Meeting Attila József
Where ever I go in Hungary I always seem to come across Attila József
I can’t remember the first time I met Attila József. Perhaps it was hearing his poetry being so mesmerisingly recited on television, or maybe it was walking down that shady street with its decaying cottages in old Újpest and wondering why it was called Attila József útca? Since arriving here in Hungary over a year ago, I have come across this poet on many different occasions. He has become almost a friend; sometimes I seek him out deliberately, visiting the places where he has been, and other times he appears in unexpected ways. He is always there though, waiting for me.
Hungarian readers will need no introduction to the life and work of Hungary’s greatest twentieth century poet. Indeed it would be presumptuous of this mere visitor to his homeland to try to tell his story. So let me write about the times I have met him and perhaps he will be revealed a little more to us….
I met him in Budapest when I travelled to the IXth District to 3 Gát útca where he was born into poverty and hardship in 1905. The area looks just as dreary and run-down as I imagine it did then. A sense of decay is everywhere and there are few signs of the new Hungary of shopping malls and mobile telephones. There is a plaque on the house that marks his birthplace, in chunky socialist-realist style, proclaiming him as the “the great poet of the Hungarian proletariat”. It is as if his life and name have been expropriated, his life and work pigeon-holed. But that is simply not possible. The wording on the plaque tells only a part of the truth of his life.
Yes, he had a great sense of injustice. You can not read his They Who are Poor (Aki szégeny, az a legszegényebb) or How Long the Lord (Hosszú az úristen) and not feel this. Yes he, like so many of his contemporaries and fellow poets all over the world, joined the Communist Party during the 1930s. But they could not contain his fierce uniqueness and they kicked him out. No one, not even he himself, could contain the intellect, the piercing self-awareness, the uncompromising honesty of Attila József.
I met him again in the leafy avenues of the Kerepesi Cemetery in Budapest on a cool autumn afternoon. It was so peaceful there, so quiet and so unlike the hustle and bustle of the city just outside the cemetery walls. He is buried here with other members of his family. But not his mother, she who he immortalised in his classic poem, My Mother (Anyám). Perhaps this is only fair – his Mother, although she died when he was 14, never really left him throughout his life and he searched for her in every women he tried to love. He would write in his great love poem Ode (Óda), I love you like a child loves his mother and, not surprisingly, the object his desire, Márta Marton, would have nothing to do with him. Does Attila József finally rest in peace here?
And in old Újpest. He was there too on a hot summer’s afternoon. I was walking to the Metro station one day down one of the busiest streets in all of Újpest, flanked by large apartment blocks and a constant stream of noisy, dirty traffic. It would be harder to imagine a more unpleasant place to be. This is the new Újpest where the dreams of Socialist planners become sourer every day. As luck would have it though, I spied a side street with green trees and, being new to the area, decided to see where it led. It actually ran parallel to the busy thoroughfare I had just left, but it was a world way. It was the old Újpest of houses and cottages, small gardens with sheds, all tumbling down now. A faded picture of the Pope in a window, a brace of pheasants hanging from some eaves, an open window with a large family crowded together in a small room – these were the sights I saw in old Újpest. And where was Attila József? It was his street, named after him – in honour, I guess, of the times in the early 1930s when he came to Újpest, on the edge of the city, to give lectures to trade union groups.
Even in Vác I obliquely come across his tracks. We stroll along the park that runs along the Danube in this picturesque town. We are by the Danube, a Dunánál. Whenever I am near the Danube, his words come to me like a chant, like the gentle waves of the river itself, a Dunánál, a Dunánál. His plea, so eloquently expressed in this, one his greatest poems, for all those who share a common ancestry of this mighty river to resolve and work together for a common peace still haunts the politicians of today. When you read about the controversy surrounding the building of a dam at Nagymaros and the stress and strain this places upon Hungarian-Slovak relations, then the prophetic urging of the last lines of the poem seems all the more striking: “It is time to work together at last/on our affairs in common – no small task.” (It would be harder to find a more apt description of the impulse behind the Irish peace process than the last verse of this magnificent poem.)
I met him again in Szeged where we stood outside the university that now bears his name. It is impossible not to think back to that time, now legend and universal in the modern-day Hungarian consciousness, when those striking words were first heard. “I have no God, I have no land,/ no father, nor a mother’s hand.” Even in English the power and chilling rebellion of With A Pure Heart – (Tiszta szível) are unmistakable. When my daughter, Zsófi, was ten, she learnt this poem in school too. They kicked him out of this university, unable to contain his honesty and intellect, just like no other institution or person, ever could.
Once, when browsing through the lifetime of books on the many shelves at a friend’s place, I came across a first edition of some of his poems. “Whose is this signature?” I asked looking at the dedication on the inside cover. “Attila József’s.” came the reply. He felt very close at that moment.
I also met Attila József at the tiny village of Csörög where our family circle was having a get-together. The lunch was babgulyás[bean stew], cooked in a bogrács[large open kettle]. The main cook of this meal, the man responsible, called to the younger boys to bring more firewood to keep the fire burning bright and strong. They returned with a few paltry sticks. “You call that firewood!”, he bellowed as they showed their measly pickings, “Haven’t you read Attila József ?”. It was a reference to the times when Attila gathered (stole) firewood for his family during the dark days of WWI and about which he wrote in his poem, Firewood. Csörög seemed to me, a strange place to meet him again.
And finally, I met him at Balatonszászó, a small town on the southern edge of the great lake, the Hungarian Sea, at the place where Attila József himself could no longer contain his consciousness and intellect. At 32 it was all too much for him to bear, the pain too great. Nagyon fáj
indeed. It was there on the railway crossing that he lay down for the last time.
By the lakeside, a hundred metres from the place of his death, is perhaps the most powerful and intriguing memorial to any poet anywhere. It consists of a set of train wheels and tracks above which, on four sides, there are letters at the end of metal rods together making verses from some of his poetry. Resting on top of these metal rods, some 5 metres high, is a large, flat rock. You feel the pressure, the intensity the memorial creates, as if the rock, by its sheer weight, was forcing out the hard-edged words and verses. It is a fitting memorial indeed.
And so, this is the Attila József I have come to know. It is a mystery to me as to why I keep meeting him. There are many great poets in this land of poets, all of whom it would be interesting to meet. I am not sure why it should be that this most complex of poet’s is the one I am drawn to. Perhaps one day, when we meet again, I will find out.
November 1997 © Paul Hellyer
1. His name in the Western order. In Hungary the surname comes first followed by the Christian name, so his name in Hungarian is József Attila. What makes this somewhat more confusing is that his surname (József) is also a common Christian name in Hungary. Back to Post
2. útca is Hungarian for Street. Back to Post
3. The main cemetery of Budapest where the good and the great are buried. Back to Post
4. Literally ‘new Pest’. Also know as the 4th District. Back to Post
5. This was written as Irish peace process was underway that led ultimately to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Back to Post
6. The name of one of his great poems, it translates literally as something like, “It hurts a lot”. The poem itself is various translated as “Savage Pain”, “It Hurts So Much”, and unsurprisingly, “It Hurts A Lot”. Back to Post
Other Links and Resources
There are many English-language resources available for those interested in learning more about Attila Jozséf. A quick “Google” will yield plenty of results and there is of course always Wikipedia (which is how you may well come to this site in the first place!). Don’t forget YouTube as a source of readings, in Hungarian of course, of his poems. I always find Flickr an interesting place to search, although many of the photos tagged with his name have Hungarian language descriptions. Don’t forget Picasa as another excellent source of Attila Jozséf images.
The English language The Hungarian Quarterly is an excellent source of material about Attila József, including many of his poems. If use the search term in Google attila jozsef site:hungarianquarterly.com you should find lots to read.
For his life and poetry I have listed some English-language books that are worth having. I have tried to link to the original publisher site where ever possible, but of course there are the usual on-line bookstores where you can buy them. Don’t forget AbeBooks as a source of second-hand copies.
- In Quest of the Miracle Stag: An Anthology of Hungarian Poetry from the 13th Century to the Present in English Translation contains a number of fine translations but is worth having for all of the other Hungarian poems. A masterpiece and an intellectual triumph of staggering proportions. Published by Tertia Publishers.
- Attila József: Can you take on this awesome life? by Thomas Kabdebo is probably the best English-language biography available. The author proclaims it as a homage to the poet, and there is certainly lots of analysis of Jozséf’s poetry.