Thursday, April 11, 2013

Attila József

Today is the birthday of Attila József, born April 11, 1905.

József is one the best known modern Hungarian poets internationally, his poems having been translated into languages around the world and hailed during the communist era as Hungary's great "proletarian poet."

Born in an impoverished Budapest neighborhood, his father left the family when József was three, and József and his two sisters were supported by their mother, a washerwoman. His mother died when József was 13, at which point he dedicated himself primarily to his education. With help from a sponsor, he traveled to Austria and Paris, where he studied French and discovered the work of the 15th Century poet and thief François Villon.

Jószef published his first book of poems at 17, and his second collection of poems contained a poem branded as "revolutionary," which resulted in his expulsion from University. He wrote: "I have no father, no mother, no God, no country, no cradle, no shroud, no kisses, no love... I shall be seized and hanged and buried in hallowed ground, and grass that brings death will grow over my wondrously fair heart" He traveled with his manuscripts, selling newspapers and working an an itinerant janitor.

In 1927 several French magazines published József's poems, and eventually he was able to scrape together a meager income from poetry. His life was a series of small triumphs and great disappointments - becoming recognized by celebrated Hungarian critics, only to fall afoul of them when he dared to criticize their work. He joined the still-outlawed Hungarian Communist Party in the late 1920's, only to be charged with political agitation and obscenity and expelled from the party in 1933.

In 1935 he was hospitalized for severe depression, and in 1936 József was given a job as a co-editor of the independent left-wing review Szép Szó. In January 1937 he received the high honor of an audience with author Thomas Mann, but he was forbidden to read publicly the poem he wrote in tribute in Mann. Despite writing what is widely acclaimed as his best work during this period, he was again hospitalized and on December 3, 1937 József committed suicide by throwing himself under a freight train, seen only by a lunatic from the village.

The Seventh

If in this world you lay a claim,
let seven births be your aim!
Once be born in a burning home,
once in a flood in an icy storm,
once in a clinic where the mad retreat,
once in a field of bending wheat,
once in a cloister with a hollow ring,
once in a sty with a pigsty stink.
The six cry out, but which is key?
You yourself the seventh be!

If out front stands the enemy,
take seven men for company.
One, who starts his day of rest,
one, whose service is the best,
one, who teaches on a whim,
one, whom they threw in to swim,
one, who’s the seed of forestland,
one, whose forebears took a stand,
not enough tripping up and trickery,—
you yourself the seventh be!

Should you be seeking a lover,
let seven men pursue her.
One, whose word conveys his heart,
one, who gladly pays his part,
one, who pretends to be the pensive sort,
one, who searches beneath her skirt,
one, who knows where the hooks are,
one, who steps on her scarf,—
like flies around meat, buzzing free!
You yourself the seventh be!

If words are jangling in your purse,
seven men should compose your verse.
One, who chisels a city’s form,
one, asleep when he was born,
one, in awe of the celestial plain,
one, whom the word calls by name,
one, whose ailing soul revives,
one, who dissects rats alive.
Four scholars and two infantry,—
you yourself the seventh be.

And if it all happened as penned,
descend to the grave as seven men.
One, who’s rocked by a milky breast,
one, who grabs at a woman’s chest,
one, who throws dishes in the trash bin,
one, who helps the poor to win,
one, who works till he’s crazy,
one, whom the moon makes lazy;
into the world’s tomb you journey!
You yourself the seventh be!

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