Miklos Radnoti: The Poetry of Witness and Prophesy

DICK  SHLAKMAN, Pony Express(ions) Staff Contributor

Introduction

During World War II, Hungary’s centuries long history of anti-Semitism, and its alliance with Nazi Germany, resulted in the deportation, primarily to Auschwitz, of nearly 440,000 Hungarian Jews. The deportation left “the Hungarian countryside . . . judenrein.” It is against this background, urges Zsuzsanna Ozvath, author of the definitive English language biography of Miklos Radnoti, that his works should be read.[i] In And Thus Perhaps I Will Reflect, Radnoti asked, “But tell me—did [my] work survive?” [ii]  The answer is, unqualifiedly, “yes.”

Radnoti was born to Jewish middle-class parents in Budapest in 1909. For most of his life he was haunted by feelings of guilt and remorse for the death of his mother, shortly after childbirth, and his stillborn twin brother, expressed frequently in his early poems and in his prose memoir, Under Gemini, published in 1940. Raised after his father’s death by an uncle, he attended university, then spent a number of years sometimes yielding to and other times resisting his uncle’s urging to devote himself to commerce. His first collection of poems, Pagan Salute, was published in 1930. He came into conflict with the increasingly powerful fascist regime of Miklós Horthy, which charged him with subversion and offending public taste after the publication of his second volume of poetry, Song of the New Shepherds in 1931.

Most of Radnoti’s early poems are affirmative and socially engaged or celebrate his love for Fanni Gyarmati, whom he married in 1935. Although Jewish by origin, he was Christian by choice and converted to Catholicism in 1943. His poetry does not reflect, regarding religion, either his origin or his choice. It does reflect his classical learning, his joy of life, and the tragedy of gradually losing that joy, and prophetically knowing that such was his inevitable fate. The major themes of his life’s work are a mythical identification with Cain, the murderer, arising from the trauma and self-inflicted guilt of his being a surviving twin, nature, love, politics, social criticism and finally, as witness to the horror,  the pain of forced labor and war.

As the power of Nazi Germany increased and the anti-Semitic regulations in Hungary became ever more restrictive, Radnoti’s writing turns increasingly, but not exclusively, dark and foreboding. Beginning with the collections Walk On, Condemned! in 1936 and Steep Road published two years later, his poetry turns into a prophetic vision of the impending cataclysm and of his intensifying certainty that he was not destined to survive the Holocaust [iii].  His predictions were unerringly accurate. From September to December 1940 he served in a forced labor camp in the Carpathian Mountains, mainly dismantling mines. After the publication in 1943 of his collection of translations into Hungarian of the great poetry of other nations, In the Footsteps of Orpheus, he was pressed into forced service a second time in a sugar factory, and in May 1944, in his third interment in a  labor camp he was taken to German-occupied Yugoslavia, together with 6,000 other conscripts, mainly to build a railroad line in support of the local copper mines.

When the area was threatened by advancing Russian army units, the inmates were force-marched on a grueling 14-day trek to western Hungary. Radnóti survived the first massacre of 500 Jews near the town of Cervenka and that of another 500 in Sivac, among them his friend, the violinist Miklós Lorsi, an event described in the last poem Radnóti would ever write, Postcard 4. Sometime between November 8th-10th, 1944, his premonitions of sharing Lorsi’s fate came true: sick and unable to walk, Radnóti and 21 equally weakened comrades were loaded onto ox carts, driven to a dam on the Rabca River, ordered off their carts, told to dig a ditch, and then shot and pushed into the shallow grave. A notebook of his final poems, written in the slave labor camp and while on the death march secured in the pocket of his overcoat was discovered when the buried bodies were exhumed two years later. All literature of merit of and about the Holocaust is disturbing, but these last poems are especially so: the stench of genocide is made redolent by examining the destruction of one man and his art.

The Poet As Witness

Radnoti wrote, in The Seventh Eclogue:

Frenchman, Poles, loud Italians, heretic Serbs and dreamy

Jews lived here in the mountains, among rumors.

One feverish body cut into pieces, still living one life,

it waits for good news, the sweet voices of women, a free, a

human fate.

It waits for the end, a fall into infinite darkness, miracles.

I lie on the plank, like a trapped animal, among worms. The fleas

attack again and again, but the flies have quieted down.

Look. It’s evening, captivity is one day shorter.

And so is life. The camp sleeps. The moon shines

over the land and its light the wires are tighter.

Through the window you can see the shadows of the armed

guards

thrown on the wall, walking among the noises of the night.

The testimony of Holocaust  survivors exists in all forms of writing; prose, both fiction and nonfiction, poetry, drama, transcriptions of oral recordings captured on  video tape and other recording media, war crime trial transcripts, and the like. The testimony of the millions who did not survive also exists in piles of hair, glasses, skeletons, brick buildings to house or exterminate, barbed wire, mass graves in forests and along roadsides, and crematoria, but not often in prose first person testimony. For such testimony we must turn to the novel [iv] or to poetry. At a time when most prisoners of slave labor camps operated by a regime allied to Nazi Germany thought only of obtaining a scrap of bread, an extra spoonful of soup, or a rag to wrap around an exposed body part, Miklos Radnoti could not stop writing poetry. The urge to record poetically, and in doing so to try to make sense of the world around him, and to be remembered as a human, was as insistent as hunger, thirst or any other survival need. “Yes, I wrote,” Radnoti declares in The Second Eclogue: “What else can I do? Poets write, cats wail, dogs howl.”

The testimony of a poet writing at the time of the events ultimately leading to his death is likely a more accurate form of testimony then much that was written by survivors years following the Holocaust. While memory inhabits territory coterminous with history, memory concerns itself with something other than historical accuracy. Primo Levi, a survivor who added poetry to his oeuvre for recounting the experience of the Holocaust,  wrote: “today, at this very moment as I sit writing at a table, I myself am not convinced that these things really happened.” Another survivor, Charlotte Delbo, wrote of her earlier testimony: “today I am not sure that what I wrote is true. I am certain it is truthful.” [v] By using the medium of poetry, and writing contemporaneously with the events he recorded, Radnoti made certain that his future readers would know that his testimony was truthful. “The oxen drool saliva mixed with blood. /Each one of us is urinating blood. /The squad stand about in knots, stinking, mad. /Death, hideous, is blowing overhead.” How could Postcard 3, written by Radnoti while on the forced march that ended in his murder, not be truthful?

The social or political arena can be a place of resistance and struggle, where books are published, poems written and read, and protest disseminated. It is the sphere in which claims against the political order are made in the name of justice. Poems that call on us from the other side of a situation of extremity, as does Radnoti’s poetry, are not judged by our ability to verify their truths. Such poems might, indeed, be our only evidence that an event has occurred: they may exist as the sole footprint of a passerby. Thus Postcard 4, describing in excruciating detail the death of Miklos Lorsi, remains the only trace of Lorsi’s last living, terrifying  moments.

Radnoti’s final poems evade easy categorization as personal vs. social. They are not merely personal, nor are they, strictly speaking, political. The combination of the two is apparent in the first several lines of Forced March:

The man who, having collapsed, rises, takes steps, is insane;

he’ll move an ankle, a knee, an errant mass of pain,

and take to the road again . . .

Another poet and critic, Carolyn Forche,  describes this poem as both a record of experience and an exhortation against despair; not a cry for sympathy, rather a call for strength. The hope that the poem relies on is not “political” as such: not a celebration of “solidarity” in the name of a subjugated class or a common enemy. It places the dream of future satisfaction — the reunion with his beloved wife, Fanni — in contrast to the reality of  his current pain. It uses the promise of personal happiness against a politically induced misery, but it does so in the name of the poet’s fellows, in a spirit of communality. [vi]

Radnoti’s final four poems are titled Razglednicas, Hungarian for postcard. A postcard is a message directed to another person, a  specific reader. But its openness also suggests that it can be read — its message witnessed —  by anyone.  Radnoti’s poems will not permit complacency; they urge all who read them: “never forget!” However, to define Radnoti only as a witness, without also discussing his poetry in a broader context, is to violate the meaning that he gave his own life, and his own death. Events forced the celebration of life, love, and nature, the themes of much of his early poetry, to incorporate in his post-1937 work the horrors inflicted on him and his world. Even so, he remained committed to his muse and her lyric. It is to this broader context that I now turn.

The Poet As Prophet

“So time and tide turn over into a new war,

hungry clouds eat up the gentle blue of the sky,

and as it glooms over, your young wife holds you close,

in fear begins to cry.

. . . . .

What is there left to say? Winter comes, and war comes;

I will lie broken, out of sight of men,

in the mouth and in the eye the wormed Earth will lie,

roots will transfix my body then.

. . . . .

all through the field the worms beslither the ground,

gnawing and gnawing away without a sound

the endless rows of dead.  War Diary

Radnoti’s reiterated premonition of the manner of his own death is one of the most remarkable features of his later work. The images foreshadow the event to the point of

exact detail. On a broader scale he foresaw the future potential for mass murder throughout Europe at a time when it remained concealed from most people. He was virtually the only one among European poets writing in the first part of the 1930s who foresaw the killings. His biographer, Dr. Ozsvath, attributes this ability to sense forthcoming evil to Radnoti’s being both Hungarian and Jewish, two peoples who have been victims of conquest and pogroms for centuries. In the Western literary tradition, from ancient Greece through Shakespeare to Arthur Miller, tragedy is personal; it arises from a flaw within oneself.  But for both Hungarians and Jews tragedy is inflicted from the outside and applies, not to individuals, but to entire nations and peoples, and it comes all to often. [vii] It is, she posits,  Radnoti’s understanding of tragedy on this vast or national basis, coupled with his Hungarian and Jewish genetic predisposition to anticipate the worst, that explains his uncanny prophetic capabilities.

Whatever accounts for those prophetic abilities, they infuse his poetry. In Like a Bull, written in 1933, Radnoti predicted that his death would come unmarked by a gravestone: “Even so will I struggle and so will I die; /still as a sign to posterity the fields will preserve my bones.” The scattering of the remains of his corpse in an open field, where “worms beslither the ground,” is also foreseen in War Diary, quoted at page  6 above. Postcard 4, Radnoti’s last poem, captured virtually the identical image and presented the graphic details of his own murder soon to follow its writing:

I fell beside him and his corpse turned over,

tight already as a snapping string.

Shot in the neck. “And that’s how you’ll end too,

I whispered to myself; “lie still; no moving.

Now patience flowers into death.” Then I could hear

“Der springt noch auf,” above, and very near.

Blood mixed with mud was drying on my ear.

The relationship between these images and Radnoti’s actual death is both mystical and ominous. That he had, at the time of writing Postcard 4, witnessed the murder of literally thousands of his fellow slave laborers, does not, can not, explain his extraordinary prophecies of these very events in Like a Bull and War Diary, both penned a decade earlier.

Two poems, written in 1937, begin the final stage of Radnoti’s poetry, the stage in which he  sees clearly and cries out to halt the impending coming of chaos in Europe. The first of the two poems, included in this collection in two different translations, is titled Hispania, Hispania by one translation team and Spain, Spain by the other. The second of the two poems is both eulogy and elegy to Federico Garcia Lorca, one of Spain’s greatest 20th century poets, murdered by the Falangists in 1936. Radnoti’s post-1937 poems are filled with the premonitions of the horrors to come: “I am the one they’ll kill finally/ because I myself never killed,” he prophesied in 1939 for a new edition of Steep Road, his last individual collection of poetry published while he was alive; “I lived on this earth in an age/when man fell so low/ he killed willingly, for pleasure, without orders.” Fragment, 1944.  In a world seemingly gone mad, he was terrified of madness. The seventh stanza of Maybe . . . , a palinode to the preceding six stanzas pleads:

But don’t leave me, delicate mind!

Don’t let me go crazy.

Sweet wounded reason, don’t

leave me now.

Don’t leave me. Let me die, without fear,

a clean lovely death,

like Empedocles, who smiled as he fell

into the crater.

The Third Partner, The Translators

Scores of translators have introduced Radnoti’s poetry to audiences around the world who are unable to read his poetry in the original Hungarian. There have been a dozen or more translations of significant collections of Radnoti’s poetry published in English, on both sides of the Atlantic. One reviewer of a collection of Radnoti’s poetry published in England correctly observed: “The question [with respect to any new publication of Radnoti's poetry] is how does this volume compare with other published translations of Radnoti?” [viii]  Hungarian is like no other language spoken in the modern world except, in some respects, Finnish; it belongs to no known language family like Romance or Germanic or Indo-European. [ix] In addition to this singularity, Hungary has a unique and centuries old poetic tradition, mostly unknown in the West. The use of both melody and rhyme schemes is central to that tradition. In Hungarian grammar, prepositions having numerous vowel sounds occur at the end of sentences, facilitating the use of end and internal rhyming schemes for poets writing in that language. Furthermore, there is a strong tradition of  singing centuries  old folk ballads, the melodies of which are known to most Hungarians, thus creating what Dr. Ozvath calls “incredible musicality” in the Hungarian poetic tradition. Radnoti’s poetry, regardless of subject matter, is strongly centered in that Hungarian poetic tradition, and accordingly strongly based on meter, melody and rhyme scheme.

Among the many teams of translators who have offered volumes of Radnoti’s poetry, there are two which take polar opposite positions about what is important in the act and art of translation of Radnoti’s poetry. The first is the team of Frederick Turner collaborating with Dr. Ozsvath, (“Turner/Ozvath”), the second,  the threesome of Steven Polgar, Stephen Berg and S. J. Marks (“Polgar, et al.”). Of course, each team includes one or more highly respected, often published poets.  Indeed, a reader familiar with the translation of Radnoti’s poetry by one of the groups, but unfamiliar with the translations of the other team, likely would describe Radnoti’s poetry in sharply differing ways.

The collection of Radnoti’s poetry which follows this essay is unique in that it will include versions of Radnoti’s poems as translated by each of these teams. Appreciation of poetry written by a poet in a reader’s native language requires forming a two-person partnership between the poet and the reader; appreciation of poetry translated into a reader’s native language requires a triadic relationship in which the translators are as important a partner as is the poet and the reader.

The differences in translation approach between Turner/ Ozvath and Polgar, et al. is clearly evident in what is, perhaps, Radnoti’s most oft-quoted poem, Postcard 4, set forth in full in the Turner/Ozvath version at page 7 above. The first two lines read:

“I fell beside him and his corpse turned over,

tight already as a snapping string.”

The first two lines in the Polgar, et al. translation are:

“I fell next to him. His body rolled over.

He was tight as a violin string before it snaps.”

Of these lines as translated by Polgar, et al., the American poet and scholar, Edward Hirsch, notes that the poem begins “drastically with two sharp staccato sentences that fuse together in one line broken in the middle.” [x]  In fact, as written in the original Hungarian, the meter was not as translated by Polgar, et al. The two staccato sentences with which the poem begins in the Polgar, et al. version do not exist in that form in the original Hungarian. Choosing to translate the poem without regard to the meter of the original Hungarian creates a very different tempo then had the original meter been followed, as it invariably is by Turner/Ozvath. Hirsch gives the credit for the initial impact of the poem to the poet, but it is in fact the translators who created this particular pulse.

One of the major collections of Radnoti’s works, as translated by Turner/ Ozvath takes its title from one of the included poems, Foamy Sky. A second major collection of Radnoti’s poetry, Clouded Sky as translated by Polgar, et al. takes its title from the same poem. As was true with the first two lines of Postcard 4, the differences in the translations of this  poem are striking and demonstrate the critical difference between the approach of the two different teams of translators. Foamy Sky is true to the rhyme pattern of the original Hungarian. Its opening stanza is translated as follows:

The moon sways in a foamy sky.

How strange that I am alive. A bland,

efficient death searches this age,

and they turn white on whom it plays its hand.

Clouded Sky abandons the rhyme scheme entirely. There, the first stanza is translated:

The moon hangs on a clouded sky.

I am surprised that I live.

Anxiously, with great care, death looks for us

and those it finds are all terribly white.

The final stanza of Foamy Sky:

Foam gushes forth upon the moon.

A dark green venom streaks the sky.

I roll myself a cigarette,

Am slowly, carefully, a living I.

Again, Clouded Sky abandons the rhyme pattern and meter and renders the final stanza defiantly:

Clouds pour across the moon. Anger

leaves a poisonous dark – green bruise on the sky.

I roll myself a cigarette,

slowly, carefully. I live.

The search to retain the rhyme scheme and duplicate the meter of the Hungarian original often causes Turner/Ozvath to invent words in English, or to use a metaphor that may make the poem’s meaning more opaque than transparent. For example, in addition to “beslither” in War Diary, in Goats Turner/Ozvath offer “the kindlings’ roundled bodies,” translated by Polgar, et al. as “The soft little bodies of fattening goats,” and the droppings of the goat are described by Turner/Ozvath as “his darkling marble – cluster” ( made necessary by the rhyme scheme as a slanting rhyme for the word “scatter”) while Polgar, et al., perhaps more prosaically, but certainly with unmistakable clarity, translate “darkling marble – cluster” as “bunches of little, dark, round droppings .”

Radnoti, of course, was always aware of how the form of his poem could enhance  its function, and here both sets of translators are often faithful to the Hungarian original. In Forced March Radnoti employed long breaks between words in order to create the visual image of half – starved slave laborers stumbling or plodding along a roadside. The opening line of the poem in the Turner/Ozvath translation is: “Crazy. He stumbles, flops, gets up,     and trudges on again.” In the Polgar, et al. version the first line of the poem is “Your crazy. You fall down,     stand up and walk again.” While both teams are faithful to the impact of the line spacing, the most obvious difference in the two translations is, again, the preservation of stanzas and a rhyme scheme in the Turner/Ozvath version, and their complete abandonment in the Polgar, et al. translation. The final two stanzas in the Turner/Ozvath version is:

late summer’s stillness sunbathe   in gardens half – asleep,

fruit sway among the branches,   stark naked in the deep,

Fanni waiting at the fence   blonde by its rusty red,

and shadows would write slowly out   all the slow morning

said-

but still it might yet happen!   The moon’s so round today!

Friend, don’t walk on. Give me a shout   and I’ll be on my way.

The equivalent in the Polgar, et al. version is:

and over sleepy gardens   quietly, the end of summer bathes in

the sun.

Among the leaves the fruit   swing naked

and in front of the rust – brown hedge   blonde Fanny waits for me,

the morning writes   slow shadows –

All this could happen   The moon is so round today!

Don’t walk past me, friend.   Yell, and I’ll stand up again!

I have referred to the poem Federico Garcia Lorca  at page 8 above. Ozvath/Turner render it thusly:

Federico Garcia Lorca 

“Loved poet of Hispania,

true lovers sang your poetry, –

and so what else could they, the others, do,

you were a poet, – than murder you.

The people fight their war alone: heia

Frederico Garcia!

Polgar, et al. offer:

Federico Garcia Lorca

Because Spain loved you,

because lovers read your poems,

what else could they do?

You were a poet – they killed you.

Now the people fight without you,

Frederico Garcia Lorca.

In these two contrasting versions, in addition to the already noted differences in meter and rhyme scheme, significant differences in punctuation (the ? at the end of line 3 in the Polgar, et al. version and the ! with which the poem ends in the Turner/Ozvath version) will cause the reader, when reading aloud, to offer separate and very distinct renderings of the poem.[xi]

Although Radnoti did write free verse early in his career as a poet, he was a master of the many classic forms of poetry. Turner refers to Radnoti’s “virtuosity with meter,” comparing him as a poet to Mozart as a composer. (Foamy Sky, xliii) Turner confesses that to translate metrically “one must be prepared to give up everything, to sacrifice everything to the meter.” He freely admits that his translations omit and rearrange phrases within each poem, create ambiguity in metaphor, and in some cases strain the use of the English language in order to be faithful to the meter of the original. (Foamy Sky, xliv-xlv) “The chief superstition that we found we must give up was the superstition that ‘free verse’ is an adequate or acceptable way of translating a metered original. And our experience with translation confirmed our growing suspicion that by abandoning metered verse the modernists were abandoning the very heart of poetry itself.” (Foamy Sky, xlvii)

Each approach to translation has its champions. Edward Hirsch strongly endorses the Polgar, et al. approach, stating “all of the poems written during his internment appeared in a posthumous volume, … Clouded Sky, as Steven Polgar, Stephen Berg and S.J. Marks translate it in their marvelous new version, a revised edition, of a harrowing and indispensable 20th- century classic. A veil has been torn away, and their adaptation — direct, savvy, idiomatic and accessible — brings Radnoti’s humanity closer to us.” [xii] The debate among critics about the two major translations became publicly hostile. In a review of Foamy Sky, C. K. Williams, a poet and Professor of poetry at George Mason University,  writing in The New Republic, stated that the Polgar, et al. translations are “the most readable and most intense.” He characterizes the Turner/Ozvath translations as being “infected with a combination of hubris and carelessness that contaminates nearly everyone of [their] attempts.” [xiii] On behalf of the Turner/Ozvath team, Professor Turner responded:

Our translations were savagely attacked in The New Republic for their

adherence to the Classical verse forms of the original. Perhaps our gesture was

tilting at windmills, to translate the poems of Radnoti into the same meters

in English that they had been given in Radnoti’s Hungarian: hexameter

into hexameter, sonnet into sonnet, rhyme for rhyme, stress for stress.

Our main sense was regret for those readers who had been deprived of

Radnoti’s poetry by  the anti-traditional bias of one reviewer.

The “measured breath” of formal meter by which the poet teaches us

how to know cannot be extirpated, . . .by the hostility of a modernist

cultural establishment. The lessons we can draw from Radnoti’s life and work

suggest a radical transformation in the ways in which poetry is taught today.

We need to abandon the modernist picture of progress as the replacement

of outmoded forms by more up-to-date ones better fitted to the spirit of the age.

It was Radnoti’s faithfulness to the old quixotic poetic standards that brought

his writings to us out of the grave.  [xiv]

Hirsch and Williams, in their respective commentaries, enumerated the virtues of the Polgar, et al. approach, emphasizing the accessibility to and emotional punch of the subject matter, the witness aspect of Radnoti’s poetry. However, each praised  Radnoti’s poetry for the very factors which Polgar, et al. seem to ignore in their free verse translation , and to which  Turner/Ozvath remain faithful in their translation; meter, melody, rhyme schemes, classical form. As Hirsch put it, in what seems a contradiction  to his stated preference for the translations of Polgar et al. and a strong argument for the Turner/Ozsvath approach:

[A]s the 1930s progressed and the chaos of the times escalated, Radnoti     responded by exercising more and more traditional formal control over his poems.     The dreamy introspection of his early poetry gave way to the chiseled meters and       crystalline precision of his later work. (Emphasis added.)

It is the exercise of classical form and these “chiseled meters” which Polgar et al. discard in their free verse translations.

I believe Turner/Ozsvath have given us translations that find the unique poet, as well as the mere witness, in Radnoti’s poetry.  By including in this collection translations from both Turner/Ozvath and Polgar, et al.,  and in some instances including the same poem as translated by each team, the reader is given the opportunity to chose the translators who most enhance the reader’s appreciation of Radnoti’s poetry.            Will you, as reader, engage more energetically and emotionally with the dramatic, direct and defiant ending passage of Clouded Sky : “Anger/ leaves a poisonous dark – green bruise on the sky. / I roll myself a cigarette, / slowly, carefully. I live.” or the  lyrical and rhymed ending passage of Foamy Sky: “A dark green venom streaks the sky. / I roll myself a cigarette, / and slowly, carefully, a living I.”?

Conclusion

A young American poet, Kate Daniels, authored an elegy for Miklos Radnoti. It is a fitting ending for this Introduction to his poetry.

For Miklos Radnoti: 1909-1944

 

When Radnoti wrote his last poem for his wife
he was weeks away from death.
He must have known it.
The landscape shook green and terrible
through the long retreat. The guards

pushed Radnoti and the other prisoners
harder, fed them less, whipped them more
often, killed more frequently, with less thought,
the fear of their own death and defeat
making it easier to pull the trigger.

In the midst of the six-month death march,
pissing blood, hair and teeth falling out,
Radnoti kept writing his way out of the nightmare,
tiny poems on postcards and matchbooks.
On the road to Budapest, the guards tortured
a retarded Hungarian boy before they shot him in the mouth.
It was the same in the poems: the prisoners died there, too,
blood running from the ear of Radnoti’s friend, the violinist,
the body abandoned in a drainage ditch.

At the end, in the common grave
scrambled up with the human bodies he loved so well,
his poems went down with him,
fierce scraps of life in his coat pockets
that refused to be beaten.
Two years later, the poet gone back
to the earth, the poems remained,
exhumed and reborn,
when the widow plucked them from the fresh, young skeleton. [xv]


Endnotes

[i] The definitive biography of the life of Miklos Radnoti is: Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, In the Footsteps of Orpheus: The Life and Times of Miklos Radnoti,. Indiana University Press, Bloomington. 2000. Professor Ozvath contends that “Radnoti’s poetry, life, and times were so tightly enmeshed with one another that they must be captured in their full complexity to truly appreciate and understand his achievement, his art, and his legacy.” (p. x)

[ii] Ozsvath chose these lines as the epigraph to her  book.

[iii] Holocaust with a capital “H” has come to mean the extermination of several large groups or categories of people (Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, etc.) by the Nazi’s during the World War II era. Many Jews consider the term, believed to have been first used by Ellie Wiesel, an insult, because holocaust, with a lowercase h, is a biblical term meaning a sacrifice to God by burning a whole animal.  With appropriate respect for the troubled etymology of the word, I will use Holocaust to describe the events and era depicted in Radnoti’s poetry collected in this chapbook because that poetry speaks to the experience of all Holocaust victims, not just the Jewish victims.

[iv] For example, the mesmerizing description of the experience of death in the gas chambers in Andre Schwarz – Bart’s Last of the Just.

[v] Banner, Gillian,  Holocaust Literature, Vallentine Mitchell, London, 2000. Pages 11 – 13.

[vi] Forche, Carolyn. “Twentieth-century Poetry of Witness.” The American Poetry Review. World Poetry, Inc. 1993. HighBeam Research. 20 Oct. 2010 <http://www.highbeam.com>.

[vii] Dr. Ozsvath expressed these ideas in an interview conducted by the author on October 23, 2010.

[viii] World Literature Today. University of Oklahoma. 2004. HighBeam Research. 21 Oct. 2010 <http://www.highbeam.com>.

[ix] The summary of the history of the Hungarian language and its poetic tradition which follows is based upon the same interview with Dr. Ozvath cited in endnote 7.

[x] Hirsch, Edward: How Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. Harcourt, Inc. New York, N.Y 1999, at 149.

[xi] Rarely has the process of translation into English of a poet whose original language was not a Romance or Germanic language been  described in such detail as it has been by Frederick Turner. In their collaboration Dr. Ozvath is the native speaker of Hungarian. Turner is a poet, but speaks no Hungarian. The translation is a three stage process in which, in the first stage Ozvath reads the selected poem twice in Hungarian, once as if at a poetry reading, and the second reading giving greater emphasis to the verse form. From these readings Turner attempts to ascertain the meter, tone, cadence, and what he characterizes as “the emotional color” of the original. He listens, while not understanding what is being read, for the rhyme scheme, including internal rhymes, and other sound clues, such as assonance, alliteration and the like. He also establishes for himself and then confirms with Ozvath whether the verse form is a classical one, either in the Hungarian poetic tradition, or the Magyar folk ballad meter, or in any other classical tradition such as German, French, or Latin, all of which were known to Radnoti, and in most of which Radnoti had authored some of his poetry. In the second stage of the process an English word by word oral translation of the poem rendered by Ozvath is written down, with first priority being given to word order and idiom in the original even if nonsensical when translated into English. The third stage of the process is a discussion by the two collaborators of every aspect of the poem, its connotations, synonyms of the words used in the poem, syntactical peculiarities such as compound words, slang, dialect, the use of non-Hungarian language within the poem (as for example in Postcard 4), the date of the poem in reference to political or biographical events, analogies to other poets who wrote in English, and a myriad of other matters. In Turner’s words, as he is shaping the poem into English, Ozvath is pointing out the special moments in the original and guiding Turner’s sense of the feeling established in the original Hungarian: Turner says: “it is like the way, Helen Keller’s tutor guided her pupil through the reality of language.” (Foamy Sky, xxxvi) Turner admits to the process often leading to differences of interpretation between the two translators and the necessity for finding resolution or incorporating the tension of those differences in the translation itself. Once a translation was agreed upon, it was sent for further comment to Radnoti’s widow, and she often made comments, that were incorporated into the final version.

[xii] Edward Hirsch, The Washington Post. Washington Post Newsweek Interactive Co. 2003. HighBeam Research. 20 Oct. 2010 <http://www.highbeam.com>.

[xiii] Dark Victory — Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklos Radnoti, The New Republic; Dec 21, 1992; 207, 26; ABI/INFORM Global pg. 32.

[xiv] Turner, Frederick. “The dead poet: a true-life clash between lethal modernism and classic art.(Hungarian poet, Miklos Radnoti).” The American Enterprise. The American Enterprise. 1997. HighBeam Research. 20 Oct. 2010 <http://www.highbeam.com>.

[xv] New American Poets of the ’90s. Eds: Jack Myers, Roger Weingarten, D.R. Godine,  Boston, 1991.