Budapest, Hungary – Every year, Poetry Day – költészet napja – is celebrated in Hungary on April 11, a date chosen to honour the memory of one of the country’s greatest poets: Attila József, born on that same day exactly 115 years ago.
Attila József was one of the poets, along with the likes of Endre Ady or Miklos Radnóti, who defined modern Hungarian poetry.
During his short life, from the turn of the 20th century to the late 1930’s, he revolutionized poetic writing, addressing in his prolific work everyday topics as much as politics, odes and celebrations of love or calls for revolutionary upheaval.
Attila József, a poet without a name
Attila József was born in 1905 in Ferencváros, a poor district of Budapest. As he wrote in A Dunánál (By the Danube): “My mother was Cumanian, my father half Székely, half Romanian, or perhaps entirely”. His father, Áron József, abandoned him, his mother and his two sisters when he was only three years old. His mother, Borbála Pőcze, was too poor to bring them up and instead sent him to a foster home in the village of Öcsöd, in eastern Hungary.
At the time of his youth, the name Attila was not well-known in Hungary, which led his foster parents to call him Pista, the diminutive of István. This name change may be seen as a symbol of one of Attila József’s defining life traits: never truly belonging anywhere, he spent his life looking for identities, bonds and affiliations. Deprived of his own name, he spent a large part of his young years looking after the pigs for his foster family.
He later returned living with his mother, who died in 1919 at the age 43. Attila József’s teen years overlapped with one of the most tumultuous times in Hungarian modern history, marked by World War I, and the 1920 Trianon Treaty, when Hungary lost over one third of its territory, and which remains to this day one of the greatest wounds in Hungary’s collective memory.
From his first collection of poems published in 1922, A szépség koldusa (Beauty’s Beggar) until his death in 1937, Attila József wrote relentlessly and affirmed his vocation as one of the most prominent poets in Central Europe.
Praised by some and slandered by others, he established himself as a foremost modern poet, while being condemned on many occasions: he faced legal prosecution following the publication of his poem Lázadó Krisztus (Rebellious Christ), was expelled from Szeged University because of his poem Tiszta szívvel (With a pure heart), while his work Döntsd a tőkét (Blow down the capital) was outright confiscated.
Attila József died in 1937, in Balatonszárszó, hit by a train in what appears to have been a suicide.
“The greatest lyric poet of his time”
Who was Attila József? His friend Arthur Koestler, the author of Darkness at Noon, wrote the essay Ein Toter in Budapest (A dead in Budapest), right after his death.
In this article, Koestler referred to József as “the greatest lyric poet of his time”. “Being Hungarian is a collective neurosis”, he further argued, defining Hungarian writers as born “deaf and dumb” to the rest of the world, isolated by their unique language, beyond understanding for anyone who doesn’t belong to the Magyar nation, and alone in their tragic fate.
To describe themselves, Hungarians often use the image of a people isolated among others, crushed by a ruthless destiny and doomed to disappear. Many of the country’s greatest and most prominent poets and writers have incorporated this notion, sometimes in spite of themselves. Attila József, too, most certainly suffered from this. In Ime, hát megleltem hazámat, known in English as And so I’ve Found My Native Country, his motherland is described as “the place where his name will be spelled without mistake by his gravedigger”.
It may be a reference to Pista, the name his foster parents gave him. But it might also suggest the obsession of a man born in an absolutely unique – and incomprehensible to most – language. Despite his knowledge of French, a language he even translated, his poetry remained deeply Hungarian.
In that sense, Attila József carries the burdensome weight of one man’s destiny and a country’s fate. He is the man who has “no father, no mother/no God, no homeland/no cradle, no shroud/no kiss and no lover”, as he wrote himself in With a Pure Heart.
Attila József’s communist past
Due to these characteristics, Attila József’s life and work were frequently exploited for political purposes after his death. József had been a communist most of his life, and the awareness of class struggles and inequalities was one of his defining features, including in his personal life.
“I once loved a well-to-do girl, but her social class snatched her away”, he wrote in In the End, referring to Márta Vágó, a woman from a wealthy family whom he had fallen in love with. He later fell in love with Judit Szántó, a communist militant. Both shared the same convictions, which led József to join the – still illegal – Hungarian Communist Party in 1930. His poems too were strongly influenced by his political beliefs.
József was eventually banned from the party, accused of being too proletarian by the party’s right-wing and too bourgeois by the movement’s left-wing. As has been the case with many other writers, his legacy was exploited by the Hungarian Communist regime in the aftermath of World War II, portraying him as a great proletarian hero, rewriting his life and denying any claims pertaining to his disagreements and falling-out with the communist party.
Poetic genius, collateral victim of a personal and national tragedy, communist. Attila József was a bit of all that. An admirer of Freud, Villon or Endre Ady, a poet of politics and intimacy, he didn’t allow himself to be understood, even by his own countrymen. His poems foreshadowed the announcement of his death long before 1937.
Attila József by the Danube
Today, a statue of Attila József by Marton László overlooks the Danube, right next to the Hungarian Parliament. Sitting on stairs, the poet is staring at the river.
A crumpled coat lies at his side, possibly a reference to one of his poems, Sárga füvek, Yellow Grass, where he likens his country to an “eladott kabát”, a peddled coat. A symbolic image that appears even stronger due to the statue’s proximity with the Parliament building, one of the greatest landmarks and symbols of the Hungarian nation.
Nevertheless, this sculpture is said to have been inspired by another one of his poems, By the Danube. And despite the contradictions of his life and tragedy, let us simply be led and swept away by his poetic art: “Én úgy vagyok, hogy már százezer éve/nézem, amit meglátok hirtelen”. In other words, let us feel like “the one who gazed for a hundred thousand years what he sees now for the first time – thanks to his poetry”.
By Louise Ostermann Twardowski
A French student of Polish descent, Louise studies languages (Polish, Hungarian, Russian) and linguistics in Strasbourg, and is passionate about Central European history, culture and literature.