On 23rd October 1956, Hungary started an unexpected revolution against its Communist regime which became a ‘widely visible symbol of the bankruptcy of Soviet-style socialism.’ This revealed the greatest challenge to Soviet hegemony and the whole world watched on. As a consequence, Hungary was taken over by the Soviets and they formed a dictatorship for the next thirty-three years. Artists who supported Communism, became well-known nationally, while those who did not, were denied a voice until the end of dictatorship in 1989. In this brief essay, I will be focusing on the innovation of Hungarian poetry and show how politics shaped the post-1956 writer generation’s aesthetic.
Endre Ady was born in1877,he is one of the most well-known Hungarian poets and, to some extent, can be ‘considered as a paradigmatic figure of Hungarian modernism.’ His poetry was revolutionary both politically and literarily. His writing style took advantage of the lack of difference in the accented and unaccented syllables of the Hungarian language and created the rhythm in his poetry. He also added a specific affix to words to turn their meanings into negatives. In the following years, his words were ‘absorbed into the Hungarian language.’
‘The Magyar Fallow,’ written in 1905, describes the Hungarian landscape a decade after the country’s industrial revolution which led to emigration and poverty of hundreds of thousands. Ady uses the word ‘fallow’ to symbolise the socio-political backwardness of Hungary. He portrays himself as the lonely patriot in this poem, ‘I walk on meadows… I know this rank… This is the Magyar fallow.’ This solitary hero, however, finds nothing on the ‘sacred soil’ when he bows down. ‘Hey, skyward groping seedy weeds, / are there no flowers here?’ The landscape itself becomes the active and drags Ady down under ‘burdock and mallow.’ The poem ends with the ‘mocking wind’ that ‘flies whisking by / above the mighty fallow,’ destroying the possibility for change. This poem summarizes Ady’s view well on Hungary he always maintained until his death in 1919.
Attila József(1905-1937) is considered a ‘classical Marxist’ and ‘one of the greatest Hungarian poets.’ He was born and raised in extremely poor conditions, his poetry, mostly written in the lyric mode, often reads like a monologue, describing the world he lives in. One of his most significant poem, ‘Without Hope,’ written in 1933, describes the loneliness and alienation he experienced throughout his life. ‘All you arrive at in the end / is a sad, washed-out, sandy plain… Nod, hope is in vain.’ This kind of purgatory symbolises the broken Hungarian nation and József can do is look away. The poem continues: ‘Upon a branch of nothingness / my heart sits trembling voicelessly.’ József sees the country Ady buried in the 1910s as Hitler’s power grows and makes him realise, the Hungarians will side with Germany again very soon.
The first signs of his Socialistic beliefs are revealed in the middle of the poem: ‘In heaven’s ironblue vault,’ he shouts out for someone to sympathise with the plight of Hungary. But he receives nothing, only silence ‘Oh, noiseless constellations!’ József believes in the solution of an ‘iron’ future and motivates his compatriots: ‘In me the past falls … The swordblade glitters.’ Possibly related to his political beliefs, or perhaps his private life (József suffered from depression), he presumably committed suicide four years later.
After the rise and defeat of fascism, World War II and the unsuccessful Hungarian Revolution against Communism, Hungarian Poetry did not have much freedom until 1989. George Szirtes, Hungarian-born British poet, translator and editor of New Order: Hungarian Poets of the Post 1989 Generation, believes the End of Communism melted the “illusion of a settled state of affairs” in Hungary. However, in Hungarian poetry today, many writer’s approaches to the country’s turbulent history have changed, though parallels with the past persist and the themes are essentially the same.
One of the first Post-1989 poets, who is considered to be ‘one of the leading figures of her generations,’ is Krisztina Tóth,(1967–) who grew up during the fading power of Communism. Tóth’s poem, ‘East-Europe Triptych’(2009) serves as a presentation of not only the Hungarian, but the Eastern European culture and the misfortune of its community as a whole. The poem mentions mispronunciation, where Eastern Europeans might ‘smile graciously.’ Her poetics considers misfortune and unexpected problems: ‘the trains go with us in the wrong directions’ amid the ‘microchip of a guilty conscience’ when the ‘alarm goes off’ at the shop.
In the second part, Tóth relates to the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, when Hungary lost 71% of its territory and the population spread in Eastern Europe, who ‘know where you live. No matter where it is.’ The pain and problems are shared, and people suffer them together, ‘I know what you see: the dishevelled heap of human bodies / a forgotten jewel.’
Finally, the last section is about a fictional, immigrant character, ‘Alina Moldova.’ Tóth explains to the reader what she is good at. This stanza is the generalisation of an emigrating Eastern European who only speaks ‘the language of fear … without accent,’ suggesting s/he had been through darker times than anyone in the West.
The last poet is perhaps the most well-known of contemporary Hungarian poets. Dániel Varró was born in 1977 and has been named ‘the emperor of contemporary poetry’ by the Hungarian literature magazine, Litera. Varró’s poetic language is very simple compared to someone like Tóth. His most common technique is rhyme. He often writes about the everyday, internet, television, etc. Varró’s children’s poem ‘Six Good Toys for Babies’ was inspired by the struggles of being a father and was published in a children’s book. However, the irony he uses in the poem landed him some trouble. One of the six toys are the ‘power cable.’ The baby is encouraged to ‘chew it,’ finishing the stanza: ‘good toy the power cable is.’ Something similarly chilling is experienced with the next toy, the shovel which ‘I hit dad with this.’ As if this were enough, but the one line that caused an outcry on Facebook was the power outlet. In this final stanza, Varró writes ‘Where is the pen, I’ll plug it in / Good game the socket is.’
Many believed, the poet was trying to start a wave of baby-suicides while the poet himself suggests he intentionally misled his readers. The ironic gestures by Varró and the perspective of the child were presented clearly enough. Varró’s simple language allows him to gain more readers of poetry, both those who do and don’t (or probably cannot) understand his poems. That is what he believes in according to an interview with him at Index.hu, saying “today this behaviour is natural on the internet… It might be easier to get fans but haters as well.”
Even from these brief examples, we can see that during the grip of Communism, Hungarian poets have lived through a future in which their voices might never fully rise to surface. It is only the post-‘89 generation, who could write about the Kádár system (leader of the regime), yet their focus remains on traditional themes like; loneliness, death and nationality. However, these issues now take place in the present rather than the future.
What I realised in reading and re-reading the poets for this essay, is that the most popular contemporary poet, Dániel Varró has never stated patriotism in any form, nor mentioned anything bad about Hungary. Meanwhile poets like Krisztina Tóth, who has appeared at multiple demonstrations in the last 8 years, is also one of the best Hungarian poets of the present moment, yet her name is relatively unknown to English readers and to most Hungarians. Due to the power of the government, poetry has already started showing signs of being politically biased, as it often was during Communism. The media is state-controlled and they can make the Hungarians believe whatever they want. In October 2018, Hungarian News Portal, HVG, shared an article, stating ‘Endre Ady was bought by the leftists and the communists and should not be taught at schools.’
Hungary is slowly approaching a point where the government is able to change education in such a way, where the national heroes and patriots might not be mentioned in a good light because they were not on the right political side. As a Hungarian who has been living in the UK for two years, I am slowly becoming one of those hundreds of thousands of immigrants who choose to stay abroad because although Hungary is my home, it is not where my life happens.
Lendvai P. and Major A. One Day That Shook the Communist World: The 1956 Hungarian Uprising and Its Legacy(Princeton University Press, 2008), p.3.
Gluck, M. (2002) ’The Modernist as Primitive: The Cultural Role of Endre Ady in Fin-de-Siécle Hungary’ in Austrian History Book, 33, p.151.
Grosz, J. (1978) ’Endre Ady: A Reassessment’ in Literary Review, 21 (4), p.484.
Endre, A. ’A Magyar Ugaron’ in Új Versek(Mercator Stúdió, 1906)
Endre, A. ’The Magyar Fallow’ (Translated by Nyerges, A.)
Kiss, E. (2006) ’Henrik de Man and Attila József: On Soft and Hard Conditions of Socialism’ in The European Legacy, 11, (5), p.517.
József, A. ’Reménytelenül’ in Medvetánc(Révai Irodalom Intézet RT, 1934)
József, A. ’Without Hope’ (Translated by Ozsváth, Zs.)
Szirtes, G. New Order: Hungarian Poets of the Post 1989 Generation(Arc Publication, 2010)
Tóth, K. ’East-Europe Triptych’ in Szirtes, New Order: Hungarian Poets of the Post 1989 Generation(Arc Publication, 2010), p.121. (Translated by Mulzet, O.)
Varró, D. ’Hat Jó Játék Kisbabáknak’ in Akinek a Kedve Dacos – Mondókák Apró Lázadóknak(Manó Könyvek, 2014)
Varró, D. ’Six Good Toys for Babies’ (Translated by Paál, B.)
Kovács, B. ’I Tried to Suffer but it didn’t work: An Interview with Dániel Varró’ (Translated by Balambér Paál)
hvg.hu, ’Hungarian Times: Endre Ady Was a Man Bought by the Left’ (Translated by Balambér Paál)