31 October, 2011Issue 17.2InterviewsLiteraturePoetryTranslation

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An Interview with George Szirtes

Paul Sweeten


George Szirtes

© Clarissa Upchurch


George Szirtes is a Hungarian-born poet and translator who came to Britain in 1956 as a refugee. He studied painting at the Harrow School of Art and the Leeds College of Art and Design before publishing his first book of poetry, The Slant Door, in 1979. In 2005 he won the T.S. Eliot Prize for his collection Reel. He has translated Hungarian poetry and drama into English, including works by Sándor Márai, Ottó Orbán, and László Krasznahorkai. He is a member of the Royal Society of Literature and teaches at the University of East Anglia.

Paul Sweeten corresponded with George Szirtes by email.

Your relationship with English is often understood in terms of your absorbing it as a second language. You have lived in Britain for most of your life, so has this now become a journalistic preoccupation, or are there times when English still feels like a second language to you?

There are times—moments, especially when speaking Hungarian—when English does feel like a second language and, perhaps, no bad thing, at least some of the time. The sense of language as a material body is useful for any writer, especially a poet. I myself think it odd that I should be a poet in English: it is as if some distinct and fortunate transformation had occurred at an early age. But if so, I am inside the change, not outside, so journalistic preoccupations are perfectly valid.

Does that sense of language as a material body become heightened when translating? Christopher Ricks once described translations as “cover versions”; is that your sense of the process, and do you take many artistic liberties when translating Hungarian poets into English? How much George Szirtes, for instance, goes into your translations of S√°ndor M√°rai?

Yes, that sense of material body is heightened in translation: each language destabilises the other: that means we become more aware of the fallible body of each language. One language asks: Can you do that? The other replies: I can do this, which is like that. The first language cannot know if it is properly understood: language two understands there are some things it can’t do. Their joint experience is uncertainty of intention and meaning and the sense of limit in both. I like Ricks’s definition though. There is, after all, a genuine quality in Blondie’s version of “The Tide is High” that is not quite the same as the quality of the original by the more obscure Paragons. My M√°rai is not better than M√°rai, it is just a possible English M√°rai that depends entirely on the Hungarian M√°rai. As far as Anglophone readership goes, M√°rai was the Paragons and my version, with a bit of luck, is Blondie. The big difference is I don’t get fame and money whereas Blondie did.

“Taking liberties” suggests something faintly criminal, or at least improper. Is there a proper behaviour towards the the original text in poetry? How many different English interpretations do we have for, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”? There is an area of likely agreement but new readings continue to be offered. Which of the interpretations is the most proper? At what point does the reader begin to take liberties? I am generally within the sphere of propriety if only because I am aware of translating unknown poets, often for the first time. If Don Paterson translates Machado he feels no such obligation.

I’ve heard you talk about arriving in Britain with nothing but a book of photographs, and anyone familiar with your poetry will be aware of how important a role the captured image plays in it; there seems to be something of Keats’s Grecian urn figures at work, characters frozen in artifact. What do photographs mean to you?

I still have the case of photographs, though I have shared the actual photographs with my brother. My own mother was a photographer, and as a child, I remember watching her work at the light-box, retouching and hand-colouring. I wrote about these activities before I became as involved as I now am with photographs and photography. They are tied in with memories of mirrors (as in “At The Dressing Table Mirror”, a poem about the death of my mother, published in 1976). So mirrors and photographs are related. Broadly speaking, I think Barthes gets it right in Camera Lucida. The photographic moment is fascinating because it is by its very nature tragic, a memento mori. The moment has, by definition, gone. The record of the moment anticipates and includes the moment of going. Of course there are great photographers and ordinary snapshots. The great photographs are those where the image is not merely record but symbol. Everything is precisely where it had to be in order to generate a meaning beyond itself. Record and symbol are endlessly fascinating. Keats’s figures are frozen in a formalised moment, in a state of stylised desire. In that sense they too are potent symbols.

That symbolism in great photographs can hold an almost happenstance quality. It seems with painting there is more a sense of the artist’s hand; it’s a more contrived form, perhaps, but much of the beauty of poetry is in its contrivance. Did it feel like a natural transition to write poetry after studying painting?

I was writing before I started to paint, but I took to painting (at school, very late, after Christmas in my third year of Sixth) with great enthusiasm. There seemed to be the freedom to create one’s own cosmos in painting. Then there was all that glorious messy physical stuff. Language is the equivalent of that stuff. The power to create a cosmos is similar. I still love looking at paintings but am much more aware of them as constructions. Maybe part of getting older is the desire to be closer to life, as photographs seem to be.

The collection for which you won the T.S. Eliot Prize was Reel. I’ve always liked how tercets look on the page, and in that collection their spacing gives me the impression of a slide projector. How did you see that particular form working in relation to the other aspects of the poems?

The title poem of Reel is written in terza rima, as is a good part of the book—practically the whole of the first half, including “Meeting Austerlitz”, “Noir”, “Sheringham”, and “Flesh: An Early Family History”, a terza rima sequence with some eclogues in between the sections. I adapted Dante’s terza rima because it is an ideal episodic narrative form, (as in the Commedia) each verse clipping into the next, each section sufficient to articulate a central event. The slide projector effect you mention is for me a film clip that contains its own brief narrative, each episode part of a broad theme. There is, incidentally, a very new book, A Companion to Poetic Genre (ed. Erik Martiny), for which I wrote the terza rima chapter.

Having taught creative writing for a number of years and having kept a very active online blog, do you feel that the role of the public poet has been given greater breadth by these relatively recent developments—writing schools and worldwide discussion media—or are they merely incarnations of the kind of platforms to which writers have always had access? I don’t mean to say that you undertake public readings, teaching, blogging or anything else merely as “George Szirtes: Poet”, but your success has come at a time where writers are expected, to use Martin Amis’s word, to “perform”. Did you ever have a sense of that part of your life accelerating; after you won the Eliot, perhaps?

Inside that question nestle a good many others. There are various senses of the word “perform” here. The blog didn’t start out as performance, only in the sense that all writing is performative, but as notes that had an implicit, if unknown, public aspect. In other words I didn’t think the blog had anything directly to do with my fortunes as a poet. It was an interesting toy that made me think. It still does, though I am aware that it very quickly became an aspect of what you call, “George Szirtes: poet”. I do however believe my thoughts on this or that matter, as expressed on the blog, are read by some people with not much interest in poetry, let alone mine. In that respect I am “George Szirtes: human being (poet)”, a concept I rather like because of my growing belief that poetry is an aspect of being human, rather than an exclusive fully self-defining identity. I am, on the other hand, primarily known (if I am known at all) as a poet and a translator, albeit of a peculiar kind that might be described as George Szirtes: human being—English language writer of Hungarian birth, some links with Jewishness (poet and translator).

The question is partly whether I “perform” that. Larkin said he didn’t give readings because he couldn’t go round pretending to be himself. Any public appearance is a form of pretending to be oneself—and I mean a simple visit to the doctors where one behaves as one believes one should behave to doctors, just as much as being on stage as “George Szirtes: poet” not to mention all the other descriptive material. Performance is itself an aspect of human existence. What complicates matters is that for some time now publishers have depended on poets reading in public to sell the books because most bookshops don’t stock poetry, or only very little. At the same time an entire genre of “performance poetry” has developed in which the stage performance is of primary importance.

What did the Eliot Prize mean? In the first place it meant that three poets on one occasion chose my book over others. Three different poets on another day might have chosen something else. Nevertheless, the fact that they chose it meant that from then on I was one of a small group of poets who had been awarded the prize and that the prize would now enter the performative definition: George Szirtes (poet, Eliot Prize winner) plus the rest.

Frankly, I am with Larkin in some respects. I am glad of what the prize has brought me: a lot more attention, a lot more invitations, all those things you might call “acceleration”. The poetic vocation is psychologically insecure so it’s nice to be assured that the work is thought to be of some value. It is nice, but it is stupid to believe assurances. It is good that it should give one confidence to go on and try new things, but it would be stupid to go and do the same things all over again. Being a poet means living on one’s wits and nerves: those are best kept sharp. Best not be cosseted or flattered then. Plough on.

The role of the public poet? The public role of the poet? I don’t think I am a very public poet, but am aware modern technology has opened new channels of communication that, especially in the case of younger poets, has led to a new kind of consciousness. This may be more a matter of amplitude rather than of a radical change of kind. In any case, it has changed the old notion of being “public”: a whisper can very quickly become public material. I know I live in that world, that it swirls around me. I try to add the odd well formed sentence to it because doing that helps me think and has in some way modified the way I write poetry too. That is part of ploughing on.

Paul Sweeten graduated in 2010 with an MSt in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford. Paul is the editor-in-chief at the Oxonian Review.