To Budapest and back

Share this article

IN THE QUINTESSENTIALLY ENGlish landscape of Norfolk, in an olde English house with beams low enough to hit your head on, George Szirtes talks about the conundrum of not quite being English.

Not that Szirtes, who came to this country from Hungary with his parents after 1956's failed uprising, is Hungarian either. Not quite. He's in a place between the two. He's more comfortable speaking English than Hungarian, but he speaks it with a throaty Central European accent, weighing each word carefully as if testing its rightness.

Szirtes, 58, who won the TS Eliot Prize in 2005, is a key participant at this month's StAnza Poetry Festival at St Andrews. "Homelands and exile" will be a key theme at the festival, touching on issues to which Szirtes finds himself returning, both in his life and in his poetry.

Although raised English and steeped in the English poetic tradition, his return to Budapest for the first time in 1984 transformed both his life and his writing. He began to write poetry shaped by a powerful sense of place, darkened by the long shadows of history which still fall across the city.

"I've always felt that my work is like a Budapest tenement on the edge of a British town," he says. "It doesn't quite belong there, it's a bit off the beaten track, but it's big enough, there are a lot of people living in it, and it's definitely in this country! I have to make my accommodations with it."

Arriving in London as an eight-year-old, Szirtes adapted fast. Knowing no English before he came - "we knew the words 'and', 'but' and 'so' from AA Milne's Now We Are Six , we had a bilingual copy" - he quickly became fluent. But it wasn't as simple as that. "I think what followed the immediate and extraordinarily quick adaptation, were years of post-adaptation, which were lost years for me, years of mental and psychological drifting. There's a linguistic side to this too. I think it both confirms your sense of language as a fascinating construct, but also slightly undermines it."

It was tougher still for his parents. His mother, who had worked as a photojournalist in Budapest, and was held in concentration camps during the war, eventually took her own life, in 1975.

"At the beginning, people are prepared to find changes, they're steeled to it. But culturally and psychologically there was a slowly creeping desolation that crept up on her. It's not like the grand melancholy of exile, it's just something slow that nibbles away."

It was his mother's death which first prompted him to consider his family's past: she was Jewish but kept it a secret, even from her family. Her relatives had all been killed in the war.

Szirtes's father escaped from a labour camp; his paternal grandfather died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. But it wasn't until 1984 that he decided to go back to Hungary. "I just had this nagging feeling that there was a part of my whole experience that I couldn't get to without going back. It wasn't anything so direct as a search for roots, but I felt that if I wanted to understand what made me me, that was the thing without which I could go no further."

The visit had an impact he could never have anticipated. "It changed everything, it changed the way I wrote, it changed my life. I think very early on in our development we form a notion of reality: what is a street, what is a house, what is a city, and these very early maps are laid down in our minds. When I went back to Budapest for the first time I could feel the old map rising through the new map. It was disorientating, almost hallucinatory."

Suddenly, almost overnight, he was able to access a deeper level of experience. The tenement now had a basement. "It was like dropping a floor. I suddenly realised there were floors below the floors. It was an entry, partly through personal history, into a bigger sense of history.

"I think what I miss in some very good British poetry is the sense of that cellar as a human place where it is perfectly possible to live, where people have lived, where the living and the dead move among each other. I don't know whether my work is there, I would love it to be there, that's a desire."

Rather than attempting to understand, on a personal level, what happened to his own family, he strives to say something true about the nature of the world, the individual standing against the broad framework of history. "Truth" and "lies" are concepts he comes back to again and again.

"There's nothing special about our story, that's the point. If it was special, it would mean that the world was otherwise. What happened to my family gives me no right for any special pleading, but I cannot help being aware of it, not because it teaches any lessons as such, it's just more of what goes on in the cellar, or in the other rooms of the tenement".

He refuses any grand notion of "exile", preferring "emigration". "I try to avoid the grand because it always seems like a lie to me. I think 'exile' is a big romantic term, it makes you think of people standing on the edge of cliffs looking longingly towards a distant land.

"For me, it's not the great sense of longing for homeland in the sense that there's this great place that I'm not allowed to go. I am allowed to go, I don't think it's a very great place. It's a fascinating place, but it isn't a better place."

That notion of separating a truth from a lie is at the core of what made Szirtes become a poet. He can pinpoint the moment he made the decision, reading a bad poem written by a contemporary while studying for his A-levels. "I thought it was exaggerated, over-stated, melodramatic. I just thought then that there must be some true thing you can say in this way, and that's what I want to do."

From then on, he started reading and writing poetry instead of doing his homework, thwarting his parents' ambitions for their son to become a doctor.

Too late to take up English, he took up art, studied Fine Art and became an art teacher - and grew used to writing in short bursts.

"The first real poet I met, Martin Bell, who taught English for many years, said poetry should be a secret and subversive pleasure. That rang a bell because I was writing poems when I should have been doing my physics homework. I've always found that I write best under pressure. Sometimes, when I was teaching, I'd begin a poem at break. There's something about limits that is incredibly productive."

After his return to Budapest, Szirtes put painting aside to be a writer and translator, but the visual - painting, photography and film - remain important subjects in his work. He now teaches part-time at Norwich School of Art and Design, while adding to an oeuvre that includes journalism, criticism, libretti, radio plays and 14 volumes of poetry.

"People say I'm disgustingly productive - that's a Hungarian thing," he says. "If you look at the lifeworks of Hungarians they tend to be in volumes."

But what is keeping him awake at nights is the thought of giving the StAnza Lecture, on 15 March, following in the footsteps of publishers Neil Astley (2005) and Michael Schmidt (2006), who between them laid bare a rift at the heart of poetry in this country. Mild-mannered Szirtes is not on the warpath. "I'm not interested in going there with fists flailing," he says. "If you want to get to the truth, which most poets do, it's rarely composed of slogans."

He is interested in a third way, a notion of poetry which is "approachable without being populist", and a readership sufficiently grown-up to enjoy it. "I'm interested in the idea that language is somehow inadequate, so poetry is a kind of dance on the thin ice of language. My question is: who is on this ice? My thesis would be that practically everyone who is alive is aware of walking on this ice.

"Poetry is very much at the heart of human experience."

• StAnza 2007 will take place in St Andrews, Wednesday to Sunday, 14-18 March. George Szirtes will give the StAnza Lecture, Possessing the Line, at the Parliament Hall on Thursday, 15 March at 3:30pm, and will read from his work at the Byre Theatre, Friday at 8pm. Tickets from www.stanzapoetry.org

StAnza 2007 - Homelands & Exile

The tenth - and biggest to date - StAnza Poetry Festival draws together writers from a wide diversity of backgrounds, but you don't need to have travelled a long way to engage meaningfully with one of this year's main themes - Homelands and Exile.

George Szirtes will join Welsh poet laureate Gwyneth Lewis and Jackie Kay (right), the award-winning poet and novelist, who has a Nigerian father but was raised by Scottish adoptive parents, in a panel discussion on this subject in the Town Hall on Friday (16 March, 10am).

Over the five days of the festival others will add to the discussion through their poetry, including Tehran-born poet and actress Mimi Khalvati; Jack Mapanje, imprisoned in his native Malawi for his writing; Imtiaz Dharker, who was born in Pakistan and settled in Glasgow; and Jen Hadfield, who is half-Canadian and lives in Shetland.

Guests for the Poets in Translation sessions come from Italy, Slovakia and Russia.

Leading American poets Mark Strand and Jorie Graham will appear at the festival, as will wandering wordsmith, Alastair Reid, born in Wigtown, educated in St Andrews, whose job as a correspondent for the New Yorker took him all over the world.

• For information and tickets see www.stanzapoetry.org or tel: 05600 433847.