Happy New Year

In a few hours I will be heading off to Budapest to co-lead the Erev Ros Hásáná service at Szim Salom. We have the unconventional tradition of reading Torah at the evening service, since we don’t hold a morning service for Rosh Hashanah (for Yom Kippur we do, but not this year, since we will be observing the holiday together with several congregations). So tonight I will also be leyning Genesis 21:1-21), a beloved and perplexing passage. (In another post I have explained, in very basic terms, what leyning is.) The High Holiday cantillation trop (melodic system) is especially beautiful, so this is one of the highlights for me.

The year is new for me in more ways than I can enumerate. I have so much happening this fall and so much to attend to in general. But my dear friend Joyce posted a quote the other day that set off some thoughts, so I will respond to it here.

“Forgiveness is not a matter of exonerating people who have hurt you. They may not deserve exoneration. Forgiveness means cleansing your soul of the bitterness of ‘what might have been,’ ‘what should have been,’ and ‘what didn’t have to happen.’ Someone has defined forgiveness as ‘giving up all hope of having had a better past.’ What’s past is past and there is little to be gained by dwelling on it. There are perhaps no sadder people then the men and women who have a grievance against the world because of something that happened years ago and have let that memory sour their view of life ever since.”

—Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

We often have it backwards. When we think we are waiting for forgiveness (or at least reconciliation, or acceptance, or kindness) from someone else, it is often we who are not forgiving them, not letting them take their own direction. In other words, forgiveness is primarily on us, not on the other people, and in some ways it’s also for us, not for them. Rabbi Kushner also points out, wisely, that forgiveness is not the same as exoneration. In some cases, you do not have to arrive at an acceptance of what they did. Still, you can go on with your life without having their actions hover over you forever.

I would add that in life we are given some people who understand us (up to a point), and others who do not, just as we understand some of the people in our lives, and others not. Being misunderstood and mistaken feels rotten, but it is simply going to happen. No one is understood by everyone, and no one understands anyone perfectly. Still, understanding of a certain kind does come.

I think again of Genesis 21:1-21. When Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar away, Abraham does not understand at first; the request upsets him deeply. But God tells Abraham to listen to her, because there is a larger plan. “‘Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall seed be called to thee.”

This is strange to the modern ear, because the modern mind would be likely to judge Sarah for her jealousy (even though we’d be at least as jealous and upset in her shoes). It might not even be jealousy as much as a sense of disorder. Casting Hagar and her child out seems cruel, especially since it was Sarah who first suggested that Hagar bear Abraham a child. But in the world of this text, the cruel act will allow Isaac to be the head of a great people, and Ishmael too. Staying together in the same home, they would not accomplish this.

As remote as the story and text are from our time, they have truth today too. The losses in our lives seem harsh, but they also make it possible for us to create new things. I think back on times when I have been “cast out” by someone—not kicked out of a house, but told, essentially, “we need to go our own ways.” At the time, I was dismayed. But the wonderful things that followed could not have happened if we had not made such a break. That does not mean everyone has to break with everyone; it is much better, when possible, to uphold relationships over time, letting them deepen, and to tackle problems that arise. But some breaks (not necesarily romantic, but also in friendships, associations, etc.) open up a world.

That is all, because I have a lot to do before heading off to the train station. Happy New Year!

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

Downtime

For a long time I had been looking forward to tonight’s Platon Karataev concert (opening for Vad Fruttik) in Budapest Park. I had planned to go just for Platon, then head over to Pontoon to hear Henri Gonzo if there was time. But when I started trying to figure out how to do it, things got more complicated, since I am leading a Szim Salom service tomorrow morning in Budapest. First I thought I’d go to the concerts, come back to Szolnok, then go to Budapest again in the morning. Then it seemed to make more sense to stay overnight at a hotel. I found something affordable and made a reservation. But then I realized that to pull this off, I’d have to rush to the train station after school, take the train to Budapest, check into the hotel, make my way out to Budapest Park (barely in time for the show), attend the Platon concert, zip out in a cab to Pontoon, listen to Henri Gonzo, go back to the hotel, wake up the next morning, go to Bálint Ház to lead the service, and return to Szolnok around 5 p.m. on Saturday. The more tired I got over the course of the week, the less this prospect appealed to me. I then returned to the idea of going to Budapest twice, but that seemed even more hectic; in the meantime, my body had started clamoring for a quiet evening. So I decided to stay home from the concerts, get a good night’s sleep, and go to Budapest tomorrow morning.

There are times when you have to do that. I know, it’s the very point of Shabbat. For me, Shabbat does not preclude Friday night concerts, train rides to Budapest, or anything like that. But tonight an evening of rest at home seemed not only wise but imperative. The week has been thick with teaching and ALSCW conference preparations. Rosh Hashanah is around the corner. The trip to the U.S. is a month away. So much has gone into it, we are all excited about it, and I want to be rested when it happens.

So not only is it good to stay home tonight, but maybe a little more rest overall is in order. Shabbat Shalom.

Is “Being” Happy (or Sad or Anything Else) a Misconception?

How often has someone or other said, “I want to be happy” or “I want you to be happy”? But what if there were no such thing? What if, instead, what we call “being happy” were really a state of awareness of a happiness that is always there? What if all emotions existed eternally (or at least beyond any measurement that we are capable of), inside and outside of us, and, instead of “having” them or “being” them, we simply heard them with varying clarity at different times in our lives? This is not an original idea; I think of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha listening to the river. I think of Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” But it is an idea that perhaps has been forgotten or brushed aside.

It would help explain why people are capable of feeling multiple and contradictory emotions. It’s possible to feel happiness and sadness, anger and forgiveness, fear and calm—and maybe all of these are always there, just fading in and out of prominence in our minds. Yes, we do something with them. We choose whether to entertain them, whether and how to act on them. But in some sense they exist beyond us; they are not ours, though our responses are.

This is a short post, but the thoughts continue. I have a lot happening at once: the wonderful start of the school year, the upcoming trip in October, and even right now, this weekend, a few events in tight succession. So this is all for now.

Meanings of Craving

George Szirtes’s wonderful and bracing essay “Landscapes of Desire” in the second issue of The Continental Literary Magazine sent thoughts twining through my mind. He asks about the differences between words with overlapping meanings: desire, craving, lust, passion. He writes:

One might have a craving for food or drink or tobacco, for possession of an object, or for something more abstract, like comfort, or fame. The word implies a form of dependency in that one cannot live without, or cannot resist, the thing craved. In any case, it suggests something potentially illicit. Maybe, in English, it is simply because the word crave rhymes so neatly with the word deprave. It is excessive, intemperate, well beyond the supposed Golden Mean.

Desire is nobler than that. We all claim to understand and indeed to glory in it. It takes the best out of the notion of passion. Passion and desire are the driving forces of a heroic, if potentially tragic life. But craving? Does that not imply something slavish? Isn’t there something a little humiliating about it?

He goes on to discuss the poems in the issue of the journal in terms of the words he brings up. According to Szirtes, desire is elegaic, aware of the loss it contains; craving is aware only of itself and the moment.

Yes. But not quite.

I use the word “crave” repeatedly in my essay “To Crave the Edges of Speech: Reflections on Cz.K. Sebő’s New Album,” which was published in the online version of the same issue of The Continental. After reading Szirtes, I see that I should have defined the word a little, or maybe justified my use of it. I knew what I meant by it, and no, it isn’t quite as enclosed and delimited in my ear as it is in Szirtes’s. Instead, it’s sharp, compelling, and possibly pure.

There’s a kind of spiritual craving where you want something so badly that you are set in motion willy-nilly, even though you may have many reflections on what is going on. There is nothing humiliating about this. It can be surprising and enlightening. It can open up years of learning.

Hermann Hesse writes of this in Demian: “If you need something desperately and find it, this is not an accident; your own craving and compulsion led you to it.” In the original German, this reads, “Wenn der, der etwas notwendig braucht, dies ihm Notwendige findet, so ist es nicht der Zufall, der es ihm gibt, sondern er selbst, sein eigenes Verlangen und Müssen führt ihn hin.” Now, “Verlangen” could be translated as “longing,” but “Müssen” suggests urgency, compulsion. So the sharpness of craving comes through.

Or take Walt Whitman’s “Song of Prudence,” with these lines: “Whatever satisfies souls is true; / Prudence entirely satisfies the craving and glut of souls, / Itself only finally satisfies the soul, / The soul has that measureless pride which revolts from every lesson / but its own.” Here’s a paradoxical idea: that you can crave your way into prudence.

That is exactly where the beauty of craving lies. If we only had longing, desire, etc., we would sit around and do nothing but contemplate the yearning and the loss. Craving sets a person in motion, which can be toward the good. Yes, in craving you are carried. You do not necessarily know where you are going, even if your object seems clear. Some of the best changes in life happen because of this.

It has happened to me with music. I remember distinct times over the decades. Music touches on everything and goes past everything; its motion brings everything along with it. I have been hurled by music. Into the unknown, into new ways of life.

There is nothing humiliating about being hurled into uncertainty. Craving may be certain and specific in some ways. But in others it’s a complete unknown. What you think you want may only be the catalyst.

Craving is immoderate, yes. But even moderation must be taken in moderation. Only excess (not all kinds of excess, not excess to the extreme, not excess that blocks out thought, not excess that treats others badly, but still a certain kind of excess) allows a person to tip over, and sometimes this is the best thing that could happen.

It has its dangers too. People seized by craving can discard responsibilities, histories, awareness of others. But danger lies everywhere, even in the safest of things. It is possible to live too carefully, too courteously, too containedly. Moderation, too, has its excesses. A certain kind of craving keeps them in check.

But that’s not really craving you’re talking about, someone might say. It’s more like a state of spiritual urgency. Well, then, to settle that question (or to unsettle it), let’s look up “crave” in the beloved Online Etymological Dictionary.

Old English crafian “ask, implore, demand by right,” from North Germanic *krabojan (source also of Old Norse krefja “to demand,” Danish kræve, Swedish kräva); perhaps related to craft (n.) in its base sense of “power.” Current sense “to long for, eagerly desire” is c. 1400, probably through intermediate meaning “to ask very earnestly” (c. 1300). Related: Craved; craving.

What is prayer, if not craving of a sort? Where would craft come from, if not from a certain craving?

Art credit: Michael Pickett, The Old Piano.

Weekend of Weekends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, yes. This was a weekend of weekends.

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.

Fishing on Orfű, Day 4: “Mi lenne, ha örökre itt maradnánk?”

The subtitle of this post, “Mi lenne, ha örökre itt maradnánk?” (“What would happen if we stayed here forever?”) is a quote from the Galaxisok song “Janó és Dzsó” (“Janó and Joe”) on their album Történetek mások életéből (Stories from Others’ Lives). They played it last night, to our joy. And yes, I had flashes of wondering, what would it like to be here forever? But I was also glad that the Galaxisok concert marked the ending for me, because it was such a good ending.

Before that, I fell in love with Elefánt. I had never heard them before, but I instantly understood what is special about this band, or part of it. There’s much more to understand and love over time. I also understood why people compare them sometimes with Platon Karataev. They are quite different, but I hear an adventure in the music of both, a willingness to go to unknown places. Here they are playing “Én.”

Before Elefánt, I took a walk around the lake for a mundane reason: to find an ATM. I had realized that I needed cash to take the bus back to Pécs after the Galaxisok concert. The walk had its own good, as walks often do.

Before that, I heard Csaknekedkislány (absolutely great, my second time hearing them); a wonderful a cappella group called Napfonat; and, at the ”A tűzhöz közel” stage, a tuneful, rangeful band called Laiho.

During the festival, I saw many ways that different musicians and bands relate to their audience: sometimes overtly, with call-and-response or questions like ”How are you all doing?”, sometimes intuitively and subtly. But the relation was always important: not only with the audience, but with the stage and surroundings.

I have many thoughts about the four days but need to let it all sit and sink in. It is good to be on the train to Budapest-Keleti, where I will transfer to the train to Szolnok. ”What would happen if we stayed here forever?” asks Janó. But what he adds to the question is even better: ““Van borunk és sárgadinnyénk /
és Szokol rádiónk és napfény és egy ismeretlen évtized.” (“We have wine and honeydew melons / and a Szokol radio and sunshine and an unknown decade.”) [Sokol was a Soviet radio brand; the song’s story takes place at the end of the 1970s—DS] And then:

És nevetnek
és aludni mennek,
mert holnap is nap lesz,
és még előttük az egész élet.

(And they laugh
and go to sleep,
because tomorrow will also be a day [or: there will also be sun]
and their whole life is still ahead of them.)

I added to this piece after posting it.

Gifts

At the end of the year, or at one of the various ends of the year, students seek out their teachers and sometimes exuberantly, sometimes shyly present them with a gift: chocolates, or a flower, or a gift certificate, or maybe a book. I have been given memorable things, including a Balaton bike trip, a volume of Radnóti, a chocolate bar, and more. But on Tuesday a student gave me a gift that she had made, a framed collage, set between glass panes, of lavender and special images that bring up memories of the past few years: of Shakespeare (and Bottom), Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, conversations, cello, singing “This Land Is Your Land,” and playing hangman sometimes in the last minutes of class (and the combination of all of these: serious, playful, whimsical). After wondering where to put it, I chose my desk at home—and if the desk gets too cluttered for it, then it’s time to declutter. It will be a good new habit.

There’s at least a slight risk in gift-giving. You don’t know whether the person will like it and accept it, but you go ahead and give it anyway, and in doing so, you give a little bit more than the gift itself, not only of yourself, but of something beyond yourself. The gift doesn’t have to be fancy. I remember a time when I spontaneously shared my orange with someone, and she later told me that that was her favorite of all the gifts I had given her, because it was unplanned.

Books are sometimes my least favorite gift to receive, because I never get around to reading them, and then I feel bad. But I love a book that I can treasure and read when I want. The Radnóti collections are like that. I think that’s how a book gift should be: something long-lasting, not a book of the moment. But it depends on the recipient too. There are people who will read anything you give them (even by the next day sometimes).

Gifts need a proper occasion and proportion. You can’t give too much to people, or they will start to feel indebted or suspicious, which undoes the very purpose of the gift. I remember when I was fourteen, living in Moscow, and invited a classmate to the Bolshoi theatre or ballet. I think it was the theatre. Afterwards, I told her I wanted to treat her to the evening. She said, “Mne neudobno” (“It’s uncomfortable for me.”) But being a stubborn teenager, I insisted. And so she later treated me to a show too: a performance of Mayakovsky’s Klop (Bedbug), which, while entirely unintelligible to me at the time, still leaves me with fun, fierce memories.

Receiving gifts gracefully is as important as the giving. And that takes some perception. In high school I gave a beautiful Escher kit to someone who wasn’t really a friend yet (she was one of the older sisters of one of my friends). Then I felt embarrassed; maybe she didn’t like it, or didn’t want it from me! So I tried to explain why I had given it to her, and she just said, “That’s perfectly understandable,” which meant she had received it in good spirit. (She was a person of few words, but she meant what she said.)

So yes, when it comes to giving gifts, there’s a tension between honoring the forms and breaking the rules. Both are needed. If you don’t honor the forms, your gifts might come across as eccentric, awkward, or at least inappropriate. But a gift inevitably breaks out of the forms too. It inherently breaks the rule of self-containment. (Is there a rule of self-containment? Yes, I think so: the idea that this is mine, that is yours, and we keep to ourselves unless there’s reason to do otherwise.)

Is it possible to live without breaking the rules at least slightly? No, because most of the rules (no matter how noble their purpose) call for at least a bit of rattling now and then. A gift rattles the universe gently.

I added a lot to this piece after posting it.

Are you done for the day?

This is one of the questions I have the most difficulty answering, because no matter what I say, I feel like I’m lying. If I have come home from school and am not going back until tomorrow, then, yes, in others’ eyes, I am done for the day. But at home I am involved in a different sort of work, some of it related to school (grading, planning, etc.), some of it not. Writing and translating are work for me insofar as they are not hobbies. I may or may not get paid for them, but I don’t define work in terms of the presence or absence of pay. Work is something I have to do, either because it helps me survive or because it’s part of what I live for.

So, if I say, yes, I’m done with work, I’m lying, because the work day for me has still a long ways to go. But if I say, no, I still have more work, people get confused. I try to get around all of this by saying I have lots of “projects.” But yesterday some friends pointed out to me that this concept of “projects” is very new in Hungary and that I seem unusually project-oriented. I think I call them projects to convey that yes, I have a lot to do, I don’t have gobs of free time. The friends who pointed this out understand that way of living. They have lots of projects too, though they might call them something else (in Hungarian, “program” or “terv”).

In short, my work day is not done; it rarely is! But as for the details, never mind.

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” 

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    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.

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    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.

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