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 probably take place in March or later in the spring. I should have details soon—but mark it vaguely in your calendars already. 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 include Csenger Kertai, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Cz.K. Sebő), and possibly one more person (stay tuned!).

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.

Upcoming Events

This is the busiest fall I can remember in years, and there have been quite a few busy ones. Teaching is in full swing, with all kinds of interesting things: Hamlet, utopia projects (my students read a few chapters of Thomas More’s Utopia and are now creating utopias of their own), The Glass Menagerie, songs, grammar, lively discussions, test practice, the usual textbook stuff, and more.

Outside of school, just as much is going on: translations, writing, events. Speaking of events, I have two to announce.

On October 15, I will be one of the panelists in an ALSCW Zoom event titled “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture,” which will feature an array of speakers, as well as poetry readings by Edward Hirsch and Yusef Komunyakaa. It should be terrific. The full event description and Zoom information can be found here. The event is free and open to the public.

On October 26, I will be the fourth featured guest in The MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series (open to the public for an entrance fee of $10.00; please register in advance). The previous guests were Fred Turner, Sarah Cortez, and Dana Gioia. I will be reciting and talking about poetry and translation (both my own and others’). One of the poems I plan to recite is Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight labyrinth”), both in the original and in the wonderful translation of Géza Simon. To anyone in Hungary: you are welcome to attend, but please know that it starts at 1 a.m. on October 27 here! Fortunately we will be on spring break, so I can sleep in afterwards.

Speaking of Pilinszky, I should have some news, fairly soon, about an ALSCW Zoom event I intend to host in the spring, dedicated to Pilinszky and his influence. Details are still being worked out, so I will say more when there is more to say.

Also, if all goes well, we (my school and the Verseghy Ferenc Public Library in Szolnok) will hold a Shakespeare festival on April 22! We had hoped to do this last year, but Covid got in the way. This day-long festival will feature lectures, workshops, and student performances (in Hungarian and English) of Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs.

Before that, this fall and winter, there will be two new issues of Folyosó. Submissions are now open for the autumn issue; the international contest focuses on the topic of contradictions in life. I look forward to seeing what pieces come in (I have already read a few) and what shape this issue takes!

At Szim Salom, I am leading four services this month. One took place on Friday; the other three will be this Friday, this Saturday, and Saturday the 23rd. In my case, leading the services means singing all the musical parts, all the melodic liturgy, leyning Torah, and leading the congregation through the parts of the service. When I co-lead with the rabbi (on Saturdays), she leads the spoken parts and usually gives a dróse (a D’var Torah, or sermon). This month, the Saturday services will take place in person, at Bálint Ház in Budapest.

There’s a lot more going on, but I think that’s enough. As for other people’s events, this afternoon I am going to Budapest to hear Csenger Kertai (whose poems I am translating) and several other poets: Krisztián Peer, Katalin Szlukovényi, Dávid Börzsei, and Bálint Borsi. Like the event at the A38 Hajó, but differently, this event will combine poetry with music and visual art.

Also, there’s a concert I’d like to hear on Thursday—a double CD release party for Noémi Barkóczi and Mayberian Sanskülotts—but for various reasons I don’t think I can go. I will listen to their music at home, and if it turns out that I can go, I will.

Other things, other concerts are happening this month, but this is enough for now.

The photo is of the Aranytoll (Golden Pen), a pen and stationery shop here in Szolnok. (At least I think that’s what it is; I haven’t been inside yet.)

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 the Mixtures of Happiness and Sadness

I remember coming upon Lucky Curtains, the last of Granfaloon Bus’s albums, in a record store and seizing it in its gleaming wrapping. I purchased it, took it home, and for weeks listened to nothing else. It opened up something raw; my editing job (at a company that published career guides) went against who I was, and I knew it was time for a change. It was around then that I decided to become a teacher, and it took another year to make this happen. The music, this album, was part of the catalyst. Why? It’s hard to define and delimit these things, especially after all these years. But listening to the songs now, I hear not only the sadness that hit me then, but a happiness mixed in too, a kind of tentative, mitigated hope or at least ease.

Any mood, any emotion, is more than one thing at once; we are under pressure to name it one thing or another, to give it one emoticon or another, but it usually comes along with its opposite. Often when I am angry, I also see past the anger; often when worried I feel calm. Likewise, happiness and sadness go together so strongly that to separate them means to lose both.

On the Lucky Curtains album, the song “House” has all kinds of emotions together: happiness and sadness, security and tentativeness, expansiveness and enclosedness. Not only opposites, but gradations and hints, something outside of the polarities.

Whenever I mention being sad, there are those who jump in and try to fix it. Don’t! It is part of the happiness; it makes happiness possible. The dreariest thing on earth is one-sidedness. No one has to fall for it.

There are specific, obvious things to be sad about (climate change, the spreading Delta variant, hurricanes and floods, the disaster in Afghanistan, personal losses), but beyond that, sadness is a current in life; loss of some kind is always present. In János Pilinszky’s poetry I find an exceptional compression of happiness and sadness: a seemingly tranquil scene can contain endless grief. An example is his poem “Kegyelem” (“Grace”):

Bogarak szántják a sötétet
és csillagok az éjszakát.
Van időnk hosszan üldögélni
az asztalon pihenő lámpafényben.
Megadatott a kegyelem:
miközben minden áll és hallgat,
egyedül az öröklét működik.

In rough translation:

(Beetles plow through the dark
and stars the night.
We have time for long lingering
at the table in leisurely lamplight.
Grace has become possible:
while everything stops and listens,
eternity works all alone.)

The pivotal word here is “megadatott,” which is not the same as “megadott” (“it is given”). “Megadatott” expresses a tentative possibility. Grace is not certain; it just becomes possible in these still moments, which themselves are rare. The poem holds this rarity.

Last night I was listening again to Cz.K. Sebő’s “kétezerhúsz” (“2020”), a truly sad song. But if there’s a happiness in it, it has to do with being able to sing the sadness as it is, being at peace with it in some way. I think that is a kind of happiness, but not a cheery kind. I understand much more of the song than I did before; not just the literal meaning of the lyrics, but their tones too.

It’s hard to explain that happiness and sadness go together; lots of people know and understand this, but our current vocabulary doesn’t make much room for it. There’s so much pressure to be on the up-and-up, always doing better, feeling better. But literature and music (and other arts) make room for something else.

What is the mood of Dávid Szesztay’s “Késő” (“Late”), for instance? It starts out mournful, but then it lifts up into a kind of exhilaration. The word “but” here is misleading; the one mood follows from the other.

It isn’t just that different moods coexist. Rather, there’s something more important than mood. We (around the world, but particularly in the U.S.) place too much emphasis on being happy, being fulfilled, as though such a thing could be attained and frozen in place, and as though it were more important than the things we do and receive. I don’t mean that mood is unimportant, but it’s a background color, changing and blending and fading, a wash of sky.

Publications, Honors, and Things

Sometimes I forget that this has been a prolific time. But it has been, and there’s a lot more coming this year and next, I hope. Along these lines, a few updates:

I have the honor of being invited to speak as a guest lecturer on October 26, 2021, in The MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series. The other sessions are led by Frederick Turner (July 27), Sarah Cortez (August 31), and Dana Gioia (September 28). These sessions are open to the public (with registration in advance); the fee for each session is $10. I will be reciting and speaking about my poetry, the poetry of others, and a translation or two.

My translation of Gyula Jenei’s “Scissors” was published in the Summer 2021 issue (Volume 62, Issue 2) of The Massachusetts Review; this particular issue is devoted to poetry, and it’s beautiful! You can order a copy here.

My essay “Plessy v. Ferguson and the Dissenting Opinion in the Classroom” will be published by Literary Imagination in the fall and is already available online (to those who have access). This is part of a special issue, which you can order with a subscription to Literary Imagination (which includes membership in the ALSCW). I think it will also be available later as a single issue.

And now for a few reminders:

Gyula Jenei’s collection Always Different: Poems of Memory, in my English translation, will be published by Deep Vellum in February 2022—not so far away any more! You can pre-order a copy.

My poem “Apology in Seven Tongues” was published by The Satirist in June. Read it all the way through, if you do read it; it’s saying something different from what it might seem to be saying at first. A reader wrote, “That’s really good. It takes seven unapologetic verses to get to the bottom of the event.” Another reader wrote, “F***ing gorgeous. Loved it.” And another: “Well, that is brilliant.”

My story “Immemorial” and my essay “I Signed to Protest the Blurring” are published in the wonderful inaugural issue of The Penny Truth / Krajcáros Igazság, Budapest’s Bilingual Literary Magazine. You can pick up a copy in Budapest or order one from Booksellers (just call them up).

A long, long heads-up: If all works out, in the spring of 2022 I will be hosting an online ALSCW event devoted to the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky and featuring two guests: the poet Csenger Kertai and the songwriter and musician Cz.K. Sebő (Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly). I will interview them about Pilinszky, and then they will perform, from their own work, pieces that relate to Pilinszky in some way.

And speaking of Cz.K. Sebő, I learned a lot from recording a cello cover of his song “Out of Pressure” (from his 2015 EP The masked undressed). On July 29 I re-recorded the vocals; you can find the new video here. The Hungarian word for “cover” (in this context) is “feldolgozás,” which also means “working up,” “converting.” I think of musical covers as translations of a sort. If they sound just like the original, that can be impressive, but uninteresting. For me, the interesting part of covering someone’s music is seeing what it turns into, which reveals something about what it already is.

Speaking of musical covers, I have wonderful memories of covering Marcell Bajnai’s (and his band 1LIFE’s/Idea’s) song “Maradok Ember” on cello at Varga and at the Summer Institute in Dallas two years ago. And I have started working on a musical rendition of a Sándor Weöres sonnet.

Speaking of music, I put my unreleased 2001 EP O Octopus on Bandcamp and YouTube. Soon I expect to have it on Spotify as well.

And two new translation projects are underway: of poems by Csenger Kertai and stories by Sándor Jászberényi. More about these in good time!

With all of that, I am glad to have a few more weeks of summer break but am also looking forward to the new school year. There are so many things I want to do with my classes. I hope that we will have classes in person all year long, but no matter what happens, there will be a lot to do.

From Home to Home

What is home? For some, it’s a particular place, full of objects and memories, maybe the place where they grew up, or went through upheavals, or settled down later. For others, it’s trickier; home might be manifold, or it may have to do more with a state of mind than with physical surroundings.

I came back home to Szolnok today, and this is definitely home. But throughout the trip to the U.S., I had different senses of home in different places. I could not have wished for a richer ten-day trip.

I will not go into details about the personal parts of it, but in short: I visited my mother and stepfather in Northampton, Massachusetts, and celebrated my mom’s birthday there. Then went up to New Hampshire to visit my father and stepmother; we spent the better part of one of those days in Maine, which has years of memories for me and which brings to mind Cz.K. Sebő’s extraordinary song “Maine.” We went up a mountain (Agamenticus) and down into the water.

Then came the New York part: I saw dear friends, moved some things out of storage (and moved the rest into a smaller storage space), attended B’nai Jeshurun on Shabbat, took part in the wonderful service, and chanted Torah, walked around in Fort Tryon Park (bottom photo) and elsewhere, ate some delicious food, picked up an important document from former neighbors in Brooklyn, and state at the sweet and comfortable Hotel Newton, where I hope to return.

The hours in the storage space were surprisingly moving (in multiple senses of the word); I went through CDs and books, got rid of some things, and packed some beloved items to bring back. I also mailed two boxes of CDs; that was enough for now, since shipping is expensive. Now my shelves already have many things that I had been missing, and when the shipments arrive, there will be still more.

But when you’re traveling like this, even without rush, even with so much welcome and warmth, you’re still somewhat on the run. I longed to come back to Szolnok and sit at the desk, as I am doing now, and let the thoughts roll out. I was raring to get back to the writing and translation projects, to the music.

Home isn’t just the desk, though; it’s the place you can start out from. Tomorrow I go to Budapest for a full day: a doctor’s appointment, then lunch with a writer whose work I am translating, then some wandering around, then a Kolibri and Platon Karataev concert over on the Buda side, then a train ride back home. But home is in those things too.

And then the cats. I am so grateful to my colleagues Marianna and Gyula and to their son Zalán, who fed the cats while I was gone (and kindly vacuumed, and filled my fridge with fruits and vegetables so that I would not be hungry when I came back). That made the trip possible and brightened the homecoming. Sziszi and Dominó were healthy and cheerful when I returned, and Dominó gave me a big, long hug (the way cats can do). They played, sat in the window, sat on my lap, walked hither and thither, and then resumed their feline kvetching.

So back to the question of home: maybe it is a place that you rely on as an origin, a place you can set out from. That means there will be lots of homes, like fractals, each one an origin. The other side of home, though, is the return: you take off, but you long to come back. Which of these returns is the real one? Is there necessarily one real one? Or does it come down to a longing, as in János Pilinszky’s poem “Egy szép napon” (“On a Fine Day”)? Here is Géza Simon’s brilliant translation of the poem:

It’s the misplaced tin spoon,
the bric-a-brac of misery
I always looked for,
hoping that on a fine day
I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.
Always, as always
I wished to be back.

And here is Cz.K. Sebő’s musical rendition, which introduced this poem to me, and which you may get to hear live at an ALSCW Zoom event next spring. More about this later as it takes shape, but in short, according to hopes and plans: I will be interviewing Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly and Csenger Kertai about Pilinszky, and then, after the interview, they will perform selections from their own work. Mark your calendars; we haven’t set the date yet, but you can highlight, circle, shade, or memorize the spring of 2022 in general until the details roll in.

Looking forward to things is a kind of home too! But that’s a subject for another time.

The photos are of kayaking in New Hampshire, the Hungry Ghost bakery in Northampton, pine trees along the trail up Mount Agamenticus in Maine, Sziszi and Domino at home, and me in Fort Tryon Park in Washington Heights, Manhattan.

Song Series #13: “A soft spot for repetition”

At the ALSCW Zoom event in which I interviewed Zsolt and Marcell Bajnai and they gave a performance, I asked Marcell about the repetitions and subtle variations in his songs. He began by saying that repetition is part of the foundation of songs. His comment, and Kurt Vile’s song “One Trick Ponies,” which has the line “cuz i’ve always had a soft spot for repetition,” brought out thoughts for this piece.

It is difficult to think of a song that does not involve repetition of some kind. There are repetition of melody, rhythm, refrain. There are repetitions of phrases within a verse, of words within a line. There are repetitions of syntax, musical phrases, chords, syllables, single consonants or vowels, guttural sounds. Why is repetition, when done well, essential to a song?

Some of it goes to our childhood. Remember how babies love to play the same games over and over, hear the same stories over and over, sing the same songs again and again? You see them anticipate the next word, the next peak. The fun lies in the anticipation of that known and beloved moment. Adults know that kind of anticipation too. That’s partly why I love to return to favorite songs, poems, stories; I can’t wait to hear that phrase, to see that turn of words again.

Also, repetition allows us to take the songs into ourselves. Within a short while, we know them well enough to sing at least part of them to ourselves. Soon afterward, we know the whole thing, and after that, we have room to hear more details and to imagine the song being played in different ways. They become part of our waking and walking. There’s discovery too: the repetition allows us to hear the changes and variations, which would not stand out if the song as a whole were changing all the time.

I will begin with a classic form of repetition in a song: the verse/refrain structure, where the refrain repeats more or less exactly, and the verses change. (There are many songs where the refrain changes, where the verse contains repetitions, or where verse and refrain cannot be separated, but let’s start here.) The Velvet Underground’s song “Pale Blue Eyes” not only keeps to this structure but does something extraordinary with it. This slow, gentle song carries you along, verse through verse, refrain after refrain, building a story of forbidden love. You don’t realize the heartbreak until you’re right in the middle of it.

The refrain seems simple: “Linger on your pale blue eyes.” But what does it mean, even grammatically? Is someone lingering on the pale blue eyes, or are the pale blue eyes lingering on (enduring)? Is it a command, a yearning, or a statement? The phrase seems to float, like a subjunctive wish, sometimes coming closer to the present, sometimes receding away. Lou Reed’s voice cracks on the “on” itself, the word that is drawn out the longest.

The guitars, bass, tambourine, Hammond organ, and voice carry the song in such an understated way that you hardly notice the sound growing fuller. There are no dramatic shifts, just a sound and a story wrapping around you.

The second song I am including here, Péter Jakab’s “Te vagy az ellenség bennem” (“You are the enemy inside me”) has a different kind of repetition entirely: the repetition, over and over, of that single title sentence. I know nothing about Péter Jakab except that he is the frontman of Jazzékiel, that he released his first solo album, Nem fontos személy, in February 2021, and that Norbert Kristóf (who, along with Szabolcs Puha, recorded Cz.K. Sebő’s EP Junction) released a remix of this particular song. This kind of repetition is millennia old, part of prayer and incantation. Just as when you say a word many times in succession, it starts to sound strange or holy, so when you do this in a song, you become more detached from the words, and at the same time more involved in them. They take on a meaning of their own, apart from where they started out. This song is wonderfully surprising and haunting.

The next song, Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan,” has yet a different kind of repetition: that of syntactic rhythm. I learned just recently, when listening to Jeffrey Davison’s Shrunken Planet program on WFMU, that Cohen didn’t actually write this song. (I should have realized this long ago; I have had the album Songs from a Room for many years, and it was one of the handful that I brought it to Hungary.) The song was originally written by Anna Marly during World War II. It is not clear to me whether she wrote the original lyrics herself, in Russian, or whether the lyrics were originally written by Emmanuel d’Astier, but the music was Marly’s, and the song became an anthem of the French Resistance. In the 1960s, Hy Zaret adapted it and translated it into English (changing some of the words and meanings). Leonard Cohen’s version is based on Zaret’s—but he simplifies the texture and adds a few verses of the French lyrics to it. If you listen to Marly’s, Zaret’s, and Cohen’s versions, you can hear how Cohen draws from both of his predecessors but gives the new version a soul of its own. (That’s another kind of repetition right there.)

The syntactic repetition is this: in each of the verses, the first three lines constitute an idea, and then the fourth line responds to it somehow. In Hebrew cantillation, there would be an etnachta trop, a melodic phrase indicating a semicolon-like caesura, between the third and fourth lines. Here you can hear it in the vocal pause, the stretch of rumbling guitar, between the last word of the third line and the first word of the fourth.

When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do
I took my gun and vanished.

I have changed my name so often
I’ve lost my wife and children
But I have many friends
And some of them are with me

And so on, up to these aching words:

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing
Through the graves the wind is blowing
Freedom soon will come
Then we’ll come from the shadows

There’s also repetition through the translation itself, or the almost-translation; when the French verses come along, they seem like a distant memory, with the backing vocals and the feeling of wind. And just like memory and wind, the “wind” verse comes back in English at the end, and within it, the repetition of “wind” and “blowing.”

Speaking of translation, this past Sunday was Poetry Day in Hungary, and I had the occasion to think about how poems get translated into song. This often involves a kind of repetition: the songwriter might repeat words and lines that occur just once in the original poem, and may rearrange them somewhat too. This repetition and rearrangement in music gives something new to the meaning. One example of this is Marcell Bajnai’s reworking in song, released on Sunday, of Krisztián Peer’s poem “Félteni magadtól” (“Fearing Yourself”). It would be too complicated to explain and translate everything here, but I particularly like how he saves two lines until a little later in the song, and then again for the very end:

Minek simogatsz, amikor dicsekszem?
Szereted a vesztes ügyeket?

(Why do you caress me when I brag?
Do you love lost causes?)

This not only highlights the two lines, which have everything to do with the title, but also brings everything together. To me, it is supposed to be this way.

Cz.K. Sebő’s song “On a Fine Day,” whose lyrics are the János Pilinszky poem “Egy szép napon” in Géza Simon’s beautiful English translation, does something similar, though different, through repetition.

It’s the misplaced tin spoon,
the bric-a-brac of misery
I always looked for,
hoping that on a fine day
I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.
Always, as always
I wished to be back.

After singing through the poem, the song returns to the four lines,

I will be overcome by crying,
and the old house, the rustle of ivy
will welcome me back.

That ends the song, so that those lines become the return itself: the return to the words becomes the return to the old house, and so I, the listener, have returned to the house without even realizing it.

This is just a dip into the topic of repetition in songs, which gave me a chance to bring up two old favorites, a recent favorite, and two that I heard for the first time this past week. I look forward to hearing them all many more times.

I corrected my translation of the Krisztián Peer lines on July 2.

To read the other pieces in the Song Series, go here.

  • “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

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  • 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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