Setting Poetry to Music (25th ALSCW Conference seminar, October 2022)

In October 2022, at the 25th ALSCW Conference at Yale, I will hold a seminar on “Setting Poetry to Music.” Paper proposals have been coming in; for those still hoping to participate, the deadline for proposals is June 10 (please follow the instructions in the Call for Papers)! So far, the seminar participants include three invitees from Hungary and a number of other presenters (from both Hungary and the U.S.). The full roster will be established by the end of June.

The seminar description is as follows:

What questions and problems do composers encounter when setting poetry to music? How can music enhance, transform, or distract from a poem that already stands on its own? How might the music follow or depart from the poem’s inherent rhythms and tones? How might the musical rendition become an artistic creation in its own right? This seminar will explore these and other questions in relation to a wide variety of poems and music. Papers may take one of two directions. Those analyzing others’ musical renditions of poetry should plan to present a short paper (5–10 pages), possibly with an accompanying sound recording. Those presenting their own musical renditions or poetry should play it (through or a recording or on an acoustic instrument) and then comment on it briefly. The poems considered may be in any language, but any poem not in English should be accompanied with at least a basic translation or summary. The presentations should be prepared with a general audience in mind. Composers, songwriters, musicians, poets, scholars, teachers, students, and others interested in the subject are welcome to submit proposals. (Note: This seminar is not about songwriting or poetic song verse in general; it focuses specifically on poetry set to music.)

This seminar will differ in some ways from a literature seminar in that we will spend some time listening to the musical renditions of poems (which participants will either perform or play through a recording). Also, the topic is flexible; some presenters might take it in visual and other directions. I am eager to see what proposals come in.

I am honored that the three featured guests at the Pilinszky event in March will be the featured guests in the seminar as well! Csenger Kertai, Gergely Balla, and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly will all be presenting; they all won Petőfi Literary Fund grants to cover the trip. In addition, Gergő and Sebő (the Platon Karataev duo) will be performing at Cafe Nine in New Haven on October 23. We also plan to hold an event in NYC featuring Csenger as well as the duo. (We will have more details once they exist.)

The ALSCW (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers) “seeks to promote excellence in literary criticism and scholarship, and works to ensure that literature thrives in both scholarly and creative environments. We encourage the reading and writing of literature, criticism, and scholarship, as well as wide-ranging discussions among those committed to the reading and study of literary works.”

I have attended ALSCW annual conferences in Worcester, Nashville, Dallas, and DC. They are not only interesting but lots of fun. I have held and participated in numerous seminars (sometimes three different seminars in a given conference) and especially love the rich range of topics, the geniality, the participants’ willingness to hear contrasting views and approaches. Also, the ALSCW supports poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers through grants, prizes, and publications; the poetry and other readings at the conferences are generally superb. And let us not forget the Saturday night banquet, where the conference comes to a jovial close (there is an ALSCW Council meeting on Sunday morning, but otherwise no conference activities). I am especially excited about this year’s location, since Yale is my triple alma mater (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.), and I spent about fifteen years in New Haven all together (including two years from 2019 to 2011, when I wrote my first book, Republic of Noise).

This year’s conference has many other exciting seminars and panels as well, on topics ranging from Proust to Ulysses to “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture” to “Figures of Civil War” to “The Art of Confession” to “Aesthetics of the Sublime in Japanese Literary Arts.” And it will be our first conference since 2019, since we had to cancel twice because of Covid. Many thanks to David Bromwich, the president of the ALSCW; Ernie Suarez, the executive director; conference committee member Rosanna Warren, and others for bringing this to pass. While nothing is certain until it actually happens, this conference will take place unless a large and unforeseen obstacle arises. It is now only five months away.

Photo of Yale’s Harkness Tower by Chris Randall.

Seven Reasons to Come to the Pilinszky Event

It looks like lots of people are coming to the Pilinszky online event on March 20! But if you are undecided, here are seven reasons to come:

  1. János Pilinszky (1921–1981). Whether you grew up with his work or haven’t heard of him until recently, this event will introduce (or re-introduce) you to a few of his poems.
  2. The guests and hosts. This is a rare chance to hear Csenger Kertai, Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly discuss Pilinszky and perform from their work. For the hosts—Diana Senechal and the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers—this event is an honor and a joy.
  3. The languages. How often are literary events held in both English and Hungarian? The discussion will be mostly in English, with some translation back and forth; the poems, in both Hungarian and English, and the music, in one or the other. And speaking of that….
  4. The format. Instead of having a discussion followed by a performance, or vice versa, we will be combining discussion, poetry, and music. Literary events in Hungary are often conducted in this manner. It’s exciting because of the unexpected connections that arise between the various parts.
  5. The ease of attending. All you have to do is log in via Zoom. There is no charge. The instructions are on the website and the Facebook page. To find out exactly when the event starts in your area, go here. We have also prepared a downloadable program (containing the Pilinszky poems and quotes that we intend to discuss).
  6. The lack of dogma. We are not trying to drive home a particular message about Pilinszky or his world. The discussion will be inquisitive rather than didactic. We have a few working ideas but do not know where they will lead.
  7. The chance to ask questions. We will save time at the end for a few questions and comments. We can’t promise to get to all of them, but we do hope for some exchange with the audience.

The list could go on and on, but instead I will leave off with a quote from the poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy (whose centennial is now being celebrated in Hungary, a year after Pilinszky’s). I would only combine it with a suggestion that Pilinszky’s poetry contains exhilaration too, the exhilaration of facing the spectre.

“Pilinszky added a dimension to our lives (all our lives, now, the life of poetry), he enriched us with want, with being lost, the dearth of existence pared down to the bone. The extraordinary catharsis of his poetic power arched over such dearth. It would be good to look now into those places to which he opened a breach, look in through the inner doors of the ante chamber, to those places where destruction is spread out like the sky.”
 
—Ágnes Nemes Nagy, “János Pilinszky: A Very Different Poet” (1981), translated by Rudolf Fischer

“Egy dimenziót csatolt hozzá Pilinszky az életünkhöz (most már mindnyájunk életéhez, a költészet életéhez), meggazdagított a hiánnyal, elveszettséggel, az egzisztencia csontig, képletig letisztított ínségével. Költői hatalmának kivételes katarzisa ilyen ínségre boltozódott. Most volna jó benézni oda, ahova ő nyitott rést, benézni az előszoba bentebbi ajtaján, most volna jó oda, ahol a pusztulás úgy terül el, mint egy égbolt.”
 
—Nemes Nagy Ágnes, “Valaki más” (1981)

P.S. Seven reasons, but eight books? Yes, well, the eighth reason is up to you.

Translating Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó” (the song)

I have translated many poems in my life—from Hungarian, Lithuanian, and Russian—and see many more coming. It is an extraordinary, beautiful challenge: the translation will be imperfect no matter what you do, but you can still find ways to convey the essence of the original. Should you preserve the original form, or approximate it? Should you take liberties with words and syntax? The answer will change from poem to poem, poet to poet, time to time.

Translating song lyrics is even more difficult in some ways, because of the interdependence between the lyrics and the music. You could provide a “literal” translation (a surprisingly complex concept—it isn’t at all obvious what “literal” is), but in doing so, you might lose even more than you would with a poem. Such a translation could serve a limited purpose (conveying some basic sense of the song’s theme) but no more.

A little over a month ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea of how to translate Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó” (the title song of their recently released third LP). I got up and wrote down a few lines. I went back to sleep, woke up early, and translated the rest. This was my first artistic translation of a song: the first one that tried to capture some of the meanings, sounds, and rhythms together. I have translated a song or two before—mostly on this blog—but very roughly, and often just an excerpt.

The translation takes some liberties, and like any translation, it is imperfect. What I like, though, is that I can hear the music behind it and in it. Also, to make the rhymes and rhythms possible (the original song has just two basic rhyme sounds, which would be impossible or extremely strained in English), I varied the syntax. This continual turning and variation reminds me of the sounds of the instruments, rotating in and out of darkness and light. I am presenting the translation below, side by side with the original, with the permission of Gergely Balla.

partért kiáltó víz vagyok
kérlek, magamra hagyjatok

nem nyílnak befelé ablakok
kérlek, magamra hagyjatok

partért kiáltó víz vagyok
a mélybe lehúznak vad habok

nem nyílnak kifelé ablakok
már nálad van, mit adhatok

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

partért kiáltó víz vagyok
nincs már, hol átérjek gyalog

az űrbe tátogok, vak vagyok
de sötétet ásnak a csillagok

kérlek, magamra hagyjatok
nem eső ez, csak a tenger dadog

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

ezért a mondatért jöttem
ezért a mondatért
ezért az emberért jöttem
ezért az emberért
water shouting for shore am i
i beg you, leave me with my cry
 
the windows won’t open inwards, why
won’t you leave me alone i cry
 
water shouting for shore i am
dragged down deep by the savage foam
 
the windows won’t open outwards, see,
you already have what could come from me
 
but stay, if you traveled all those roads
folly to race with the hallowed woods
 
but stay, if you traveled all those roads
folly to race with the hallowed woods
 
water i am, shouting for the beach
there’s nothing left for my feet to reach
 
i gape blind into the void and yet
the stars dig into the lack of light
 
leave me i beg you, that’s not the rain
stuttering, but the sea again
 
but stay, if you traveled all those roads
folly to race with the hallowed woods
 
but stay, if you traveled all those roads
folly to race with the hallowed woods
 
this is the sentence i came here for
this is the sentence here 
this is the person i came here for
this is the person here

The most difficult line to translate is the one I pondered for hours when the song first came out: “siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél.” It means, approximately, “The one who is faster than the forest, hurries,” or “He hurries who goes faster than the forest.” It has an ancient or Biblical ring to it; the structure is similar to that of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (“Áldott ki jön az Úr nevében”). I translated it loosely as “folly to race with the hallowed woods,” which I think conveys something of the ancient, adage-like tone.

Try listening to the song by itself, without reading any text, then while reading the Hungarian lyrics, then while reading the English translation, and then once again without reading text. Those four listenings will bring out different aspects of the song. There’s no telling which ones; that will also depend on you. And for a fifth listen, here’s a live duo performance by Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly.


And if you enjoyed this, I recommend not only the whole album, but the accompanying lyrics book, with its striking and inspiring illustrations and text layout (by Emőke Dobos). Even without knowing Hungarian, you can glean meaning and sound from the pages.

I translated the song because there’s so much to hear in it.

The Joy of Negativity

The joy of negativity? On the one hand, I am using “negativity” in a specific sense here: yesterday’s PCR test came back negative, so now I have officially recovered from Covid (after feeling well for over a week, and barely feeling sick at all before that). This has all kinds of good consequences: first of all, Rabbi Katalin Kelemen and I can lead Shabbat service together (in person) tomorrow, the occasion of a bar mitzvah ceremony that we have been looking forward to for a long time. If the test had come back positive (as the previous two had), the rabbi would have had to make some big last-minute adjustments, but now I can be there and do my part.

The second is that I returned to teaching on Wednesday, after a week at home, and am relieved to know that my students and colleagues don’t have to worry about catching Covid from me. I’m also relieved that this didn’t turn into something long and drawn-out.

Third, there are two events I was particularly looking forward to and that I can now attend, without worries, on Sunday and Monday, respectively. The first is a literary and artistic event with Miklós Vecsei and guests Anna Szabó and Gergely Balla, featuring Szabó’s translation of Frida Kahlo’s diary, on Sunday. The second, on Monday, is Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly’s “capsule boy” concert (featuring his electronic music project). There are other events too, but I have to pace myself, since I have a lot to do as well—not just “things to get done,” but things I have to slow down and take time with, particularly writing and music.

But back to the original subject of the joy of negativity. It doesn’t only apply to PCR tests. While getting stuck in the negative probably doesn’t help anyone, a certain amount brings the relief of truth, since life contains mixtures of the positive and negative wherever you go. The pressure to be positive all the time can be stifling. I think there’s a little more pressure on women than on men to be cheery, since women are supposed to be smiling, comforting, upbeat, whereas men have a bit of brooding license. Also, women are supposed not only to protect, but to be protected from the difficult things of the world. So I only have to mention sadness, and people will swoop in with cries of alarm and advice “Are you all right? Look on the bright side,” etc., when all I want is a little room for the slightly gloomy. Is there a law that everyone must spout positive platitudes at all times?

So when I came upon Hannah Marcus’s “Ain’t No Way to Love Me,” set stunningly to video by Jason Bogdaneris, it was a balm for my soul.

Moreover, the painting at the top of this post is one of a series of rain-paintings by Mike Barr. I love rain (not all the time, but at times) and feel silly in small-talk about the weather, when the assumption is that “sun=good” and “rain=bad.” It doesn’t always work that way. Rain is needed, but beyond that, it brings out colors, textures, and sounds that you will never see or hear on a sunny day.

In a Platon Karataev interview with Recorder.hu, Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly said, “A melankóliában van valamiféle derű, amit a mélység megtapasztalása, majd a felszínre jövés okoz.” (“In melancholy there is some kind of serenity caused by experiencing depth and then coming to the surface.”) Yes, that is it, or part of it. Melancholy can bring serenity, even joy at times, because you get to see and live the layers.

Painting credit: Mike Barr, Rain on Grenfell Street.

Translations of Kertai’s “Lake Balaton” and “On Forsakenness” in Literary Imagination!

My translations of Csenger Kertai’s “Lake Balaton” and “On Forsakenness” (“Balaton” and “Az elhagyatottságról”) appear in the online version of Literary Imagination and will be published in the March 2022 print issue!

Literary Imagination is published by the ALSCW and Oxford University Press. According to OUP guidelines, I am allowed to share the links through my personal websites but not directly over social media. So please feel free to share this blog post, which contains links to the published translations.

This particular event has meaning for several reasons. First, Literary Imagination is journal that I have loved and admired for years. Second, “Lake Balaton” was the first of Kertai’s poems that I ever read and heard. Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Cz.K. Sebő) had set it to music; upon hearing it, I ordered a copy of Kertai’s second poetry collection, Hogy nekem jó legyen, and soon afterward attended his reading at the Három Szerb Kávéház. Soon after that, the idea for the Pilinszky event arose, and soon after that, I began translating Kertai’s poems. Four have now been published (in Literary Imagination and Asymptote); another four will be published soon (in Literary Matters and Modern Poetry in Translation).

P.S. The links at the top of this post are to the PDF files of the published translations. The non-PDF links are here and here.

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.

  • “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 April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • 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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