Contemporary poetry, says noted Hungarian-British poet and award-winning translator George Szirtes, is the expression of unconscious cultural transfers like the “chicken balti masala and the vindaloo” on the British lunch menu — watered by assimilation from global diversity.
“Transfer is a very good thing. When we came to England from Hungary (the poet as an eight-year old after the 1956 Budapest uprising with his parents, who were survivors of Nazi concentration and labour camps), I did not speak any English,” the poet, who teaches literature at the Univerity of East Anglia in UK, told this writer at the World Poetry Festival in the Indian national capital.
“But with mutual respect, the cultural (and literary) transfers worked well,” the poet said. The socio-cultural milieu of Britain and the poet’s engagement with the society, education and life of his adopted homeland (spent in English boarding schools) opened the door to linguistic transfers. But in a strange way, it also consolidated his connection with his Hungarian roots, a language whose rich literary expositions Szirtes brought to Britain’s mainstream through several prize-winning translations.
“This imposition (of another language) was an act of transfer. It was a situation brought on by conformity to a new life — by acts like let us go to the school, cinema and sing,” the poet said. At times, when Szirtes speaks Hungarian, English feels like a second language to him, but the “sense of language as a material body is useful for any writer, especially for a poet,” he observes in an interview to The Oxonian Review.
The sense of wonder of being able to express in English is palpable in Szirtes’ childlike pre-occupation with the language, which he speaks with fluid erudition.
Szirtes, considered one of the leading authorities on contemporary European and new world poetry, studied painting at the Harrow School of Art and Leeds College of Art and Design before putting together his first book of poetry, “The Slant Door” in 1979. In 2005, he won the T.S. Eliot prize for his collection “Reel”. He is a member of the Royal Society of Literature.
The poet, who chaired key sessions on translations, cross-currents between poetry and other arts in New Delhi at the poetry festival presented by the Sahitya Akademi (the nodal Indian body of literature), pointed out that the aim of the new poetry movement was to include as many different shades of voices as possible — to testify to this process of cultural transfer which has become more vigorous in the era of globalization.
“In one of the important anthologies of new poetry published in 1996, the editors (George Szirtes was one of the co-editors) made a point to include voices from different cultures such as India and Africa because poetry cannot be described as British, American or Asian any longer in this century,” he said. Poetic sensibilities have blurred borders.
Szirtes does not aver with the “perception of Commonwealth poetry” or literature that critics say “is developing as a distinct language flavoured by the local vernacular in the former colonies”. “London is fully multi-cultural. The assimilation is natural despite the fact that the cultural practices are different,” he said.
The integrated voice of poetry across cultures, loaded with echoes of differences in one linguistic strand (English), has become more pronounced in the age of Internet — and by the fact that poetry draws from all other forms of art like visual imagery, theatre and cinema, the poet explained.
“The development of the Internet has changed the way poetry is reaching out to readers and the voices it is reflecting. There is constant change in the voices. Anyone can post their poetry on the Internet and look professional. There are different poetry forums,” the poet said, comparing “poetry in his generation and now”.
“Growing up in my generation… there were certain schools of poetry. But now there is great explosion of information and knowledge on the Internet. Poetry can be read across greater spaces. There are a number of very good young poets at the University of East Anglia where I teach. They are not afraid to move between different kinds of voices; they are conscious of the voices and constantly change their voices… In a way the voices save future of books. More people are literate about poetry,” Szirtes said.
The poet is one of those pragmatists who advocates poetry as an “acquired art”— a literary genre that needs to be honed by tutelage. “It may be a spontaneous in man but the oeuvre has to be grounded in grammar like meters and rhythms. The crafts overlap geography like the sonnets have to be mastered from the Italians, the gothic poetry from Germany and the ballads from France. All these make up contemporary poetry,” Szirtes pointed out.
Personally, “American and French poetry” move Szirtes. “One of most exciting periods in 20th century English poetry is between the two wars — my favourite poets are located in that period,” Szirtes said.
He is fond of Baudelaire and Rilke, which he has read in translations from French and German respectively. On his part, Szirtes has translated works of Hungarian poets like Imre Madach (The Tragedy of Man) and Zsuzsa Rakovsky (New Life) to award-winning volumes.
The poet refers to cinema as a “creative learning tool” to mature poetic imagery. “Understanding movies is important. I often tell my students to do a close-up or a zoom — like on a theatre stage. I was speaking to the Indian filmmaker Mani Kaul, who explained to me how raga (classical Indian music notations) works on the five elements of existence. He was speaking about Bollywood – and its genres like gangster, comedy and musical cinema. There has been cross-fertilisation across traditions and oeuvres. Poets now perform their poetry and combine it with other arts like photography and painting,” he said. It is a thread.
Cinema is like poetry as are other arts, Szirtes summed up.
His approach to poetry as a shared experience in arts is perhaps best established by the following excerpts from one of his clusters of short poems in response to a painting by John Latham’s painting, “The Observer IV (1960)” based on the novel The Brothers Karamazov. The poems were published by Tate Modern in 2010.
“Leading A Charred Life: Seven Short Songs
by George Szirtes
1. I had thought to have been charmed Not framed: Had thought to be disarmed Not blamed. But life hangs fire as if suspended As if it had been slyly ended.
2. We cannot altogether escape the fact. The facts are something that can’t be quite escaped. But something is wrong in both thought and act: The act is thought, and act and thought are shaped.
3. Had I behaved better than I did… Had sky been lighter, detail more compact… Had escape ever been possible… Had I but thought, were it still feasible to act…
4. Someone is raising a hand at a bus stop. Someone is waving to someone on the other side. We watch the smile light briefly on a face. We watch our loved ones make their way through space, Then space rolling in like a tide, Entering a bus, a house, a shop.
5. Sometimes the beauty of wood is overwhelming. We love that which seems warm yet indifferent. So things burn down, so wood turns to coal, So coal begins where trees are rife. So we survive. We lead a (haha) charred life.
6. There is the terrible vehicle of darkness That runs over us in hope. There is my hand, there are your fingers. We hang by our fingertips. We cope.
7. If poetry were just a matter of the air Playing around the heart We’d feel a powerful gust beneath our lungs And call it art - And art would do, or be, at least, a start.
- Madhusree Chatterjee