Saturday, 23 November 2013

Where were you when JFK was shot?

From the digest of that year's TW3. Millicent Martin singing Herbert  Kretzmer's words
23 November. But who is the poet? I'm pretty sure it's P J Kavanagh. Confirm if you know.

I was at home in Kingsbury, a none-too-smart North West London suburb. 

I was a week short of fifteen - we'd been in England almost seven years - and remember it quite clearly as it came through on our B&W TV on Friday, interrupting programmes, then amplified into a long news item on the later evening news. 

It was an enormous and disorientating shock. I don't imagine I grasped the full significance at first but was aware that we regarded him as a heroic figure, someone who was handsome, glamorous and oddly unpresidential - not a grey man like most politicians - someone who had spoken out in Berlin and had faced down Khrushchev in Cuba. I too found him exciting.

There was a very popular pioneering satirical programme on TV that came late on Saturday, That Was The Week That Was. That day, the 23rd, it was only fifteen minutes long, no laughs, entirely about JFK, the programme itself dark and shocked. Millicent Martin is singing a little unsteadily and out of key on it, her own emotions on edge. 

It was possibly the first time that I thought, 'Oh the whole world is like that, even in America.'  

I had already understood from the revolution in Budapest that the world could be violent, perhaps even that violence was not an abnormal state of affairs, but the news lay oddly on top of my own broken fragments of memory, like a fallen hoarding. 

Friday, 22 November 2013

Hungarian Quarterly: Response and Reply

The current editor of the Hungarian Quarterly tried, and for some reason failed, to post this as a comment on my own postings on the subject. I give his reply more prominence because I want to address his points in this slightly more visible space of a private blog. His comment:

As the person you are badmouthing I would like to post a comment. You write: "The latest editor ... had begun his defence of the new regime at the HQ by bad-mouthing some of my translations in order to demonstrate that the old editorship was far from perfect." I do not want the non-Hungarian speaking world to have to trust this ridiculous distortion, so allow me to clarify. I wrote in an article in Élet és Irodalom that I would not characterize one issue of the journal as bad just because I found a few translations in it less than perfect. The relevant passage is: "I found the translations of poems by Dezső Kosztolányi  problematic in several places, though they were the work of internationally recognized poet and translator George Szirtes." I explicitly acknowledged your renown as a translator and the former editor in chief, Zsófia Zachár's excellence as an editor. My article had nothing whatsoever to do with the current regime, not a thing. The contention is utterly unfounded, as anyone who could read the original would know.

Regarding the website, which you note has vanished, the website was gone when I inherited the HQ, the company that had managed it was out of business, and all the material that had been uploaded was no longer available online anywhere. I have been working very hard to upload old issues to a new website currently under design. You write on another page: "It may be that the site is simply being revamped, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was taken off for much the same reasons that it was taken over."  Since you and I have communicated by email, why not ask before posting a baseless conjecture?

In any event, as far as I can tell you are the person the most determined to kill the Quarterly. I simply don’t know why, except you don’t seem to be able to let go of the idea that I am somehow a stooge of the government. You say you know nothing of my politics, which is true, yet you argue I defend the present regime. Please, be so kind as to substantiate that. Find one citation in my article in Élet és Irodalom that makes any reference whatsoever to the present government. You published in a journal that included writings by György Aczél. I would not have characterized you as a stooge of the Kádár regime, and of course I would do anyone the professional courtesy of letting them know if I am accusing them in a public forum.
I will be curious to see if you publish this post. Perhaps you will censor it. At least I will see if you are actually supportive of open discussions.

A reply

I have italicised and emphasised in bold the substantive points the writer makes. I reply to them, not in the order they appear, but in order of what seems to me their importance.

First of all - here is your post, uncensored. All I have taken off is your name since I did not mention you by name in my original postings.

Secondly, this is not a public forum but a private blog with a very restricted readership. Having said that, I would in fact be happy to say the same things on a public forum if I thought anyone would consider it worthwhile publishing. At this level, I doubt it. For most of my anglophone readers - and I am first and foremost a poet in English - this is a skirmish about an obscure if honourable magazine in a far away country of which most know little.  In any case, I stress, it is a private blog. Not like Élet és Irodalom, Hungary's equivalent of the TLS.

Thirdly, I certainly published in both the NHQ and the HQ in the past because I knew and grew to love the literary editor, who later became the editor. I was fully aware of the history of the periodical and understood the magazine, specifically the literary and cultural wing of it, as doing its independent best in the circumstances. The current editor - I mean you - has been in Hungary a while but has never made the least effort to contact me before.

Fourthly, the disappearance of the archive was brought to my attention by those who worked at the HQ. They didn't seem to know of any problem with the website, and what I say above - and what you quote me saying - is that I allow it may be being revamped, but that I have some doubts that is the full reason. Those doubts remain.

Fifthly, and least importantly, there are two aspects of your remarks on my work that strike me. The remark appears in the context of a counter-charge against the Hungarian Quarterly  (as to say: look, they let this happen, which reflects badly on their judgment), in other words I am a means of criticising the previous editors. I don't like being a means. That is what I mean by bad mouthing. As for what you actually say, it is you, personally, who criticise a specific work, and, as your quotation shows, it is others - not you - who you admit have spoken well of my work generally. I am not stupid or vain enough to fret about your views of this or that particular work of mine, and if you were to point out what were the problems with the work I would consider them, as I consider any rational view. I am as capable of making mistakes as anyone and have never replied to a review, good or bad. It is simply poor policy to do so. Nor did I or will I reply to yours. I suspect this may be difficult to understand but it is not your views of my work that rankle, it is the context of those views.

The fact is I respond the way I do on the blog - really the only reason - because you then go and ask me for work. Since you do not give your own view of my work at any time, only that of others, and since, in our correspondence, you have actually worried that not having me in the magazine will make it look as though you had shut me out for political or other reasons, I think it reasonable to assume that it is the look of the thing that matters to you.

I am not prepared to be part of 'the look' of things, because the look of things is how I have perceived the current government - which is financing this magazine, as previous governments have done, for purposes of their own - to be proceeding in its appropriation of as many channels of cultural communication as it can.

I am perfectly prepared to believe that you have no political affiliation (I have said so on the blog), and that as an individual you may hold any views you like and want the best for the magazine. The fact is there was a Hungarian Quarterly with people I actually loved. Those people are gone. There was a hiatus in the publishing of the magazine, and here it is now, with new people. This happens in a political climate of which I am not ignorant and I doubt you are either. So, lastly,
My article had nothing whatsoever to do with the current regime, not a thing. 
I am sure no-one was dictating your article to you. I believe you have not consciously considered the views of the government in writing it. But you know the context as well as I do. The Hungarian Quarterly is an English-speaking face of Hungary. The magazine was founded for political reasons and it is pointless telling people it is without political significance. The context matters.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

A Joke for Sunday: The Talking Dog

Here's a long joke about a talking dog. You can't stop me if you've heard it but you can stop yourself reading.

Man feels in need of a pet so he scans the papers and finds an ad that says, 'Talking dog for sale, £10'.

Sounds amazing, he thinks, rings the number and goes round to the house. Householder opens the door, says, You've come about the dog? He's in the garage. Go on, talk to him. He'll be happy to see you.

Man goes into the garage and there is a dog, no particular breed, lying on a dirty blanket.

I suppose you've come to see me, says the dog.

Man is amazed. You really do talk! he exclaims.

Yes, I talk, says the dog. What do you want to know?

Well, says the man, not quite knowing what to ask, I suppose you could tell me something about yourself.

I was born in New York, says the dog, and adopted by a very rich woman with a great apartment in Manhattan. I had a good life there, but one fine Thursday in June while out walking, I was kidnapped by a bunch of dog thieves. They hid me in a cellar and threatened me with a gun. Those were tough times, but on one occasion - I can't remember now which day it was, it might have been a Sunday - the man with the gun came too close. I snatched the gun from him and ordered him to let me out. So now I was armed and pretty soon I got in with a bad crowd. I'll skip the details but there was a price on my head and I thought I've got to get out. So I stowed away on a flight to Paris, where I spent some years as a bartender. Then I got involved in crime again, drugs this time. I was heavy into drugs myself for a couple of years, then the gang split up and somebody grassed on me and I spent two years in prison. But I dug my way out, adopted a false name, and managed to find my way to England by night ferry. I decided to go straight at that point. I worked in Claridge's as a guard dog - I don't mind night work - then made it to Mayfair. I lived in style for six months but then the money ran out and I finished up here. Anything else you want to know?

No, gasps the man, that is quite a life. I am amazed. I'll just go and have a word with your owner.

Go ahead, says the dog. He's dull but decent enough.

Man goes back into the house and says to the owner, I think that is the most remarkable dog I have ever met. He really does talk and he seems to have led an extraordinary life on top of that. How come he is so cheap? £10 is nothing for a dog like that.

Oh, you don't want to believe a word, he's a dreadful liar, says the man. £5 and he's yours.

Friday, 15 November 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds:
The Hungarian Quarterly Disappears

Apropos of my post about the reasons why I will not be writing for The Hungarian Quarterly in the foreseeable future it is very much worth noting that the HQ, whose archives used to be open online, has now disappeared from the net.

It may be that the site is simply being revamped, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was taken off for much the same reasons that it was taken over.

Best tuck it away and out of sight. It never happened. Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. As in (from Bad Machine)

The Best of All Possible Worlds

The best of all possible worlds is asleep
having turned in for the night.
It is dreaming of snow a mile deep. 
The best of all possible worlds contemplates
its own reflection in the mirror,
its eyes two enormous plates. 
The best of all possible worlds is at the bus stop
in a steady shower of rain
watching water fall, drop by drop. 
The best of all possible worlds is tired
of waiting for the promised improvements.
It has run out of things to be desired. 
The best of all possible worlds becomes
a nervous, clumsy abstraction
all fingers and thumbs. 
The best of all possible worlds is a dark star
in a universe of its own making,
muttering: things are fine as they are. 
Things are fine as they are, says the sun on the wall
Things are fine as they are, says the cold in the bones
Things are fine as they are in the best of all possible worlds.

One needs to watch such spaces. I expect to see more of them.

Long Poem: beyond The Cambridge Launch

Last night in Cambridge reading for Long Poem. Five of us reading and some very good things there. I am not going to say which I most admired but there was much admirable material read in the small lecture theatre of Fitzwilliam College. Wine and biscuits first with those I already knew or have met, like Richard Berengarten, Lucy Sheerman and Jaqueline Gabbitas among the readers, as well as Anna Robinson, the founder, also a contributor this time, the editors Linda Black and Lucy Hamilton, poet Aidan Semmens and dear friend, walking icon, Nell Bacon.

Long Poem - an excellent and, I think, important magazine, since where else will you be able to publish poems that are more than a couple of pages long (do leap forward, editors of magazines) - has published the first 28 poems of the 56 poem cycle written in collaboration with Carol Watts, an experience I loved, particularly because it was in one of those territories I had under-explored, where the sense isn't primarily syntactic, or rather where syntax remains but doesn't always complete itself so the text embodies fragments and excursions.

Carol couldn't come so Linda read it with me, just the first 6 sections of the 28 in the magazine. The principle of the writing as Carol and I worked it out was a first poem of 28 lines by Carol, then one of 27 by me in reponse, 26 by Carol in response to that and so on till we got down to 1. Having done that we so much enjoyed it we worked our way up the lines till we returned to 28, making 56 in all. The introduction between us was effected by Steven Fowler as part of his continuing project to bring together different strands of writing.

Carol and I were different. I was interested in what she was doing and how she was doing it (meaning I could 'hear' it), so my part of the collaboration probably strayed more into her territory than she did into mine (if such territories can be precisely defined - I've always thought of mine as reasonably broad and broadening) which was exhilarating for me, improvised like jazz, on the spot, picking up phrases from her and flooding my text around it. The mode was essentially musical and helped by performance.

But I am only just learning to perform it. We have done short bits of it four times now (this time with Linda) and I am only beginning to dance my tongue around my own text. I think I was getting to grips with it yesterday. After the first 10 or so lines it picked up.

Carol's starting point was a painting but I didn't know which.

I hope it might be possible to work with her again. Stylistically, or rather in terms of process, one might think of terms like 'territory' as a map. Working like this was putting a flag down in barely touched territory but within sight of home ground. The short texts I have been writing for recently, through Twitter, are another flag, as are the collaborations between myself, Jo Bell and poet/photographer Kevin Reid.

Home ground remains home ground, that is to say the books published by Bloodaxe define a core that I continue to explore, but I would like to head a little into the, broadly speaking, Edwin Morgan world. Nothing ideological, but journeys from which I might return richer and fresher.

A little madness - or what might seem madness - is good beyond the age of 60. You're going to be buried anyway. You might as well be buried mad and dancing.

Monday, 11 November 2013

It exceeds the imagination

This piece was written by the literary scholar Tibor Keresztúry and appeared today on the Hungarian literary website Litera. I give a quick, almost complete translation. The reader will get the gist.

There are times a man thinks: surely we cannot sink any further, there is no lower depth, but then life produces something new, something extra, that exceeds the imagination. This time it is a fellow human being, a certain G Fodor Gábor, the strategic director of the Századvég (Century’s End) Foundation who, on his blog, suggests that a notable Hungarian writer should shoot himself in the head. The author, who describes himself not as ‘a literary scholar’ but ‘a political thinker’ doesn’t bother offering reasons, doesn’t say what books, what pieces of writing, in what manner forced him to conclude that László Krasznahorkai should shoot himself; it is enough, the political thinker decides, that his vision is too bleak. He accuses the writer of self-pity and concludes he must find the country unbearable, that he regards its citizens  as pigs wallowing in mud, and that he doesn’t even have a longing for life elsewhere because he feels dreadful wherever he is. G Fodor Gábor further predicts that the writer will leave nothing [of value] behind him.
The works of László Krasznahorkai - very like the works of other successful Hungarian writers with an international reputation - are naturally a subject of literary debate. It is possible, however, to suggest that his name - much like the names of other internationally prominent Hungarian writers - will be remembered after the names of many political figures and  thinkers are long forgotten. It is also worth adding that Krasznahorkai - much like other internationally prominent Hungarian writers - has never in fact compared the Hungarian people to pigs wallowing in mud and that the purpose of his work is not to condemn ‘Hungarians’,  his actual purpose being - like the purpose of other internationally prominent Hungarian writers - to write novels rather than to blacken the reputation of his native country. Those who regularly report writers for crimes such as this to the - so far only virtual - Bureau of Hungarian Identity, do of course know that all this is nonsense but they like to remind us now and then who really runs the country and where the God of the Hungarians has his true dwelling. This time it is this political thinker, of whom I have never heard, who has taken on this popular role and one wouldn’t even notice he had done so had the idea of the gun not appeared as a new element in literary discourse.
It is an old demand that those dissatisfied with things should get out of the country, but the suggestion that they should shoot themselves because they are ‘solitaries’ or because their vision is bleak is so far unprecedented. What’s next? Will they provide the gun?

This gives a rough idea of what constitutes 'political thinking' in leading Hungarian circles. It amazes me how writers such as Fodor have no recollection of the Stalinist period they truly claim to hate, which the last time optimism was a duty and when a major Hungarian classic like Imre Madách's epic verse play, The Tragedy of Man could be savaged for not being cheery enough about human prospects (and indeed about socialism). 

It's Orwell's animals and farmers again. The totalitarian instinct is the same whether it comes from the far right or the far left.

Fodor's political organisation, according to sources, gets huge commissions from the government. 

Why I won't be submiting work to The Hungarian Quarterly

This will be of relatively little interest to anyone who is not Hungarian but recently I was asked to translate three poems by a fine Hungarian poet for a magazine titled The Hungarian Quarterly. I have translated the poems but have refused permission to The HQ. It is a magazine to which I will not be contributing in the foreseeable future.

The magazine had a record to pre-WWII and had survived both fascism and communism. Under the new regime it was temporarily closed down, its old editorial team departed (or was sacked, I don't know which), there was a hiatus, then it reappeared under a new editor who left it after one issue and the present one has now taken over. I believe the changes were politically motivated and are part of an intensive cultural campaign or kulturkampf to control cultural thought.

The latest editor - who may be a perfectly decent person - had begun his defence of the new regime at the HQ by bad-mouthing some of my translations in order to demonstrate that the old editorship was far from perfect. I don't care whether he thinks those particular translations were good or bad, he has a right to think so - he might even be right - but I object to the criticism being used in the political context of the take-over of a magazine. 

Having said what he said, the editor's next action was to ask me for translations. Why would he want anything from me? I think it is - he more or less says so - to look inclusive. I think it is a form of literary money-laundering. The text of a part of my reply:

I know nothing of your personal politics. What I know is that there was an HQ that brought me up as a translator, whose editors I loved. They commissioned my very first translations in 1984. I know I have seen that HQ closed down and that, whoever the previous editor was, you are now the editor. I know that Fidesz has worked successfully to take over insitutions, to starve people, organisations and institutions of money and to replace them with their own appointees. I know that it has terminated contracts where it didn't approve of incumbents, I think the Orbán government is determined to control anything it can lay its hands on and that its hands are getting stronger all the time. I think the HQ is in its hands but that, being aware of its history, they would not want to make it appear so.

Cultural pressure is being applied with a heavy hand in Hungary. The government is keen that there should be only one ideology and that the rest should be criminalised or simply crushed.

Singular - a poem and comments


All our singular
voices were joined in the choir
of the vanishing.

We were not ourselves.
We were a single body
and so we vanished.

It was a single 
terror, indivisible.
We could not know it.

Out there the planets
were counting themselves. Their eyes
were looking away.

The terror out there
was happening inside us

We had dreamt it all
before. It was quite common.
It was what joined us.

We were united
in our singularity,
our dreams and dying.

We dream all the time
of this commonality,
the wild singular.

So when the water
rose and the wind gathered
we knew it as dream.

The wind was wailing
with us. I too was wailing
with others as choir.

So things vanish: we,
our invaluable dreams,
our terrors, our lot.

We can't grieve ourselves.
The water and wind will have
to do it for us.

We are the dreaming
congregation. Our voices
are yours now. You grieve.



I was wondering whether to include this comment as a prologue but realised it would be too long and too clumsy because it wants to cover too much ground. First, the fact: this poem, which I always thought of as a single poem, was actually devised as a series of tweets early in the morning. The subject will be recognisable - it is the tragedy in The Philippines. Several thoughts arise out of this.

There is the question of propriety. I myself have violently disliked those moments when poets rushed to write about a war without first-hand experience, so why might this be all right? Two reasons occur to me. 
1. The poem isn't 'about' the disaster in The Philippines. It is chiefly about my own thoughts, dreams and memories. I have sometimes dreamed of mass disasters - nuclear attacks, cataclysms - and there were always great crowds, not in the moment of happening but in the minutes before it. I am sure such dreams are common. Why? Because that is the world we live in, a world of great undersea anxieties. The poem doesn't mention The Philippines. The disaster is in us, triggered by events there. 
2. Natural disaster (and I don't discount the possibility that human actions in terms of climate change might have been a contributing factor) are different from war. In war there are sides. There are no sides in natural disasters. We are all on the same side. It is not this or that human action we are looking to enter, but the great familiar yet unknown: our sense of being in a world that is not comprehensible to our consciousness. 


The speed of writing might be wrong in some way. But I have always written fast, and have said, several times, that writing is a form of momentum. If I wanted to illustrate this with an image I would compare this to setting out on a tightrope. Put the foot down on the rope, feel the weight, the wind, the tension and set out. For me it's run-stop-run. I can't help that, never could. It is not the production but the editing that is at issue. But one edits on the run. The act is both productive and reductive: it is the balancing act.


Who could possibly produce anything serious in a format so apparently flippant as Twitter? The very name gives it away. It's inconsequential chat. - Maybe, but I don't care what it is called. For me it is primarily a form and I have always lived through forms. In terms of a given form 140 characters is no different from 14 lines, from the 17 syllables of what we in the West have tended to regard as the form of the haiku. It is simply a chance 'given' with a developing history. Frankly I am not much interested in chatting or twittering. From the beginning I was fascinated not only by the brevity but by what kind of literary space it opened up. The haiku form is one, among others, that fits. Not that I am haiku devotee as such but it is fascinating to explore the kind of space we have made of it. I don't really think of my 17-syllable sequences as haikus. They are what the are: a length and a shape. They may stand alone (and in one way, they have to stand alone even in a sequence, because they appear alone) or link in a narrative or cumulative way.


The question of evanescence. Why bother with a medium that eats itself as soon as arrived. Why insert these texts (poems, anecdotes, enigmas, proverbs, incidents) into the fabric of general conversation? This perhaps is the most pertinent question in respect of literature. I would argue that evanescence is our human lot and that even literature takes its place among the other activities of life. I can save the texts of course, but their very nature is to be born out of immediate obsolescence. It is not so much a question of what it is like to be within that immediate obsolescence but what it is to have been within it then moved out. I don't really know the answer to that.


Lastly, the question of the place of such work in the context of other, more conventionally produced and published work? I think the two domains have been edging closer and there is material that appears here that might reasonably appear in a book among other poems. We shall see.