May 5, 2014

When poets attack


Image via Shutterstock.

Image via Shutterstock.

Yesterday was the last day of PEN World Voices, the international literature festival that brings legions of writers, translators, and other artists to New York every May. Which, apart from the chance to grin lovingly and idiotically at László Krasznahorkai across a crowded bar or hear Adam Michnik tell jokes about Putin, has always seemed to me like a good moment to contemplate how much can go wrong when you get a bunch of writers together.

By (possible?) coincidence, Charles Simic prepared the ground for this annual meditation with a post that ran on the New York Review of Books’ blog the week before last about the Stony Brook World Poetry Conference of 1968—a gathering of 108 American and foreign poets organized by Jim Harrison and Louis Simpson, perhaps the largest gathering of its kind and certainly one of the most diverse, since poets from many different camps and traditions were invited. It began, as Simic tells it, civilly enough, but soon degenerated. There was booze—Harrison claims that they went $50,000 over the budget for food and wine—there was snubbing, there was heckling. And in the end, a fight, in the last hours:

Back at Louis Simpson’s house in Stony Brook, during the farewell party on the last night of the conference, a fight broke out. People were standing in pairs or groups on the huge lawn sipping their drinks and, without any hint that something was about to happen, fists started flying. When a few tried to break it up, a punch would head in their direction and they would in turn join the melee. I stood on the porch watching in astonishment with the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra and the French poet Eugène Guillevic. They were delighted by the spectacle and assumed that this is how American poets always settled their literary quarrels; I tried to tell them that this was the first time I had seen anything like that and it scared the hell out of me, but they just laughed. Looking back, I, too, have to admit that what we saw was pretty funny.

One gets the sense that this was in fact the only natural way for the conference to end, that the accumulated resentments and misunderstandings and hangover-induced irritability had to find their release in a ridiculous scuffle, before everyone got the hell off the Island. From his viewpoint outside the fray, Simic also observed, wonderfully, that “as soon as the fight started, Allen Ginsberg went down on his knees and began chanting some Buddhist prayer for peace and harmony among all living creatures.”

Still, my favorite account of the disasters that can occur when you get a bunch of writers together in an unfamiliar place is in an essay by Hungarian editor Miklós Wajda that appeared in the Hungarian Quarterly back in 2003 (the essay’s unfortunately not available online, but it can be found in Volume XLIII, No. 171 of the Quarterly‘s back issues).

Wajda was the chaperone for a writers’ tour organized by the British Council in 1980, in which six Hungarian poets were sent around the British Isles with stops in London, Glasgow, and Bangor, Wales. The poets were Sándor Weöres, Amy Károlyi (Weöres and Károlyi were husband and wife), István Vas, Ferenc Juhász, János Pilinszky, and Ágnes Nemes Nagy, and they represented a range of poetic styles, as well as a range of positions in regards to official culture.

Moreover, they were traveling, as Wajda writes, to “the very bastions of the evil imperialists, and with the consent of higher party-state organs moreover, and so we constituted a delegation.” A delegation, it turned out, that would barely make it through its twelve-day tour, suffering accidents, thefts, and multiple disorienting encounters with drunken Brits along the way, but shaped above all by the personalities of the poets involved.

It began with the mugging of Pilinszky on the first evening of the tour. He had gone out for dinner in Soho with his publisher and his translator, who left him to find his way back to his hotel at the end of the night. Gamely, Pilinszky headed out into London around midnight, trying to hail a cab in his nonexistent English… and woke up several hours later on a sidewalk with no recollection of how he’d gotten there, and minus the six hundred pounds that he had brought from Hungary to buy a high-fidelity stereo system and some rare Bach recordings. He eventually made it back to the hotel and reported the theft to the police, but the incident set the already tense and emotionally volatile group on edge.

So much so that, the following morning, Wajda found himself under attack:

The next morning, István Vas, with whom I had been friendly for decades, and who was by no means the sort of man whom one would associate with physical violence, stepped up to me in the hotel lobby and, grabbing me by the lapels with astonishing ferocity, literally hoisted me off the ground with one arm as he hissed, “If any harm comes of this, I’ll kill you!” He then tossed me aside like a rag and stalked off like the hero in some action film.  I was so stunned that I couldn’t get a word out. Later on, I realized that he was actually concerned for his wife, Piroska, who was accompanying him whilst still recovering from a heart attack. It looks as if I’m going to be held responsible even for blood clots forming, I thought to myself.

In the days that followed, Ferenc Juhász would be dragged out of his hotel room in the middle of the night by inebriated wastepaper dealers from a wastepaper dealer convention; Weöres and Károlyi’s hotel room would be invaded by similarly lost and similarly inebriated members of an Irish hurling team, who thought they’d left a bag under the bed; Vas would slip and cut open his head, requiring stitches; the group found themselves being serenaded with sentimental Soviet ballads by the balalaika-playing Hungarian cultural attaché in London; various parties kicked up various fusses; alliances were formed and broken; and havoc, in general, ensued.

Probably the greatest moment of it all, though, is Wajda’s account of what happened directly after Pilinszky arrived back at the poets’ hotel on the first night:

“I need to phone my wife in Paris right away,” he said suddenly (this was when he happened to be in his second marriage), and immediately picked up the receiver to ask the hotel switchboard, in French, to put him through to the number in Paris. I did not listen to the conversation as I went out into the corridor. Lines from Pilinszky’s poems were running through my head, imagery of shocking power that conveys his horror of physical contact. And the two-liner “For Life”: “The bed is common. The pillow is not.” By the time I returned to the room, he was lying on my bed, somewhat calmer, in the fetal position.

“My love life, you know,” he said in a near-whisper, with a sadly dismissive wave of the hand, “is a desert. A big nothing.” That irresistibly put me in mind of the close of his great poem “The Desert of Love”: “And hope/is like a tin-cup toppled into the straw.” I sat down beside him and tried to console him. At this point he interrupted me in a reedy, high-pitched, almost childlike wailing tone to ask something extremely simple and touching: “Dear Miklós, would you be so kind as to stroke my head?” And then he closed his eyes….

For a few minutes we remained there, wordless, on the hotel bed as I stroked János Pilinszky’s head. Then the poet suddenly raised himself, grasped my hand and pressed it as he gazed at me with eyes closed. That’s right, gazed at me.

It was one of his habits to signal his thanks with his eyes closed and a silent play of his features, all accompanied by a slight, wry smile and a rapid series of tiny nods of the head. With that, he left the room.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.