Insightful Interview: Relevance of Revolutionary Hungarian Poet Sándor Petőfi to Foreign Readers

  • 19 Jun 2023 10:14 AM
  • Hungarian Literature Online
Insightful Interview: Relevance of Revolutionary Hungarian Poet Sándor Petőfi to Foreign Readers
2023 marks the bicentenary of the nineteenth-century, revolutionary poet Sándor Petőfi's birth.

During this year journals and institutions have been reexamining his oeuvre – but why does Petőfi continue to have such significance in contemporary Hungarian society, what was his greatest influence on Hungarian poetry, and what relevance has he to a foreign reader?

The poets Ádám Nádasdy, George Gömöri, and Katalin Szlukovényi answered our questions.

HLO: Petőfi's poetry has been part of Hungarian readers’ lives since kindergarten when we first start to learn about it, and it accompanies us through our studies until our final exams. What do you think is so important about his oeuvre that we study it for so many years? What is Petőfi’s greatest influence on Hungarian literature?

Ádám Nádasdy:
 These are two different questions! Why so important: he became associated with “Hungarianness” par excellence, an image that he himself cultivated. (Despite – or because of? – the fact that he was of Slovak background, his name was Petrovics.)

The country boy who makes it to the highest literary circles in the capital. He embraced an openly political poetic attitude, claiming that a poet must be the spiritual leader of his nation. A romantic hero.

His influence on literature is another thing. He was very talented and worked a lot: like Schubert, he turned out an amazing quantity. Love poems, elegies, ballads, epic works, satires, prose – often of very high quality. Nobody had used the Hungarian language with such virtuosity before.

George Gömöri: He could uniquely combine the struggle for Hungarian independence with the belief of universal revolution (i.e. “world-freedom”).

Katalin Szlukovényi: He is a tremendously versatile author, whose oeuvre ranges from melodious and often funny poems accessible for children to texts articulating ideas on various philosophical and social issues, so he offers something for a wide range of readers with different tastes.

As for his influence on Hungarian literature, I assume his greatest merit is the natural flow of his language, which sounds to be so close to the vernacular that he is quite easy to appreciate even from the distance of two centuries. Studying him after Vörösmarty, who was just a couple of decades his senior, reveals Petőfi’s revolutionary leap bringing poetry closer to everyday readers.

HLO: How important is Petőfi's art for you? What are your favourite works by him?

 I respect him, and admire his stamina and productivity – but I do not feel him to be close to me. My favourite works are János vitéz, A Tiszánál, A puszta télen, Szeptember végén.

GG: Mostly the 1846-49 period. Some of his poems written during these years are very much alive, even strangely topical again.

KSz: I am not particularly fond of him – even as a child, I much preferred his contemporary János Arany. Yet I could not agree more with the political goals defined in “The Poets of the Nineteenth Century”, in which he nicely sums up how equal rights for every single citizen must be guaranteed by any political movement deserving any attention and that such ambitions must consider not only the legal but also the financial and intellectual-psychological aspects of people’s lives.

When all men lift the horn of plenty
in one happy equality,
when all men have an equal station
at the table of justice, and, see
the spiritual light break shining
through the windows of every house
then we can say, no more wandering,
Canaan is here, let us rejoice!”

(Translated by Edwin Morgan)

HLO: Can we separate the cult surrounding the man from his writing, and if so, what best reveals his genius?

 Not really. But perhaps such separation is not necessary.

GG: Yes, I think I can read him in the context of his age and appreciate how quickly he absorbed foreign influences, e.g. the poetry of Thomas Moore rather than Lord Byron.

KSz: I do not think one can or should separate the person from their work. Several theoretical schools from positivist literary criticism to new historicism have pointed out how any literary text is embedded in the cultural and social context of its own production, how intensely the two interact with each other, and what a significant role the canonization process plays in the interpretation of any oeuvre.

Besides, Petőfi himself made a good use of his own public image, often reflecting on it in his poems like “One Thought” (translated by George Szirtes).

Personally, I would not try to exclude a poet’s biographical facts or the reception of his work from my interpretation of their texts. It just proves Petőfi’s genius for me that he addressed essential themes with such poetic vigour that he has managed to remain interesting through the centuries.

HLO: Although the name Sándor Petőfi is known in many places beyond Hungary, why do you think his actual works are less known abroad? Why might English translations be hard to come by?

 I think his poetry is interesting for its context (the time, the political situation etc.), as well as for its use of the Hungarian language. These, unfortunately, seem either trivial to a foreign reader (because all Western nations have similar poets), or naturally remain unseen and unappreciated in a translation.

GG: Some of his poems strike the English reader as a Hungarian answer to Robert Burns, others as vaguely post-Byronesque. Petőfi – while becoming popular thanks to his “folksy” poems – was isolated even within his homeland’s literary elite due to his very advanced revolutionary ideas. Had he visited Paris, his poetry could have gained yet another dimension, as it did in the case of Adam Mickiewicz or Heinrich Heine. It is a pity that he could visit only parts of historical Hungary during his rather short life.

KSz: Petőfi is very much the child of his own age. In the 19th century, he was immensely popular, widely read and translated outside Hungary as well. The young Friedrich Nietzsche put some of Petőfi’s poems to music, and a biographic novel about the young Hungarian revolutionary written by the German author Arnold Krieger was published in 1942.

However, much of Petőfi’s work is deeply rooted in the nationalist ideology, which maintains its value in the local literary history as a formative part of the Hungarian literary corpus but nowadays might feel rightly outdated for non-Hungarian readers aware of the two world wars and other spectacular catastrophes caused by nationalist policies.

HLO: Is there a topic in today’s world to which Hungarian publishers or literary agencies could link Petőfi’s works? What aspect of his writing or his history do you think could bring him to the attention of foreign publishers' or readers?

 I do not think so. Petőfi is not a potential export success.

GG: I do not think that János vitéz could ever resonate with a foreign adult audience. Maybe as a cartoon it could work.

KSz: In the past few decades I see a tendency to erase the boundaries between high and pop culture. Petőfi was among the first to achieve precisely that. He started his career as an extremely talented boy without extensive education or high social status, still he succeeded in writing poems that have been admired both by professionals with a refined taste and ordinary people. Besides, his life shows an impressive unity of speech and action: he not only wrote about but also willingly died for the cause he believed in.

HLO: Which Petőfi poem or other work would you recommend be translated or re-translated, and why?

 Don’t get me wrong: translating good poetry is a beautiful and edifying exercise, but attempting to circulate this to a wider international public could easily backfire, giving an impression of secondariness. Like the minaret in the Hungarian town of Eger: a fine structure, but completely average, unless you know how it got there, that it is the northernmost standing minaret in Europe, that there is a famous novel by Gárdonyi, etc. etc.

GG: So far the only good translations of Sándor Petőfi that I have read were by the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan. But I am looking forward to a good new translation of his epic “The Apostle”, perhaps his most neglected work.

KSz: “Warriors in Rags” succinctly phrases Petőfi’s ideas about politically committed literature. It reminds me a bit of Amanda Gorman’s views about how poetry is to be used to serve worthy social causes.

My inclination is somewhat different from theirs, but I tend to concur with Petőfi’s suggestion that the individual text gains its value only on the communal level and that personal fame is secondary to the useful intellectual contribution to the – regional, national, or global – community’s development.

I do not ask whether my poems,
After I’ve fallen, will still fly.
If there is need for them to fall too
On this battlefield, let them die.
For the book, in which they are resting,
Will be held sacred, and that’s right,
As it’s the graveyard of heroes, who,
Of their own will, for freedom, died.

(Katalin Szlukovényi’s translation)

Source: HLO

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