Saturday, 28 November 2009

The Poetry of George Szirtes: No. 1

I’ve been a follower of George Szirtes’ blog for quite a while. I like his politics, his sense of humour, his take on history, but most of all his poetry, which has affinities with the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, whose collection, ‘A Part of Speech’, I’ve been re-reading alongside George Szirtes new collection ‘The Burning of the Books and other poems’.
These poems satisfy a thirst, not just for images or words that fit exactly in the mouth or in the mind, but for ideas - flexing the muscles of the intellect. This is poetry that is ‘more than autobiography’ or observation; poetry as dialogue, part of an ongoing debate between the writer and himself, the reader and the cosmos.

Beginning to read a book is rather like embarking on a voyage - with all the anticipation and anxiety of travel, and the expectation of an altered perspective when you arrive at your destination. In a poem called ‘Seeking North’ [from a sequence called ‘Northern Air - a Hungarian Nova Zembla’] the first stanza records the excitement of setting out on such a journey.
‘To set out with no compass but your nose
for the land of certainty and cool judgement
past moral latitudes, on the back of the wind,
with a plentiful supply of warm clothes
and every spiritual accoutrement
is the dream of the voyager whose mind

seeks resolutions.’

There are few resolutions in George Szirtes’ poetry, but many questions, and many journeys of exploration. Even the validity of language as a medium of communication is challenged in a number of poems. The narrator of ‘The Translators’ makes this observation:

‘Look hard into the eyes
of language and you see nothing. Only rhyme

and punctuation.’

George Szirtes is himself a translator of both prose and poetry from Hungarian to English. He knows the treacheries of language well. Part 2 of the title sequence ‘The Burning of the Books’, a poem called ‘In tall angular letters’, begins:

‘Where books are gathered there gathers also the dust
That sieves through the pores of the skin and the head,
The absolute dust of the language that falls apart
In your hands, that settles in your palm
Like a promise. Ideas are dust. Words dust.’

At first glance it seems a bleak viewpoint for a poet, but George explains more fully in an article in ‘Poetry' magazine entitled ‘Formal Wear’. ‘I cannot help feeling that the gap between signifier and signified is potentially enormous, and that the whole structure of grammar and syntax is a kind of illusion that hides this unpleasant fact from us.’

‘.....................Meaning vanishes
into night, into the vacant parishes
of the imagination, into a non-presence
that is positively terrifying.’
[The Translators]

That is the challenge that every writer has to face - wrestling with the inadequacies of language to express what we mean. As George said in his 2005 T.S. Eliot lecture,‘We realise the terrible truth about words: their arbitrariness, their hopelessness, their hollowness and lack of substance. Language, it seems, is no more than a thin layer of convention stretched over dark inchoate matter of which we know nothing except fear and desire’. But George regards poetry as ‘a healing act’ that can ‘bridge the gap between language and what happens.’

For me, as a reader, the poetry is in that space between signifier and signifed. The darkness where the magic and the mystery lie, where memory and imagination are called into play - not just the poet’s, but the reader’s own. The ‘reading’ of the poem is in that space - beyond language.

George Szirtes attributes his own preoccupation with this linguistic chasm to the way that he was abruptly ‘transplanted’ as a child. He was born in Hungary at a particularly troubled point in its history. The Hungarian uprising - a move for independence from Soviet control - was brutally suppressed by the Russians in 1956. George’s parents were among those who chose to leave before the Russian army arrived - abandoning all their possessions and walking across the border to Austria with their young children and two suitcases. They had originally intended to go to Australia, but got as far as England, where they settled. Once in England, George’s parents decided that only English should be spoken at home in order to ensure their complete assimilation.

What this meant, George touches on in his T.S. Eliot lecture. He learned the English words for ‘tea’ and ‘bread’, but they were not the same tea and bread that he had previously known. The lesson for the child was that the meaning of the word ‘bread’, is different in every culture, and it is ‘not just that you will get different kinds of bread in Germany and France but that these breads come with a complex baggage of history, culture and association’. From then on, Hungarian was a lost language, only re-discovered as an adult, along with the cultural identity it represented. Since then, George admits in an interview with a Romanian journalist, he ‘cannot write the songs of the tribe. I feel excluded from it.’ If he has a cultural identity it is wider than any single nationality. ‘I am, I think, above all, a European.’
George went to art college in Leeds and trained as a painter - a discipline that has influenced not only his approach to structure in poetry (more of this in the next post) but the way in which he observes and communicates the visual world. In a poem called ‘Lead White’, he inhabits the voice of Van Gogh:

‘Once I loved the poetry of words
but now it is the poetry of the intractable
that moves me: the hovering of birds
above a field, the windmill’s terrible
sails droning in the gale, the taste of white lead,
the narrowness of a room with its single bed,
the quarrel with a close friend,
the fury of the provincial alley
late at night, the mind’s dead end.’

But in those narrow, closed spaces, there is an epiphany where language blazes ‘with the fury of the sun’ towards the miraculous revelation - what Seamus Heaney called "that moment when the bird sings very close/To the music of what happens".

‘........................Mind grows chambers like
the heart and, all clumsiness
forgotten, learns to lilt, dance and strike
light into the world, to bless
the places where god sits: the emptiness.’

[to be continued]
Prose quotations from ‘Formal Wear: Notes on Rhyme, Meter, Stanza & Pattern’, George Szirtes,
From ‘Poetry’ magazine, Volume 187, Number 5, February 2006
Copyright © The Poetry Foundation
And George Szirtes' TS Eliot Lecture 2005, courtesty of the Poetry Library
Book cover by Clarissa Upchurch
Author photograph - Caroline Forbes


  1. An interesting author. This idea of poetry as more than autobiography seems to be the most pubicised issue within the poetry community at the moment, but it's interetsing to see someone who knows what they'd like to see replace this kind of poetry.

  2. Hi Jodie - I think it was Seamus Heaney who said that poetry should be more than autobiography. My preference is always for something with a bit more grit to it than simply observation!