August 30, 2013

Review by Helga Lénárt-ChengIn Contemporary Tense by Sandor Kanyadi

by Sándor Kányádi, tr. by Paul Sohar

Iniquity Press
PO Box 906
Island Heights, NJ 08732-0906
ISBN: 978-973-7653-57-4
342 pp.

In Contemporary Tense (2013), the most recent and comprehensive selection of Sándor Kányádi’s poems in English, opens with a little anecdote. In the 1970s, during a reading tour in a village in Romania, Kányádi surprised a little schoolboy with a question:

“Well, what do you think a poem is?”

“A poem is something … that you have to tell,” said the child.

Hearing the words, Kányádi felt as if he had been “brushed by a breeze coming from the beginning of time.” Of course! “A poem is something that you have to tell.” Homer knew it. The child knows it. How could we have forgotten it?

Sándor Kányádi (1929 – ), an ethnic Hungarian poet from Transylvania, made this simple truth the mantra of his life. He wanted to rescue poems from the pages of books, he wanted to sing them, to speak them, to voice them, to tell them­­ –– to someone. Poems can only be told to someone, because voices do not exist in a vacuum. “Saying” a poem is like reading a report, “telling” a poem is about sharing it—with someone. “Telling a poem” is not about reciting it, either. Reciting is a secondary act, telling is primary.

“Telling poems” means a commitment to live performance, to face-to-face dialogue, to reader-writer relations. Now that Kányádi is being celebrated as “the greatest living Hungarian poet,” these dialogues usually happen in flashy venues with packed audiences. But for decades Kányádi told poems in badly-lit village schools and stuffy, local libraries. Those occasions were not performances in the fashionable sense of the term. They did not entertain, they fulfilled an existential need. Their orality was not an alternative to literacy, but an auditory imperative. A poem is something that you have to tell. There is no other choice, whether you like it or not. And while the reasons for this imperative may be manifold, the command is always singular, addressed to a single individual: A poem is something that you have to tell.

Simple truths, however, are always hard to follow, and despite his enthusiasm for the little boy’s simple answer, Kányádi proved to be a reluctant, hesitant bard. He obeyed the imperative to “tell poems,” but his song was constantly “choking up on itself”—because of fear, emotion, and other obstructions. A “Song choking up on itself” is the title of one of his poems, but it could very well be the title of the entire collection. It would be easiest to blame these moments of “choking” on external blockages, on repression, on the stifling air of Communism. Kányádi matured as a poet in the 1960s and 70s during the darkest years of Ceaușescu’s brutal regime, so no wonder if he felt like he was being choked:

someone whose choking grip
on my throat I have felt
all my wretched life

—from “On my deathbed”

He had every reason to fear and worry that even his last breath would be censured:

by my deathbed
someone will be there
to hold back my last gasp
until he can tape it
and play it back
for editing

—from “On my deathbed”

The persistency of fear, like an ostinato theme in music, gives the collection a rhythmic pattern:

I was there when the poet
Was pushed around like a thief

I was there when the poet
was humiliated like a thief

I was there when the poet
Was convicted as a thief

I was there and I who’d never stolen
Began to tremble like a thief


Perhaps the most chilling rendering of fear is this simple conjugation table:

I fear him
You fear him
He fears
We fear him
You fear him
They fear

—“Conjugation in contemporary tense”

Only a censor well-trained in grammar would notice the division in this table between those who fear and those who are feared. Fear has one clear direction here. He, the megalomaniac leader, and they, his secret police, are the objects of everyone else’s fear, while they themselves have nothing (if not the others’ fear) to fear.

This short grammatical exercise is also a good example of how inventive poets can be in response to fear. Beside the usual strategies designed to fool censors—such as formalistic experimentation, complex imagery and the use of folk motives—Kányádi’s arsenal also included a unique weapon: a plain white shirt. He describes this strategy in one of his later poems:

That’s why even during the week
My shirt has always been plain white
To give my judges and detractors
Something to critique and pooh-pooh
Something on which to throw new light

I let them wonder if I celebrated
Or mourned some deep loss by that tag
It was simply my own disguise
A bandage for my battle wounds
But never used for a surrender flag

—from “A poem in plain white shirt”

Kányádi dressed not only himself, but his poems, too, into plain white shirts, which made them suitable both for everyday use and for special occasions, for celebration and for mourning. In language as well as in politics, Kányádi called for lightness and for honest cleanliness:

Not only punctuation marks
But capital letters basking
In class distinction
Should be abolished
Words should be stripped
Naked just like
Those deported

—“Should be abolished”

Under such severe oppression, it would be tempting to blame all moments of “choking,” all poetic hesitation, delay or doubt on external mechanisms of censure. But Kányádi does not accept such an easy absolution. He mutters and stutters, tries and fails, and he only blames himself.

Suppose I say it
But to whom
Suppose I don’t
And to whom

—from “Tipsy mutterings”

And he worries: what if his muted words only prolong the pain, his and that of others?

Oh, the baroque balm of wondrous words,
Please, don’t prolong may pain!
Half truths:
Short-lived Novocain.
Straight talk
Can work wonders.

—from “Dew upon a star”

And what if he is never tempted? If at the end of the day he has no one, but his own laziness to blame?

You led me not into temptation
Today either mea culpa
Mea magna culpa
Mea maxima culpa
Poetry foiled by laziness

—“Evening confession”

In Contemporary Tense offers the most comprehensive selection of Kányádi’s poems to date. The translation is sharp and elegant, like Kányádi’s white shirts. The selection was made by translator Paul Sohar, under the guidance of Kányádi himself. The volume offers a sampling of each of Kányádi’s volumes, styles and periods, including his most recent poems and his magnum opus, “Mane and skull.” Kányádi felt it important to include his longer poems (“All Souls’ Day in Vienna,” “Fragments from a letter to my father,” “Mane and skull,” etc.), because these are all deeply personal meditations on his own life.

The selection is also representative in terms of themes and forms. It includes Kányádi’s characteristic free verse as well as more formal sonnets, “fingernail verses,” ballads and haiku. The six decades of Kányádi’s poetry span a dizzying array of topics, but none are as persistent as the topic of minority rights and language preservation. Political regimes change, oppressors come and go, but the loss of a minority language is irreversible. And this is where a poet’s role differs from that of a sculptor or a painter: If a sculptor puts down the chisel, the stone remains; if a painter refuses to paint, an empty canvas remains, but if Kányádi does not “tell poems,” a language dies. “A poem is something that you have to tell.”


Helga Lénárt-Cheng completed her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Harvard University in 2007. She has been on the faculty of the Modern Languages Department of Saint Mary’s College of California, Moraga, CA, since 2008. She writes about all forms of life-writing (autobiographies, diaries, blogs, video-narratives), about the intersection of philosophy and literature, and about Eastern European culture and literature. (