Song Series #17: Songs That Pare You Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Music “Entertainment”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Right to Be Astonished

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cz.K. Sebő: How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?

Cz.K. Sebő’s album, released on December 9, starts with “Opening Gibberish”—partly worded, partly wordless, hymnlike, rapturous, lost. It’s like someone trying to remember a song from long ago, a spiritual or maybe an Appalachian folk song from a different era, and mumbling forth the melody, then lilting and soaring with it—as a chorus, human or electronic, swells in the background—and hanging a word or two on one of the melodic phrases, and loving the song, and going on. It also reminds me of a time during my years in San Francisco when a friend and I played music together. That is exactly how he would write new songs: the melody would bring out this or that word or phrase, and in between, he would mumble gibberish. The song seems like memory and creation at the same time, but beyond that, it’s so beautiful, so full of longing for the right word at the right time, and wordlessness otherwise.

How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain? is filled with words and wordlessness: it mumbles, wails, and crackles as on its journey from gibberish to pure sense and beyond. But what is this album, and who made it? It is the first LP (after years of EPs and singles) of Cz.K. Sebő: that is, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly and his bandmates, Benedek Szabó (of Galaxisok) and Soma Bradák (of Galaxisok and Platon Karataev). I think back on the first (and, so far, only) time I heard Sebő play a solo concert (back in May, on the TRIP Hajó). At the end he said the solo shows would get rarer and rarer, since he would be playing with his band. For a moment I wished this wasn’t so, and I still hope he plays solo shows now and then. But what the three of them have done together with this album, and in concert, goes far beyond the few words I am putting down here. They have created a special sound, natural to the songs themselves, something like American acoustic folk mixed with electronica. Hints of Blaze Foley, Ben Leavez, and much more. The songs rotate through moods and phases, with moments of humor, rage, bewilderment, and stretches of grief and despair, joy, awe. I hear a vast, deep happiness in the album: the kind of happiness that makes room for everything else.

Humor appears in the very beginning: “Opening Gibberish” makes me smile, and the mood continues through “Chamomile,” which by now is hard for me to separate from the video, but which I love listening to with my eyes closed. It was this time around, in the album, that I truly noticed the piano by Levente Kapolcsi-Szabó. Things start to shift with “Someday,” and then “Got Lost (Interlude I)”, one of my favorite songs on the album, marks a transition. It reminds me a little of Elliott Smith, but it also makes me think of walking and talking quietly to myself, and all these associations and the sounds would be enough, but I want to catch the words as they go by, I get wisps of them, then get wrapped up in the beautiful keyboard or piano, which patters like snow that seems to rise as it falls.

Then come the songs of despair and grief, “Kétezerhúsz” (the first Hungarian song on the album) and “First Snow.” They both have a tranquility to them; not knowing the language, anyone could hear them as serene, even hopeful, but the lyrics take you in a different direction, into helplessness, into loss that we can do nothing about, that makes us small. I have written about these songs before, so I won’t go into them here, but I love hearing them in this new context, in the larger album, note by note. Because of the “Kétezerhúsz” video, I now picture a deserted Coney Island when I listen to it with my eyes closed; and I hear the waves. As for “First Snow,” its poetry is not only in the words, but in the drums, the gentle layering of sounds, the pacing of the words.

“Space Between Us” suggests a new transition; in this song, I love the subtle, understated bass. The song has a “get up and go” feeling to it, a little bit like the end of Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” This sense continues into “Interlude II,” which oddly reminds me of one of the transitions in Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis.

And now the album has carried me to a different place. I recognize “Keveset olvasok” from at least one concert, and love its way of rotating around and around, with lyrics that I try to catch as they go by, and which I will eventually learn. The album isn’t out on Bandcamp yet, so I have no lyrics in front of me, except for songs previously released as singles. But I do hear phrases like “látom a végtelent, a lélek időtelen” (“I see the infinite, the soul is timeless”), and know that the uplifting is underway.

Then the rapturous, playful “Pure Sense,” which reflects back on some of Sebő’s earlier songs, perhaps the EP The Fox, the Thirst and the Breeze, but from a new perspective:

We’re laughing
We’re laughing on a pelican waggling freely in this salty wind
The air’s blue,
the sun blew away all the spray flying up from collapsing waves

I love you
But we’re not even close to those folk songs I was writing in ’18
’Cause this one,
Has no single subject, or person, or any purpose,
its just unfolding…

Then the song takes a turn and goes into a big anthem-like sound, something like a joyful and defiant ode to Being, except that the way it’s sung, I don’t even know that it’s about Being, and I don’t care; the words don’t matter so much any more, because I know where we are.

But not for long; this joy, this defiance is not the end. Something else comes along, with “Interlude III” and the last two songs of the album. I won’t try do describe it; it’s not just that “words wouldn’t do it justice,” but rather that it seems to be about wordlessness itself, bringing things back around to the beginning in a way, and reminding me of Pilinszky’s “Amiként kezdtem.” Along the way something has shifted and broken, and it’s the breaking that has allowed the rest to happen. Balogh Gallusz’s art for the album expresses this. But what is it?

The title gives a clue. “How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?” suggests that this is an impossible task (in contrast with “How can I…,” “How might I…,” or “How should I…,” which suggest possibility). This album has a paradox. It has done the impossible. There is no question that it has shown the beauty. I just refuse to believe that it’s a life in vain in the first place. The very existence of this album proves that lives are not in vain, because not only is this music playing over and over in people’s homes, in the middle of the night, but the music itself draws on other music, maybe even music by unknown people who sang in their backyard once upon a time long ago. Beauty, yes; in vain, no.

But this means I have to listen more closely. I have to come back to beloved “Kétezerhúsz” and “First Snow” and take them in. The album asks this of me. If I do, I recognize that yes, our lives are in vain, or at least I can hear this. The thing we rely on all our lives, that sense of “I,” will one day be gone. No matter what else may remain, that won’t last forever either. One day we will all be gone, forgotten. Not just covered with snow, but washed over by the waves and fires. And even the waves and fires one day will be no more. This has to be understood for the rest to come through. The joy depends on it.

As does the showing (“How could I show you…?”). Through song, through these songs, through this album. The sounds make pictures. They evoke other songs, other pictures. From start to finish, they draw a life. No part can be left out.

But there’s still more to the title. There’s the “I” and the “you.” A gift is being given, an ineffable gift. If I receive it, I will no longer be the same as before. Something ineffable might happen to me too.

The album art shown here is by Balogh Gallusz.

I made a few small edits to this piece after posting it, but otherwise kept it unchanged.

Folyosó, Translations, Cello, and More

The Autumn 2021 issue of Folyosó came out last week, and it is stunning. Take some time with the contest winners, which address the question, “Life is full of contradictions, but how well can you express this through a story, poem, dialogue, essay, or other written form?” The depth, and range or these pieces will bring color to your late autumn and far beyond. I wish I could introduce Roza Kaplan’s “Raindrops in the Darkness” (the story itself) to Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó” (the song itself). I think they would have a lot to say to each other. But the contest is only part of the issue; there are essays, stories, absurdist plays, and an extraordinary long poem with such intricate layout that we embedded it as a PDF (the first time we have done this).

One thing that made this issue unusual was the care and thought that the students put into the writing over time. Several students kept revising their pieces on their own initiative and sending me new drafts. One piece didn’t go in to the fall issue, because it needs some more time, but it’s so remarkable that I will be working with the author and featuring it in the winter issue.

Beyond Folyosó, a lot is happening over here. Asymptote has accepted two of my translations of Csenger Kertai’s poems for their January 2022 issue. Two more translations of Kertai’s poems will be appearing in a forthcoming issue (maybe the March 2022 issue?) of Literary Imagination. (Update: Literary Matters accepted two as well—so six of the translations will be appearing in the coming months!)

On other translation fronts, I have finished the full first draft of my translation of Sándor Jászberényi’s story collection A varjúkirály. Now there will be revisions, but that will be easier, since the manuscript now exists. Translating this book in the summer and fall, on top of teaching and other things, made for a rather intense stretch. Now I am turning to some other things that have been waiting.

One of these is music. On December 13, I will play cello at a literary evening hosted by the literary journal Eső. whose editor-in-chief is Gyula Jenei (whose collection Mindig más will be published in my English translation in February 2022, by Deep Vellum in Dallas). At the Eső event, according to the current plan (which might change), I will play five cello/voice renditions of Pilinszky poems, in between the main readings. I am very excited but also anxious, since there are two days this week when I will not be able to practice (I have to go to Budapest on Tuesday afternoon for passport renewal, and on Wednesday afternoon for a doctor’s appointment). But I think the practice time will be just enough. (Speaking of Pilinszky, there has been great interest in the March 20 event! Stay tuned for updates in January.)

This morning something special is happening: I have been invited to visit the Sipos Orbán high school to speak English with the students, who have never met a native speaker before. I am looking forward to that very much.

And concerts abound: On December 16, I will be going to hear the Cz.K. Sebő band play their record release show. This is Sebő’s first full-length solo (or rather, solo-with-band) album, after years of singles and EPs (and along with Platon Karataev recordings). Noémi Barkóczi, whose new album I love, will be opening. I can’t wait. Later in the month I will get to hear Jazzékiel (December 23) and Esti Kornél and Felső Tízezer (December 30). Then, on January 28, Platon Karataev will play their record release show for their third album. I had the honor of attending the record listening party on Saturday. It is an incredible album; I think it will move people around the world. Language will not be a barrier, because it goes beyond language. (It’s their first album in Hungarian; the earlier ones were in English, with the exception of a bonus track.)

We are closing in to the winter break; on December 21, my students in the eleventh grade will give the traditional caroling performance. Although they will not be singing (it isn’t possible under current Covid rules), they recorded themselves in advance and will play this recording as they perform their skit. They have been going about this with ingenuity and cheer.

This is all that I have time to talk about; I must get ready. I have a feeling that I’m leaving something out, but if so, it will come up another time.

Mark Your Calendars for March 20!

This announcement comes long in advance, so that I can begin inviting people, and so that you can mark your calendars and spread the word! On March 20, 2022, at 3 p.m. EDT (8 p.m. Hungary time), in an ALSCW Zoom event, I will interview the poet Csenger Kertai, Gergely Balla (Platon Karataev), and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Platon Karataev, Cz.K. Sebő) about the poet Janos Pilinszky and his influence on their work and thought. This will be combined with recitations of his poems and performances of the artists’ own work. The Zoom information will be published as soon as it is available; in the meantime, you can stay updated through the Facebook event page.

Here is the official event description:

Straight Labyrinth: János Pilinskzy in the Poetry, Music, and Thought of Three Hungarian Artists (Zoom event)

Sunday, March 20, 2022, 3:00 p.m. EDT

Please join the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), our host Diana Senechal, and our three featured guests for an online discussion, recitation, and performance honoring the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky (1921-1981). Pilinszky is known around the world for his intensity and brevity of word, his grief over the Holocaust, his solitude and longing for home, his combination of Christian faith and despair, and the translations of his work into English by Ted Hughes, Géza Simon, and others. But his poetry goes beyond these descriptors. It stands bare and alone.

Diana Senechal will interview the poet Csenger Kertai and the musicians/songwriters Gergely Balla (Platon Karataev) and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Platon Karataev, Cz.K. Sebő) about Pilinszky’s role in their art and thought. We will combine this discussion with recitations of several Pilinszky poems (including “Straight Labyrinth”) and performances of the guests’ own work. There will be time at the end for a few questions and comments.

The event will be in English and Hungarian; no knowledge of Hungarian is required. We cordially welcome anyone interested in poetry, literary translation, songs and songwriting, Hungarian language and literature, or Pilinszky himself. The event is free and open to the public via Zoom. The Zoom information will be included here as soon as it becomes available.

Pilinszky image credit: Pilinszky János, Szép versek 1971 (published 1972). Photo # 44.

Photo of Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly by Pál Czirják, published in Kortárs Online.


Additional comments: The event is appropriate for people of high school age on up. We will focus on a few Pilinszky poems, considering and responding to them from different angles; thus those new to Pilinszky (and to Hungarian) and those well versed in his work will find something of interest. Discussion, poetry, and music will intertwine.

What you can do now: Mark your calendars, click “Interested” or “Going” on the event page, bookmark the website, and spread the word! And read Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight Labyrinth”) in the translation of Géza Simon or in the original Hungarian.

The Pilinszky Walk

Yesterday I did something I had wanted to do for months: go on one of the Pilinszky walks hosted by the Petőfi Literary Museum and the Anna Juhász Literary Salon. I think they have been happening monthly, alongside hundreds of events commemorating the centennial of János Pilinszky’s birth. I didn’t have time to do this (especially since it involved going to Budapest); I have several deadlines and am under a lot of pressure. But it was more important than the pressure or deadlines. And it was one of the highlights of my four years so far in Hungary.

Anna Juhász and the actor Zalán Makranczi led the walk. We each received an audio transmittor and earphone, so that we could hear them easily as we walked along. Since the earphone went in just one ear, we could also hear the sounds around us. What a difference that made! I didn’t have to strain to hear them, or try to stay up close; I could just walk along in the crowd and still hear every word. The amazing thing to me was that I could follow every bit of it; I knew what they were talking about and was familiar with most of the poems they quoted. They also emphasized the importance of Pilinszky’s prose; Makranczi read many passages of it.

As we walked along slowly-slowly on this golden autumn day, they showed us different places where Pilinszky had lived, where he had gone to school, a café where he and other writers spent lots of time; they spoke of the different times of Pilinszky’s life, of his family, his love of family, his solitude, his grief over the war, his religious faith, and his continual longing for home. Juhász spoke at length about “Apokrif,” which is central to his work. Makranczi read the first part of it aloud.

At the end of the two-hour walk, where we saw Pilinszky’s last residence, Juhász quoted his words that a person is not complete until death: that life and death, rather than being opposites, actually form a unity together: “Életet és halált lehetetlen nem egybelátni. Élet és halál nem más, mint kettétört öröklét, meghasonlott valóság. Egyik nem több a másikánál, csak aki élt és meghalt közülünk, örökkévaló. Hogy kik vagyunk ezek a mi, ezt nem tudom. Életünket mi csak halálunkkal egészíthetjük ki. Egyik a másik nélkül végleges töredék marad.” (“It is impossible not to see life and death as one. Life and death are nothing other than eternity split, reality divided. Neither one is more than the other; but whoever among us has lived and died is everlasting. Who we actually are, I don’t know. We realize our lives only with death. One without the other remains a fragment forever.”)

Pilinszky is beloved in Hungary, but not in a “popular” sort of way. The poems demand privacy. Once one of them reaches you, then Pilinszky enters your life for good. And, I believe, your death.

I first read Pilinszky several years ago at a student’s urging (thank you, Isti!). He recommended his favorite poem, “Egy szenvedély margójára” (“Onto the Margin of a Passion”), which I memorized and recited for the class. But only two years or so later did I read “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight Labyrinth”), thanks to Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition. That opened everything up. I have memorized it too and recite it every day. Here you can hear Pilinszky himself reciting it.

And here is an extraordinary translation by Géza Simon:

The Straight Labyrinth
(Egyenes labirintus)

What will it be like, this return flight
that only similes can describe,
like sanctuary, altar,
homecoming, handshake, hug,
under the trees, garden feast,
where there is no first and last guest,
what will it be like in the end,
this free-fall on open wings,
this flight into the fiery
focus, the communal nest? – I don’t know,
and yet, if there is something I know,
I know this blazing corridor,
this labyrinth straight as an arrow,
the heavier and heavier,
exhilarating fact of our fall.

As I have mentioned before, Platon Karataev’s “Wide Eyes” alludes to “Straight Labyrinth”; Pilinszky can be felt in a number of their songs (and is especially important to their main songwriter, Gergely Balla, as well as to the other members). Their “Bitter Steps” (maybe my favorite song on their Atoms album) quotes from Ted Hughes’s translation of “Apokrif”: “[And] this is why I learned to walk! For these belated bitter steps.”

So this October walk, for which I am grateful, brought many things together in one. These are continually opening up into more.

I am planning an ALSCW Zoom event dedicated to Pilinszky and his influence; it will take place on March 20 at 3 p.m. EDT (8 p.m. in Hungary). I will be inviting everyone I can think of: in addition to friends, family, acquaintances, and colleagues, all the Hungarian language and literature departments I can find in the U.S. (they exist—at Columbia University, for instance), songwriting programs, radio hosts, writers, and others. The featured guests will be Csenger Kertai, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Platon Karataev, Cz.K. Sebő), and Gergely Balla (Platon Karataev)! The event page is here; stay tuned for official announcements, an event page and dedicated website, and more. In the meantime, mark it in your calendars, indicate interest (if you like), and invite everyone! It is free, open to the public, and appropriate for all ages from high school on up.

Speaking of Csenger Kertai, my translations of two of his poems, “Lake Balaton” and “On Forsakenness,” will be published in the next issue of Literary Imagination!

But speaking of translations, I have deadlines for a different project, so that will be all for now.

Different Kinds of Depth

The phrase “a deep person” makes me wary. Everyone is infinitely deep. Some people choose to escape from it, while others look it right in the face. Some keep it to themselves, while some share it with others. Some find their way to it through music and other art; others pound their feet on it when running long distance. Some find it when life socks them in the stomach. Some find it through jokes. Some don’t find it at all but are found with it somehow.

There is no point in judging oneself or others as “deep” or “shallow.” Such judgments usually break down. We don’t know what’s going on in another person, and are in no position to measure it. As for ourselves, who are we to call ourselves “deep,” when we have no basis for comparison? Deep in relation to what? What we think we see in others? What we see and what’s going on are two different things, or maybe three or more.

Still, depth does exist, and it takes different forms. There is music that plunges right away, and music that starts out on the lighter side but takes you deeper and deeper. And music that stays near the surface or flies upward.

Beginning with Atoms—their first album, For Her, is a little different in this regard—Platon Karataev’s music starts out deep with “Ex Nihilo” and goes deeper and deeper from there (if there’s such a thing as deeper than nothing). I can’t wait to hear the whole Partért kiáltó album, which will be coming out soon. Listening to the title song many times, I realize that the best way to approach it is on its own terms: not to squeeze it into existing frames and thoughts, but to take it as it is. It speaks as water, it speaks a language of water, all the layers moving and sparkling and darkening.

Cz.K. Sebő’s music, in contrast, sometimes starts out on the lighter side but then surprises and disarms you as it continues. For instance, “Someday” begins like a casual, melancholic conversation or letter, but each repetition of the sentence “you’ll be alone someday” changes and tilts the tone and sense slightly, until the listener receives these words directly and has to confront their meaning. That each of us will be alone someday, no matter how lucky or unlucky we are, no matter what we do.

One of my favorite songs by Galaxisok, “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” seems entirely lighthearted until you suddenly hear what is going on. It’s a dreamy song about falling asleep at Ikea, and waking up when it’s already dark, and running into an old girlfriend, Diána, who also, as it happens, fell asleep at Ikea. And they walk and talk together, and bring up memories of how one summer, when they were taking a make-up math exam, Peti broke his arm and had to wear a cast the whole time. Later that same summer he learns of another accident, and realizes Diána was in it, but then rejoins, “de felejtsd el, inkább hagyjuk ezt” (“but forget it, let’s drop this”). And then, “Én nem leszek fiatalabb, / te nem leszel öregebb,” “I’m not getting any younger, / You’re not getting any older,” which tells you, when it hits you, that Diána is dead and this dream took place after her death. But the music is so gentle and playful-sounding that you might miss this the first time around. (I missed it the first few times, but I think that’s because I am not a native speaker of Hungarian.) This is only a brief summary of the song; it has beautifully murky and surreal motions and images, such as crawling under the leaves of the indoor palms in the plant department.

No one has to be deep all the time; it can’t be forced. Depth happens when we let ourselves go into something. We know better than anyone else does when this happens and when it doesn’t. But sometimes, in the moment, the word “deep” doesn’t even come to mind. The thing itself draws us in, and only afterwards, in memory or reflection, does it seem profound. At other times, the profundity jumps out at us right away.

Going deep can be important as a practice, for those who want better self-knowledge, or who want to reckon with their actions, or who want to create something. But such practice often takes place in private, through meditation, prayer, or quiet thought. Sometimes it can happen in a long conversation, the kind where the conversants forget the time. Sometimes it can happen when doing something with others: for instance, playing music. But I don’t think it’s social, for the most part.

This does not mean that introversion is necessarily deeper than extraversion; introversion and extraversion can take all sorts of forms. There are people who like to spend evenings alone at home browsing random YouTube videos. There are people who go out in the world and strike up conversations with people out of genuine desire to know them better. Things aren’t what they seem on the surface.

Language, after all, takes you deeper into meanings, if you pay attention to it; there are many ways, quiet and lively, to do so. Yesterday I came upon a poem by Dezső Kosztolányi, “Szeptemberi áhítat” (“September Piety”) that I realized was one of the most beautiful poems I had read in Hungarian. But what does it mean to read it? I have read it silently and out loud; I have listened to the recording of János Pilinszky reading it. But this is just the beginning; I need to take much more time with it, maybe memorize it, maybe translate it (George Szirtes’s translation is good, but I want to go about it differently), maybe even set it to music, with cello. And then come back to reading it in silence, reciting it in my mind.

So where is all of this going? Depth is not something to claim as a title; it can be found through practice, but it also comes to you by surprise, and it’s open to all. Of all the ways we have of judging and writing off others, this is one of the worst; calling someone “deep” or “shallow” is just lying, because we are always undulating and trembling between levels, and have no idea where others (or even we ourselves) will go next.

On (Not) Taking Pictures at Concerts

Last night, for the first time in a long time, I attended a concert without taking any pictures. (It was Cz.K. Sebő with his band—a good though short show.) While I still expect to take pictures at concerts now and then, it was a relief this time not to do so. I didn’t have to worry about anything; I could just listen.

Pictures taken at concerts don’t always come out well. That’s why bands and venues have their own photographers, who go up close, shoot from different angles, etc. In contrast, if you’re in the audience, you want the photo-taking to be as brief and unobtrusive as possible, so you take out the camera (phone), shoot a few, and then put it away again. It’s a bit of a gamble.

Beyond that, when taking a picture, you’re trying to freeze or capture something that isn’t supposed to be captured. One reason for going to concerts is to hear a performance that will never be repeated in that exact same way. The moments are going by, you know they will never come back, and you want to meet them as they pass. A photograph can bring back a memory of a concert, but it can’t bring back the concert itself, and if it could, the concert would lose its meaning.

That touches on another problem: the distraction. Even if you take just one picture during a show, you’re distracting yourself slightly, and maybe others too. Never mind videos. When people hold their phones up in the air to get a video of their favorite song in the set, or just to get a video, period, they block others’ view and insert tiny screens into the picture.

And what about privacy? Yes, a concert counts as a public event, but even public events have a private aspect. Musicians don’t necessarily want their every move to be captured on phones, even on stage. It’s unnerving. And offstage they shouldn’t be subject to unsolicited photo shoots at all. But once people are in photo-clicking mode, they often clickity-clack into the night without restraint.

Last night a woman (in her forties or fifties) was taking repeated pictures of the Platon Karataev members as they talked with each other after the show. (Everyone from Platon Karataev was there.) She might have been a family member, in which case it’s understandable. But I thought she was a stranger, and my blood started to pound. Why couldn’t she leave them alone in their downtime?

Oh, but in this era of ubiquitous photo-clicking, there is no downtime, not even for audience members. Someone included me in a video last night. At many events, people have pointed their cameras my way, and I have seen the not-so-flattering results online a day or two later. You can’t attend an event anonymously any more. Your presence and reactions get recorded. And when people bring their phones and take pictures too, they make this more acceptable, when it shouldn’t be. Granted, sometimes the photos come out well, and sometimes it’s nice to have them. But I am uneasy with the trend.

The picture above (taken on Thursday evening) has nothing to do with this post except for the anonymity of the figures in it. It’s one of the best pictures I have ever taken; I had arrived at the Keleti station in Budapest and saw the shadows and light. So I quickly shot a photo. It has more people than most of my photos do, but no one would be able to identify them except perhaps the woman on the right. I find the silhouettes and shadows soothing.

What would it be like to have no picture- or video-shooting at concerts at all, except by designated photographers? It’s not going to happen, probably—but it would change the atmosphere for the better. In the absence of such a rule or agreement, it’s on each person to consider whether this incessant shooting really brings anything to the occasion. I will probably continue to take pictures here and there, but will keep the phone stowed away for the most part. I have some beautiful photos and don’t need that many more. And how great it is to attend a concert with full spirit and walk away with just the sounds and images in my mind, no token, no souvenir.

  • “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 February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • 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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