Different Things in Different Places

New Order, Hungarian Poets of the Post 1989 Generation,
edited and introduced by George Szirtes (297pp, ,Arc)

Fortinbras at the Fishhouses: Responsibility, the Iron Curtain and the sense of history as knowledge,
by George Szirtes
(64pp, £7.95, Newcastle/Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures)

Not much time has to pass before it becomes history and is parcelled up into pre-this and post-that and whatever it was in between, as if it was programmed and readily digestible. Poets may be amenable to this filing system approach, or not, it's a chancy thing who happens to have been born when and where.

George Szirtes opens his introduction to New Order in this way. 'In case anyone has forgotten," he says, "there was a peaceful revolution - a grand European revolution with global implications - exactly twenty years ago in 1989 though, if we have forgotten, it may be because we are still living in it."

In 1989 the Berlin wall came down. 1956, he goes on, was a bloody moment in Hungary. From the early 20th century key moments and movements can be tabulated.

Perhaps (an aside here) poetry has meant different things in different places but, in Britain, is there a poetry of 'the Thatcher years', did even the 'poetry of the two world wars' (to name it as such) crucially develop the art? Develop it how, and for whom? What's 'develop'?

Anyway, George Szirtes' Introduction makes a case and the anthology of twelve Hungarian poets is presented by way of illustrating post-1989 Hungary, not (he suggests) wholly assimilated into whatever it is European poetry may be becoming. And while establishing 1989 at the outset, he goes on to say, thirteen pages later, "Poets are not primarily political commentators, of course,.." Well, yes.

For how the translations came about, it was "a project organised jointly by the British Council and the Hungarian Cultural Centre that brought together a number of younger British and Hungarian poets for mutual translation that resulted in a pamphlet or chapbook called Converging Lines
,... material from that brief anthology has been used here.' And I suppose (he doesn't say) more has been added to fill these 300 or so pages.

It seems likely more of the Hungarian poets spoke English than vice versa
, and that the translations from the fourteen poets here came mostly from cribs.

The poets translated are István Kemény, Szilárd Borbély, András Imreh, Mónika Mesterházi, Krisztina Tóth, Virág Erdős, János Térey, G. István Lászó, Anna T. Szabó, Tamás Jónás, Orsolya Karafiáth and András Gerevich. Translators, amongst the 14 of them, include George Szirtes, Clare Pollard, Agnes Lehoczky, Matthew Hollis, Clive Wilmer, Owen Sheers and Antony Dunn.

The poems (the Hungarian on the left hand pages) are more alive in English than, and differently from, the Introduction allows them to be. I would guess that you could go into a bookshop, open the book at random, and want to stay with it, keep reading. There is a sparkiness, as if (as perhaps they did) the translations came as much out of conversation as from cribs. I have reported often (it seems often) my sense of translations having been stilted. This fat volume, not an Arc Visible poets but achieving that slogan's purpose better than when usually so labelled, and if a lively and different way with words and imagination and risk is to be brought into original English writing, here's a fine push towards it.

The Newcastle University's Department of English Literary and Linguistic Studies' series of lectures (new to me, I've seen no earlier ones), in collaboration with Bloodaxe, seems in principle an excellent venture, but I have found this one (three lectures) by George Szirtes hard work. It's the Hungarian history again, in itself distinctive and worth being aware of, but there's a dullness here, a falling back on what has been said before, so that (as the title tells you) whereas Elizabeth Bishop makes more than one appearance, where her life and work might have led is elided into what Szirtes knows best, his long trodden platform. It has made me wonder again about where poetry meets philosophy meets politics meets the unexpected, for which I'll keep looking elsewhere.

         © David Hart 2010