‘Writing is oxygen to me. I couldn’t breathe without it.’ Ahead of the publication of September’s print issue, one of the UK’s most celebrated contemporary poets, George Szirtes speaks to Tracy Gaughan about his literary life and work. He discusses his fascination with language, the reciprocity of translation and poetry as complex truth.
Born in Hungary in 1948, his first book, The Slant Door (1979) won the Faber Prize. He has published many since then, Reel (2004) winning the T S Eliot Prize, for which he has been twice shortlisted since. His memoir of his mother, The Photographer at Sixteen, was published in February 2019.
Ordinary language raised to the Nth power? A synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits? What is poetry and what does it mean to you?
I came to poetry suddenly in a school corridor. It hadn’t been a factor in my life. The impulse that I seemed to recognise then was that poetry was a way of telling truths in a world of falsehoods. That was naïve, of course, but even then there was the assumption that the truth was complex, that life was complex and that the task of the poet was to weave a truth out of those complexities. The metaphors, such as hyacinths and biscuits came later. As did the perception that poetry makes its own truths, truths recognised more in the bones and nerves than in the mind. If I were looking for a metaphor now it might be something like ‘the noise under the murmur of the sea.’
What literature shaped your early imagination growing up in Budapest? Who were your early literary touchstones? Who are you discovering or perhaps rediscovering now?
I was a voracious reader in my Budapest childhood to the extent that I was often distracted to the point where I forgot the simplest things. My parents talked to the doctor who advised them to remove my books, which they did. They later told me that I would compensate by reading the newspapers lining the drawers. For various reasons (childhood trauma after leaving Hungary suddenly at the age of eight and being plunged straight into English?) my memory of my Budapest childhood is patchy at best. The little I recall involves the fairy tales of Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, a child’s version of Don Quixote, Sándor Petőfi’s long narrative poem János Vitéz (John the Valiant as one translator had it and which I myself have been translating for years, passage by passage for years now), stories from Shakespeare, Jules Verne, bits of Imre Madách’s nineteenth century epic verse drama Az ember tragédiája (The Tragedy of Man) which I have in fact translated, and most of A A Milne in excellent bi-lingual editions with the original E H Shepard drawings. The essence of those things would have been magic, danger, whimsy and a vague sense of profundity.
‘To be rooted’, Simone Weil said ‘is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.’ She also said that ‘the love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, “What are you going through?”’ How well received were you as an eight-year-old arriving in 1950’s Britain having fled the Hungarian Uprising? Do you think contemporary society has a greater or lesser capacity to understand what refugees are going through?
I think we were very well received when we arrived. I was just a slightly disorientated child of course but I was not aware of hostility, rather of welcome and nurturing. At this distance I might begin to explain that in cold war terms. Some 28,000 of us arrived and settled in England and the Uprising had been well documented so people knew about it, were involved with it, and regarded refugees as potentially heroic figures. Hungary had resisted the mighty Soviet Union who went on to crush it. That narrative was powerful and of course this was just eleven years after the war so the war narrative played a part too. People opened their houses to us, adopted Hungarian families and the state launched us with loans and jobs. That experience has, no doubt, coloured my views of England (I have never lived in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) as an essentially benevolent place with its own repository of personal, yet strangely distanced kindness, as well as a historical refuge for various exiled figures. I am more than aware that that is not the full story of course and that there has been hostility at times, a xenophobic hostility stoked by those with a more savage agenda. My family accepted that English people were reserved in matters of emotion but they didn’t read that as coldness or indifference. We simply respected it and, coming from a place where there was little chance of psychological privacy, my parents did actually appreciate it. If any Simone Weil reader had asked me what I was going through then I would not have been able to tell them, nor would my parents, primarily because our understanding of English would have been insufficient and partly – more importantly – because I doubt any of us even knew. You could perhaps relate that to the sense of poetry as a complex truth about complexity. It was enough that people were well disposed.
Do you remember the circumstances under which you began to write poetry? What was the literary scene like in the UK at that time? Was there a milieu from whose criticism your work benefitted, particularly in relation to early collections such as The Slant Door (1979) which won the Faber prize, or November and May (1981) for example?
I began to write poetry immediately after that moment in the school corridor which I remember with crystal clarity. I was seventeen and studying sciences at A Level. We had relatively few books at home and I wasn’t in the habit of reading poetry. I started at that point. I had no idea at all of the literary scene or that there was even such a thing. I was a person alone with a notebook. Then I found two other school friends who were at much the same point. We read widely and wildly without any sense of history or chronology. We’d sit around in the small bedroom at the flat of one of these friends (his dad was a postman, the other’s father a scoutmaster) with books around us. We read stuff from the library, and bought cheap second-hand paperbacks. The best known poets were Ginsberg and the Liverpool Scene poets, but we read well beyond them. I could produce a very pretentious-sounding list of British and European poets of the 19th and 20th century. How far we understood or could articulate what we were reading is hard to say. We were entranced by poems and the thought of poetry. My creative life was changed three times: when we left Hungary in 1956, by the moment in the school corridor in 1966, and by the first return visit to Hungary in 1984. The school corridor gave me something to live for. I was utterly aimless before then.
I was aware of what A Level English Lit students were reading. Shakespeare of course, D H Lawrence, Dylan Thomas and Ted Hughes. Larkin would have been there too somewhere but that lay in another part of the field. My field was an exotic scrubland with no major urban development.
From school I went to art college in Leeds and there I met my first real poets, Martin Bell and Jeff Nuttall. Bell ran a weekly class where he introduced us to whatever poetry he loved. He was my first poetic godfather. He encouraged me and helped publish my very first pamphlet in 1972. When I left Leeds he gave me a letter of introduction to Peter Porter in London. The kindness and support of these two is hard to overstate. On moving to Hertfordshire in 1973 I met more poets who lived locally or close: Peter Scupham, John Mole, Freda Downie. There was never a formal arrangement or even regular meetings. We did not read poems to each other or hand round sheets for criticism.
My poetry was formed chiefly in the mid-70s and whatever formed it wasn’t a milieu. I took no courses and attended no classes. (It is a fascinating paradox – at least to me – that I have taught so many courses and classes since) My first poem was published in the TLS in 1973. Other than that nobody had heard of me. I published one poem per year over the next four years (all in major magazines, all different) and in 1978, on Peter Porter’s recommendation, Faber took me on for one of their Poetry Introduction volumes. Secker and Warburg picked me up and The Slant Door came out in 1979 and won the Faber Prize (jointly with Hugo Williams). That first book made a vast difference.
Having spent some of the seventies, particularly from 1975 on, working with rhyme it presented me as a formal poet who had learned something from both Larkin and French Surrealism but with a strongly visual sense based in art. November and May was the standard difficult second book in both senses: difficult for me and difficult in texture (I remember being introduced to a writer at a party as ‘that difficult poet’). It’s so long ago it all seems like a dream now. I know that is a cliché but it’s true. I remember scenes, not the process.
How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer over the years? Have your inspirations and motivations changed with the seasons of your life? How, for example would you describe your feelings toward what you accomplished in those early collections compared to what you did in Bad Machine (2013)?
The engagement with painting as art (I was practising as a painter and printer myself then) became an engagement with photographs and film but much the most important change was the return to Hungary in 1984 which was a near hallucinatory experience. It coloured my work for the next four or five books and opened up a territory that might be described as history-as-hallucination. The Photographer in Winter began it. There was still so much war and revolution damage in Budapest that you could touch it and run your fingers over it. History was not a story but a presence.
The territory was partly family history. My poems grew longer, more architectural in terms of structure, their material broader than my life in England. Metro (1988) explored the Jewish side of family history. Bridge Passages (1991) was a witness to the collapse of the Hungarian state in 1989. We spent most of that year in Budapest watching the system falling apart. The relationship between my Hungarian and English lives became an animating force, particularly in The Budapest File (2000) and An English Apocalypse (2001) . Reel (2004), the Eliot Prize winner, took me back to Hungary and the details of my own childhood, chiefly through terza rima and sonnets. The Burning of the Books (2009) was animated by the sense of chaos in Europe. It used quite different poetics in the title sequence. Bad Machine (2013) was an experimental sort of book using prose poems, lists, definitions, and canzones. It was working at the edges of my earlier work and looking to expand it. Some of it was an extension of work done with three female visual artists as part of a single project. It sprang out of long, regular discussions. My Collected and New Poems was published in 2008. I rarely look at it now. (It was accompanied by John Sears’s book about my work.) Parts of it surprise me by being a lot better than I feared, parts of it do not. I am ashamed of none of it. It’s a big fat book of over 500pp. That’s that, I think. It’s my life for better or worse.
There’s a good deal of interest now in the process of writing. I wonder if you could talk more about your writing habits. What’s the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
I don’t think the advice ‘write what you know’ is very helpful. I think one writes poems to find out what one half-knows. I tend to write fast, frequently, straight on to the keyboard now, and edit as I go as well as for days after, sometimes longer.
As for habits, for over twenty years, when I was a school teacher and our children were growing up, I set the alarm for 5am each morning and gave myself a couple of hours to write, revise, think, or read. All the books up to Bridge Passages were produced that way.
I was a reasonably good sprinter as a boy, 400 metres maximum. My writing – even the longer poems – are a series of sprints. I strain to hear the starting pistol and am curious to see where I finish up. When I started using Twitter in 2015 I became fascinated by short texts in both prose and verse. I loved the invention, the brevity, the power of implication that the form encouraged. That has produced five or six pamphlets and some material in the books themselves. Twitter has been a sketch-book of drafts for small objects that can crack open like eggs.
Your productivity and vigour as a writer put me in mind of another artist in a hurry, Vincent Van Gogh – who painted fast, seeking complementary colours in order to bring something to life. What would you say is the main impulse behind your writing? What are you bringing to life and who are you speaking to in your poems? Also, incidentally, how does your life as a painter feed into your work as a poet?
I said a little about speed above. I need momentum to bypass what is cautious and reasonable in me. I invent under pressure. In inventing I hope to invent the truth, a principle I wrote about in the prose memoir I published last year, The Photographer at Sixteen.
I write because writing is oxygen to me. I couldn’t breathe without it. I am interested in everything but know very little. I am the opposite of a scholar: mentally and psychologically I am a butterfly not a mole. Short billowing flights.
What I try to bring to life is the sensation of being alive in language which may, with luck, be the sensation of living in a world of rapidly glimpsed phenomena and historically vulnerable affections. I don’t know who I am speaking to. Sometimes it is to my wife or children but mostly it is to the air I sense around me. My life as a painter is, sadly, history, except possibly in the mind. It ended at the point I became a translator, in 1984. Translation took the time I might have had in a studio. Besides, my wife Clarissa is an excellent and far more gifted artist than I ever was. I have lived a vicarious visual life through her work.
In terms of memory, nostalgia and the past – which have a firm presence in your work – there is often friction between facts and how we comprehend them. Memory is haunted so to speak. Do you think we simply recover the past when we learn things to be true, or renew it? Further, what is your understanding of TS Eliot’s remark that a poet needs to live not only in the present but in the present moment of the past. Can we never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory?
Eliot is dead right. For all his failings and prejudices he was right about a lot of things. I do think there are such things as facts that have an objective reality apart from our consciousness of them but that we are most likely to experience them through our consciousness. The haunting of memory is real but that is all it is: a haunting. Memories haunt us precisely because we know there is something actually there that we are unlikely to know.
We are our own ghosts. The ghost is the interface between a complex truth and a complex existence. What we recover is not memory but the trace of memory. I have felt this from the very beginning and the perception is at the very heart of the memoir. The events in it are perfectly real. They can be documented and counted, but the connection between them is a haunted corridor. I don’t trust memory an inch but it is what we have to work with.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
I am never sure about money. For the entirety of my working life I have performed the traditional male role of working to support a family. Most of that time Clarissa too was teaching. Money was the family. It was also books. Later money became time. Time is good.
Neither Clarissa nor I are spenders, in fact I am an advertiser’s nightmare in that I have no firm desire to possess things I don’t possess. There is nothing I want enough to splash big cash on it. All our cars have been second hand and they all ended their lives with us or our children. If I can help my children at a time of need I will. Money can be useful for that but I can’t quite think of money as something real in its own right. When I look at the houses of rich people – and I have been in a few – I have not envied them. This is nothing to do with goodness, kindness or piety. You can think of it as a form of idiocy. You could, if you like, offer me a small Goya. That would be nice for Christmas.
You are an award winning translator and often refer to translation as a form of transfusion and the life-blood of culture. Can you expand on that briefly? How does Hungarian literature differ from the literature of other cultures? Of the work you’ve translated, which has been the most personally meaningful?
I am trying to remember a George Steiner quote where he says something like ‘without translation we would be small villages bordering on silence’. Translations may be seen in terms of people. A nation that has never met a stranger is trapped inside its own limited experience. Translation means going out and meeting new people and inviting them into your own house. A culture without access to translations is stultified. Like Blake’s standing water it ‘breeds reptiles of the mind’. That’s a little harsh of course but translation is natural commerce. It is indeed the life-blood of culture. English poetry is packed with imports: sonnets, rhyming couplets, sestinas, etc etc. All imports, along with the sensibilities that produced those forms and residually still inhabiting them. You could, if you were of that mind, describe translation as cultural appropriation. Everyone is always appropriating everyone else.
Hungarian literature is different by virtue of its isolated language and its history as a consciousness. It has bred particular tones of voice, modes of address, aspirations and ironies. In other respects it is recognisably European in its major features. Its ballads are mostly forms of ballads known in adjacent cultures. No history is an island, not even an island’s.
My early reading was deeply influenced by translated poetry (think of all those cheap Penguin volumes), so I had no doubt about it being possible. The question of what exactly one means by translation would require not just essays but books. All I know is that something of value is possible. That value is hard to define but one recognises the pleasure and appropriateness of it. The difference between translating and writing poems is that every translation could be replaced by another translation whereas its original could not.
It is difficult to pick the most meaningful of my own translations. There was something special in translating specific poems by Ágnes Nemes Nagy and my first Krasznahorkai novel, The Melancholy of Resistance. They were voices I could somehow recognise within myself. But that, to a greater or lesser extent, is true of all the more successful or persuasive of translations.
You were one of a number of signatories in 2017 of a letter, published on your blog, in support of academic freedom and opposing the closure of the Central European University in Budapest. I was immediately reminded of Vaclav Havel’s open letters in the 1970s, speaking out against the Czech government’s warrant against culture. What were your expectations for the letter? How powerful is culture as a mode of resistance? Can a poem stop a tank? Are you concerned that the country’s cultural future is being sacrificed for present power interests in terms of the type of illiberal democracy that the Hungarian state is currently building?
I wrote that letter and some 700 writers and artists signed it but the battle was lost, much as I thought it probably would be, and yet it was still worth the writing if only to raise awareness of the worrying political and cultural climate in Hungary. Ever since 1984 I have been an annual visitor to Hungary and have kept track of events. I started the years following 1989 – to which I was personally a witness and counted some of its main figures as friends or acquaintances – with excitement and an optimism that was nevertheless infused with anxiety. That anxiety has grown ever more acute since 2010 when the current Fidesz government won the election. There had been the potential for a real kulturkampf or culture war in the country for at least a century but it received a huge boost and state backing after 2010. It has gone along with an almost complete single-party political take-over based on nationalist rhetoric and corruption. That process continues at pace.
Can poems stop tanks? No, but the memory of the man with shopping bags delaying a row of tanks in Beijing remains. That can not be mown down with machine guns or wiped by state controlled propaganda.
You enjoy a high profile internationally as a poet and translator and have throughout your career earned many awards and commendations. You’re also the author of plays, musicals, opera libretti and oratorios. You’ve written in and out of form, on every subject matter and recently, a remarkable and moving portrait of your mother, Magda in The Photographer at Sixteen: The Death and Life of a Fighter (2019). Can I ask, is there anything that you still carry inside you that for some reason you haven’t yet been able to write about?
A good deal remains, I think. Whether the world would particularly want to know it is another matter. I once started a book about British pro-wrestling that I could pick up again. I would love to write up the 1989 Budapest experience in a kind of reportage. Those are prose matters. In poetry I am trying to write a long sequence titled ‘The Yellow Room’, the first part of which appeared in Mapping the Delta (2016) and the second part will appear in my 2021 book (yet to be firmly titled). I imagine that could go on into another book. It would be about the residual sense of Jewishness as passed on to me by my father. Material is inexhaustible. Capacity and time is another matter.
Besides, I have a great deal of material that is not included in the books but which is of great interest to me. That includes poems and prose generated on Twitter as well as projects undertaken with a specific programme in mind: fables, sayings, dialogues, anecdotes. There is a 1000 tweet set dealing with my father as a fantasy journey. There are poems on Apollinaire’s Bestiary which are in an anthology but not in one of my own books.
Finally, what in life gives you the most real satisfaction?
There are various real satisfactions. Our children and grandchildren. The act of writing. The love of those whom I love. Asking about dissatisfaction would lead to a far longer list comprising things I should have done better, more courageously, or more wisely.