Dr Fulminare Noctule Bat



János Pilinszky
Worple Press, Ł6.95

Click here to buy

reviewed by the Judge

Small pill of a great poet

Here are two sentences that you’d never expect to find together in a review: 1) This book is a great success. 2) I closed the book having the impression that I learned very little about the poet.

In the case of János Pilinszky’s Passio, translated from the Hungarian by Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri, both statements hold true. János Pilinszky (1921-81) is a European poet of the kind that casts a big shadow – his World War II experiences are touching and well rendered in his poetry, and previous English translators include a pretty intimidating competitor in Ted Hughes.

I believe that the choice to keep the selection so short was intentional and premeditated

Assessing Pilinszky’s verse from this booklet is as difficult as getting his name spelt right on the first go. At a mere twenty pages, Passio is short even by the standards of a pamphlet, and the editors’ choice to make a selection drawn from the entirety of the poet’s work means that the individual poems – while undeniably of a very high standard – are also inorganically bound. Imagine taking WH Auden’s great breadth of work and selecting twenty poems from it. What kind of portrait would emerge? Likewise with Pilinszky, the poems seem to have been selected above all else for their lyrical power, and the inevitable result is that the translation seems erratic – some of the poems come across as a bit clunky (‘The Just Past’), while others are truly memorable (‘Introitus’). Unlike Ted Hughes, Wilmer and Gömöri have worked hard in keeping the formal identity of their original poems, carrying over rhymes and metre wherever possible.

The above description may come across as negative criticism. If you can’t tell what the poet was really saying, then what is the translation but a failure? And yet the pamphlet remains, in my eyes, a remarkable success, and this comes down to my understanding of how poetry in translation (which is a subculture in its own right) works. Common sense might suggest that, when faced with a great poet such as Pilinszky, one should do him justice by translating a full volume of selected poems. While such a book would have been more useful to a student writing a thesis, most readers would only be scared off, not drawn in. And I’m still thinking within the realm of poetry readers, not in terms of some wide, platonic consumer-base that a literary agent may be interested in. Besides, given that no translation can ever hope to fully represent a poet’s forma mentis in the first place, the best way to approach foreign poetry as an editor is to provide an introduction, not a full index. I think this is a much more realistic and beneficial ambition.

I believe that the editors of Passio were aware of this, and that their choice to keep the selection so short was intentional and premeditated. The result is a very enjoyable little book that provides an interesting first step into the work of a major – but not very famous – European poet of the past century. The poems are of enormous historical interest and their lyrical power is considerable. It is true that there is not enough material here to properly evaluate Pilinszky’s, but most people who work in this field know that a reader whose attention has been captured is more likely to investigate further by going deeper into the source language, not deeper into translations. Unless we’re dealing with poets from dead or very foreign languages, and given the immensely broad scenario of world poetry (or even just European poetry), it’s better to have many short works that give a general sense of their poets’ historical situation and his / her style, rather than one great tome collecting all the work of whichever maestro got selected from the pool. This is a generalised argument, of course, one which doesn’t always hold true and which shouldn’t be seen as an indictment against more ambitious works in translation (notably those of the classics – The Divine Comedy, The Flowers of Evil, Faust, etc.). But at least in this case, it works very well, and Passio gets a double thumbs up from Dr Fulminare.

The only thing that doesn’t get a thumbs up about this pamphlet is the price. I’m sorry to sound venal as I've had problems with the price of very short pamphlets in the past, but this case is no different. If brevity – almost radical brevity – is a deliberate policy, then the price should reflect that, and at seven pounds for twenty poems, I really don’t think it does. I reckon the editors could comfortably have doubled the number of poems in the pamphlet or found a way to reduce the price without compromising their reader-friendly approach. And I understand that poetry publishing is a costly, complicated enterprise in which you often lose more money than you make, but if these short translations are to have any influence at all on the poetic scene, they must be very accessible – not only in terms of how much time we can invest on them, but also for how many we are able to buy.