Jeshurun, with such an combination of halachic seriousness, responsiveness to the world, and music.

Then the sounds of everyday life. The whisk of the A train in Manhattan as it speeds from 59th to 125th Street. The crunch of bicycle wheels heading up a San Francisco hill on a rainy day. Someone playing an accordion in the Mission. Coffee brewing in the kitchen early in the morning. The sound of waves, the sound of a stream running over rocks. The movement of animals in the woods. The long, droning cry of rush-hour traffic. The many languages, many tones of voice on the street, arguing, joking, questioning, proclaiming.

Then the personal lives, with all their triumphs and troubles. Because how could any of this have existed, except for the troubles? Troubles that wake you up and show you a bit of the way. Not the crippling troubles—there’s nothing redeeming about them—but the ones that jolt you momentarily out of your dream.

Then the broken dream. Because the darndest thing is, the Great American Dream has failed everyone at some point. “Things have a way of turning out so badly,” says Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. But for some reason, even after the losses and deaths, people get up and start dreaming all over again. Maybe a little differently, but radiantly. And that is one of the things I miss but also brought with me here.

I think of the end of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” one of the most beautiful poems of all time:

And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.

Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me.


I took the photo in Fort Tryon Park in May 2017.

Update: I added a paragraph to this piece after posting it. Also, see Veronika Kisfalvi’s comment.

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

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

The seminar description is as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Yale’s Harkness Tower by Chris Randall.

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

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” 

Three Upcoming Events for “Always Different”

What better place to start than at the school where the translator and poet are colleagues, and where the director, librarian, and others have eagerly offered to support the event? On Tuesday, May 24, the school library will host the first launch event for Always Different, Gyula’s poetry collection Mindig más in my English translation, published by Deep Vellum in April 2022. This has special meaning for me, because if it hadn’t been for the school, I might not have met Gyula in the first place or embarked on the translation of his poems. Also, early in my second year at Varga, before I had even started the translations, one of my students brought up Gyula’s literary events. “He brings writers to talk to us; it’s really great,” he said. “Sándor Jászberényi came to talk to us. Do you know him? You should read him; he’s really interesting.” I started coming to those events, which opened up into others. So in several ways, this is where it started.

The second event will be on June 8, during Book Week, at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library here in Szolnok that hosts and supports so many projects, including the Shakespeare festival that we held for the first time this year). Marianna Fekete will be our beszélgetőtárs (“talking partner”—that is, the person who interviews us). This, too, is a great honor for me; I have attended and participated in many Verseghy Library events, but this one stands out in all sorts of ways.

The third will be on June 25, at the evocative and cozy Nyitott Műhely in Buda. I first went there in February for an event featuring Csenger Kertai and the pianist Loránt Péch. I loved the event and the place. I started dreaming about having an event there one day. Now it is happening, and Csenger will be our beszélgetőtárs.

There will be still more events for the book over the coming months—online events, U.S. events, and others—but this is an exciting beginning. Details for the second two events are forthcoming, but in short: the one at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár will begin at 5 p.m., and the one at the Nyitott Műhely at 6.

“This place of quiet fixity”

Nicole Waldner’s tribute to János Pilinszky, published in Agenda Poetry in April 2022, deserves to be read far and wide: as the tribute that it is, as an introduction to Pilinszky and his translators, as a bracing commentary for those more familiar with his work, and as a piece of outstanding and urgent writing. With the author’s permission, I uploaded it to the “Straight Labyrinth” Pilinszky event website.

I don’t want to summarize it; it’s short enough that it can be read on its own terms without any preludes. I quoted from it a few days ago and am still thinking about that quote. But I do want to reflect a little on the phrase “a place of quiet fixity” (which appears in the final sentence of the first paragraph). Here is some of the larger context:

It was not Pilinszky’s anti-fascist stance to which the Communists objected; it was his Catholicism. Born and raised in a middle-class, intellectual, religious family, Pilinszky retained a lifelong relationship with the church, writing and editing for the small Catholic periodicals that just barely managed to survive the Communist era. Pilinszky’s Catholicism was both intimate and intimately bound up in sacrifice, suffering, responsibility and atonement. It is from this place of quiet fixity that Pilinszky’s poetry was born, and it influenced all of his existential and poetic choices.

“Quiet fixity,” in Pilinszky’s case, is anything but static; with its focus on the motions of the soul, it allows those motions to occur in the first place. (These are my thoughts, not those of the article.) Such fixity challenges and threatens us today just as it did the Hungarian Communist government, though differently. In our everyday lives, we are told that we should be visible, public, bustling around, plugged in, doing this and that, reacting to everything around us, and responding immediately to messages—a state of being that prevents not only introspection, but a deeper questioning of the world itself. This lie has social, economic, technological, and political layers, which combine and twist around us. A “place of quiet fixity” breaks the rules and calls out the deception. It is also much harder than running around.

But the phrase can also be misunderstood (or at least taken in different ways). To understand what Waldner means by it in reference to Pilinszky, read the entire essay.

Hiding Places (new poem)

Hiding Places

Diana Senechal


Everyone who knows you knows
your downhill slope: your poetry reading
in the wind, pages flying, you not knowing
your own poems, so after a few vain dashes
after the leaves, you cut it short, sorrying
sheepishly like so many other times, yet
we told you it was great, because it really
was: those three minutes or so when you
seized a form and vice versa, the bright
brief grip of eyes, words, and wind.
We believe in those three minutes, even now
that they have pared themselves down
to two and a half—even there we glean
a holy poverty in what must be the worst
torque of despair: watching yourself flee from
your own soul, unable to chase yourself
through that elusive tube. “We,” I say,
but the crowds have dwindled as well,
down to the few wild-haired ones you long
ago wrote off as old hat. So you leave
us behind and slink into cooler throngs,
who have no clue how this will all fly
apart and where no one expects you
to be gifted or even good. Smoky blue air,
comfort of nobodyness. I saw you there
one evening—finding solace there too—
and left you alone, didn’t even tap my feet
in time with yours, waited until you had gone
and come from the bar before buying
my next beer, because, illusion or not,
it is the sense of something in common
that swells up in me like a psalm, so that I
too have leaves slipping from me, I too
chase them on a lark, then call it off,
stop still, and let the praise hail down
on me, pelting my pate. It’s a good feeling,
and if it wounds, I slink away to my den.
Praised, you sang, praised be the hiding places.

Image: Imprint Piano, by Kelsey Hochstatter.

On Reading a Lot or a Little

I read a lot on the one hand and very little on the other. That is, I am always immersed in a text, be it a Torah portion, a poem I am translating, a poem I am not translating, a literary work I am teaching, a song I am listening to again and again, or something I am rereading. But I am not one of those people who devour books. I am woefully behind with books I have been wanting to read, books given to me, books I have been planning to reread. Some of them I get to more quickly than others, but some have been sitting on my shelf for years. It would be great to read more of them, but I don’t read fast. That said, I am glad that they are there; it is important to me to have books to reach for. As a result of moving to Hungary, I have pared my book collection way down, but even so, there’s enough here for a lifetime.

An interesting thing I noticed when deciding which books to keep: the poetry, fiction, and drama have endured far longer than most of the nonfiction. Unfortunately, a lot of nonfiction books (for instance, books about education) fizzle out; after one time through, there’s really no reason to return to them again, except for reference. There are exceptions—books with exceptionally compelling writing or interesting topics—but very few people treat nonfiction writing as an art. Not so with good fiction, poetry, drama; they keep opening into more, and a person can come to them in seemingly infinite ways. I say “seemingly infinite” because there’s no telling whether they’re infinite or not.

There’s plenty of ephemeral fiction too, and poetry, and drama, and everything else. But in terms of what’s on my bookshelf, imaginative literature lasts longer than the rest. And there are levels of lasting.

In a tribute to János Pilinszky, just published by Agenda Poetry, Nicole Waldner writes:

In an interview about his wartime experiences, Pilinszky described the journey on the train into Germany in 1944, to the fringes of civilisation’s collapse: “I took a large pile of books with me to war. And I kept throwing them out of the railway carriage one after the other. Every book became anachronistic. But the Gospels underwent a miraculous metamorphosis.” The metamorphosis of which Pilinszky spoke was a “stripping away of lesser realities” and this stripping away, along with his determination to never look away, became his life’s mission.

I just started reading the essay but have to run out the door for the class trip. I will have more to say about it when I return and read it closely. But this passage caught my eye and mind right away. I wouldn’t be so arrogant or foolish as to compare myself to Pilinszky, but that “stripping away of lesser realities” is important to me too. Not an excuse for my reading so little, but maybe a way of thinking about reading.

Photo by Diána Komróczki.

  • “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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