09. 23. 2011. 12:21

Poem of the month - Lajos Kassák: The Horse Dies the Birds Fly Away

It was in the early 1970s that I first encountered this great 500-line poem. I was struck instantly by its title, but then by the starkness and strong rhythm of the lines. - Tim Wilkinson's choice.

Like many English people I was first introduced to modern Hungarian poetry in English translation by a paperback. Sándor Weöres and Ferenc Juhász: Collected Poems was put out in 1970 as one of the early volumes in a paperback series entitled Penguin Modern European Poets (I think maybe just after I had moved to Budapest), the masterly Weöres translations being by Edwin Morgan. Much though they impressed me, it was about 12-18 months later that I first encountered that great 500-line poem published by Lajos Kassák (1887-1967) written in 1922 with the title "A ló meghal, a madarak kirepülnek". By then I could speak Hungarian myself and did indeed read it in its original language (first of two big volumes of Collected Poems, published by Magvető in 1970 for 100 forints—less than half a euro!). I was struck instantly by its title, but then by the starkness and strong rhythm of the lines, some amounting to no more than a single word. At the time I had to translate the title as part of an essay about shamanism that I had undertaken for Acta Ethnologica, and was entirely surprised to discover years later that Edwin Morgan had gone on to translate this as "The Horse Dies the Birds Fly Away". My own version had "The birds fly UP" but then there is no way one can catch the polyrhythms in English and to this day the title somehow say it all, despite punching out line after delirious line until reaching its terminus:

S fejünk fölött elröpül a nikkel szamovár.

I don't doubt Morgan did it great credit, and I would be slightly curious as to how he finished it up (personally I would write something like "I'm LAJOS KASSÁK, by God! / And over our heads whistles a nickel samovar"), but I wonder if the deep retrospective (post-1945 let alone post-1956) irony fully struck the translator (I suppose this was when the USSR still existed in all its ghastly reality). An object lesson in how good poetry is essentially untranslatable.

The poem can be read in its entirety in the Summer 2007 issue of The Hungarian Quarterly, in Edwin Morgan's translation. An excerpt is available online. The last lines are rendered as follows:

certainly the poet can either construct something that pleases him
or he's at liberty to collect cigar-stubs
birds have devoured the voice
yet the trees went on singing
this is already a sign of old age
but it means nothing
and our heads twist up for the flight of the nickel samovar.

Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Lajos Kassák