There is a movement out there, a starry-eyed wordsmith’s movement. I read about it on Tammy’s blog just a day or two ago.
All it requires is that you find a poem: you copy it out; and you put it in your pocket, to share.
Would you know where to start? To find that one poem which has captured your spirit, which says it for you the way no other can? I wasn’t sure.
And then, a poet found me.
I was so tired yesterday I actually googled ‘tired’, And found his poem, ‘The Tired Man’.
Attila Jozef: a Hungarian poet whose words are East European; sparse; utilitarian; and utterly startling.
This extraordinary man, who lived only a short spell between 1905 and 1939, did not write himself an autobiography or even an obituary.No: he left us, alongside his poetry, a letter to prospective employers.
The year he died – tragically and far too young – he wrote a curriculum vitae.
It reads like a story. A hard, uncompromising tale.
He was born in Budapest with a gloriously proletarian background. His father was a worker in a soap factory who left his son at the age of three, his mother a Hungarian peasant girl. His country was troubled: by economic hardship, strikes and later a brief flirtation with communist government.
“I helped my mother as best I could,” he writes. “I sold fresh water in the cinema, I stole firewood and coal from the Ferencvros goods station so that we should have something to burn. I made coloured paper windmills and sold them to children who were better off, I carried baskets and parcels in the Market Hall, and so on.”
He was a member of the masses. His family was excruciatingly poor, and his mother died of cancer; and so the children were fostered through the National Child Protection League.
His foster father ignored Attila’s name. He said it wasn’t a name. He renamed the young boy ‘Pista.” This astounded me,” Jozef tells his prospective employer in this strangest of curriculum vitae, “I felt they were casting doubt on my very existence.”
Not a name, a number. A tiny grain of sand amongst the People.
He dreamt of becoming a secondary school teacher and was helped by a relative- and second jobs- to study at a good secondary school. He got to university. But his training as a teacher was cut short. No one who wrote those poems, said Professor Antal Horger of Szeged University, should be in charge of the education of the impressionable young. Jozef had already been prosecuted for blasphemy in court, and acquitted.
Jozef continued to write, and to support himself financially with his poetry. His life seemed a haphazard series of ways to make a living and short-lived spells at various universities.He became dogged by depression, and attempted suicide became almost a habit.
Finally, shortly after he wrote his idiosyncratic, tempestuous CV in 1937 he took himself to a railway track and was run over by a great locomotive on its way to somewhere. The inquest concluded it was Jozef’s own decision to end his life.
His life was ended. But those words: their life had only just begun.
I love Jozef because he is as far away from sentiment as Siberia is from Paris. His words are integrity itself. They speak of life without the frills, in all its raw colour, utilitarian. For a man born in 1905, they are 21st-century clear.
The iron horse which took his life had significance for him: the lit windows a metaphor for the good moments in life:
“I live by the railway line. Many trains
go past here and, time and again,
I watch the lighted windows fly
through the fluttering fluff-darkness.
So through eternal night
rush illuminated days
and I stand in each cubicle of light,
I lean upon my elbows and am silent.”*
Each poem he writes is a window on something, offering up a thumbnail sketch in stark modernist clarity. He even offers one on his own mental illness, so clear it pierces my heart:
“My eyes jump in and out, I’m mad again.
When I’m like this, don’t hurt me. Hold me tight.
When all I am goes crosseyed in my brain,
don’t show your fist to me: my broken sight
would never recognize it anyway.
Don’t jerk me, sweet, off the void edge of the night.”*
And so there will be a poem in my pocket, after all. I didn’t find it: it found me.
A Tired Man
Solemn peasants in the fields
straggle homeward without a word.
Side by side we lie, the river and I,
fresh grasses slumber under my heart.
A deep calm is rolling in the river.
My heavy cares are now as light as dew.
I’m not man, or child, “Hungarian” or “brother” –
lying here is just a tired man, like you.
Evening ladles out the quiet,
I’m a warm slice from its loaf of bread.
In the peaceful sky the stars come out
to sit on the river and shine on my head
Picture source here