4. Populist Poetry: Gyula Illyés

Gyula Illyés is regarded by many as one of the major poets of the century. He came to the populist movement by a roundabout way – but the high esteem in which he is held today has been earned by his undaunted loyalty to ‘the people’, and a constant preoccupation with national problems. In a sense, Illyés is an embodiment of the nineteenth-century ‘national poet’, of which Petőfi, the idol of his youth, was the most prominent example. Born on 2 November 1902 on a godforsaken Transdanubian farmstead, of humble parentage, Illyés first saw a town at the age of ten, when his parents decided to send him to school. He completed his studies in Budapest, and because of his involvement in the revolutionary movements he went abroad at the age of nineteen.

He spent some years in Paris, where he frequented the bustling cafés alongside anarchists, socialists, and avant-garde artists and writers, with Tzara, Aragon, Éluard, Breton and others. He was on his way to becoming a French surrealist poet himself. The decision to return to Hungary and to become a poet there imposed heavy obligations on Illyés, for he suddenly discovered that his poetic message was to call attention to social injustice and political inequality, a task ‘entrusted’ to him by his forefathers, his own kind, ‘the blind and dumb’ peasantry who could speak only through its writers and poets (‘You Can’t Escape’, 1934).

By 1927 his experimenting with ‘isms’ came to an end. Youthful exuberance, irrational revolt yielded to realistic imagery, which now provided more novelty than further experimenting with the ‘old’ forms of the avant-garde. His volumes were published in quick succession by Nyugat: (Heavy Earth, 1928; Swathe of Aftermath, 1930; and Under Soaring Skies, 1935). Illyés’s laments, expressing the destitute peasants’ stifled anger, coming from the bottom rung of the feudal ladder, always strike a note of vigorous defiance, strengthened by his application of free verse technique, and his conscious limitation of imagery. The young Illyés’s basic attitude is that of the prodigal son; his way of atonement for his desertion is to write ‘community poetry’, suppressing his desire for self-expression (a dominant feature in József’s poetry, although he also regarded himself as a spokesman for his people).

This attitude may account for Illyés interest in narrative poetry, the least personal of poetic genres (Three Old Men, 1931; Youth, 1932; I Speak of Heroes, 1933). The disarming sincerity and simplicity of these autobiographical reminiscences in verse gave a new lease of life to the genre, generally held in low esteem by contemporary taste. Although Illyés was a frequent and respected contributor to Nyugat, (Babits thought highly of him), political engagement was predominant in his ars poetica. With the Nyugat authors he shared only a love of French literature and a respect for the poet’s trade: ‘Nobody follows, and nobody calls you. Poetry / is not for amusing people / or even yourself. The world is simple; / what you see with your two eyes, gives you enough to do. / The objects shine. Lick your pencil.’*The allusion to tintaceruza, a type of pencil widely used in the countryside, which produced indelible and legible writing only if wet, is to ‘profane’ the poet’s calling. (‘Morning Meditation’, 1932.) Illyés certainly saw enough to justify criticism and satire (e.g. ‘Ode to an Afghan Minister on Entering Office’, 1929), and he never spared the ruling classes.

In the mid-1930s Illyés wrote several significant prose-works. Russia (1934) is a spirited travel-diary; in Petőfi (1936) he drew a personal portrait of his poetic ancestor and ideal, identifying him as essentially a social revolutionary. His account of the dehumanized life of farm servants in the stagnating, semi-feudal world of the puszta* Puszta in standard Hungarian means the vast, barren plains of the Lowland. Illyés uses the word, as in his native dialect: ‘West of the Danube, puszta means the whole conglomeration of farm servants’ dwellings, stables, sheds and granaries built in the middle of a large estate and often reaching the size of a village.’ (People of the Puszta.) (The People of the Puszta, 1936) is in a sense an autobiography, since memories of his childhood and tales told by elder members of the family are freely mixed with statistical exposition, quotations from statutes, decrees, and by-laws regulating life in the shadow of the manor-house. It was published concurrently with the first sociological reportage of the village explorers, and is usually regarded as Illyés’s outstanding contribution to ‘the discovery of Hungary’. It is a discovery indeed, since the life Illyés describes, with its routine corporal punishment for disobedience or protest, its taking for granted the ius primae noctis by managers, its crammed living-quarters where more than one family shared a room, was as alien, remote, and unknown to the average Hungarian middle-class town-dweller as were the tribal customs on a Papuan settlement to an English missionary arriving fresh from the theological seminary. But Illyés is not only a chronicler of a submerged world; his emotional involvement and personal indignation as well as lending the book authenticity, stimulate him to produce some of the finest passages in contemporary Hungarian prose, abounding in restrained irony, personal confessions, thrilling episodes, and lucid assessments of economic and social maladies.

After the failure of March Front, on the eve of World War II, Illyés’s poetry came to display growing signs of pessimism but, instead of withdrawing into a private world, he became editor of Nyugat’s successor Hungarian Star (1941-4), which not only carried on the traditions of Nyugat but provided a platform for intellectual opposition to Fascism. (Hungarian Star was silenced when the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944.) Patriotic poetry once more provided him with an intellectual refuge. Some of Illyés’s verses advocated a complete retreat into the inner self, a defiance which can be afforded only by the defenceless. To be sure, this was a kind of escapism, yet it was without illusions; it was rather a display of absolute faith in the primacy of mind over matter, and commands the same respect as the credo, quia absurdum of medieval mystics (‘Country in the Heights’, 1939). In other poems Illyés lets loose his dark thoughts, (‘Feeding on Corpses’, 1943), or his biblical wrath, castigating his compatriots (e.g. ‘Hungarians’, 1944; ‘It Was Not Enough’, 1945).

The end of World War II, and the birth of a new social order, filled Illyés with expectations; he celebrated the beginning of a new life over the ruins in poems of lively rhythms (e.g. ‘The Plough Moves’, 1945; ‘Tilesetter’, 1945); yet he saw soon enough, during the Rákosi regime, that Hungary was becoming a totalitarian state, with no prospect of either social progress or personal freedom.

He withdrew from public life, but never gave up his activity as a poet committed to improving the lot of his people; he turned to writing historical dramas, seeking the lessons of the past (e.g. Two Men, 1950; Torch-Flame, 1953), and exploring possibilities for Hungary’s survival as a nation. For Illyés had always thought in terms of national interest, and now he came to be recognized as a symbol of national continuity. He lived up to these expectations with the poems he wrote before the revolution of 1956 (e.g. ‘Bartók’, 1955; ‘Hunyadi’s Hand’, 1956) in which he admonished his countrymen with electrifying effect. Undoubtedly one of his greatest poetic achievements is his monumental ‘One Sentence on Tyranny’, written in 1950, and published during the revolution in 1956. Not only is Illyés able to sustain the grammatical structure of a sentence over fifty odd stanzas with parallel subordinate clauses; he also maintains the emotional intensity of his longdrawn-out statement, until he lowers his voice in the last two stanzas, overwhelmed by a sense of futility. The poem makes no direct references to actual and particular circumstances, which is unusual in Illyés’s political poetry; it is a general protest against tyranny, yet ‘One Sentence’ is a profound indictment of Stalinism, for it is both descriptive and analytic, written in a monotonous rhythm-structure relieved only by occasional breaks, the unexpectedness of which is accentuated by multi-syllabled rhymes.

Illyés lived in a self-imposed silence after the revolution. He re-entered literary life with New Poems (1961) and Tilted Sails (1965), which reveal new sources of inspiration, and also an all-pervading resignation, derived both from his preoccupation with ageing and from his nostalgia for youth. Old flames of political passion flare up occasionally (e.g. in ‘Self-Appointed Watchdogs’, he employs strong words against the spirit of denunciation which accompanied the aftermath of the revolution), yet ‘consumer-socialism’ in the late 1960s seems to have pacified Illyés as well as the average Hungarian. His last volumes, Everything’s Possible (1973) or Common Cause (1981), illustrate his rich poetic vision; the mysteries of time, the proximity of the infinite are his dominant themes. He set out to preserve a humanistic perception of the world; hope, faith, and even optimism have been restored to him.

Illyés was a very prolific writer, and his recent essays, confessions, and studies display his lively interest in public affairs. One such interest is derived from his deep concern for the fate of Hungarians living abroad, particularly in the neighbouring countries; he also watches the struggle of other European minorities, and is puzzled by the roots (hajszálgyökerek) and nature of nationalism, ‘group loyalty’ (Radicles, 1971). His recent metaphor, ötágú síp, is widely quoted as an emblematic expression of the present discord among the five ‘mainstreams’ of Hungarian literature which has been caused on the one hand by the disruption of continuity with the former territories of Hungary belonging now to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, and on the other by political incompatibility with ‘Western’ (émigré) Hungarian literature. He died on 15 April 1983.

None of the other népi poets have achieved the same recognition as Illyés, for none of them was able to participate in public life after 1945 to the same extent as he was. For the discovery of the new poetic simplicity that characterized the népi poets’ innovation, the credit should be given to József Erdélyi (1896-1978), whose poetry at first reflected basic human experiences only, contrasting sharply with the refined versification and esoteric themes of the later Nyugat movement. Of peasant origin, Erdélyi first attracted attention with traditional themes (love, nature), expressed in verse which closely resembled folk-poetry, yet whose simple forms seemed to conceal a strangely novel and modern sensibility (Violet Leaf, 1922). To be sure, Erdélyi’s revolt, and his choice of Petőfi as a poetic ideal, were a direct result of his social background. His efforts to produce unaffected poetry were not always successful – many critics saw him only as an imitator of Petőfi, though in his best pieces he was certainly able to hold his own. He liked, for example, to explain popular sayings or beliefs in poems, and these attempts are frequently original and humorous (e.g. ‘Cry Over the Danube’, 1938; ‘Tradition’, or ‘Telegraph-Poles’, 1930). His obsession with myth creation, however, led him to Turanism and dilettante linguistics. As a poet he felt ostracized and ridiculed by critics representing refined literary taste, and his retorts to ‘the gentlemen’ (e.g. ‘Polo on Vérmező’, 1930) earned him official reprimands; for a notorious anti-semitic poem (‘Blood of Esther Solymosi’, 1937) he was given a prison sentence after World War II. He was allowed to return to literary life in 1954; the main source of his inspiration remained the same bitter childhood experiences that had fired his earlier poetry, and he took a pride in his unchanged poetic attitude.

With the debut of Erdélyi a cult of primitive talent (őstehetség) became fashionable. This is not an uncommon general reaction to over-refined literary taste; poetic ‘plain fare’ seems to be needed to provide a change for the reader’s palate after a heavily-spiced diet of ‘isms’. Moreover, this reaction in Hungary in the 1930s involved an additional conviction that simplicity was always unaffected (although Erdélyi, for example, studied folk-songs in books; apparently his background did not provide him with natural proficiency), and that with this simplicity the genius of ‘the people’ became manifest. Perhaps this accounts for the success of another poet who came, if possible, from even lower in the social scale than Erdélyi. István Sinka (1897-1969) was a herdsman on the Lowland, leading a primitive, solitary life almost until he was forty. His first volume of poetry (Hymns at the Gates of the East, 1934) is full of peasant mysticism, shamanistic postures and the cult of the East-Turanism in free verse. In his later poetry Sinka changed his style and turned to folk-poetry, but often kept his surrealistic imagery, which reminds the reader of primitively-expressed apocalyptic visions (The Conquest of the Bats, 1941). His ballads also contain supernatural elements derived from the popular beliefs of the herdsmen of the Lowland, and visionary experiences of religious sects there. In this sense, Sinka’s poetry is indigenous; he draws on experiences previously unknown in literature. In addition, his poetry shows that strong commitment to his class and his unknown ancestors which is a general characteristic of népi poetry. His short stories and autobiography, Confessions of a Black Herdsman (2 vols., 1942-4), are documents of a way of life whose hardships are described with bitterness and sincerity. After 1945 Sinka, like most of the populist authors, was silenced, and it was only in the 1960s that he was allowed to publish again. His last works show the result of this enforced silence; like Erdélyi, he had been unable to expand his world of poetic perception; much of his new work subsists on his earlier experiences.

An example of the worst effect caused by the idolization of őstehetség is provided by the sorry fate of Kálmán Sértő (1910-41), who came to Budapest from his village with a bundle of manuscripts. His poetry (Village Moment, 1933), which showed both originality and the influence of Ady’s imagery, was celebrated by critics as the unpolished gems of a peasant genius. True, some of Sértő’s verses had a novelty stemming from their unaffected naïvety, but he often overwrote his themes, a sure sign of artistic uncertainty; this tendency gradually grew more pronounced as the fanfares of uncritical admirers suppressed the inner voice of self-doubt in him. Moreover, he became a darling of society, a ‘noble savage’ whose presence provided an additional attraction at the parties of any self-respecting upper-middle-class hostess. When Sértő became sophisticated enough to realize that, in spite of all the pampering, he was regarded by his patrons only as an amusing pet, he turned against them and joined the political extremists. He eventually took to drink, and the night-life of Budapest quickly destroyed him. His last poems (Announcement of Grief, 1940) are moving documents of his distress, a final upsurge of his declining talent.

While Sértő’s association with the népi movement came about because one of the aims of the populist movement was to uncover among the peasantry just such talents as his, there was at least one poet who joined the movement from the outside. Pá1 Gulyás (1899-1944) was the son of a lecturer, and himself became a teacher. A native of Debrecen, Gulyás’s early poetical development followed the artistic ideals of the Nyugat movement; his poems were often inspired by meditation, and youthful pessimism. One of his main concerns was his isolation; his desire to escape intellectual loneliness drove him into the populists’ camp. He initiated and took part in the launching of a periodical, Response (1934-8, re-started 1946-9), which became the leading organ of the populists and to a certain degree the rival of Nyugat, since it also enjoyed the support of many gifted writers from outside the populist camp. Gulyás’s idea was to create a counter-centre of literature whose base was outside Budapest, while his colleagues, who included László Németh, were rather concerned with creating a populist mouthpiece.

Gulyás eventually withdrew into his Debrecen solitude, although he never lost sympathy for the movement, or rather for its ideals; yet his own particular brand of harmadik út found no response. Resignation dominated his later poetry: ‘You are not needed, the world rejects you’ (‘To an Hungarian Poet’). The darkening political horizon also contributed to his engulfing pessimism, and he found refuge in translations. He was particularly fascinated by the mythical world of the Kalevala, whose images found their way into his own poetry.

Finally, Gyula Takáts (1911- ) is often considered as a népi poet, since he also produced a sociological survey of his native district and joined the March Front in 1937. His poetry is, however, idyllic with classic reminiscences and bucolic landscapes; he is undoubtedly a regionalist who carefully maintains his connections with the literary heritage of his native Transdanubia.