George Szirtes Introduction - Essay

Introduction

George Szirtes 1948–-

Contemporary British poet, literary critic, and translator.

The following entry provides information from 1979 through 2001 on the life and career of Szirtes.

Szirtes is best known for his ability to tackle multifaceted historical issues with a clarity of vision and deep human sympathy. His unique perspective enables him to delve deep into the realm of painful history while maintaining a unique balance of formal lyric language and vibrant imagery. His enlightening poetry has received nearly universal critical acclaim.

Biographical Information

George Szirtes was born in Budapest, Hungary, on November 29, 1948 to Laszlo and Magdalena Szirtes. His father was an engineer and his mother was a photographer. Szirtes emigrated with his family to London, England in 1956 after the Hungarian uprising. Szirtes attended the Harrow School of Art from 1968-69. On July 11, 1970, Szirtes married Clarissa `, who is also an artist, and they had two children, Thomas and Helen. Szirtes went on to earn a B.A. from Leeds College of Art in 1972, and an A.T.C. from the University of London in 1973. Szirtes' held part-time teaching jobs until 1975, when he became head of art at the Hitchin Girls' School, where he remained until 1980. He was the director of art and history of art at St. Christopher School in Letchworth, England from 1980-89. In 1989, he divided his time between St. Christopher School and the Norfolk Institute of Art and Design, where he became a senior lecturer in poetry in 1991. In addition, he has worked as a freelance writer and translator since 1987. Szirtes began publishing his poetry in 1972, though he did not receive a great deal of critical acclaim until 1979's The Slant Door, which won him a Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize from Faber & Faber Ltd./Arts Council in 1980. Among other accolades, Szirtes was elected fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982. He subsequently won an Arts Council fellowship in 1984. His work was listed among the Poetry Book Society choices and recommendations in 1984, 1986 and 1988, he was granted a British Council fellowship in 1985, he received the Cholmondely Prize for Poetry in 1987, and he held the post of Writer in Residence at Trinity College, Dublin, in 2000. A return trip to Hungary in 1984 renewed Szirtes' interest in his native country and inspired him to begin translating into English the works of contemporary Hungarian poets. His first translation, Imre Madách's The Tragedy of Man, was published in 1989. He has since translated nine more volumes of poetry Hungarian poets, as well as anthologies of poets past and present. His translations won the Dery prize for translation in 1991 and the Gold Star of the Hungarian Republic in the same year. In addition, he won a European Poetry Translation Prize in 1995 for his translation of Zsuzsa Rakovszky's New Life (1994). Szirtes' works appear regularly in national and international anthologies. His poetry has also been translated into several other European languages. A few of his poems appear in anthologies aimed at children. He currently resides in England and is a member of International PEN, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Major Works

Szirtes published his first book of poetry, Poems, in 1972. But it wasn’t until he published The Slant Door in 1979, which was hailed as a master work, that Szirtes earned critical acclaim and garnering him international attention for the first time. Szirtes continued to publish his poetry and won more critical acclaim with the publication of The Photographer in Winter (1986), Metro (1988), and Bridge Passages (1991). His tour de force, Portrait of my Father in an English Landscape, published in 1998, cemented his reputation as a master of complex poetic forms. More recent works, such as The Budapest File (2000) and An English Apocalypse (2001), have only added to his reputation. In addition to his own poetry, Szirtes has worked tirelessly to translate the work of contemporary Hungarian poets into English. He translated and co-edited an anthology, The Colonnade of Teeth: Twentieth Century Hungarian Poetry, published in 1996, which has also received praise from critics all over the globe.

Critical Reception

George Szirtes started publishing his poetry in 1972, but his poetry went largely ignored in literary circles until the publication of The Slant Door. The critical reception this volume received was unusual for a poet as little known as Szirtes was at that time. Subsequent works were received with similar accolades, though critics are often divided when discussing Szirtes' writing style. Some offer awed praise for his use of iambic pentameter, his sonnets, and complicated structures that pull the final lines from 13 different stanzas and includes them in a final summary sonnet at the end of a chapter of verse. Others complain about his ornate and stilted use of language. Alan Brownjohn critiques, in a review ofThe Slant Door in Encounter, the poet's “habits of using the painter's eye for intriguing detail to get poems off the ground and employing a rather garish surrealist fantasy.” Also writing in Encounter, Alan Jenkins praises Szirtes’ poetry for its “strange and dangerous benedictions, and for its subtle paradoxes and contradictions...” There seems to be little middle ground in this debate—critics either love the structure and complexity of his formal style or they declaim it as a weak crutch.