Csenger Kertai’s Reading: Before- and Afterthoughts

Beforethoughts

Tomorrow evening I am going to a reading by Csenger Kertai in Budapest, my first time hearing him read. I am very excited about this and have been rereading his second collection, Hogy nekem jó legyen (also the title of the last poem in the book). The poems are straight labyrinths in themselves; in that sense they sometimes evoke Pilinszky for me, just at moments. Their language is clear, charged, mysterious. They have to do with religious searching, introspection, fallibility, destruction, solitude, desire, love, barriers, eruptions of life. The first poem, “Aztán legyen béke bennem,” begins,

Nézd, szakadozik az ég,
és fehér hasú fények mutogatják maguk neked.
Valaki rendet rakott,
a virágok pedig nem akarják, hogy megköszönd,
ha tavasszal rózsaszín szirmokba pirulnak előtted.

An informal translation (taking a few minor liberties for rhythm and sense) might go like this:

Look, the sky is breaking up,
and white-bellied lights reveal themselves to you.
Someone has put things in order,
but the flowers do not want you to thank them
when in spring they blush into petals before your ey
es.

Translating this collection would be a fascinating project, and one I might propose at some point, if someone else hasn’t done it by that time. I have a big project to complete first, though.

I have been wondering, over the past month or so, how I would translate the title itself. It is not easy. It means, approximately, “So that it/things will be good for me,” but that’s a bit cumbersome in English. I thought of a few possibilities, such as “For My Well-Being,” or “For My Good,” or even “Pursuit of Happiness” or “Pursuing My Happiness,” but those don’t convey the grammatical suspension. In Hungarian, you sense that the phrase completes something else; it’s part of a sentence and does not usually stand alone. Its standing alone here means that you have to find the completion, in the poem and throughout the collection. “To Make Things Good for Me” or “To Set Things Right for Me” or something along those lines, might possibly work (though I am not satisfied with the word “things” here). Also, as I hear it, the emphasis in the Hungarian phrase is neutral; neither on “nekem” (“for me”) nor on “jó” (“good”). With a different word order, this would change: “Hogy jó legyen nekem” would emphasize the “nekem”; “Hogy nekem legyen jó,” the “jó.” So the translation, too, must be neutral in its emphasis. That allows the reader to consider different meanings and nuances, not just here in the phrase, but throughout the poem and collection.

But this is just the beginning; the poems are full of puzzles of these kinds, even without any thoughts of translation. Not only linguistic puzzles, but puzzles of form and spirit. I can stay with just one stanza for an hour, thinking about what it might mean and how it connects with the rest. The clear, condensed language calls for a kind of meditation.

A musical project emerged from this book; various musicians created, played, and recorded musical versions of poems from the collection. It was Cz.K. Sebő’s musical reworking of “Balaton” that introduced me to Kertai’s poetry. (In this recording, Kertai himself reads the poem aloud, and the music joins, interprets, and colors it.) The poem begins,

Megvan a lehetősége, hogy minden elromlik,
pedig a pazar panoráma eddig valami megnyugvásfélét nyújtott.
Ne bennem nyugodj meg – mondja a vitorlás egyedül a tó közepén –
nyugodj meg magadban, hogy bármi, bármikor elromolhat.

This reminds me a little of T.S. Eliot; I would translate it roughly like this:

It’s possible that everything falls apart,
yet until now, the lush panorama has offered some kind of reassurance.
Don’t take comfort in me – says the sailboat alone in the middle of the lake –
take comfort in the knowledge that anything, anytime, can fall apart.

The challenge here is that “njugodj meg” has so many different meanings, at least two of which play out in these lines. It can mean “calm down” or “quiet yourself,” but it can also mean “submit,” “resign yourself.” The translation would need to show both the repetition and the change of meaning. There’s a lot to think about here. The music brings out these underwater paradoxes.

Another favorite musical rendering from this project is daydreaming twins’ interpretation of “Én” (“I”):

I don’t want to quote or translate more here, since putting something on a blog constitutes publication, and it’s too early for that. Or too late! Just thinking about a few lines of these poems brought me close to 11:00 p.m., and tomorrow morning we have our closing ceremony at school.

Whether or not I ever translate these poems, or any of them, I love taking time with them and look forward to the reading tomorrow.

Afterthoughts

It was great. I got a little lost looking for the Három Szerb Kávéház, now one of my favorite cafés in Budapest, since I started out walking in the wrong direction from Kálvin tér. In the last few minutes before 7, I ended up sprinting the last block or two, and arrived all sweaty and ready for a beer. Fortunately the event hadn’t started yet. It was out on the terrace, where birds were singing in oversongs and undertrills, and a tree stretched far up above the building.

It was a combination of reading and discussion: the author Zoltán András Juhász interviewed Kertai about his work, life, and thoughts, and during the course of the discussion, Kertai read aloud five poems: “Ikarosz,” “Balaton,” “Hogy nekem jó legyen,” “A másik bármi lehet,” and (I think) “Nem lesz béke benned.” The discussion ranged from his name (which is rather unusual) and how it might have shaped his identity (it didn’t, he said), his place in the contemporary scene (he doesn’t really have one, he said; he doesn’t fit into any of the particular trends, nor is he part of a fixed literary community), the poets who are important to him (he brought up Attila József, Szilárd Borbély, and others), the challenges of dedicating yourself to writing poetry, the ways that poems can come into existence, the changes in his work since the first volume, and more. Throughout the interview, he was frank and thoughtful, unafraid to challenge people’s assumptions.

As for the poems, the first three I had read and reread at least several times, and hearing them brought new understandings. Also, I could appreciate the rhythms: free verse with hints of ancient metrics. “Balaton” has something of the feel of a Greek ode.

On the way to the event, on the train, I had been reading and pondering “A megváltásról” (“On Redemption”), which came together all except for a grammatical question, which I figured out this morning. I was puzzled because I thought “alkonyat” was the accusative of “alkony,” “twilight,” and if it was the accusative form, where was the verb? But then I woke up this morning realizing that “alkonyat” was a variant of “alkony,” and not its accusative form, which is “alkonyt.” The whole poem came together and has become one of my favorites.

Those may seem like elementary ponderings. But through them, I came farther into the poem than I would have if there had been no grammatical question at all. The knot became an opening. Poems can break and bend grammatical structures, but it’s essential to know when they are doing so and when they are not. This happens to me in English too: a grammatical structure in a poem doesn’t make immediate sense, and I have to look at it closely, and read it over and over, to figure out what is going on. Then, when it clicks, it resounds.

The atmosphere out on the terrace was friendly and enthusiastic; many people there were Kertai’s friends and acquaintances, but there were some strangers and newcomers, like me. Mr. Juhász welcomed people to stay afterward and talk with him, and buy a book. I had brought my copy with me, so I asked for an autograph, then headed out happily to catch the 8:50 train back to Szolnok.

On Listening to Poetry in Unfamiliar Languages

I have some upcoming posts about TED and what it could do to improve. My TEDx talk may appear on YouTube any day now, so I speak from an inside-like place. (TED refers to TEDx events as “TED-like,” so I suppose the inside of a TEDx event is “inside-like.”)

But right now I have something different on my mind: poetry in unfamiliar languages. Last night I went to the wonderful Uncle Vanya Cafe (quiet, cozy atmosphere, delicious food) to hear three poets: Tomas Venclova (whose poetry I have translated), Valzhyna Mort, and Vasyl Makhno. All three were superb in my ears. Mort and Makhno read some of their poems in Belarusian and Ukrainian, respectively; although I do not know those languages, I enjoyed listening as carefully as I could, picking up not only on familiar words (that is, words that had similar-sounding counterparts in Russian), but on cadences, repetitions, rhythms.

In some strange way it is possible, when listening to a poem in an unfamiliar language, to tell whether it is good. You can sense a mastery of orchestration. Something about the momentum and structure will come across strongly. For this reason and others, I love the exercise. Also, when you listen with that intensity, you remember the poem later.

Two of Mort’s poems stand out in my memory. One was titled “Psalm 18” (I think). She read it in Belarusian and English. There was a magnificent passage with curtains opening and closing, opening and closing. I can’t find it online, but I hope to track it down.

Another one, “Belarusian I” (which she read only in Belarusian, I think) had a progression that I immediately grasped. I didn’t understand the words at the very end, but I understood what led up to them. You can read the poem in Belarusian and English, listen to an audio recording, and watch a video here. (For the first four minutes of the video, she speaks about her work and background; then she reads the poem.)

In the video, she explains that she came to poetry through music. In childhood, she studied music with the intention of becoming a professional musician. When she started writing poetry, she thought of it as music too; she used words she didn’t understand, just for the sound of them. Something of this quality has stayed in her poetry; this partly explains why I could listen with such involvement. Her  poetry, reaching the listeners, returns in some way to its beginnings. At the same time, I need to take time with it to understand it better. Someone who understands nothing in a poem may still understand something (nonverbally); someone who understands something, a little more, and so on. Understanding a poem is a long and layered feat.

 

Note: I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.

 

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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 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.

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    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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