George Szirtes

Image by Caroline Forbes

George Szirtes

b. 1948

Poetry's only obligation is to the truth. Whether this truth is widely popular or not is irrelevant. It should be the best truth possible and that is the only quality that gives it any hope of survival. - George Szirtes

About George Szirtes

George Szirtes (b. 1948) came to England in 1956 as a refugee from Hungary. He was brought up in London, going on to study fine art in London and Leeds. He wrote poetry alongside his art and his first collection, The Slant Door, appeared in 1979 and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. After his second collection was published he was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Other acclaimed collections and translations followed, a return trip to Budapest in 1984 proving a particularly fruitful trigger for his creativity. His most recent collection, Reel, was awarded the 2004 T. S. Eliot Prize.

The tension in Szirtes' haunting poems is partly a result of displacement and the consequent negotiation between a European sensibility and English culture. In particular the loss of his earliest home, the city of Budapest, renders the past deeply ambiguous, vulnerable to the reconstructions of memory. Poems that seemingly chronicle purely domestic moments have implications beyond the half open windows and doors of the rooms in which they take place, like the baby grand of a childhood apartment that "vanishes into the sudden dark//Of history and other shady business." ('Piano') His poems reject the simplifications that belonging - to a country, religion or political movement - can demand. Thus the process of assimilation is satirised in 'Preston North End' where his Englishness is learnt through football's tribal loyalties until "I pass the Tebbitt test. I am Alan Lamb,/Greg Rusedski, Viv Anderson, the boy/from the corner shop, Solskjaer and Jaap Stam." But though he offers no easy narratives or identities he understands the impulse to try and make sense of the world through them: his poems are full of tenderness towards the dead, and by extension all of us who will one day be displaced by the passage of time like the girl in the photograph who "is touching because she is lovely/and gone." ('Meeting Austerlitz').

Szirtes has described his poems as buildings and their mainly formal structures do have an architectural quality which his reading brings out. However, it's the still slightly foreign music of his voice, the accent that is hard to place, which expresses the complexities of his work so beautifully.

His recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 1 March 2005 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington.

George Szirtes's Favourite Poetry Sayings:

"Poetry is a secret and subversive pleasure." - Martin Bell

"Poets acquire humanity." - Wallace Stevens

"Art is a house that tries to be haunted." - Emily Dickinson

Additional material and useful links

2010 National Poetry Competition

Deryn Rees-Jones is one of the judges of the 2010 National Poetry Competition, which is now open for entries. Established in 1978, the National Poetry Competition is one of the longest running...

Aldeburgh Backchat 3

Listen to a fascinating behind the scenes interview with George Szirtes at the 2008 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival.

Selected bibliography

Shuck, Hick, Tiffey!: Three Norfolk Libretti Gatehouse...

The Burning of the Books and Other Poems Bloodaxe Books...

MirrorsCircle Press Publications, 2005

New and Collected Poems Bloodaxe Books, 2008

László Krasznahorkai, War and War, New Directions, 2005

Reel, Bloodaxe, 2004


Sándor Márai, Casanova in Bolzano (translator), London,...

An Island of Sound: Hungarian Poetry and Fiction before...


The Night of Akhenaton: Selected Poems of Ágnes Nemes...


1980 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, The Slant Door

Prize website

1982 Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature

Prize website

1984 Arts Council Travelling Scholarship

Prize website

1986 Cholmondeley Award

Prize website

1990 Déry Prize for Translation, The Tragedy of Man

1991 Gold Star of the Hungarian Republic

1992 Whitbread Poetry Award (shortlist), Bridge Passages

Prize website

1995 European Poetry Translation Prize, New Life

Prize website

1996 Aristeion Translation Prize (shortlist), New Life

1999 Forward Poetry Prize (Best Single Poem - shortlist), 'Backwaters: Norfolk Fields'

Prize website

1999 Sony Bronze Award for Contribution to BBC Radio 3

Prize website

1999 Weidenfeld Translation Prize (shortlist), The Adventures of Sindbad

Prize website

2001 George Cushing Prize

2003 Leverhulme Research Fellowship

Prize website

2004 Pro Cultura Hungarica medal

2004 T. S. Eliot Prize (winner), Reel

Prize website


George Szirtes

George Szirtes Reading from his poems

1The Accordionist


3The Photographer in Winter 1

4The Swimmers


6National Anthem


8Pearl Grey

9Copper Brown



12Preston North End

13Death by Meteor


15Meeting Austerlitz


17Comical Roses in a Cubic Vase


19Prayer for my Daughter

A tour of the Archive with Rachel Smith

Visiting the Poetry Archive feels like browsing through your favourite bookshop and finding that all the books are...

Featured Guided Tours

Books by George Szirtes