The Nottingham Festival of Words last week hosted “Writing Hungary”, a reading and panel discussion on Hungarian poetry, featuring Anna Menyhert, Anna T. Szabó and George Szirtes. This looked promising: some years ago I reviewed Arc’s anthology New Order: Hungarian poets of the post 1989 generation, edited by Szirtes, for the Hungarian Literary Quarterly, and found it a truly exciting collection of vivid writing. Szabó was, to my mind, one of the anthology’s stand-out poets. All three panellists contributed to a thoughtful and impassioned debate on trajectories over the past century or more in Hungarian writing; Menyhert read from Attila Jozsef, as well as from her own new novel, while Szabó chanted from the song-like poetry of Nobel-nominated Sándor Weöres, and read her own poetry in Hungarian. Along with his own poetry, Szirtes gave gracious readings of Szabó’s work in English translation. His delivery of Szabó’s ‘She Leaves Me’ harked back to her rendition of Weöres with its sing-song cadence, but Szirtes brought a plaintive and gradually angry momentum to the rhythm, mounting in pace and intensity towards the poem’s blunt end.
‘She Leaves Me’ is told in the voice of a child, although most of Szabó’s poems in New Order come closer to the confessional vein. Her poetry might be described as “personal”, but – like all of the other writers in the anthology – is presented in a political context: as a counter to the “old order”, or the classical Hungarian tradition, which was a subject under discussion on the panel. Szabó and Menyhert both appeared to agree that, historically, poets in Hungary have been seen as spokespeople (or, more accurately, spokesmen), as mouthpieces for the people; over the last few decades this notion has been challenged, but is now beginning once again to colour the work of younger poets. Both seemed concerned at the prospect of a return to an overly-authoritative poetry.
Here in Britain, we don’t face quite the same issue. If anything, we are constantly warned of poetry’s general irrelevance. But nonetheless, poets are often credited with speaking for others, especially for the marginalised, the disenfranchised, the deceased and distant. I recently read a review of a poetry collection in which the poet, writing about past and present conflict in Iraq, was praised for “[giving] voice to the other: those who might not have a voice”. Another review of a recent poetry collection inspired by nude female photographs was described as an attempt “to reclaim the voices of … ‘lost’ women.” This is a vocabulary and a mindset about which I am increasingly cynical. No one is “voiceless”, no one is “lost”, merely because we in the West or in the twenty-first century cannot hear them. Voices do not need to be published, broadcast or immortalised to be significant. The use of the word “reclaim” in the latter review is particularly unsettling: at what point does speaking up for others become speaking over others?
I am certain that in neither collection is the author trying to impose her own ego – it is perhaps simply that in contemporary poetry we have developed this idea of “giving voice” as a kind of shorthand to explain why poets write from perspectives other than their own, and perhaps to lend a bit of gravitas to the motivation. I have used the expression to describe some of my own poems; I frequently write about figures from history or mythology, but not really with any grand mission in mind. I write this sort of poetry because I like to imagine what it is like to be someone else, somewhere else, because I like to think myself into places faraway in space and time, and because I want to try and understand things that are unfamiliar. Does this mean that I sometimes use other people, other characters, as foils for situations which I want to explore? Probably, yes; but surely it is a condition of poetry to move beyond the writer’s immediate position. The poetic “voice” is by its nature chameleonic: it follows rhythms of speech and thought, it mimics and echoes.
Writing which shifts between different perspectives can be empathetic; the inherent contrast between imagination and experience can be highly fertile. At the same time, imaginative writing which engages – even obliquely – with political issues runs a risk of colonising those issues, of exploiting its material for creative gain. It is a fine balancing act. But maybe it is possible to make a distinction between poetry which is sensitive to other people’s lives, which tries to engage with diverse human experience, and poetry which is didactic: which begins with an answer rather than a question. Of course we can never speak about or for others with any real authority, of course we can never claim to know what anyone else is really thinking – but that is the point. The voices with which we choose to speak can help us to frame our questions, and to work those questions open.