George Szirtes - 24 April 2008

Welcome. Thank you for reading this. This is my first post as poet in residence for the Poetry Archive. My name is George Szirtes. As some of you might know I was a child when our family arrived in England as refugees from Hungary in 1956, following the defeat of the revolution of that year. Hungarian was therefore my first language but I grew up in England speaking English, with English poetry as my formative poetic experience, though my degree is in fine art of the practical sort.

I will be sixty this year. I remember the struggles and depressions of becoming recognised as a poet throughout my twenties, and the joy of my first book, The Slant Door appearing in 1979. Since then there have been many others and the strange, rather frightening landmark, the collected poems (in this case a New and Collected) is looming at the end of the year.

My chief thematic interests in poetry seem to have been history, human fragility, the power of visual art and the sheer strangeness of being in the world at all. But I don't remember setting out with any particular themes in mind.

Having spent my life doing this I cannot help but think about the worth, the value, the very nature of the enterprise. So I would like to use this space to invite your thoughts about topics such as the usefulness of poetry; notions of audience; what is form for and so on.

I want to start with a poem by one of the loveliest and msot delightful contemporary poets, Kit Wright. It's called POETRY:

When they say /
That every day /
Men die miserably without it: /
I doubt it. //

I have known several men and women /
Replete with the stuff /
Who died quite miserably /
Enough. //

And to hear of the human race's antennae! /
Then I /
Wonder what human race /
They have in mind. /
One of the poets I most admire /
Is blind, /
For instance. You wouldn't trust him /
To lead you to the Gents: /
Let alone through the future tense. //

And unacknowledged legislators! /
How's that for insane afflatus? /
Not one I've met /
Is the sort of bore /
To wish to draft a law. //

No, //

I like what vamped me /
In my youth: /
Tune, argument, /
Colour, truth.

(from Short Afternoons - Hutchinson, 1989)

I'm interested in the claims and disclaimers. Kit begins by engaging with William Carlos Williams ('Men die miserably without it'), goes on to Ezra Pound ('The antennae of the human race') and finally, of course, Shelley ('unacknowledged legislators').

I fully agree with the things that vamped Kit in his youth: tune, argument, colour, truth, but does the vamp offer too little? The fact that John Heath-Stubbs (the poet referred to in the third verse) was blind does not mean he had no antennae in another sense.

Kit's argument is against megalomania and vaunting ambition. But where does that leave 'truth'? How limited is it? What particular truth does poetry offer and what value is it? What do you think? Personal experience welcome.


Hello George

I'm no expert, but I'm interested that you are asking this question. If I understand correctly you are asking what is the use of poetry? I've always considered a poem to be a work of art and that is enough isn't it? Must it also do some other work in the world? Do we demand this of other works of art such as paintings, sculptures, symphonies etc? It seems to me that we are happy for them to be beautiful or powerful in their own terms, whereas because the poem is made of words we ask more of it somehow. Is that a fair comment, or am I talking nonsense??

Hi George, great to meet through this website. I have read you poems and listened to them too. I'm wondering do you ever write poetry in Hungarian? I have two languages (English and German) but I can't realy imagine writing a poem in German. Maybe it's becase my German is not as strong as my English, you need such a depth of language for poetry, not just a functional fluency. Also maybve because I have chosen English many years ago and it is now my "poetry language". What's your take on this?

Truth in poetry covers an enormous dimension, and indeed what is truth, and what is meant by truth? Perhaps we could divide it into a truth we know, as objective truth, and a truth we feel or experience or know instinctively to be true, as subjective truth. Often it is difficult to differentiate between the two. For example, the horizon between sea and sky seen from the land is a truth, as such, know to be such; a division, boundary, frontier or edge. However, subjectively we could say that we experience the horizon as a confrontation between outer and inner selves. A desire to know beyond in order to allay fear or anxiety. The poem allows us to explore these conflicting elements of what is and what might be and what is wished for. Perhaps it can be said that each person / poet has their own truth, and that particular truth has its own validity known to that person, by reason of accumulated knowledge and experience.

Away at Strokestown festival Friday-Mondy so slow replying. Apologies. // I don't write in Hungarian, Stephen, chiefly because I don't live where the language is continually spoken. You're right about depth: I understand but would feel my way about somewhat vaguely. // Yes, smidge it is art but I am interested in what art does for us. I have a few ideas on that. // And yes, Julius, clearly I don't mean a scientific form of truth, but a sort of truth to experience through the language we speak and read - a more general form of truth if you like, but one that hits is sharply and memorably, because it echoes in us.

When poetry fails to visit the truth we are on dangerous ground. What the truth is may be open to debate but what the truth is not is not. After the lies they will ask where were your poets? as Brecht rightly said.

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A poem of mourning.