János Pilinszky - A landscape like the bed of a wrinkled pit, with glowing scars, a darkness which dazzles. Dusk thickens. I stand numb with brightness blinded by the sun. This summer will not leave me

János Pilinszky, The Desert of Love: Selected Poems, Trans. by Ted Hughes and János Csokits, Anvil Press Poetry; Revised & enlarged ed., 1989.

János Pilinszky (1921-1981) was a unique and compelling voice among the generation of European poets whose work bore first-hand witness to the horrors of war. The distinction of his poetry, as Ted Hughes argues, is both spiritual and artistic: `the desolation of [his] vision is equalled by its radiance'. The depth and power of Pilinszky's poetry are forcefully recreated in these memorable versions by János Csokits and Ted Hughes.
`The Desert of Love' is a revised edition of their earlier selection of his magnetic, intense and haunting poems. The added memoir by Pilinszky's close friend and associate Ágnes Nemes Nagy gives a major living Hungarian poet's view of his achievement.

The Desert of Love

A bridge, and a hot concrete road -
the day is emptying its pockets,
laying out, one by one, all its possessions.
You are quite alone in the catatonic twilight.

A landscape like the bed of a wrinkled pit,
with glowing scars, a darkness which dazzles.
Dusk thickens. I stand numb with brightness
blinded by the sun. This summer will not leave me.

Summer. And the flashing heat.
The chickens stand, like burning cherubs,
in the boarded-up, splintered cages.
I know their wings do not even tremble.

Do you still remember? First there was the wind.
And then the earth. Then the cage.
Flames, dung. And now and again
a few wing-flutters, a few empty reflexes.

And thirst. I asked for water.
Even today I hear that feverish gulping,
and helplessly, like a stone, bear
and quench the mirages.

Years are passing. And years. And hope
is like a tin-cup toppled into the straw.

The silence of the heavens will be set apart
and forever apart
the broken-down fields of the finished world,
and apart
the silence of dog-kennels.
In the air a fleeing host of birds.
And we shall see the rising sun
dumb as a demented eye-pupil
and calm as a watching beast.

The French Prisoner                                                      

Harbach 1944                                                        

On the Wall of a KZ Lager                                                        

Van Gogh's Prayer

One of the greatest Hungarian poets of the 20th Century was the Catholic, János Pilinszky. Fortunately for us, some of his poems have been translated by Ted Hughes and János Csokits and published in a collection entitled The Desert of Love.
Pilinszky's life and work was largely shaped by his experiences at the end of World War II when, having been drafted into the Hungarian army, he experienced some of the horrors of the Nazi death camps. His early poetry, in particular, draws upon those shattering experiences and so it is perhaps no surprise that the silence of God is often more apparent in them than faith, hope or love. Nonetheless, Pilinszky was never a nihilist, as even terribly bleak poems like 'Fish in the Net' reveal
A fair amount of Pilinszky's poetry is available on the web, including the haunting 'Fable' which is worth revealing line by line to maximise its potential to shock, 'The French Prisoner', which is available in at least two different translations, and 'Introitus'. However, there are also other poems, such as 'The Passion', 'Enough', and 'Exhortation' which are less readily available but which are well worth seeking out.
The Desert of Love has an excellent and highly sympathetic introduction by Ted Hughes. The only major omission is any direct reference to the horrendous political situation in Hungary during the late '40s and '50s. And yet poems like 'Introitus' can really only be understood in their political context. This is where books like George Paloczi-Horvath's The Undefeated come into their own. Paloczi-Horvath gives an extremely well-written and powerful account of those terrible years and helps us to understand why Pilinszky fell silent for so long after the success of his first collection.
Introducing Hungarian poetry into the classroom might seem a tall order but, as John Clegg of Durham University has shown, Pilinszky's poems are not only valuable in their own right but can also shed light on Ted Hughes's work. Pilinszky's poetry could also be studied alongside that of his fellow Central European and classroom favourite, Miroslav Holub, but essentially his poetry needs no excuse. It is powerful stuff and deserves to be more widely known.

János Pilinszky (1921 – 1981) served with the Hungarian army in WWII. Harmadnapon (On the Third Day, 1959) established him as a courageous witness to the horrors of mid-twentieth century Europe. Two selections of his work have appeared in English: Selected Poems, translated by Ted Hughes and János Csokits (Carcanet, 1976) — which was later expanded into The Desert of Love (Anvil, 1989)— and Crater, translated by Peter Jay (Anvil, 1978).

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