Last night I attended one of the talks in a series that has been running in Trinity College Dublin. The series investigates with the help of a number of poets, how different poets deal with and relate to politics in their work. George Szirtes was the speaker last night and gave the audience a good insight into how his work is informed by politics.
Beforehand, I had scrutinized his last publication, Reel, for signs of his 'politics.' Some references and exploration of his personal background as an emigre from Hungary, but little of the rabble rousing calls that some poets may make. There was a very good reason for this as we learned during the course of the talk.
George Szirtes began by giving an overview of the upheavals of Hungary. Hungary is a land-locked country, and it's size has swollen and shrunk with each passing revolution. He began by telling us about the poet Sandor Petofi, whose statue has been used as a rallying point both in 1956 and again in 1989. A quote from a poem that Petofi wrote, NEMZETI DAL, asks
Shall we live as slaves or free men?
That's the question
This became a rallying call for Hungarians in the year of revolutions in 1848. Szirtes focused on this quote, looking at the binary connections: either/or, for/against and described how his poetical outlook questions that simplicity. For him it is much more complex than that, because human beings are more complex and the nature of our political struggles is always more complex too. Szirtes believes that for most 20th century poets, it is not enough to think in those on/off connections either.
Szirtes went on to talk about his personal family history, and the discoveries made about his family, in the mid 70s about a Jewish connection, and the history of how names changed in Hungary with the changes in country borders. Germanic names became Hungaricised - people tried to fit into their new territories, and by extension, the Szirtes family became Anglicised when they moved to England in 1956. This was by way of showing how complicated the idea of identity can become. And by extension, when you are an emigre, it is more difficult to go with that binary idea of black/white, yes/no.
So in effect what Szirtes explored in his writing was that type of politics - the exploration of discovery within the family unit could inform a wider point of view. As he prefers to think of it, poetry may not just be a statement of affiliation, but more a commentary on the discovery. There is a telling quote at the beginning of Reel, from Martin Bell's 'Ode to Himself':
To watch is possible: therefore you must watch.
From here then it was an easy jump to one of Szirtes' favourite muses, Clio, or history. He explained how Clio watches from afar, not concerned with the meaning of the individual story, but where it fits into the greater scheme of History itself. Clio is interpreted by Szirtes as someone involved in movies, recording things but remaining aloof: editing the film, or on the judging panel at the film festival, maybe. By way of background to the first poem he read, he described how he discovered that his mother had been detained in a concentration camp during WWII, at Ravensbruck - never mentioned until after his mother's death.
Szirtes' research showed that Ravensbruck had been liberated by the Russians. But it turns out that by this stage his mother had been moved to another camp, Penig which was liberated by the Americans, and which liberation was also captured on film! The poem itself used the flickering grey images and used the idea of Clio, the watcher, the recorder, to keep a distance from this emotive subject, as does the actual form, which I think was terza rima. Still very moving.
His next piece came from a poem commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. This poem used the idea of North, cold and truth and borrowed from John Mandeville's travels, the idea of sounds being frozen. Szirtes has incorporated this into the poem as a strong look at how we can't view History the way it happened at the time, at a later date - how we revise the past, as though it were frozen and then reassembled later on. He read two sequences from this long piece, Nova Zemble.
Afterwards, there was a Q&A session which allowed the audience to learn more about Szirtes' method and poetics. We learned that Szirtes fascination with form came after 1975, and that he considered it took it him about six or seven years to get into this craft (!). He became a more formal poet, using form to contain the meaning of the formlessness of existence (my words, not his!). Szirtes also views the relationship between poet and language rather like that of two dancers: language usually does the leading. Language when used in form always offers resistance, that resistance leads to new discoveries. On 'truth' he believes that a fidelity to the apprehension of things, will allow truth to speak - a very delicate concept. By his own admission, his use of, and view of politics in poetry is oblique, but that is because his method is more to discover through the exploration of watching and recording.
Postscript: of course, you could simply just visit George Szirtes' Blog and see how he frames the evening - much better than I did- he knew what he was trying to say: I am but one interpreter.