- Clarissa Upchurch
- Budapest, Hungary
George Szirtes was born in 1948 in Budapest and came to England as a refugee following the Hungarian Uprising in 1956.
He trained as a painter in Leeds and London, and is the author of several collections of poetry, his first being The Iron Clouds (1975). His Selected Poems 1976-1996 appeared in 1996, and his New and Collected Poems in 2008. His poetry collection Reel (2004), was awarded the 2004 T.S. Eliot Prize. He has also edited poetry books, including co-editing The Colonnade of Teeth: Twentieth Century Hungarian Poetry (1996) and An Island of Sound: Hungarian Poetry and Fiction before and beyond the Iron Curtain (2004).
He has also written many works of translation, including those of writers Agnes Nemes Nagy, Otto Orban, Zsuzsa Rakovszky, Sándor Márai and Ferenc Karinthy; books for children, including The Red-all-over Riddle Book (1997), and a study of the work of artist Ana Maria Pacheco, entitled Exercise of Power: The Art of Ana Maria Pacheco (2001).
Many works have been written for radio, and he has appeared as critic and cultural broadcaster on various programmes. He is also the author of sixteen plays, musicals, opera libretti and oratorios, including Air Kissing, written with composer Jane Wells, which was premiered in 2003, and most recently Shuck, Hick, Tiffey: Three Norfolk Libretti (2008).
George Szirtes became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982 and has since won many awards for his work. He lives in Norfolk where he teaches Creative Writing at the Norwich School of Art and Design and the University of East Anglia. His New and Collected Poems was published in 2008, and his recent poetry collections include The Burning of the Books and other poems (2009) and Bad Machine (2013), both shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize.
George Szirtes is unusual in British poetry.
He has made a second language his own, not merely by fluency but also by adding a personal inflexion. He has made a distinguished contribution to contemporary poetry, firstly by virtue of his intense idiosyncratic curiosity about England and Englishness, and then by retaining and newly nurturing his Hungarian origins as a poet and translator. Szirtes’ work is further enriched by translation of another kind, between visual art and verbal language. He trained as a painter, writes art criticism and is married to the painter Clarissa Upchurch – all of which makes him additionally at home in England, where poetry is frequently anchored to the visible.
Painterly motifs of stillness and imminence feature significantly in Szirtes’s work. The title poem of his first collection, The Slant Door (1979), notes: ‘The red light is on the slant door again’, suggesting a mixture of threat and fascination which he elaborates without explaining: ‘Quiet, you birds … / I will not make you metaphors just yet.’ Szirtes goes on to evoke the Hardy of ‘During Wind and Rain’ and the more contemporary disquiet of James Fenton’s ‘Terminal Moraine’:
'And down the door the rain has worn small grooves;You don’t know what it is that means or moves.’
The question of ‘what it is’ has occupied Szirtes’s career to date, encompassing not only the personal and domestic spheres, but also history and politics. Szirtes’s family fled Hungary after the Soviet suppression of the 1956 uprising, but as a Jew he directs his disquiet about the militant State Westwards as well as Eastwards, towards Nazism and genocide as well as Russian Cold War imperialism. This lends his depictions of Englishness a degree of approval at which natives may at times raise an eyebrow. Liberal England often seems more alive and well in Szirtes’s imagination than elsewhere.
In one direction the slant door of the imagination opens on the world of Budapest left in 1956. The sequence ‘The Courtyards’, from The Photographer in Winter (1986), patrols the corridors and balconies of a residential district, glimpsing, scenting and overhearing an inconclusive ordinariness which is intermittently invaded by violence:
'There’s always someone to consider, oneyou have not thought of, one who lies alone,or hangs, debagged, in one more public square.'
The sense of interpenetrating worlds is enforced by the extreme Englishness of ‘debagged’, with its Billy Bunter overtones of schoolboy japes, imposed on a scene of murderous humiliation. An equivalent estrangement is at work in Szirtes’s characteristically fluent but at times evidently counter-intuitive handling of iambic metre, for example in the repeated closing pentameter of the whole poem, where the final spondee resists being smoothed away: ‘And hope she’ll still be there when the stairs stop.’
After 1989 Szirtes was able to revisit Hungary. He has involved himself deeply in the translation of a vast body of Hungarian poetry as well as drama and fiction. His own poems have undertaken an ambiguous form of reclamation. Szirtes’s work is so rich in the observed and relished phenomena of everyday that the accompanying sense of dispossession, of an emptied world, manifests itself with a genuine chill. In ‘Night Ferry’ from Bridge Passages (1991) he records:
'It’s normal, that is all, the bottom lineOf nightmare, meaning nothing, emptinessWhich finds us though we leave it no addressAnd leaves a pain that art cannot refine.'
Considerable art has of course gone into framing that perfectly balanced closing line. What Szirtes reveals anew is a truth requiring more than idle lip-service: that there is no barrier between the ‘merely’ personal hell and the one constructed by history and politics, that the same individual must suffer the fires of both and find them identical. This inevitably recalls Kafka. It is also a position which, like it or not, mirrors that of the commissars and Nazis who stalk the perimeter of Szirtes’s work. And it entails an instructive disenchantment with the poet’s adopted language. In the complex ‘English Words’ (from Bridge Passages) Szirtes records the inevitable wearing away of the glamour of the new, as well as the equally powerful sense that words are the only means of contacting the necessary illusions they create:
'Their emptiness appals one. One is dumbwith surprise at their inertia, their crasshostility. They are beautiful opiates,as brilliant as poppies, as absurd.'
The result is as labyrinthine as the courtyards of Budapest. Szirtes is in fact recording a double exile: firstly, the existential kind, i.e. exile by consciousness; into language itself; secondly, exile of the contingent, political variety. ‘Soil’ (Blind Field, 1994) applies the same notions to the poet’s homeland:
… there is nowhere to gobut home, which is nowhere to be foundand yetis here, unlost, solid, the very groundon which you stand but cannot visitor know.'
In The Budapest File (2000) and An English Apocalypse (2001) Szirtes makes clear the double nature of his concerns by gathering poems about Hungary and England separately. An English Apocalypse also contains a large number of new poems about England. These are written in the knowledge that the ‘new’ country is now ‘old’ in the writer’s lifespan. Writing about place means writing about time; and doing this involves the recognition that what seems ‘authentically’ English may be both belated and fictive: ‘Someone bottles the spaces between things.’ Szirtes himself seems both eager to preserve evidence whilst acknowledging its evanescence. At ‘the end of the world’ of Englishness in ‘Spring Green: Three Apocalyptic Grotesques’, he thumbs urgently through the catalogue of its various constructions in popular culture and commerce, unable either to retain or discard the details:
'The floral clock moves round from light to shade.The boarding houses rattle with visitors.It is Brighton Rock, Sid James, Diana Dors,Brylcreem and Phyllosan and Lucozade.
Dirk Bogarde kills Jack Warner.'
An English writer would hardly dare to offer these juxtapositions, on the grounds that they are excessively typical. But what do they know of England who only England know? The seemingly off-the-peg collection is unsettlingly accurate, bringing together sex, death, comic smut, the gimcrack panaceas of everyday life and a combined fear of and appetite for disorder – all as true now as it ever was, and just as hard to nail down. Szirtes’s England, like his Hungary and Central Europe, seems inexhaustibly revealing. At the same time the scale, formal ambition and confidence of his work are still growing: witness the sonnet sequences and sustained terza rima (long a favourite form) of his latest collection, Reel (2004).
Sean O’Brien, 2004
I began to write at the age of 17, utterly against my own and other people's expectations. Poetry was the form I instinctively moved to, perhaps because I was a reflective watcher of small things rather than a follower of grandly narrative events. I think I must have imagined the world opening out from some complex stillness, and that such a process of opening would explain events. I myself was a refugee from events such as the war and near destruction that had first overtaken my parents before I was born, then, later, in 1956, my whole family at the time of the Hungarian uprising. It took a long time to get used to English words, the words that would have to do the opening up for me. I write now because I hope such openings are still possible, because I love the act of writing, and because marvellous poems by others have moved and delighted me to the extent that I have taken them for truth. It takes a lot of playful effort to squeeze any meaning out of words: the squeezing is all.