Nationality: British. Born: Budapest, Hungary, 29 November 1948; immigrated to England in 1956. Education: Kingsbury County Grammar School, 1960–68; Harrow School of Art, 1968–69; Leeds College of Art, 1969–72, B.A. in fine art 1972; Goldsmiths' College, London, 1972–73, A.T.C. 1973. Family: Married Clarissa Upchurch in 1970; one son and one daughter. Career: Part-time teacher in colleges and schools, 1973–75; head of art, Hitchin Girls School, Hertfordshire, 1975–81; head of art, 1981–87, and since 1987 part-time staff member, St. Christopher School, Letchworth, Hertfordshire. Proprietor, Starwheel Press, Hitchin. Since 1987 freelance writer and translator. Senior lecturer in poetry, Norfolk Institute of Art and Design, 1991. Awards: Faber memorial prize, 1980; Arts Council grant, 1984; Cholmondeley award, 1987. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1982; Déry prize for translation, 1991; Gold Star of the Hungarian Republic for translation, 1991. Address: 16 Damgate Street, Wymondham, Norfolk NR18 OBQ, England.
Poems. Leeds, Perkin, 1972.
The Iron Clouds. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Dodman Press, 1975.
Visitors. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1976.
A Mandeville Troika, with Neil Powell and Peter Scupham. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1977.
An Illustrated Alphabet. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Mandeville Press, 1978.
At the Sink. London, Keepsake Press, 1978.
Silver Age. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Dodman Press, 1978.
The Slant Door. London, Secker and Warburg, 1979.
Sermon on a Ship. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Dodman Press, 1980.
Homage to Cheval. Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Priapus, 1981.
November and May. London, Secker and Warburg, 1981.
The Kissing Place. Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Starwheel Press, 1982.
Short Wave. London, Secker and Warburg, 1984.
The Photographer in Winter. London, Secker and Warburg, 1986.
Metro. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988.
Bridge Passages. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991.
Blind Field. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Selected Poems, 1976–1996. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Portrait of My Father in an English Landscape. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.
The Red All Over Riddle Book (for children). London, Faber, 1997.
Editor, A Starwheel Portfolio, The Transparent Room, Strict Seasons, Spring Offensive, Cloud Station, States of Undress (verse and etching portfolios). Hitchin, Hertfordshire, Starwheel Press, 6 vols., 1978–84.
Editor, The Blood of the Walsungs: Selected Poems, by Ottó Orbán. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, Budapest, Corvina, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1993.
Editor, Collected Poems, by Freda Downie. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1995.
Editor and translator, New Life, by Zsuzsa Rakovsky. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Editor and translator, with George Gömöri, The Colonnade of Teeth: Modern Hungarian Poetry. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1996.
Translator, The Tragedy of Man, by Imre Madách. New York, Puski, 1988.
Translator, Through the Smoke, selected poems by István Vas. Budapest and London, Corvina, 1989.
Translator, Anna Édes, by Dezsö Kosztolányi. London, Quartet, 1991; New York, New Directions, 1993.
Translator, The Melancholy of Resistance, by László Krasznahorkai. London, Quartet, 1998.
Translator, The Adventures of Sindbad, by Gyula Krúdy. Budapest and New York, CEU Press, 1998.*
Critical Studies: Reviews by Peter Porter, in The Observer (London), 19 August 1979, 22 January 1984, 1 June 1986, and 9 August 1988; by Christopher Hope, in London Magazine, March 1980; by William Palmer, in Poetry Review (London), December 1981; by Carol Rumens, in Quarto (London), February 1982; by Ian Bamforth, in Edinburgh Review, spring 1982; by Tim Dooley, in Times Literary Supplement (London), 13 January 1984; by Michael Hulse, in Literary Review (London), January 1984; by Barbara Hardy, in Books and Bookmen (London), April 1986; by Anne Stevenson, in The Sunday Times (London), 14 September 1986; by John Lucas, in New Statesman (London), 26 August 1988; by Sean O'Brien, in Poetry Review (London), 1988; by Peter Forbes, in The Listener (London), 1 December 1988; by John Whitworth, in Poetry Review (London), 85(2), summer 1995.
George Szirtes comments:
In 1985 I wrote, "I think at whatever point the reader picks up my poetry he will find a conflict between two states of mind." These I called "the possibility of happiness" and "apprehension of disaster." The early poems in The Slant Door made repeated references to pictures, often paintings, as points of arrest between these states. Sometimes the setting would be domestic; other times exotic. The effect would often entail conflating the two. This seemed to define the territory I could best move in.
I think I thought of art—perhaps I still do—as the only way of organizing nebulous experience. Precisely because of that it is not to be trusted. November and May concentrates less on the finished object, more on the process of making. In one poem, "The Silver Tree," a group of girls in a winter classroom are making an artificial tree out of twigs and silver paper. The poem imagines the tree fatally embracing them and the girls hanging like fruit "until /Imaginary gods pass by and cut them down." In other poems faces turn into maps, mice nibble at paintings, a car turns into a piece of architecture by Gaudí, a piano gets up and prepares for breakfast.
The act of arrest is faintly erotic. The dead, starved, and aged retain all the sensuality of healthy youth. In my third book, Short Wave, there are variations on the notion of history as Eros. Household props, specific rooms, streets and squares become ways of preserving passionate fictions. The sofa on which my mother leaned when she was young and where "a young man like a strong wind hung /About her shoulders and her undone lips" has come unstuffed. It turns into bubbles, "delicate and blinding." In one short poem a "kitchen grows a beard of fragrance /curling with pomade and vinegar." The victim in a poem about Goya "is tossed in a blanket /By cheerful bosomy girls." He is soon shot and "blazes /like an indulgent omen." The title poem seeks some center to experience by turning the dial on the radio through a sequence of stations to locate "that Balkan baritone /who tells me what the world believes of me." History is a voluptuous white noise full of secret puns. In "Assassins" the Russians commemorate Burns night while celebrating "their history of combustions."
The shortwave frequencies lead back to my birthplace, Budapest. In The Photographer in Winter, written after my first return visit in 1984, the paintings of the first book give way, as the title suggests, to photographs. In the same way invention yields to dreamlike documentation. The title poem follows the photographer about her business. Pictures break up, turn into snow; the world disintegrates at our fingers' ends as we click the shutter. The camera shows now an X ray, now the self-conscious posing of a model. "The Courtyards" describes a block of Budapest flats during the 1956 uprising, and looks to locate a home in the eyes of a blind woman who carries the keys to the elevator. A series of poems about railway journeys notices multiple reflections in the window and follows "fantastic trains like twists of barley" into Chinese ice palaces, where everything is "frozen, formal /Furious and unattainable." In "The Swimmers" a church floor dissolves to reveal the dead writhing like eels and rising "hearing nothing— /No names, no objects, no singing, nothing but sea."
Metro continues the Hungarian theme using the metaphor of the underground train. A psychopomp figure leads one into the world of 1944, bearing a moldered cross "through tunnels tight as fingers in a glove." This history provides a particularly ghostly Eros for children to encounter in their sleep as they turn to the wall "through which /Symbols pass and cool their blood." An uncle disappears when the glove closes about him and drops him in a ditch: "The ditch becomes a pit, /the pit a symbol, the symbol a desire." Stalin's mustache grows enormous, like foliage on a wall, streets are "hard cores of pleasure," doorways are "ripe fruit, stay soft and open, exhaling a fragrance of drains or tobacco." The whole poem runs through 780 lines, as the train hesitates at the doors of Ravensbruck. Other poems in the book are related to and divided either side of it.
Bridge Passages, my third "Hungarian" book, is set mostly in 1989, when I spent eight months in Budapest. The poems in it are the closest I have got to reportage (which is not very close) in that they respond on a daily level to the rapid political changes of the time. The poems are, as usual, formal-informal, with tight stanzas and rhyming structures, the syntax running through the line breaks. In spring an early fly "scrambles up /fizzing furiously, leans /against the glass, revving up his motor, /then into gear and upwards." He "gropes /towards his notion of the good, /his personal heap, however much it stinks." In the new politics "the lost flesh settles down against the bone /with the lightness of a cushion." There are poems conflating the events in Tiananmen Square, Heroes Square Budapest, and Wajda's film "Ashes and Diamonds," poems in which rain types out the nonsense language of flies and human lovers. It is a restless mixture of a book, with a series of poems based on my early experiences of England (see particularly "A Picture of My Parents with Their First Television") and a number of translations from the Hungarian.
By this time I was spending much of my time translating. In fact, I had been including translated poems in my own collections since The Photographer in Winter. As I translated fiction, drama, verse, and essays, I was often disoriented by being billed as a Hungarian poet despite never having written a line in Hungarian. The disorientation was partly symbolic. After three books of pre-Hungary and three post-, I returned to the theme of photography for my most recent book of poems, Blind Field. The book balances two concerns: one aesthetic, the other, broadly speaking, humane. The photography-film poems are fantasies on the idea of truth, with references to Arbus and Raymond Chandler. The Gulf War, freak shows, Renaissance Florence, the early years of the century, the sheer voluptuousness of looking at any or all of these things are themes that move through the first section of the book. The last section refers to more immediate family histories: dining in an old restaurant, my father's great aunt and her habit of presenting him with small cakes on a doily. I suppose this reflects the peculiar melancholy of the central European quotidian. Between these two sections comes "Transylvania," a poem in terza rima about a visit to my mother's hometown, Cluj-Napoca. At its center is an ice-skating scene that may hold it together. The skaters are "lines of ink /impossible to read now. A fountain jets /snow. The bandstand is a skating rink /full of toy soldiers." Above the double time scale of summer now/winter then, "vague herds /of cloud, meander like soldiers on patrol /at a border station between two absurd /countries."
And this is where I am now, somewhere between two histories and two traditions. A few declarative sentences to end with: I admire the following twentieth-century poets in particular: Eliot, Auden, Ransom, Stevens, Roethke, MacNeice, Bishop, and Hecht. Before that Herbert, Marvell, Pope, Clare, and Browning. Wordsworth can sometimes move me to tears, but I am not alone in that. I have a ridiculous fondness for oddities like Crashaw, Diaper, and Beddoes and suspect Ransom may belong among these. The modern Hungarians Sándor Weöres and Ágnes Nemes Nagy seem to me great poets, but I have translated some other very good ones, including Vas, Orbán, and Rakovsky. Among my contemporaries I most admire Peter Porter, James Fenton, Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Mahon. They seem to me to display conspicuous courage, humanity, and grace, though I like many others almost as well. There are fashions in these things I try not to pay too much attention to. I do not, alas, expect to be worn on T-shirts. (Stanzas printed on the backs of central European railway tickets would be more my style.) I am doing a selected poems for publication in 1996. It will be interesting to see what shape the remnants make. In the meantime I shall endeavor to translate less.* * *
His early training as a student of the fine arts has helped shape George Szirtes's poetry in ways more subtle than are usually appreciated by literary assessors not used to drawing accurate parallels and distinctions between poetry and the visual arts. Szirtes is not conspicuously a visual poet, one who sees the surface of the world with a painter's eye and whose descriptions of it are therefore more detailed. Although his career as a poet has coincided with the rise to prominence of the so-called Martian school of poetry, he has not been attracted to this cartouche way of celebrating visual likeness. He has, indeed, a good eye, but it is the shape made by thought and the composed structure of language that he has stressed in his poems. A poem may be invented almost as if it were being planned on ruled paper, and it is one of Szirtes's strengths that his poetry recognizes that, since words are symbols, ideas are just as much true gifts to the poet as are scenes and objects.
Szirtes's Hungarian origins (he went to England in 1956, at the age of eight, with his parents) may have given him a wider range of sympathies. Among these is surrealism perhaps and a fondness for fables and folk legends, but a deeply rooted English tradition lies behind much of his work. While a student at Leeds, he came under the influence of Martin Bell, a poet of great erudition and a brilliant translator from the French. From Bell, and later from his own reading and involvement in English literature, Szirtes took a central path—the vision of the English mystics, including the Caroline poets, Christopher Smart, William Blake, and Samuel Palmer.
Much of Szirtes's verse is set indoors, in the lush wonderland of the domestic hearth, full of voices, furniture, bric-a-brac, and the remembrance of dreams. His book The Slant Door is lulled by a dreamy resonance that occasionally overpowers the syntax and structure of the verse. Its surrealist tone is never obtrusive, though it can be surprising, as in "The Bird Cage, 1851," in which a genre scene of a girl stooping to kiss and pout at a caged bird in a conservatory becomes an image of immanent menace:
The glass is vibrant with its rainbows; flowerpots
Perched sullenly on the rough sill glow brick-red.
The bird's small feet are sharp and her beak cuts
The pouted fruitage of the lady's head.
November and May and Short Wave show how strongly Szirtes's talent has developed. The poems in these volumes add a dramatic force to the richness of their language, and he is now the master of traditional forms and stanzas and of regular meters, as well as of freer tropes. He has a fine and corrosive wit and rather unexpectedly produces many excellent parodies and satires. Examples are "The Cosmo Guide to Culture," "Homage to the Postman Cheval," and "Slow Tango for Six Horses."
It is difficult to place Szirtes in the league of today's poets, as can be seen from his exclusion from such a taste-setting anthology as the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry. Serious readers, however, have reason to believe that Szirtes's talent is one of the strongest.