The Roots of Sándor Kányádi's Poetry

by Paul Sohar

Kányádi and I had our best joint appearance together at the First International Prague Poetry Festival a few years ago. It started somewhat formally, perhaps we were feeling somewhat self-conscious being the only ones dressed in suits and ties, among the usual assortment of rather grungy poets and artistically informal audience consisting mostly of English-speaking students and expats. Sándor’s snow-white hair shone like a moon in the dim light in the backroom of Shakespeare and Son, an English-language bookstore and café, and I am not much younger. In addition, we were pressed for time, and the bilingual aspect was somewhat curtailed, especially when it came to exotic languages like Hungarian. After an introduction by Howard Sidenberg, our publisher, I launched into the reading of the translations, interspersed with an occasional recital of the original by Sándor. Between poems I interpreted a few questions from the students and Sándor’s – somewhat suspiciously – succinct answers. The smooth process came to a sudden halt when Sándor held up a hand with a grave expression on his face.

“Look at this book,” he pointed at our book I’d left open, face down, on the table. “My father was a barely literate peasant who only traveled from his village when he had to go to war. But he had great respect for books. I’d read well over ten times as many books by the age of ten as he had when he admonished me once never to leave a book open with face down and the spine forced cracked.” With that, he rescued our crucified volume of poetry from the café table and shut it with a dramatic snap.

And the stern look did not turn to a smile until I’d interpreted, and the audience broke into laughter. Suddenly the language barrier crumbled faster than the Berlin wall. The stiff traditionalist was seen as a barefoot peasant boy, eager to learn, eager to enter the world of letters. It was as if a time tunnel had opened up through space between the little, out-of-the-way Transylvanian village and these literati from the US, UK, and Australia, most of them at least a generation or two younger, brought up in a modern industrialized world. But we were all united by a common bond, the love of poetry, the love of the word, whether written or spoken, but used to create a world beyond the world of everyday experiences; we were all there to find the importance of that world confirmed, validated and demonstrated.

No matter whether words are put together by shepherds telling tales by a campfire, printed in a book, or composed on a laptop, they retain their importance. It was not the physical object of the book that the poet’s peasant father had treated with almost religious reverence, but that idea that words can be more important than bricks when it comes to building a monument to man’s creativity, to the expression of the spirit.

I didn’t have to elaborate on any of these thoughts to the audience, it was enough to translate the poet’s words for them to understand that this white-haired old man was proud to be still a peasant boy, filled with the same awe for books, these building blocks of civilization, in a world that no longer values civilization but sees it as the enemy of mankind. This boy had grown up to be a poet, a sophisticated man of the world, but the world he wants to live in will always include books, because they are the most important products and depositories of our civilization. To him civilization is not ready for the ash heap of history, not an empty artifice that stands in the way of individual development and fulfillment, but an important part of it.

From then on our presentation took on a more spontaneous flow that continued all through the intermission. The rapport with the audience was no longer impeded by appearances; the elderly poet was no longer seen as a stuffy – and kindly – old man but a messenger from another world with an exciting massage to deliver, and the scruffy fellow poets in the folding chairs suddenly became old friends, eager to receive news from Transylvania.

His humble background, the village lifestyle – what we would now call Third-World conditions – go to the very core of Kányádi’s poetry. When he was born (1929) peasants in Transylvania still lived the same way and tilled the land the same way as their ancestor had done for hundreds of years, farming a few acres usually with one horse, a cow, and a barnyard filled with poultry and pigs. It was hardscrabble life, barely above subsistence level by today’s standards. The only book a typical household would have was the Bible, and that was what the teacher used as a textbook when he gathered the children of the village around him in his backyard. And he had a small, hand-held blackboard on which he wrote on the first day of school: “In the beginning was the Word.”

Living so close to the soil, helping around the farm in growing plants and raising animals, put the growing boy right in the lap of nature. And images of nature continued to illustrate his poetry long after he had left the village for the city, up to the present day. Parallels between village life and modern life abound in his poems; he keeps seeing his village world even from the window of a jumbo jet about to take off: “at the edge of the runway / the leaves of grass flutter like / the mane of a leaping horse”


And this close relationship with and dependence on nature suffused his thinking and the resulting lines with reverberations of both fear and reverence. Reverence for and fear of natural forces go hand in hand living on a tiny farm; it was crucial to reach a proper balance in order to live in harmony with nature. Even though Kányádi has been living in large cities most of his life, he retained a countryman’s healthy skepticism of the mechanized life style. In a turnabout he claims our modern technological age removes man from nature where man is but one of many other living beings and places him in a dependency situation that man cannot cope with on an individual basis; the gods of technology are not amenable to worship, entreaties or even sacrifices, they are but blind forces that man faces helplessly.

You can whisper into the ear of a galloping horse and direct it gently so that it will not throw you, but what can you do to make a jet plane land safely?

No matter how destructive a storm is to your crops and fruit trees, you can always take shelter against it somewhere, but what can you do about the threat of a nuclear bomb?

Kányádi’s poetry depicts modern life as if with a double exposure, so to speak; it is always superimposed on an earlier, more basic, more down-to-earth, more pagan, more animistic image from earlier times.

Nature holds only one of the roots that feed Kányádi’s poetry; the other one goes down into the one redeeming product of mankind, civilization in the form of the already existing literature, music, and the arts.

Hungary’s contribution to music is fairly well-known; the names of Liszt, Bartók, and Kodály are household words all over the world. But poetry remains, unfortunately, Hungary’s best-kept secret; the language barrier keeps this veritable treasure trove from the outside world. And yet in Hungary poetry is considered the very apex of civilization, the highest achievement of Hungarian culture. Poets are almost like pop culture idols and more: the torchbearers of the national spirit. Kányádi had a very solid foundation on which to build his contribution to Hungarian poetry, he didn’t have to go far abroad for inspiration. But he did, from Shakespeare to Rilke, he was well-educated in Western literature, and he made a special effort to acquaint himself with the poetry of his Romanian contemporaries; since he had to share a country with them, it only behooved him to build bridges between the two cultures by translating these poets into Hungarian and thus promote more understanding and reduce tensions. At least two-third of his translation volume of poetry is devoted to Romanians. For his efforts he was rewarded with a Prize of the Romanian Writers’ Guild and the friendship of all the poets involved.

The third root of Kányádi’s poetry extends into history, not just the past but living history as we experience it now and call it politics; contemporary problems seen through the filter of history, from the perspective of centuries and millennia. This is a sort of reversal of the old adage: Historia est magistra vitae; it requires those aware of history to make it relevant to current affairs and bring it to the attention of the movers and shakers of society. In this sense, poets are like shamans, spiritual leaders and the conscience of the nation. And, of course Hungarians consider themselves one nation, whether they live in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, or the US.

Hungary, being a small nation, has had more than its share of woes, invasions, near extinction sometimes, lost wars, lost revolutions, lost causes, and it’s no wonder people would rather not think about it, or else dwell only on some of the high points. It is the poet’s duty keep a balanced view in front of his fellow countrymen and do it without exacerbating old wounds. And luckily, history is often evoked in Kányádi’s poetry without specific references and historical figures that would mean nothing to outsiders and thus render those poems unpromising in translation.

Whichever of his roots Kányádi chooses to tap into, he finds something universal to say even about the most personal experiences. That is what makes him stand out among contemporary poets and a thankful target for translation. The five poems presented here are admittedly a random selection, but they give fairly representative sample of Kányádi’s oeuvre. Let us see how the ideas sketched out above can be applied to these poems.

In “Deluge” the poet seems to exult in the power of nature to show the upper hand and put man in his place. The city, man’s fort against nature, is in the grips of an endless shower that threatens to swamp the buildings. Of course, if it were a real danger of flood and the if the city were deluged, the poet would be in panic with everyone else, but since it’s just an endless rain, an inconvenience, only a reminder of nature’s role in human affairs, even in our mental state, he can safely side with nature and root for her show of strength.

In “Hypothesis” Kányádi describes the indescribable, the awe we feel confronted by infinity, what Freud called an “oceanic feeling”, that stops us in wonder, but after a while we get distracted or tired and then we turn away to attend to some other business and let this ecstasy escape us. Kányádi manages the impossible task by a role reversal; instead of saying we, frail humans, cannot maintain this kind of heightened level of consciousness for too long, he ascribes our failure to the phenomenon itself, and in talking about its waning and prostituting itself he gives a hint of that special something we search for but when we find it we cannot bear to look at it too long. We can only see its promise and then its disappearance, that’s what our mind is capable of registering. But by switching the subject from the observer to the observed he can pinpoint something we may be able to take in. And he uses a deliberately prosaic and dense language, almost as if it had been lifted from a scientific dissertation, found text, very raw and uncompromising, as far away from poetic flights of fancy as you can get. And yet, it’s wonderful, insightful poetry, very concise and to the point.

“On the Shore” dramatizes the clash of civilization and nature, more like the underside of civilization in its more trivial form, and nature at the height of its power, seaside resorts versus the sea, a battle in which man seems to have the upper hand with man-made noise and lights subduing the waves and the moonlight, the features that supposedly attracted the vacationers to this place, but now these people succumb to the usual man-made diversions they could find anywhere else. Kányádi was a landlubber, it must have been a special occasion for him to visit the seashore and, disappointingly, he had a hard time finding it from the boardwalk and the nightclubs, etc.

Some critics may quibble whether folksongs should be included in literature in general, and in this case, “Twice the Full Moon” would require us to resort to yet another root in Kányádi’s poetry, namely folksongs. Clearly, the influence is unmistakable; the repetition, the brevity, the playful hyperbole are all essential ingredients of folksong. And this anonymous art form was always a source of strength for Hungarian poetry, often it was used to restore vitality when it was threatened by sterile classicism. But Kányádi may be the last poet with direct contact with the living tradition of folk art, now slowly overwhelmed by the pop culture of the city, a globalized, brand X form of civilization. No other comment is necessary on this unabashed celebration of a night of love making, erotic pleasure glorified, although without a hint of crude excess.

Nature is neither cruel nor kind, it’s an impartial force that compels us to live – and to want live, desperately! – and yet at the end it rewards us with death. It forces us to engage in a fight that we are doomed to lose, because it’s rigged from the beginning. This theme cast a melancholy pall over Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but Kányádi takes a more positive attitude in the final poem of this collection, “In Fearless Fear”. He denies that the certainty of death renders life meaningless; instead, he proposes it makes life all the more worth living. That’s the meaning of life: living in harmony with nature, doing our best to keep up tradition and prepare a world for the next generation, in calm acceptance of the ultimate defeat. An interesting aspect of the poem is the way he weaves his own personal struggle through life together with the history of the nation, or perhaps, by extension, whole mankind. In this case, the traditional form evokes the inexorable pacing of ballads instead of the lighthearted spirit of a folksong.

More of Kányádi’s poems are available in my English translation in our book, mentioned above: “Dancing Embers”, published by Twisted Spoon Press (Prague, 2002, but available in the US on Amazon, or can be ordered at any bookstore). Another work is for sale in e-book format, “The Curious Moon” (SynergEbooks), a long narrative poem, a children’s book with serious undertones. I also collaborated on a translation of three children’s storybooks by Kányádi, published in Budapest. Our work in progress is the publication of an illustrated bilingual edition of several late long poems, also from Twisted Spoon Press. And, of course, we’re looking forward to more joint appearances, wherever we may get invited.

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