Thursday, 16 May 2019

you should read George Szirtes

George Szirtes
(addendum to the ‘Affluence’ work)
This poetry is photographic and oblique – unemotional descriptions of odd and elaborate events. Some of it is more like curious ceramics than poems. He deals with the artistic debate of the time when he was studying and being formed by ignoring them – certainly a solution and one with fascinating outcomes. The exotic quality defines a restricted range for the poetry and it doesn’t feel as if there is an equally vital goal or attraction pulling it all. The poems are elegant but not very committed. Szirtes (b.1948) made a debut, it would seem, in a volume of Faber’s Poetry Introduction in 1978 – a time when a large number of new poets regarded Faber as part of the conservative and corporate world which was about to vanish.
Quoting Szirtes may be misleading, because his style has quite avoided the impulses of “simplify and repeat” which could end up with a work which can be exhibited in short quotations (and makes its points quickly and crudely). The cumulative effect moved away from, or past, most poetic impulses. The aggregate was profoundly attractive and by being stable created an emotional place which created a following, a company to be found in that place. It would not invite mediagenic poets. Szirtes generally uses rhyme, and regular line-lengths to support that; this is probably more to do with Hungarian cultural politics than the English kind:
In the glass you see anatomies,
Bacteria and germs in broken places.
You see the future in slivers and shards
Faint, farcical, lobotomies.
I try to discover my disease in traces
Of tea-leaves, life-lines, livers, tarot cards.
(from ‘Border Crossing’)

Some poems record an old pain like a shell worn by the ocean, and recall the Soviet ‘fraternal’ invasion of Hungary in 1956, the mass deaths and the loss of freedom. In fact Szirtes was a political exile as a child. The poetry has a delicacy and passivity which may be a reflection of past aggression, a step away from old front lines. The lack of overall patterns may be a mirror-image, a negative image, of the Marxist style in which everything is teleological, everything is chained into one vast monolithic pattern – this is a guess but it may also lead us to seeing why Szirtes’ poems express freedom by not being like other Szirtes poems and capturing, when the weather is right, sensations that are quite unfamiliar.
The lack of intent is what makes the poems so decorative but also makes them inconclusive. At times the poems take on a life of their own. The detachment allows a peculiar elegance of diction:
[O]utside, a rusticated, vermiform
ebullience; outside, a cluttering
of pediments, pilasters, pargeting,
embroidery; outside, the balconies
expand in their baroque epiphanies,
their splendid Biedermeier uniforms;

outside, the casement windows under rolls
of stonework, rough or smooth or both [.]
(from ‘The Courtyards’)

This is simply a detail from a complex poem about old buildings, evidently in Central Europe, quite likely in Budapest. The Biedermeier style flourished around 1830 and part of the emotional music is surely the contrast between the bleak and blank monumental ideals of Stalinism and the twirls of the early 19th century. Perhaps Hungarian Stalinism was becoming more similar to the post-Napoleonic autocracy in Hungary, in the era forever associated with Metternich. 
I wrote “unemotional” but this statement is not quite right, and the key might be that it avoids emotional peaks or that it describes major events obliquely. Many of his poems are acts to secure continuity between two countries and two parts of a family. A big theme is family history and the lack of ringing artistic climaxes is because a family does not reach conclusions in an operatic way, and its nature is in daily processes continuing over thousands of days rather than in big scenes. The poems mentioned are visibly part of a much larger verbal flow of family history which does not belong singularly to George Sz., as opposed to all his relatives. Quite a few of these seem to have died in 1944 and 1945, presumably as part of Himmler’s genocide project. The history of Hungary in the decades leading up to 1956 and the departure of Szirtes’ family saw a large amount of persecution and totalitarian posturing – the poet is not, obviously, interested in writing marching songs either for the Hungarian Right or for the Marxist dictatorship which succeeded Horthy. But also, he is not interested in refuting these oversized and over-loud ideas. He is very attentive to his relatives, and this founds the attentiveness which his poems show generally. We can notice that family history is more truthful, or flecked with errors of a smaller scale, than those ideas of the State and the people, but Szirtes is also not using his narratives to argue against the State, not explicitly anyway. The details are there to evoke a larger whole, which it would be over-dramatic to attack directly. People sometimes want poems about England, and even more so ones about eastern Europe, to lead them to sociological conclusions. Szirtes evidently does not think literature is there to nourish sociology. If he writes about a train, it may have 1000 people on it, but they are not part of the story of the train – they are part of their own separate stories. To some extent, writers since 1956 have existed to undermine the overload of grand sociological truths which the 19th century had produced and which were ever more different from what real humans thought or experienced.
Biedermeier was an era of lost hope and very detailed political censorship, in Central Europe, in which intimacy and family subjects took over art. (Bieder means something like "pious but dim".) The word is always used in a pejorative way, but the era (roughly 1815-48) did produce some art, even if ideals could not be described. Perhaps Biedermeier could be seen as a phase of rehearsal for writing poignantly and convincingly about intimacy and personal life, preparing for effective intimate art under another Central European tyranny, that of the Warsaw Pact satellites a century later. Szirtes' lack of interest in Marxists is interesting – it is as if they were so stupid that intelligent people could not even mention them.
A peak seems to be the 1986 volume “The Photographer in Winter”. A poem “The Child I Never Was”, about attempting to be English, includes the description of a composite face made out of things which reflect life near the North Sea – a pun, because the painter who made faces out of vegetables and so on in trompe l’oeil, was Arcimboldo, many of whose Mannerist canvases hang in museums in Vienna, near Hungary. He worked for Rudolf II, whose court was in Prague, and who was also King of Hungary. A 1989 statement by the poet quotes a 1985 statement initially, as “a central conflict between two states of mind. These I called [in 1985] ‘the possibility of happiness’ and ‘apprehension of disaster.’ The early poems in The Slant Door made repeated references to pictures, often paintings, as points of arrest between these states. Sometimes the setting would be domestic, other times exotic. The effort would often entail conflating the two.”
Another theme that recurs is depictions of paintings. The silence and liberation from time which that implies are qualities which point directly away from the implications of family history. The contrast may be a reason for Szirtes’ artistic success.
The statement quotes a poem “North China”, and a line “The great fantastic trains, like twists of barley” – I am guessing that this should be “twist of barley sugar”, a piece of confectionery familiar to people my or his age, produced (extruded?) as a stalk with spiral fluting along it – a kind of column with such fluting is referred to as “barley-sugar columns”. The fluting may actually be ice because the setting is a city in north China where the temperature sinks to 50 degrees below zero. The ice would be shaped into that dynamic and specific shape by the forward rush of the train – if that is not going too far.
The title ‘Transylvana’ refers probably to ‘Transylvania’, the land beyond the forest, and the poem is likely to be about a visit to his mother’s home town, Cluj (many other names!), which is now in Rumania and always was in Transylvania.
If you analyse all the poets who made debuts in the 1970s (something which took place during my specialist project and which may be hanging over us), it seems that Szirtes is an isolate; he was solving problems which other poets had not addressed. His 1989 list of favourite poets is open but does not show obvious influences (except Brodsky perhaps). I have found it hard to identify immediate predecessors, or rivals. It is worth thinking about Didsbury or even Kuppner. Encounters (1999, ed. Zsofia Zachar), an anthology from the English-language Hungarian Quarterly, is helpful in giving the background to the family history in question.
I didn’t get Szirtes’ artistic idea until this week. This is sort of stupid of me. I just didn’t read his poetry enough. There are problems relying on anthologies, because editors leave out many brilliant writers, because the showcasing often doesn’t work, but also because I read them and didn’t react to the evidence they offer me. I admit that Szirtes was present in anthologies I did read, such as Firebox and New British Poetry. I guess it was my brain which was absent.

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