Translated by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth & Frederick Turner
Attila József is Hungary’s greatest modern poet. His extraordinary poetry is exhilarating in its power, transcending the scars of a difficult life. Born into poverty in 1905, deserted by his father and put out to fostering, József had a brutalised childhood, and tried to poison himself at the age of nine. Mostly self-educated, he was prosecuted at 18 for blasphemy in a poem, and expelled from university a year later for With a Pure Heart, a now celebrated poem which spoke for a whole generation.
He is a genuine revolutionary poet, neither simple-minded nor difficult, though his thought and imagery are complex. A deeply divided man, his poetry has a robust physicality as well as a jaunty and heroic intelligence – Marxist in its dedication but fuelled in its audacity by both Freud and Surrealism. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, he underwent psychoanalysis, and yet continued to write magnificent poetry which – although darker – drew upon highly exacting and intricate structures and metres, and upon an eclectic but balanced framework of ideas.
By 1937 he was almost destitute, financially and emotionally, and in deteriorating mental health. But he was still writing some of his most compelling work, compulsive guilt-ridden poetry whose glittering lyricism is at once personal and mythic, even while receiving shock treatments and heavy medication in a sanatorium. Finally, at the age of 32, he clambered onto a railway track, and a train broke his neck and cut off his right arm.
‘Every part of his nature seems to cooperate in each poem. But the truly arresting thing is the last-ditch urgency under which this cooperation happens. It is both genuinely desperate and irresistibly appealing…Bleak options, eternal perspectives, cleanly confronted. But though the great thing, the infinite thing, is the insatiable, unconsolable howl of his exposure to what had happened and continued to happen, it is weirdly counterpointed by a strange elation, a savage sort of elation or even joy’ – Ted Hughes.