On Hungarian Political Poetry (an essay)
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On Hungarian Political Poetry (an essay)
ON HUNGARIAN POLITICAL POETRY
Poets from my parents' generation, such as György Petri, Lajos Parti Nagy, István Eörsi, Zsuzsa Rakovszky, Szilárd Borbély or Béla Markó, and those of the intervening generation, like János Térey, Krisztián Peer, Virág Erdős and István Kemény have always written and still do write significant political poems. But before 1989, in the Hungarian state-socialist era, poets needed to use doublespeak if they wanted to criticize the political system, that is, they had to hide their political message in between the lines of their poems, or risk their poetry being banned. If that happened, they would only be able to bring it out illegally, in samizdat publications, which carried a risk of legal reprisals and even incarceration. But, as time passed, such political pressure became less and less significant, and after 1989 and the change of regime, the practice of doublespeak and hidden messages in literary works became obsolete. All of a sudden, people were free to say whatever they wanted.
In the 90s, the political poetry of left-wing writers such as György Petri, and István Eörsi was celebrated by the liberal elite. They were part of the group of intellectuals who had been published in samizdat, and who had been printing illegal political pamphlets and had secretly supported young opposition politicians, preparing for the change of regime by organizing themselves in the Hungarian underground movement of the1980s. Their poems are characterized by so-called “post-modern wordplay” in mostly rhyming, metric forms such as sonnets. They use irony constantly and make heavy use of cultural and political allusions. Most of these poets were published by the famous literary magazine Holmi, that existed from 1989 until it was wound up in 2014 due to the illness of its distinguished editor-in-chief, Pál Réz.
But after the Holmi-poets came my generation, and a serious change of paradigm. One way to describe this is to say that poetry became increasingly academic and enigmatic. Poets were bored of witty wordplay and posing through cultural references. At the beginning of the 2000s, everyday politics also dropped out of the range of topics that interested the new generation. This change was brought about in 2005 by a circle of young poets such as Péter Pollágh, Márió Nemes Z., Dénes Krusovszky, Marcell Szabó, András Bajtai, Kornélia Deres, Mátyás Sirokai, Mátyás Dunajcsik, and Zoltán Sopotnik, who collectively called themselves ‘Telep’ (Settlement), and who were among the first poets to use the internet professionally, bringing to life a rich, flourishing literary blog that lasted until the group’s break-up in 2009. Literary scholars call their movement “New Seriousness” because they did away with constant post-modern irony and metric poems full of rhymes and wordplays. Instead, they introduced themes and motifs such as angst, alienness, obscurity, drawing their inspiration largely from movie directors such as David Lynch and Lars von Trier. Telep’s impact was significant and was tangible for a long time even after the group’s breakup. Entire young generations were inspired by this new, literary mode of speech that preceded the 2010s boom of body poetics, private mythologies, and pseudo-personal poetry. Towards the end of the decade, poets like Márió Nemes Z., Mátyás Sirokai, Gábor Lanczkor, and Balázs Szálinger began writing poetry that resonated with the theoretical frameworks of contemporary philosophies such as post-humanism, and the “Anthropocene,” Biopoetics soon became a buzzword in the discourse of poetry.
However, the youngest generation of poets to emerge at the end of the 2010s, which included such strong female voices as Kamilla Vida, Eszter Kállay, and Kinga Fancsali, started to show an interest in political poetry again. Their approach can be explained mostly as a consequence of the reforming of the new Hungarian political left and its critical theory. They are drawing on thinkers like Adorno, Benjamin, and Marcuse from the Frankfurt School, situationists like Guy Debord and contemporary philosophers like Donna Haraway, Jean Baudrillard, and Mark Fisher, the author of Capitalist Realism. Within this new generation the number of female poets is fortunately higher than it was before, and their poems address topics like poverty, segregation, feminism, neo-liberal economics, and the system of late capitalism. Most importantly, however, they tackle the failure of the change of regime in Hungary for which, they say, the incompetency of the left-liberal elite is largely responsible. This elite, in their view, has also played a serious role in helping Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz become the ruling party, and has also allowed it to remain in power for almost two decades now.
These young poets don't have an easy task. I'm convinced that, with the beginning of the post-truth era, we are witnessing the start of an unprecedented epistemological crisis. People on the internet no longer know what is true and what is fake news. They are not discerning in their selection of sources of information because they haven’t been taught how to be. And with the political propaganda spread by fake websites, click-farms and corrupt YouTube influencers, people are confused about what they should believe in. They withdraw into filter bubbles largely dominated by opinions and political bias similar to their own. This is on the one hand due to technological progress, the wide-spread use of the internet and social media. But on the other hand, we see that truth and reality have never been objective. Rumour and fake news have been around forever; people have always been biased, and it has always been possible to mislead them. Throughout the course of human history, information has been distorted or faked on a daily basis by government propaganda, state police and other economic organizations. What has changed drastically over the past few decades, is that people’s trust in science and unbiased sources of reference has been waning. Their need for some sort of faith, religion or superstition, has, meanwhile, been getting stronger and stronger. This may be again partly our fault, the fault of intellectuals. We have turned our backs on the people, and have been more concerned with developing new academic modes of speech than with helping them understand the world around us. No wonder they are disappointed with politicians that don't speak their language, don't know their actual needs, and don't stand up for their rights. Populists at least try to convince the people that they understand what they want and will help them achieve it.
As access to information seems to be getting more and more democratic in the online world, we are not only consuming, we are also producing information more rapidly than ever. This means we are less critical of our sources. Meanwhile, access to real scientific data in science magazines is again the privilege of the wealthy: it is only available for subscribers. While twenty years ago a scientific paper had to be peer reviewed and fact checked numerous times before you could publish it in a science magazine or before you could contribute an entry to a dictionary or a textbook, today you can have your own influencer vlog on YouTube where you can speak about serious political issues and reach tens of thousands of people within a day without actually knowing what you’re talking about. Information is power indeed.
There is a serious need for political poetry in the new millennium. This is not in doubt. But what kind of relevant answers can it provide us with? I’m not sure what there is to give voice to apart from disappointed complaint, and depressed lament. And that is not a question for political poetry but a question for politics itself. How can we really have an impact on society in a post-truth, populist, neo-liberal era, or, what's even worse, in an Eastern-European “illiberal” state, in a system which uses Christian-conservative values as a facade while building a pseudo-nationalistic dictatorship behind the scenes. Should we retreat into our ivory towers? Should we avoid politics? Should we write metaphysical, enigmatic poetry? Or should we be concerned with global issues such as the climate crisis? Should we write poems about the extinction of whales? Or should we take it to the streets and write socially engaged, neo-Marxist poetry? Can a political message be even transmitted in a poem? Isn't the poem's task to use abstract and metaphorical language for addressing topics that cannot be easily grasped by everyday language? Isn't it the death of poetry to have a clear message about some specific political agenda? I believe we must make a distinction between agitational propaganda and politically engaged poetry. The former is ideological and is trying to make a clear point in order to achieve a political goal, while the latter deals with social, economic and political issues in a more subtle and associative way. I hope and trust such a thing is possible.
©Anna Bentley 2022 for the English translation