No 6 - 1976
HUNGARIANS CONSIDER János Pilinszky to be one of their best living poets. Sándor Weöres, a towering poet, and nobody’s lipserver, calls him ‘our greatest’.
Pilinszky’s special quality is not easy to define. He recognizably belongs to that generation of East European poets which includes Herbert, Holub and Popa, but his differences draw any discussion of him into quite another context. Hungarians tend to set him a little outside their ordinary writers, and his poetry a little outside ordinary poetry. The reason for this is something essential to Pilinszky’s character. Critical judgement cannot rest in the aesthetic excellence of his work: it inevitably ends up arguing the ethical-religious position of Pilinszky himself, not at all a simple one in modern Hungary or anywhere else, but one which his poems and other writings and his life define with such poignancy and authority that it confronts the critic with a problem — a private, existential challenge. His ‘greatness’, then, unlike Weöres’, is not a greatness of imaginative and linguistic abundance. It has more to do with some form of spiritual distinction. The weight and unusual temper of his imagination and language derive from this.
The bulk of his work is quite slight. His forms are traditional — varying only between tightness and looseness. The quality of his actual style is notable: it is simple, unambiguous, direct, but Hungarians agree that it is a marvel of luminosity, unerring balance, sinuous music and intensity — a metal resembling nothing else. Through translation we can only try to imagine that (though working as closely with the originals as I have worked, one soon picks up a very distinct idea of it). But even a rough translation cannot completely blanket Pilinszky’s unique vision of final things, or the urgency and depth and complexity of his poetic temperament.
He was born in Budapest, in 1921. Certain known factors, which have had a vital influence on the mature form of his work, are worth mentioning. Perhaps one of the most decisive has been what might seem the most trivial. His syntax, for all its classical finish, is quite idiosyncratic. This can be felt clearly in a word-for-word crib — though it is less easy to translate further. Something elliptical in the connections, freakishly home-made, abrupt. It would not be going too far to say there is a primitive element in the way it grasps its subject. Yet this peculiarity is deeply part of its most sophisticated effects, and its truth. His own words give the best idea of it:
Should someone ask, what after all is my poetic language, in truth I should have to answer: it is some sort of lack of language, a sort of linguistic poverty. I have learned our mother-tongue from my mother’s elder sister, who met with an accident, was ill, and got barely beyond the stage of childlike stammering. This is not much. No doubt the world has added this and that, completely at random, accidentally, from very different workshops. This I received. And because the nice thing about our mother-tongue is exactly this fact, that we receive it, we do not want to add anything to it. We would feel it detrimental to do so. It would be as if we tried to improve our origin. But in art even such a poor language — and I must say this with the pride of the poor — can be redeemed. In art the deaf can hear, the blind can see, the cripple can walk, each deficiency may become a creative force of high quality. (1)
This ‘mother-tongue’ and especially his attitude towards it, as he describes it here, is a revealing clue to Pilinszky’s whole poetic character.
Another pervading factor, which almost every word he writes forces us to take into account, has been his Catholic upbringing and education. His continuing allegiance to certain aspects of Catholicism is evident in small things — his publishing many of his poems in Catholic journals, his joining the staff of the Catholic weekly Új Ember in 1957. The poems demonstrate, however, that his inner relationship to Catholicism is neither simple nor happy. He has been called a Christian poet, even a Catholic poet, and the increasing density of Catholic terminology and imagery in his work provides argument for this. But he rejects those labels absolutely. There is no doubt that he is above all a religious poet. A rather dreadful sun of religious awareness, a midnight sun, hangs over all his responses. But his loyalty to a different order of revelation — which at first seems a directly opposite and contradictory order — comes first.
In 1944 he was called up for Military Service — just in time to be scooped up by the retreating German Army. His last year of the war was spent moving from prison camp to prison camp in Austria and Germany.
Whatever he met in those camps evidently opened the seventh seal for Pilinszky. It was a revelation of the new man: humanity stripped of everything but the biological persistence of cells. After this experience there emerges, at the heart of his poems, a strange creature, ‘a gasping, limbless trunk’, savaged by primal hungers, among the odds and ends of a destroyed culture, waiting to be shot, or beaten to death, or just thrown on a refuse heap — or simply waiting in empty eternity. The shock of this initiation seems to have objectified and confirmed something he had known from childhood: the world of the camps became the world of his deepest, most private, poetic knowledge.
His first collection of poems appeared in 1946. It was a literary event in Hungary. He became leader, with Ágnes Nemes Nagy, of a new school of poets, and co-edited their magazine. Silence soon descended, however, and ten years had to pass before his poems began to emerge again. His second book containing eighteen poems reprinted from his first, and thirty-four new poems came out in 1959. It was acclaimed, at once, as the major achievement of a major writer.
Those comparatively few poems have gradually established his international reputation. It was recognized, from the start, that he spoke from the disaster-centre of the modern world. What was also clear, though, was that his words escaped, only with great effort, from an intensifying, fixed core of silence. That bleak, lonely condemned one, at the heart of his poems, spoke less and less.
The next thirteen years added only sixteen new poems. Then in 1971 and 1974 two new collections, projecting a new line of development from what had seemed impossible to alter, contained ninety-seven fresh pieces. Yet these pieces, if anything, only deepened the fixity and silence. All are short, fragmentary, and some hardly more than a sentence or couplet. The first of these collections was titled Splinters — splinters, that is, from the cross. The title of the second can be translated Denouement. The change, however, was there. The mood and imagery of his earlier work survived through an inner transformation which seemed uncompleted until, in 1975, he published Space and Relationship, a collection of poems interspersed with photographs of the sculptures of Erzsabet Schaár. The urgency and immediacy of his work, in this latest book, suggests a whole new phase in his writing. The possibilities of development suddenly seem wide open, and we can be sure that with a poet who has hung on to such a course with such tenacity, they will not be neglected.
‘I would like to write’, Pilinszky has said, ‘as if I had remained silent.’ He is not alone among modern poets, particularly those of his generation and experience, in his obsession with personal silence. As it is used by those Indian saints who refuse to speak at all until the ultimate truth speaks through them, or as Socrates used it before his judges, or as Christ used it before his accusers, silence can be a resonant form of speech. Pilinszky, who is rarely ironic and never messianic, makes us aware of another silence.
It is impossible not to feel that the spirit of his poetry aspires to the most naked and helpless of all confrontations: a Christ-like posture of crucifixion. His silence is the silence of that moment on the cross, after the cry.
In all that he writes, we hear a question: what speech is adequate for this moment, when the iron nails remain fixed in the wounds, with an eternal iron fixity, and neither hands nor feet can move?
The silence of artistic integrity ‘after Auschwitz’ is a real thing. The mass of the human evidence of the camps, and of similar situations since, has screwed up the price of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ and ‘understanding’ beyond what common words seem able to pay. The European poets who have been formed by this circumstance are well known. They have only continued to write, when at all, with a seasoned despair, a minimal, much-examined hope, a special irony. But because he is as he is, above all a passionately religious being, Pilinszky has shifted the problem into other dimensions — which are more traditional but also, perhaps, broader and older, more intimately relevant, more piercing.
This is not to suggest that his poetry is in its inmost spirit necessarily Christian. The poems are nothing if not part of an appeal to God, but it is a God who seems not to exist, Or who exists, if at all, only as he exists for the stones. Not Godlessness, but the imminence of a God altogether different from what dogmatic Christianity has ever imagined. A God of absences and negative attributes, quite comfortless. A God in whose creation the camps and modern physics are equally at home. But this God has the one almightiness that matters: he is the Truth.
We come to this Truth only on the simplest terms: through what has been suffered, what is being suffered, and the objects that participate in the suffering. The mysterious thing is that in Pilinszky the naked, helpless quality of this truth is fused with the utmost spiritual intensity. The desolation of his vision is equalled by its radiance. The revelation of this particularly bleak God is the flashpoint in all his poems.
In each poem, we find the same diamond centre: the post-apocalyptic silence, where the nail remains in the hand, and the wound cannot speak. The rich scope of Pilinszky’s religious feeling seems concentrated in that. That is his fixity. The only possible directions of movement are away from the nailed wound, or out of the flesh, both of which he reflects. Death has staked its claim in Pilinszky’s universe, and there is nothing life can do about it. Yet out of this one moment, from which theology retreats in confusion this hole of silence, which Christianity has managed to cover only with a loud chord of faith, Pilinszky makes his statement.
In the final biological humiliation and solitude, the poems say, nothing at all can help. Yet we hear so many precious things clamouring in that helplessness. The most harrowing voice of all is sexual love. Almost as frightening is the voice which gropes for just somebody — anybody, in the radiant emptiness. In Pilinszky’s love poems ‘he’ is separated from ‘her’ as the flesh is separated from meaning and hope, and as the spirit is separated from any form of consolation. Yet his horror at the physicality and wretchedness of the trap is without any taint of disgust.
And how is it, we might well ask, that this vision of what is, after all, a universe of death, an immovable, unalterable horror, where trembling creatures still go uselessly through their motions, how is it that it issues in poems so beautiful and satisfying? How do his few poor objects, his gigantic empty vistas, come to be so unforgettably alive and lit? The convict’s scraped skull, the chickens in their wooden cages, the disaster-blanched wall, which recur like features of a prison yard — all have an eerie, glowing depth of perspective, like objects in an early religious painting.
Though the Christian culture has been stripped off so brutally, and the true condition of the animal exposed in its ugliness, and words have lost their meaning — yet out of that rise the poems, whose words are manifestly crammed with meaning. Something has been said which belies neither the reality nor the silence. More than that, the reality has been redeemed. The very symbols of the horror are the very things he has redeemed.
They are not redeemed in any religious sense. They are redeemed, precariously, in some all-too-human sense, somewhere in the pulsing mammalian nervous-system, by a feat of humane consecration: a provisional, last-ditch ‘miracle’ which we recognize, here, as poetic.
By this route, Pilinszky’s poetry proves itself to be almost a religious activity. Once we have said that, though, we realize it is also a by-product. The chief task is something else, an attitude, and more than that a sustained commitment to certain loyalties, which involve Pilinszky’s whole life at every moment. And it is true, his personality and his life are as exemplary, for Hungarians, as his poems: they are a single fabric. This insistence of Pilinszky’s on paying for his words with his whole way of life, has confirmed the authority of his poems. And this is how they come to be an existential challenge to all who are deeply drawn into them.
It is characteristic that his affinities are not with other poets, but with such figures as Van Gogh, certain of Dostoevsky’s characters, and, above all, perhaps with Simone Weil (2). These extreme individuals, the nature of their inner struggles, the temperament verging on the saintly or the suicidal, zigzag like naked lightning through the magnetic atmosphere of Pilinszky’s writings. They personify his most vital element, the electrified steely strength under his passivity and gentleness.
If the right hand of his poetic power is his hard grasp of a revealed truth of our final condition, then his left hand, so much more human and hurt, is his mystically intense feeling for the pathos of the sensual world. ‘Mystical’ is an unsatisfactory word, but one feels the nearness of something like ecstasy, a fever of negated love, a vast inner exposure. The intensity is not forceful or strenuous, in any way. It is rather a stillness of affliction, a passivity of transfiguration. At this point, when all the powers of the soul are focused on what is final, and cannot be altered, even though it is horrible, the anguish is indistinguishable from joy. The moment closest to extinction turns out to be the creative moment. Final reality, a source of extraordinary energy, has been located and embraced. It is like an eclipse of the sun: each image of living death, in all its solid, earthern confinement, has a halo of solar flames.
So we feel, finally, no revulsion. The result is not comforting. But it is healing. Ghastliness and bliss are strangely married. The imagery of the central mysteries of Catholicism and the imagery of the camps have become strangely interdependent.
(1) From an interview, 1969.
(2) Pilinszky has translated the complete works of Simone Well into Hungarian.
With János Csokits, Ted Hughes has translated the poems of János Pilinszky, forthcoming from Carcanet Press. This essay is a version of the introductory essay to that volume.
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