George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948, and came to England as a refugee after the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Trained in Fine Art, his poems began appearing in national magazines in 1973 and his first book, The Slant Door, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial prize in 1980.
In recent years he has worked as a translator of Hungarian literature, producing editions of such writers as Ottó Orbán, Zsuzsa Rakovszky and Ágnes Nemes Nagy. He co-edited Hungarian anthology The Colonnade of Teeth. His poetry books are The Budapest File (2000); An English Apocalypse (2001); Reel (2004), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize; New & Collected Poems (2008) and The Burning of the Books and other poems (2009). He currently teaches creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.
You have a wide range of written work; poetry, translations, articles, essays and librettos. But what is it that ultimately attracts you to write?
I started writing at the age of 17 or possibly just 18, towards in the sixth form at school. I had dropped English Literature for which – much to my surprise I had received an A at O level and was concentrating on sciences with the idea of going to medical school. The idea was my parents’ rather than my own – a very old idea that stretched back as far as I remember – but I had no clear alternative idea myself. The problem was I wasn’t very good at science. The first impulse to poetry was procrastination – sitting in the library supposedly concentrating on Physics but picking thin books off the shelf with relatively few words in them. I hadn’t really thought about poetry before. We were a middle-brow family with possibly only Petöfi and Madách (if that) in the house and relatively few books of any kind. The words sometimes carried an air I liked. They matched, I suppose, a tendency in me to desultory meditation. I had no particular idea of writing poems myself.
One day I was in the school corridor with a friend who, to my great surprise, pulled out a sheet of paper with a hand-written poem on it by a mutual acquaintance. He offered it to me to read. I read it and inwardly thought it was bad. I may have shrugged. But immediately a set of thoughts passed through me. First, the thought that the poem was bad because it wasn’t true in some way, but that, in that case, it must be possible to write poems that were true in some undefined way, and that this was precisely the way I myself could arrive at some notion of truth. Nothing of my life at that stage seemed vital and true. This idea did. The second thought was that the falsity of the poem (as I understood it) was a matter of tone and language. The rhetoric was hollow. I wouldn’t have put it that way then, I doubt I knew what ‘rhetoric’ really meant, but I think that was the way it must have worked (I remember exactly where in the corridor we were standing even now). The third thought, which struck me with a kind of sharpness was that I suddenly knew what I want to do and what I wanted to be. I wanted to write poems: I should be a poet.
I had no clear idea what that meant. My reading was small and chaotic. The next year I stayed on an extra year to retake Physics and was sent to there art room to fill up my time and keep me from hanging out. I had dropped art at the age of 13, being thought too messy. Now I found I could easily get a likeness and enjoyed painting. When I left school I had a place at university to do Psychology but, to my parents disappointment and perhaps despair, I chose to go to art college.
Forgive the long preamble to the answer, but in many ways it is the answer. I wanted to write because I thought poetry was a way of registering truth, a truth that was deeper and more complex than could be found in the conversations of daily life or in fact in anything else I knew. I still think so. Translation and libretti came along later, the translations particularly important since they were associated with my first return as an adult to Hungary, which not only launched me into translation but changed the course of my writing too. It added a vital dimension. The libretti came out of teaching where musician-teachers asked me to write things. I wrote a good deal, something every year, some of it good but not all. Articles and essays are a natural product of thinking about writing and reading
I understand that when you went back to Budapest in 1984 and that it had a significant impact on your work. Can you tell what that was like for you?
I had been forming the desire to pay a return visit to Hungary for some years. The desire had grown stronger since the death of my mother in 1975, hardly there at first but slowly approaching the way you might hear a train approach. The title poem of my third book, Short Wave, where I am listening to short wave radio and turning the dial, was one expression of that desire-in-formation. So I started reading about Hungary and for the first time in my life applied to the Arts Council, who awarded me a traveling grant. ON arrival I was met by a delegation from PEN, among who are people I still consider close friends.
Being in Budapest was like a three-week hallucination. I recognized sounds, smells, spaces and something about the texture of the place. The buildings of Pest were still riddled with bullet holes and shell marks. It was possible to walk into a courtyard and simply look and listen. I hadn’t spoken Hungarian for twenty eight years but I still understood tone. The structures appropriate to a bright seven year old child were undisturbed, it was the vocabulary that had diminished. My understanding was about 50%, my speaking about 10%. Both have improved significantly since then, of course. On the last day I was asked to read at the house of the British Council Representative. Many writers and editors came and, for the first time, I was asked to translate – four poems by Kosztolányi. Everything followed from there.
The following year I returned as a British Council scholar for ten weeks, and again two year later. In 1989 we spent almost nine months in Budapest. When I changed publishers in 1999, the first act of my new publisher, Bloodaxe, was to collect together my poetry on Hungarian themes in a book titled The Budapest File (2000) – about 200pp including an introductory essay. That changed the nature of my presence in English poetry. Next year there was a collection of my poetry specifically about England, An English Apocalypse (2001). So the Hungarian re-connection not only changed me and my writing, but also the British perspective of me as a literary figure.
Since then the two halves have slowly grown together again and the books since have contained material relating to both themes and much else. The last book, The Burning of the Books (2009) included a commissioned poem, Seeking North: A Hungarian Nova Zembla in commemoration of 1956. It was broadcast by the BBC in 2006 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Uprising.
Have you ever considered returning to Hungary to live?
Yes, but not on a permanent basis. Sometimes I have thought of dying there because there is so much I love about Budapest and the places closest to my heart are there. We thought of buying a flat for a while but there was no opportunity at the time. We are there for a few days each year, sometimes more than once. I wouldn’t want to live in Hungary in the present political climate though.
Would you agree with Robert Frost that: “Poetry is what is lost in translation?”
Yes, but in the best cases it is also found there. There are few British poetic forms that are not imports at some level. They were imported via translation.
What are you working on at the moment and what plans do you have for the future?
About the Author (Author Profile)
Suzanne Urpecz, creator and editor of The Hungarian Girl. Click on my About page for more info.