A Literary Evening About Death

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I have been promising to describe an event I attended in Debrecen on January 17: a reading and discussion hosted by the literary magazine Alföldon the topic of death.

The theme was not mortality but death. Mortality is the abstract condition; death, the actual event. Mortality is death in a suit and tie (or cocktail dress); death can’t dress up if it tries. Why would a literary event on death draw such a large, dedicated crowd on a winter evening in Debrecen? I can only answer for myself: I went because I admire at least one of the writers and was eager to hear this topic approached openly, a topic that often gets euphemized and sidestepped. Introduced by the editor-in-chief of Alföld, Péter Szirák, the event consisted of discussion–led by the poet and Alföld editor János Áfra–and readings by Krisztián Grecsó, Gyula Jenei, and Márton Meszáros. I left with more than my limited Hungarian can assemble right now, but even if I were fluent in the language, I would need a long time to put together what I had heard.

They began by considering how, for many, the first encounter with death was through the death of an animal. Gyula Jenei read his poems “Tyúkszaros” (approximately the adjective “Chicken-shat”) and “Dögkút” (approximately “Carcass Pit”). Krisztián Grecsó read his story “Jó nap a halálra” (“A good day for death”). Márton Meszáros, a literary scholar, spoke of some of his work. I am not giving translations here of any of the works, because I would want to take time to do it adequately, ask the authors’ permission, and look for a better place for the translations than this blog.

The discussion and readings brought up many memories. I have not raised animals for food and do not know what that is like. But I remember a time when, at age eight or so, I found an egg in the woods, a blue speckled egg, on its own, on the ground, without a nest. I took the egg in my hand, squeezed it, and felt it crack. I remember not knowing, in the moment or afterward, whether I had meant to do this and whether I had taken a life. I wanted to think not, but I wasn’t sure.

I also remember the deaths of various pets: cats that roamed far and never came back, a big St. Bernard dog who went off by herself into the back yard and lay down to die, and Fred, my favorite dog, who died while we were living in Holland and our friends were taking care of him. (My parents couldn’t bring themselves to tell me until a few months after his death.)

We encounter death frequently, even though we do not always acknowledge or name it. It is part of how we come to know the world and ourselves. Deaths shape, scare, humble, sometimes even relieve us. Stories upon stories come to mind. But we also evade death (and discussions of death) with language, technology, medicine, and all kinds of escapes.

Later the writers discussed how people keep death at a distance; János Áfra brought up extreme sports and the fantasy of being a superhuman. They discussed whether euthanasia was an acceptable way of helping a dying person: does it prevent a person from experiencing the transition from one state to another? Should death be experienced fully, in the presence of loving people? On the other hand, does the full experience really do anything for the dying person? Is there really something to be experienced here, besides a sudden terror and pain? Are others able to help at all?  (There was much more to the conversation, and I may have some of this wrong, but this is what I was able to glean.)

The final readings–which appear in the current issue of Alföld–would have made the trip worthwhile on their own, without anything else. I have the texts (and a copy of the journal; there were free copies at the event), so I will be able to read them many times over the years to come. Gyula Jenei’s long poem “Isteni műhiba” (“Divine Malpractice”), the third part of which appears in Alföld, begins:

rendkívüli eseményre készülök. az időpont még
kérdéses, de a dolog elkerülhetetlennek látszik,
s húsz éven belül valószínűleg megtörténik.

You can read the second part of the poem (along with these opening lines) in the January 2019 issue of Kortárs.

Here is the opening stanza of Krisztián Grecsó’s “Magánapokrif” (maybe translatable as “Self-apocryph”):

A mindeneim mára üres árkok,
Kopár földsávok a kincstári mezőn,
Kifosztott oltár a harmadik napon,
Tucatnyi mérgezett varjú a tetőn.
Róluk mondatott le, intett, az Úr,
És elhagytak engem ők könnyedén,
Mintha nem én szültem volna őket,
Általam voltak, mert léteztem én.

I had come here by cab; afterward I walked back to the train station, through the snow, and looked at statues and buildings. A few things were moving slowly in my mind. First, I knew that it was a quietly historic evening, an event that people will remember, not only silently, but in their writings, teachings, conversations. Second, it wasn’t flashy or shocking; it relied on its own quality. The discussion was thoughtful and probing (and funny too, at moments), and the literature worth rereading slowly, many times. Third, I felt fortunate not only to have gone, but to have wanted to go, to have figured out how to do so. I think I understood only a fraction of it (maybe between a third and a half, and a fragmented slice at that), but isn’t that part of the point? You step into something like this, and no matter how much or little you understand, you leave with all three sides of it: the things understood, the things not understood, and the in-between, which together begin their own building.

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I took both pictures in Debrecen on January 17. The statue has an interesting history and has given rise to a variety of interpretations.

The Grip of Nonchalance

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In a beautifully concise 1956 review of Saul Bellow’s novella Seize the Day (a work I especially love, and about which I have written), Alfred Kazin writes,

Tommy finds himself prowling through a New York day searching for a place of support or rest. By the end of it, he has tossed away the last of his money on the market and is desperately frightened. Yet he gains an unexpected release when he is swept by the passing crowd into the funeral of a man he has never known — and, looking down at the dead man’s face, at last finds himself able to feel, to accept his own suffering. Thus, at last, he is able to confront that larger suffering which (as we can see only at the end of the story) has been the dead weight of existence pressing on him without any release or passion in him of understanding.

People often ask me how I could live in Hungary, a country whose leaders have taken a turn toward the far right. My replies–“not everyone supports Viktor Orbán and his party”; “there are other things going on here”; “people here are very kind”–seem inadequate. That isn’t quite it. In any country, you will find people who disagree with the prevailing ideology. You will find kind people too. No, there is something else. Through a series of events, a combination of circumstances, I found my way to just the right place. I don’t think I would be as happy living in Budapest, though I go there regularly for synagogue, which I love. The people I am getting to know, the the school where I teach, the place where I live (just a few steps away from the swan I photographed this morning) are more than dreams come true; they teach me about who they are, who I am, what matters in life, what questions lie open. I can take on these questions without embarrassment. The Hungarian language is now coming to me in spades, and I am still at the cusp of speaking. Much more lies ahead.

What I miss from the U.S. are my dear friends, my family (though any of them can tell you that I have an independent streak), my former school, and the Dallas Institute. But there’s something I don’t miss at all: the American pressure toward nonchalance, casualness, lightness, changing the subject when it gets too serious, cutting off people who seem too intense. Do not get me wrong: I love humor and do not like to wallow in gloom. But in the U.S. I have found a pressure to curb myself with every sentence, to watch carefully in case the other person thinks the conversation is getting too “heavy.” (I do not find this with my friends, which is part of the reason the friendships have lasted. But it has put a strain on some acquaintanceships throughout my life.)

In the U.S. I have been told, from a young age, that I am very intense and “intellectual,” yet I did not receive that comment from people in other countries. It was a particularly American descriptor. “Intense” and “intellectual” are not meant as compliments. It’s acceptable to be intense about politics–when you know exactly what you think and can express it with vehemence–but any kind of extensive searching threatens people, unless they happen to be drawn to that kind of thing. I found my home here and there–at the philosophy roundtables I led, in some of my classes, etc. But overall I learned to be wary of myself, to accept that my way of thinking and speaking would be too much for some people. There is a certain American ideal expressed in Edie Brickell and Kenny Withrow’s song “What I am,” “I’m not aware of too many things, I know what I know if you know what I mean….” I could not attain that ideal if I tried, and it does not interest me anyway.

The pressure to be light, to avoid taking things too seriously, does not exist in the same way in all cultures. Here I have found not only a release from it, but a welcome into serious thinking and conversation (which has plenty of wit and humor wrapped up in it). Intellect is not frowned upon; intensity (if that is even the right word) carries no shame. Granted, Hungary has its anti-intellectuals; just look at some of the politicians! In addition, the economic conditions are driving many thoughtful people to leave the country; this will change the culture (and not for the better). I do not see Hungary as anywhere near perfect; it has massive problems. But in this particular way, in the room people make for grappling, in the honor they give to literature, I am not only at home, but in the middle of a new way of living.

It makes teaching a joy. When we returned from winter break, I introduced my students to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” (The link points to a page with both the original text and István Jánosy’s Hungarian translation). Eleven different classes, from grades 9 through 12, read the poem with me; each discussion brought something different out of the poem. One student heard, in the final two lines “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” a kind of insistence and self-persuasion, as though the speaker wanted to believe that sleep (and death) were still far away. Some students detected fear in the poem; the speaker could only stay in that dark wood for so long before it became too much. Some found meaning in the punctuation at the end: the difference between a comma and a period is greater than appears on the surface. Over the course of these discussions, I noticed something for the first time: throughout the poem, despite the tranquility of the scene, there is a slight disturbance of some kind, a disturbance so subtle that you might not notice it. At first, it is the disturbance of being on someone else’s property:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Next comes the horse’s disturbance, his sense that something is different, his shaking of the harness bells:

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

Finally, there is the disturbance of time: the speaker’s knowledge that this moment must come to an end, that he must go on to other things.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

What is it that unites these various disturbances, these various rattlings of the mind and wind? Could it be that they are necessary to the beauty? Could it be that without them, there would be no stopping by woods?

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I took both pictures this morning. Also, I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Making Room for Alcibiades

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Near the end of Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs (Βάτραχοι), after the poetry contest between Aeschylus and Euripides, Dionysus reveals his reason for coming down to Hades: to find a poet who will save the city. For the poetry itself, he chooses Aeschylus–but he is left unsure whom to bring back. To determine which of the two is better suited to the task he has in mind, he poses a few final questions, the first about Alcibiades (a prominent Athenian leader who went into exile after being charged with sacrilege. Aeschylus’s answers make more sense to him, and it is Aeschylus he chooses. Here is Matthew Dillon’s translation of the passage (courtesy of the Perseus Digital Library Project):

Dionysus
Bless you! Come, listen to this.
I came down here for a poet. For what purpose?
So that the city might be saved to stage its choruses.
So whichever of you will give the state some useful
advice, that’s the one I think I’ll take.
Now first, concerning Alcibiades, what opinion
does each of you have? For the city is in heavy labor.

Euripides
What opinion does she have concerning him?

Dionysus
What opinion?
She longs for him, but hates him, and yet she wants him back.
But tell me what you two think about him.

Euripides
I hate that citizen, who, to help his fatherland,
seems slow, but swift to do great harm,
of profit to himself, but useless to the state.

Dionysus
Well said, by Poseidon! What’s your opinion?

Aeschylus
You should not rear a lion cub in the city,
[best not to rear a lion in the city,]
but if one is brought up, accommodate its ways.

Euripides regards Alcibiades with nothing but scorn, while Aeschylus suggests that the city is responsible for him, having reared him. That is, not only must the city make room for him, but it must also take responsibility for having done so until  now. To bring in a completely dissimilar quote from Le Petit Prince, “Tu deviens responsable pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé” (You become forever responsible for what you have tamed.”

In choosing Aeschylus, Dionysus implicitly favors his reply as well. In my many conversations about  this play (at the Dallas Institute and elsewhere), we have considered how a city’s greatness may be measured, in part, by its treatment of the Alcibiadeses of the world: those formidable people with mixed qualities, who pose danger while also bringing gifts. Perhaps it takes a great city to give a home to such a person–or maybe it is that home, that room for difficulty, that defines the city’s greatness, or helps define it.

I think of this as I ask: is there room in the public imagination for people with mixtures of qualities? Do our cities, countries, institutions make room for them, take responsibility for them, treat them as their own? Or do such people get shoved aside, written off?

I have been thinking off and on, over the past year, about Lorin Stein’s December 2017 resignation from the editorship of The Paris Review–in response to allegations of sexual misconduct–and his apology. (Full disclosure: He is a distant acquaintance of mine; I have had several enjoyable, helpful, and interesting conversations with him in the past, at Yale and in New York City, but don’t think I have seen him since 2002 or so.)

I have no knowledge of the actual circumstances, beyond what has appeared in the news; I have no trouble perceiving him, though, as both a brilliant editor and a bit of a “scoundrel” (an epithet I borrow from Wesley Yang). I bring him up because to my knowledge no one–not Yang, nor Katie Roiphe, nor anyone else commenting on this matter–has made the explicit point that The Paris Review should also bear great responsibility for the situation, having hired him precisely for who he was, with full knowledge of his gifts and foibles. (Both Yang and Roiphe come close to saying this but have other emphases and points.) It seems that when the the journal’s board selected him as editor, they wanted his full personality; they wanted to revive some of the spirit of the George Plimpton era, the dazzling and sometimes outrageous parties, the sense that The Paris Review was not only a great literary journal, but the place to be.

If this was in fact their goal, was it flawed? In my view, yes. I distrust glamorous social “scenes” that form around music, literature, and other arts, precisely because they distract from the art itself (and sometimes even crowd it out). Here I am not referring to genuine friendships, but to the superficial relations at parties and other gatherings. I remember going to hear bands in San Francisco and not being able to hear the music because people standing in front of me were talking loudly throughout the show. That is the main problem with a scene: it often takes on its own life, which has more to do with “who is who,” “who is with whom,” and “here I am” than with anything else.

But here’s the thing: given that The Paris Review chose Stein, given that they recognized early on what he would bring to the journal, they owe him a little more than a revision of their workplace policies and the listing of past editors on their masthead. I am not sure what would be fitting–a statement of responsibility? a tribute to his work? a private apology?–nor am I sure that it hasn’t happened. But nothing I have read on this subject suggests that anything of the sort has taken place.

Should he not have stepped down? I have no way of knowing. It may have been the simplest, cleanest, and most helpful course of action under the circumstances. But even now that he is no longer the editor, The Paris Review can make room for him, as a city can make room for Alcibiades. I don’t mean this in a cute way. I have questioned this analogy and decided to keep it; it is not perfect, but it has some truth. Besides, it allows me to bring up Frogs, a play I love for its silliness and satire, its playfulness and pain. Also, my point goes beyond Stein and The Paris Review; it has to do with cities, large and small, literal and figurative, and the way they treat their own lions.

Image credit: Wood engraving by John Austen. From a 1937 limited edition of Aristophanes’ Frogs, translated from the Greek by William J. Hickie. Courtesy of Biblio.com

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

Ahead and Behind

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Today I leave Dallas for Nashville (a short trip); from this evening until Sunday noon, I will be taking part in the ALSCW conference: presenting two papers, participating in a poetry reading (by ALSCW members, on Friday evening), attending as many other seminars, panels, and readings as possible, talking with colleagues and friends, and taking part in the ALSCW Council meeting. I hope to take some walks in Nashville too. Then, on Sunday evening, I head back to Hungary and should arrive Monday evening, if all goes as scheduled. (I am grateful to the three colleagues who agreed to cover my classes on Monday; to return by Monday, I would have had to skip the Council meeting and possibly more.)

I wrote a sestina yesterday; I may include it in what I read on Friday, or I may choose something shorter. I am reading a new translation as well; more about that in the future!

The book talk and discussion at the Dallas Institute was lively and warm; I am grateful to everyone who worked to put it together and who came out for it. There were over forty people in the audience, and the books almost sold out. But the best part was the combination of planning and spontaneity, familiarity and surprise, content and question.

First Dr. Larry Allums introduced me, then I spoke about the book and read some passages from it, then Dr. Allums and I had a dialogue, and finally I took questions (of which there were many) from the audience. I am delighted that this was the book’s first event; I will try to do something like this in events to come, though I will not be able to replicate it. It was great to be back at the Institute; I look  forward to returning in July.

There are some videos of the evening. Soon I will upload them to my website; for now, you can view them here. (They are numbered 3903, 3904, 3905, and 3906. The first one contains the introductions–Dr. Allums’s introduction and my preliminary remarks; the second, my readings from the book; the third, Dr. Allums’s dialogue with me, and the fourth, the exchange with the audience.)

Yesterday I went back to the Dallas Institute in the lovely rain and met with my colleagues, who took me to dinner at Gloria’s, our favorite Salvadoran/Latin restaurant. Here is the Dallas Institute’s patio just before we left.

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On a sad subject, I will have more to say soon about the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Others are already making important arguments: for instance, that this was not simply a deranged act, but an act fueled by social media, a reckless and callous president, and easy access to weapons. Some have been looking specifically at its anti-Semitism; others, at its resemblance to other recent hate crimes in the U.S. and elsewhere. Some are analyzing it from the point of view of psychology, others from a political perspective, others from the perspective of gun control, others from personal pain. I will try something a little different (or maybe not different, since I have not had time to read all the responses). I want to consider what it means to believe one has the right (or even duty) to take another’s life, or the lives of members of a particular group. This is so far from my own understanding of rights and duties that I have to see where the difference lies. I might not arrive at answers, but I hope to raise some questions. Is the idea of liberty–of living the way you like, as long as you do not impinge on others, and protecting others’ right to do likewise–still young in our history and imagination? Does it contradict itself? Is it feasible? Do people support it today?

I will be thinking of this and more as I head to the airport.

Letters from a Doll (Sestina)

A girl had lost her doll; to help her through,
Kafka wrote letters—from the doll—that told
where she had been, what she had learned, and what
learning, if not what lessons, lie in loss.
Later the girl found one more in a crack:
Love will come back, but in a different form.

Loss let us first define as ruptured form.
Everything comes from it; it bellows through
the vaults of dark and stars, shaking a crack
in light itself, untelling what was told
and starting a new story: I am loss;
in me there is no who, where, why, or what.

I did not know my winding words were what
wore out your own, or that I broke a form;
I thought I could not be a source of loss.
But loss lies in all things, soaking them through,
down to the dearest, down to what we told
ourselves was firm, down to the plastered crack.

Late in the attic, looking through the crack
in the pine wall, I think I make out what
could be your afterlight. A singer told
me once that certain songs attain their form
from being listened to, and even through
full stoppage can be heard. So with your loss,

so with the fading of the light, the loss
of stuff and all its traps, the faithful crack
in hoped-for shapes, the senses dimming through
lowest degrees, down into who knows what,
the hints of weather marks and final form,
hushing to null, in what the pinewood told.

Yes, the beloved story comes untold
through being heard; nothing without its loss,
it casts me out of what I thought was form.
I rotate this black box, trying to crack
its terse domain, to learn, if lucky, what
keeps it from falling open, being through.

Instead I hear a form of letter. Told
through a new face, cast in new sound, the loss
becomes a pause, a crack, a question, what?

I wrote this sestina today. It was inspired partly by two separate pieces I read recently about Kafka and the doll, partly by Loren Eiseley’s poem “Say that the Gift was Given” (thanks to Thomas for introducing it to me yesterday), and partly by who knows what.

Attainment and Transition

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I have been thinking about attainment and transition in writing: how, when you complete a work–a poem, essay, book–and then later, when you publish it, you both reach a point and push beyond it. Sometimes the very act of publishing takes you to a new perspective; if you were to rewrite the work at this point, you might make some changes (or do something different entirely). The proportion of attainment to transition varies from situation to situation; some works are primarily attainments, others transitions or openings. Neither one is superior to the other; the work that reaches finality is not necessarily more perfect or more worthwhile than the one that opens up changes and new considerations. To the contrary: sometimes the more restless work has the greater liveliness.

Regarding this topic, I sense a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary. In the U.S. there is great emphasis on treating your published work as final and perfect; who ever goes back and revises a TED talk, for instance? For a work of nonfiction especially, you are supposed to isolate your “talking points” and say them again and again, in interview after interview. It is uncommon to hear someone say, “My thoughts on this subject have changed,” or “I have altered the wording since the book was published.” Yes, you fix mistakes, but you are otherwise expected to stick to your points. With poetry and fiction, the situation is similar: publishers do not typically want to consider works that have appeared before, even if the author has since revised them. (Part of this has to do with copyright law and economy: publishers compete for “first rights.”)

Here in Hungary I sense something different. My impressions are early and incomplete–I have a lot to learn and take in–but so far I see much less emphasis on finality and newness and much more on seeking, rethinking, and reworking. At least this is what I have found so far. Maybe I found it because I was alert to it. It is all too easy to generalize about a country or to mistake one’s early impressions for the whole. Still, the fragments themselves are promising.

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The poet, playwright, screenwriter, and prose author János Térey (whom I heard twice on Thursday) said in an interview in 2016, “Jó társaság átírni mindig verseinket. Úgy fogom fel, hogy ameddig élek, az utolsó kézvonás joga az enyém.” I would translate this approximately as follows: “It is good fellowship to rewrite our poems continually. As I understand it, as long as I live, the right to the last penstroke is mine.” “Kézvonás,” as I understand it, means a pulling of the hand (i.e., with a pen, over paper), so I translated it as “penstroke” (since “handstroke” has a different meaning); another possibility might be “move,” as in a chess move. I am not sure that I translated the first sentence correctly, but if I did, the meaning may be as follows: revision is fellowship (or company, or society) in itself, since it keeps you in dialogue with your work. It also allows for fellowship with others.

Large revisions are not always more important than small ones; sometimes an adjusted line, a single word change along with an altered word order, can recast an entire poem. Why should a person hold back from trying such changes, if they start growing in the mind?

Some might say that if you are allowed to revise a work as many times as you wish, you never have to take responsibility for your words. This would be true, I think, if, after revising, you erased every trace of the previous versions. But if the previous versions still stand, if they remain in published form, you are still responsible for them in some way, perhaps even more than if you did not change them at all. If you think it is wrong to revise published work, then in essence you relinquish it (“it’s done, it’s out there; what can I do but move on?”). But if you continue to revise your work even after publication, then you extend your responsibility; you not only live with your words but continue to work with them.

I consider Mind over Memes (to be released tomorrow) a better book, but also a more transitional one, than Republic of Noise. It brought me to a different place in my thinking and writing. If I were to revise Republic of Noise, I would make some changes but keep most of the text intact. If I were to rework Mind over Memes, it might become an entirely different book–either that, or it would lead to another one. That does not count against it; rather, it’s part of the book’s meaning. It was meant to open up into questions, and it did, for me at least. It remains to be seen what others think of it.

Probably many will see the actual book before I do; my copies have been held up in customs. I hope they arrive soon. Customs here can be tricky; I have yet to receive a scarf (my own scarf, not an ordered item) for which I completed and returned the customs form several weeks ago. The books may take even longer. The ones held up now are my own copies, but I ordered about thirty more copies for book events. I now more fully understand the meaning of “suspense”–not fully, that is, but more fully than before.

 

I took both pictures in Szolnok this past week. The second one reminds me of several lines from a poem; more about that, possibly, another time. Also, I added a paragraph and made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

“Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok”

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Over a year ago, before coming to Hungary, I began reading, thinking about, and learning Endre Ady poem “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm.” Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and finished memorizing it at last. It took time in part because of the complex phrases (“Boldog szimatolásaimban, / Gyöngéd simogatásaimban”) and in part because I had to memorize each syllable, since when I began I knew none of the grammar. Last night I realized that I understood its grammar and nearly all of the words; the parts I knew and the parts I hadn’t yet learned came together. But there was another reason, I think, that it came together all of a sudden: yesterday afternoon I attended a lecture on Ady’s poetry by the writer János Térey (poet, playwright, screenwriter, author of prose), who visited our school. The lecture did not touch on this poem; he focused on Ady’s Christmas-related poems, such as “Harang csendül“–but as I listened, I started to put things together in my mind. Even with my limited Hungarian, I came out of the lecture with a different understanding and with new poems I wanted to read (new for me, that is). From there, it took only a few minutes to finish memorizing the poem.

I don’t think there is anything magical about this. Memorizing involves interpretation; to know what comes next in a poem, you must understand its structure, motion, rhythm, tones, meanings; to do that, you must think about each word and the relationships between them. A lecture, by offering an interpretation, gives your mind a working structure; even if it’s on a slightly different topic, it helps you with the structure at hand. If it’s on an interesting subject, by someone with exceptional insight, it does even more. Beyond that, I concentrate so hard when listening to Hungarian that the focus persists afterward. In any case, I now can carry “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm” and traces of other Ady poems in my mind. It is the third Hungarian poem that I have memorized, and I hope for many more. Each book opens up to more places, and the memorizing is just the beginning.

Memorizing a poem in another language can also open up aspects of one’s own. The Ady poem has the lines “Köszönöm a kétséget, a hitet, / A csókot és a betegséget.” (roughly, “I thank You for the doubt, the belief, / The kisses and the infirmity”). The word “kétség” means “doubt” but could literally be translated as “twoness” or “being of two minds” (since “két” means “two,” and the suffix –ség turns the word into an abstract noun). I began to suspect that “doubt” also had something to do with “two,” and so it does, according to my handiest etymological dictionary at this time. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

c. 1200, douten, duten, “to dread, fear, be afraid” (a sense now obsolete), from Old French doter“doubt, be doubtful; be afraid,” from Latin dubitare “to doubt, question, hesitate, waver in opinion” (related to dubius “uncertain”), from duo “two” (from PIE root *dwo- “two”), with a sense of “of two minds, undecided between two things.” Compare dubious. Etymologically, “to have to choose between two things.”

I could (and should) have realized this long ago, but learning a poem makes me more alert to such things. Learn a book of such poems inside out, and you come close to learning a language. There will be much more to learn after that, but you will start to hear the language from the inside.

Speaking of books, mine comes out in three days. The Dallas Institute posted a Q&A; another one is coming any day on the Book Culture blog. I will have a reading in Budapest, at Massolit Books & Cafe, on Sunday, November 18; I hope to have one in Szolnok too, possibly at the library, which I visited for the first time yesterday when I went to hear János Térey read from his own work. It’s a beautiful library, and I hope to visit often, whether for events or for reading.

 

I took the photo after a concert in September. Also, I made some additions to this piece after posting it.

Update: Here is a short video of János Térey‘s visit to our school. Thanks to Gyula Jenei for posting the link–and to Gyula and everyone else who made these events possible.

Repetition and Refrain

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On Monday we celebrated music at school, thanks to the music teacher and other colleagues. I had various thoughts on what to do but settled on a particular idea: I would teach “Frère Jacques,” which students knew in Hungarian but perhaps not in French and English. We would sing it in all three languages; then we would listen to the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. We listened to a recording of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur.

The singing of “Frère Jacques” was lovely. I realized afterward that bells sound different in different languages; if I were to do it again, I would perfect the vowel sounds. But for the occasion, it went well. Listening to the Mahler was a little more difficult, since the speakers weren’t powerful enough for the hushed instruments; all the same, we could hear the “Frère Jacques” theme at its quietest. (You can listen to the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado, here; the third movement begins at 24:56.)

The music didn’t end there or that day; today one of my ninth-grade classes (class 9C, group 2) returned to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which last week led to a lively discussion of the relation between liberty and property (both public and private). Here is the recording of today’s singing.

I find with these songs (and with many other things) that the repetition opens up understanding. Repetition is inherent in music and theatre, not only within the pieces themselves, but in rehearsals and other preparations. As for literature, my favorite works are those that I want to read many times; the first reading makes way for more. Repetition works well with teaching, too; it allows teachers and students to see the subject in more than one way.

Speaking of that, I am excited to be participating in a seminar on rereading in November, at the ALSCW Conference in Nashville; I will present a paper on rereading Chekhov’s “Duel.” In the Poetic Verse seminar, I will present a paper on music and ellipsis in Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac” (two of my favorite songs for years and years).

I suppose that’s part of what I enjoy about living in Szolnok: bicycling down the same streets, in rain and sun and wind, and sometimes different ones too.

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I took both photos today in Szolnok.

Update: For “This Land Is Your Land,” the first upload attempts didn’t work; it seems that the file was too large. I shortened it; now the link works. Another time (not tonight) I will try again to upload the whole song.

Secrets Behind the Trees

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The other day, just before reaching home, I saw a young man with his bike parked beside the river wall. He was seated on the wall, gazing out at the Zagyva. I wanted to take a picture but did not want to disturb his privacy, even without his knowledge. So I took a picture in which he could not really be seen. You can just see the bike and a hint of a blue jacket behind the tree. The picture represents part of my life here these days and the happiness I am finding. There is room for thinking.

The picture has another meaning too. As I start to understand more and more Hungarian, as I put together more sentences, read more, and carry more in my mind, I start to see secrets behind the trees, things I would not recognize if I did not know that they had to be precisely there. (This last part, after the colon, is a paraphrased quotation from a poem—a somewhat different version from the one behind the link.) I have discovered that one of my colleagues is a poet and another an essayist and critic; their work inspires me to read and understand. They also run a literary journal, Eső (Rain); the Fall 2018 issue comes out tomorrow. Much more reading lies ahead!

In addition, I find that language sometimes works like constellations in the mind: you have seen the individual stars, but when you recognize the form between them, that is when you know them by heart. When learning how to say certain things, I find that I had some of the knowledge before: maybe the grammar, or maybe the words–but when I put them together, I understand both grammar and words in a new way. Last Monday, I tutored two women in English; after an hour, as we had agreed beforehand, we switched to Hungarian so that I could practice too. I learned how to say things that I had almost known how to say; when they clicked, right there in the sound of conversation, I knew I would remember them.

There is much more to say about this, but I am running late and must therefore run.

The Truth of Seeking Truth

IMG_6704One of the most damaging contemporary dicta is that truth does not exist: that all we know is our own perspective, if even that. According to some, if you so much as mention truth, you have revealed your own outdatedness. The pursuit of truth can only lead farther into illusion, some say; to be with the times, one must admit that there’s no ultimate truth at all.

Were it not for its emphasis on being with the times, the above could seem plausible. Again and again, we think we know what happened in a given episode in our lives, only to find out later that our understanding was just a fragment and that the various known fragments do not complete a whole. Not only that, but even if all of the information were available, we could only make sense of it through stories–and stories require selection, emphasis, and sequence. There is no way to convey a full picture, even if it exists; our language, existing in time, does not allow for such complexity and completeness.

Yet much of our experience is sturdy. The bicycle does not turn into a tractor from one day to the next. The slice of pizza does not become a cherry pie in the middle of a bite. If you go to a concert, and you remember it the next day, so do others; if you teach a class, there’s general agreement, the next time, about what the lesson contained, even if not everyone remembers everything. So consistency of experience and commonality of memory point to some reality outside of us, a reality that can be called true.

Moreover, we are disposed to seeking out truth; day after day, we try to find out what really happened, what was really said, what a word means, where a particular thing is located, what causes a particular phenomenon, and what we think; this pursuit is not all in vain, nor does it follow a set schedule. When you find the solution to a math problem, it stays; when you understand a word, the understanding abides, even if it changes over time. Knowing your own thoughts may be the most difficult challenge of all, since you are thinking them even as you examine them. Even so, we probably all have had moments of clarity, of knowing, at least for an instant, who we are.

That we build justice systems, schools, governments, news publications on the pursuit of truth does not, in itself, prove truth’s existence; looking at the history of such institutions, we can find many deceptions and follies. Still, people coming together in a courtroom affirm that through assembling the evidence, hearing the witnesses, and deliberating, a jury can reach a fairer and more accurate verdict than it would without these actions. In the classroom, anyone can make mistakes, but the very existence of mistakes suggests the possibility of accuracy. In newspapers and on news programs, a story can get distorted, but then, over time, others correct the record. At their best, all of these institutions pursue truth instead of claiming to have it–and demonstrate, through their daily work, that such pursuit is possible.

Literature can hold truth, but it does this through seeking. Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” sounds on the surface like a simple telling of truth, but the truth moves before our eyes, changing color and tone, ambling through grief and delight. Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin plays with deception and dissimulation but reaches a kind of clarity. Eliot’s “Prufrock” seeks something too, in a muted and doubting way. I cannot think of a work of literature (that is, a work that I would want to reread) that does not in some way seek truth, integrity, precision, form, completion, or clarity (and their necessary companions). It may or may not reach an answer, but it takes the reader from one place of understanding to another.

The search for truth does not move with the times; it may go against the passions and predilections of a given culture or group. It follows its own timing; discoveries and insights do not always arrive on schedule, but may come when unexpected and fail to arrive when expected. How many of us have recognized one of our mistakes long after making it; how many dramatic works rely on such mistiming? It would be better to catch a mistake in advance, but short of that, we take insight as it comes.

Each of us seeks some kind of truth: some with enthusiasm, some with weariness, some with direction and purpose, some with open curiosity. To respect others is to recognize that they seek just as I do–not in the same way or with the same timing, but for similar reasons: they want to understand what they do not now understand; they believe, as I do, that there is something to learn.

I took the photo when crossing the Zagyva last week. Also, I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.