03. 31. 2011. 10:59

György Rába (1924–2011)

"I feel objects challenge me, and this challenge has become more direct during the years. Objects speak to me more directly, whether they are trees, plants, animals or people in natural surroundings." - Poet, translator and literary historian György Rába, one of the most eminent figures of 20th-century Hungarian literature, died on 29 January 2011.

György Rába was the last living poet to have published in the legendary literary periodical Nyugat. His poem appeared in the very last issue of the periodical, whose editor, Mihály Babits, had become a lifelong parable for him, both as an objective poet and man of letters and as homo moralis. Rába himself was one of the founders of Újhold (New Moon), a short-lived and ultimately banned literary periodical edited by a group of young poets with common existential aspirations and formal (modernist) ideals. Rába wrote a critical biography of Babits, and published a collection of essays on the principles of translation adopted by the Nyugat’s chief poets, Babits, Kosztolányi and Árpád Tóth (A szép hűtlenek [The Beautiful Unfaithful, 1969]). He published several collections of essays and studies, and translated a large number of French and Italian poems into Hungarian.

Rába’s poems written during and after World War II are concerned with the issue of existence, of moral stance and instincts, and the experience of war. After his early volumes, Az Úr vadászata [The Lord’s Hunt, 1943] and Búvár [Diver, 1947], he was unable to publish for a considerably long time even by the Hungarian standards of the 1950s, as Nyílttenger [Open Sea] appeared only 14 years later, in 1961. “By then,” as he told fellow poet László Lator in an interview, “writing again was like relearning how to walk.” His next book, Férfihangra [For a Male Voice, 1969], marks a new phase of modernist expression with more complex poems full of omissions and sudden jumps of the imagination (he calls this “dissociation technique”). Nature at this time becomes more central to his poetry. Rába always emphasized the dramatic element in poetry, as the title of his next volume proves: Lobbanások [Flareups, 1973] (followed by Rovások [Runes, 1980] and Próbaidő [Probation Time, new and selected poems, 1982]). From the 80s, after retiring from his post as a literary scholar of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and perhaps becoming more of a private person, Rába’s creative urge revived (A valóság vendége [The Guest of Reality, 1987], Kézrátétel [Healing by Hand, 1992], Kopogtatás a szemhatáron [Knocking on the Horizon, 1993], Közbeszólás [Interjection, 1994], Ráismerések [Recognitions, 1996]). Now it was the quotidian aspect of life that interested him most, while the last fifteen or so years brought along another change, this time making the poetic voice more conversational and milder, as well as richer in humour (A vonakodó Cethal [The Reluctant Whale, 1998], A jelenlét furfangjai [Tricks of Presence, new poems 1997 – 2000; 2001], Sárkányeregetés [Kite Flying, 2003], Földlakó [Earth-dweller, 2003–2006; 2006], Disputa önmagammal [Dispute With Myself, 2010]).

In the interview with László Lator, György Rába mentions two recognitions he had made in connection with his own poetry. “One is that whatever I see, sense or experience, soon grows into a symbol. … The other is that Hungarian words are porous; they have several meanings, and open up windows. … I feel objects challenge me, and this challenge has become more direct during the years. Objects speak to me more directly, whether they are trees, plants, animals or people in natural surroundings. … The kind of didactic poem-making, one that will explain, elaborate and, indeed, give a lecture about what the object of the poem is, is foreign to my temperament, character or conviction. The reason why this attitude is foreign to me is that I firmly believe that it hides the deeper layers of the poetic personality the poem is meant to bring to the surface, the reason why the poem has to be borne. Otherwise we can write editorials, stories, studies, where, should I write one of those, I try to elaborate and explain everything as clearly and as well as I can. Poetry has a different endeavor. If this didactic, explanatory epidermis is absent from the poem, and the pre-logical connections can emerge, as our unforgettable friend, György Rónay used to say, then the whole process becomes inevitably more dramatic.”


“One might just as well start from here,” I heard him saying about some experience or sudden observation. Curiosity, passion and the need to reflect are present all through his poetry, where experience is both individual and universal, but always told in his distinctively dry, intelligent voice, through surprising turns of syntax and ways of seeing things. György Rába was a sort of explorer, always eager to discover and to map the secret of the other person. The metaphors of “continent”, “journey” or “secret” turn up in every phase of his poetry, all through his creative life, through all the fields of experience and imagination. The person of the traveller, “the self” is similarly the object of observation. It is only the field that changes and gets narrower, which he observes and expresses with increasingly evident irony, as in his old man’s poem about the body, suggesting self-mockery already in the title: “This Side of My Knees” (“Térdeimen innen”).

I feel closest to the poems he wrote in the last two decades, when his voice became more relaxed and somehow wiser, when as “an earth-dweller” he identified with other living beings (“I have turned into a gull fluttering about rows of buildings, and nobody has noticed,” he writes in his poem “Észrevétlen” [Unnoticed], in 1987.)

Even György Rába’s last poems are those of a traveller who registers in his logbook despair, dizziness and physical uncertainty, an old man’s erratic movements along his mutinous flat threatening him with disaster, “I’m afraid of chairs and table falling on me, and what is an even greater shame, the books” (“A föllázadt bútorok” [The Mutinous Furniture]). Even these lines are full of the human dignity that physical conditions otherwise deprived their author of.


György Rába
The Reluctant Whale

I’ve eaten plenty through the centuries
and now I fancy more adventurous
and sweeter tidbits than your smelly thin
bones and your bitter driftwood-tainted skin

three days and three nights squatting in my guts
twenty-four hours would surely drive me nuts
you’d bruise my bowel vex my gastric flu
and let your manic manifesto spew

forth you unbending furious believer
you are a city in hormonal fever
yourself where but a whisper need be passed
and lo the populace begins to fast

but market noises roar below your chest
with dancing women wriggling hip and breast
science is scorned by witches of both genders
and chastity by clumsy ribbon vendors

and though the king wears sack-cloth in atonement
you stop your sermonizing for a moment
to join the fair’s orgasmic pilgrimage
and drool over a peepsho’s fake image

and then you roar for justice on the stage
obsessed ham actor putting up a rage
just seeing festive tables cheerful beds
you call fire and brimstone on their heads

you will remain a prophet till you die
why shall I give you lodgings tell me why
with mortals one should never fraternise
who couldn’t make it into Paradise

Translated by Peter Zollman

Photo by Aranka Kemény

Mónika Mesterházi

Tags: György Rába