George Szirtes Essay - Critical Essays

Szirtes, George


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.

Principal Works

Poems 1972

The Iron Clouds 1975

Visitors 1976

A Mandeville Troika [with Neil Power and Peter Scupham] 1977

An Illustrated Alphabet 1978

Poetry Introduction 4 [with others] 1978

At the Sink 1978

Silver Age 1979

The Slant Door 1979

Sermon on a Ship 1980

Homage to Cheval 1981

November and May 1981

The Kissing Place 1982

Short Wave 1984

The Photographer in Winter 1986

Metro 1988

Bridge Passages 1991

Blind Field 1994

Selected Poems 1996

Portrait of my Father in an English Landscape 1998

The Budapest File 2000

An English Apocalypse 2001

A Starwheel Portfolio, The Transparent Room, Strict Seasons, Spring Offensive, Cloud Station, States of Undress [editor, 6 vols.] (verse and etching portfolios) 1978-84

Imre Madách: The Tragedy of Man [translator] (play) 1989

Sándor Csóri: Barbarian Prayer [translator] (poetry) 1989

István Vas: Through the Smoke [translator] (poetry) 1989

Dezsō Kosztolányi: Anna Édes [translator] (novel) 1991

Ottó Orbán: The Blood of the Walsungs [translator] (poetry) 1993

Zsuzsa Rakovszky: New Life [translator] (poetry) 1994

The Collected Poems of Freda Downie (poetry) 1995

The Colonnade of Teeth: Twentieth Century Hungarian Poetry [co-editor and translator] (poetry) 1996

The Red All Over Riddle Book (children's book) 1997

The Lost Rider: Hungarian Poetry 16-20th Century [editor and translator] (poetry) 1998

Gyula Krúdy: The Adventures of Sindbad [translator] (short stories) 1999

Lászlo Krasznahorkai: The Melancholy of Resistance Novel [translator] (novel) 2000

Exercise of Power: The art of Ana Maria Pacheco (biography) 2001

New Writing 10 [editor, with Penelope Lively] (anthology) 2001

The Night of Akhenaton: Selected Poems of Ágnes Nemes Nagy [translator] (poetry) 2003


William Palmer (review date December 1980)

SOURCE: Palmer, William. “A New Slant.” Poetry Review 70, no. 3 (December 1980): 68-70.

[In the following review, Palmer writes favorably about The Slant Door.]

George Szirtes has achieved in The Slant Door that rare thing—a book that cannot be wrapped in a five hundred word review and dropped to oblivion. It is one of the best first books of poetry to be published in the past few years, that is, if we judge by successful poems and not by promise or critically adduced intentions.

This, of course, is to take the book as a whole, and in an unusually meaty book, with poems crowded together on the page, there is a fair amount of XXth century poetic stock:

Sunlight laces the book
The dying light shudders
The trees fling their doily patterns high

The last line is from one of those of poems about the pathos of old age that now seem obligatory in any young poet's book.

But there is also this:

Look, it has snowed in the light
And the roads are bright as skin
Lit by the moon: the snow is moonlight
And there will be no morning ever again,
We shall live in white like brides
Never stirring, nor shall light be over
To discover the bed unmade or the windows thrown wide
Or the street stopped in its course like a river.

This may appear slight at first, and this is the whole poem, but it is a whole poem and shows a quite unforced balance and subtlety of thought and rhythm as the language is moved through modulation and oppositions, moved to that last line and held there. It has mastery and fitness; the scene is general, we can supply the detail; what is left out is the presence of the poet; for its duration we exist in the poem.

In ‘Salon des Indépendants’, the view is specific, frozen in the past and lifted out like a glass slide; unless I am mistaken the poem is an accurate translation into words of a painting by the Douanier Rousseau. Another poem, ‘Nativity Scene’, seems to imitate the spring steel lines of a Crivelli:

The caged god turns in his mother's arms and presses
Against her ribs with a unique strength …

Where in a lesser poet this cold yet fiery poem would be typical of a number of cold look-alikes, the brilliance of description causes one to turn back...

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Alan Jenkins (essay date August 1982)

SOURCE: Jenkins, Alan. “A Barbarous Eloquence.” Encounter 59, no. 2 (August 1982): 55-61.

[In the following essay, Jenkins discusses Szirtes's poetic style.]

The poems contained in George Szirtes's November and May are largely concerned with propitiating the grimmer or less manageable gods and with trying to wrest a quirky, by no means comforting morality—in both senses—from the already quirky occurrences of the everyday and the domestic. The epigraph from Mac-Neice's “Snow” (“There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses”) suggests that Szirtes has sensed the limitations of meticulousness, starkness, cleanliness, a strong visual...

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John Lucas (essay date 13 January 1984)

SOURCE: Lucas, John. “Sight Lines.” New Statesman 107 (13 January 1984): 24-5.

[In the following essay, Lucas writes about Szirtes's word choice and use of rhythm.]

There is more than a trace of Geoffrey Grigson in the manner of George Szirtes' relish for the observable world. Describing a bullfinch perched on a lilac flower, he says that the bird's weight ‘bothered the lilac, she bent / a little, her small tent / of pleasure collapsing / inward with the swaying’. Although those lines could never be mistaken for Grigson, the weighting and positioning of rhyme and phrase owe something to his example. In Short Wave, notation becomes poetry: ‘Tired, you...

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Andrew Motion (review date April 1984)

SOURCE: Motion, Andrew. “Too True.” Poetry Review 74, no. 1 (April 1984): 64.

[In the following review, Motion discusses the love poetry of Szirtes.]

Once in a while, or maybe only once in a lifetime, most of us want to write love poems. And most of us, especially if the love we want to write about is happy, find it dismayingly difficult. Why? The most obvious reason—or at least the most commonly given, and the one made famous by Larkin—is that ‘happiness writes white’. It's an appealing excuse for the elegiac English sensibility. But behind it lies a complicated question about audience. It's usual for poets to claim that their relationship with their...

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John Lucas (review date 26 August 1988)

SOURCE: Lucas, John. “A Rose for the Betrayed World.” New Statesman 1, no. 12 (26 August 1988): 38.

[In the following review, Lucas looks at the political nature of poems in Szirtes's collection Metro.]

At the end of “Five Men”, a poem which records with level, factual honesty the assassination of political dissidents (or so one assumes them to be), Zbigniew Herbert remarks that a poet can also “once again / in dead earnest / offer to the betrayed world / a rose.” He does not intend to mock such earnestness. But then what is the subject for poetry? Or rather, is it possible to find a procedure—a tone, a style, a formal manner—that makes possible...

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Mark Ford (essay date 19 January 1989)

SOURCE: Ford, Mark. “Sssnnnwhuffffll.” London Review of Books 11, no. 2 (19 January 1989): 14-5.

[In the following essay, Ford discusses the themes of Szirtes's book Metro.]

George Szirtes is a less frolicsome poet than Morgan, and his new volume, Metro, has him dealing with particularly grim subject-matter. The book's long title poem is set in the Hungary of 1944-45. The country has been overrun by fascist forces, and Hungarian Jews, including the poet's own mother, are being rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The poem's narrative cuts between his own childhood memories of Hungary and the fates of various branches of the Szirtes family, but mainly...

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George Szirtes (essay date spring 1989)

SOURCE: Szirtes, George. “Being Remade As an English Poet.” New Hungarian Quarterly 30, no. 113 (spring 1989): 149-59.

[In the following essay, Szirtes writes about his youth and writing poetry in a new language.]

At the age of twenty-seven I felt “I needed to be remade as an English poet.” It was of course a form of groping in the dark. What does it mean to be remade? If I ask myself this question now I am immediately led back into that odd twilight world in which the past becomes an unwitting liar, the clear conclusions that spring from it fade like mirages, and even the apparent certainties of what has come to be begin to lose their definition. Now I travel...

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Stephen Romer (review date 16 August 1991)

SOURCE: Romer, Stephen. “Events through Glass.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4611 (16 August 1991): 24.

[In the following review, Romer discusses the emotions found in the poetry of Szirtes's Bridge Passages.]

Geòrge Szirtes's new book carries the dedication “For my friends in Hungary”, which puts us instantly in the picture, given that most of the poems were composed in Hungary itself during the momentous months of 1989-90. To outsiders, the demise of the Communist regime there was perhaps less spectacular, and in a sense less public, than the similar events in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and especially Romania. As if in keeping with our more muffled perception...

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Stan Smith (review date 9 January 1992)

SOURCE: Smith, Stan. “Imagining the Suburbs.” London Review of Books 14, no. 1 (9 January 1992): 22-3.

[In the following review, Smith discusses the imagery in Szirtes's book Bridge Passages.]

Whole systems of thought have been founded on the French language's inability to distinguish differing from deferring. Perhaps Napoleon is to blame (‘Not tonight, Josephine’). In Britain, we do things differently. Whereas Baudelaire's vrai voyageur preferred travelling joyfully to the letdowns of arrival—in modern terms, couldn't stop playing with his signifier—Forster's Mrs Moore remains convinced that there is a real India to make her passage to, Conrad's...

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Nicholas Murray (review date 7 June 1996)

SOURCE: Murray, Nicholas. “Retro to the Metro.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4862 (7 June 1996): 26.

[In the following review, Murray examines Szirtes's selections for his book Selected Poems. 1976-1996.]

“I'm merely a reporter whose truth lies / in diction clear as water”, declares the narrator of “Street Entertainment”, a poem from Bridge Passages (1991), the sixth of the seven collections raided for this impressively consistent and accomplished Selected Poems: 1976-1996. George Szirtes has always cast a cool eye on the human and the physical landscapes—often reading one in terms of the other—and is reluctant to draw too many...

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Caitriona O'Reilly (essay date March-April 1999)

SOURCE: O'Reilly, Caitriona. “Possibilities of Vision.” Poetry Nation Review 25, no. 4 (March-April 1999): 79-80.

[In the following essay, O'Reilly discusses the technical merit of Szirtes's poetry in his book Portrait of My Father in an English Landscape.]

Portrait of my Father in an English Landscape is Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes's most recent collection. The volume is concerned with the poet's memories of his family and early childhood in Eastern Europe, and in an England overshadowed by deprivation and war. This translates symbolically into a poetry which is obsessed by effacement and decay. ‘Four Villonesques on Desire’ comprise a witty...

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Judith Kitchen (essay date summer 1999)

SOURCE: Kitchen, Judith. “Tensions.” Georgia Review 53, no. 2 (summer 1999): 368-84.

[In the following essay, Kitchen explores the father-son relationships described in Szirtes's poetry volume Portrait of My Father in an English Landscape.]

Portrait of My Father in an English Landscape by George Szirtes is one of the most elegantly formal books I've read in recent years. Szirtes is a master of iambic pentameter, of the sonnet in particular, and seems to have found ways to make English rhymes sound new. One way he does this is through innovative use of enjambment; the stanzas unfold seamlessly while the intricacy of the pattern establishes itself, as in the...

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George Szirtes with András Gerevich (interview date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Szirtes, George with András Gerevich. “Hungarian Roots, English Traditions.” Hungarian Quarterly 42, no. 164 (winter 2001): 100-06.

[In the following interview, Szirtes and Gerevich discuss Szirtes's life and work.]

George Szirtes, born in Budapest in 1948, left Hungary with his family as a child in 1956 and settled in England. So far he has published 13 volumes of poetry, the most recent of which are The Budapest File, Bloodaxe/Corvina, 2000, a collection of his poems on Hungarian topics, and An English Apocalypse, Bloodaxe, 2001. He has received numerous prestigious British awards, including the Faber Prize and the Cholmondeley Award. He...

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James Sutherland-Smith (review date September-October 2001)

SOURCE: Sutherland-Smith, James. “In and Out of Focus.” Poetry Nation Review 28, no. 1 (September-October 2001): 68-9.

[In the following review, Sutherland-Smith discusses Szirtes's life in relation to his book The Budapest File.]

George Szirtes so far has enjoyed a distinguished career as a poet and translator with the occasional acerbic review to add bite. His change of English publisher has resulted in a Collected poems about Budapest and Central Europe. The book is dedicated to the memory of his mother and to his father both of whom emerge as remarkable presences in the book, as does the poet himself, rather more so than the city of Budapest which...

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James Hopkin (essay date 27 October 2001)

SOURCE: Hopkin, James. “Wrestling with Englishness.” Guardian (27 October 2001): 11.

[In the following essay, Hopkin writes about Szirtes's transition from being Hungarian to being English.]

’Xenophobia is not what it used to be,” says Anglo-Hungarian poet and translator George Szirtes, and he should know. Ever since he walked across the Austrian border as an eight-year-old refugee in 1956, Szirtes has lived the life of a hyphenated being, never quite belonging to his adopted country, England, and never quite leaving behind his native Hungary.

When he began writing in his late teens, he realised that the struggle for identity was located in...

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Further Reading


Marshall, Alan. “Forgive this Garrulousness.” Daily Telegraph (16 December 2000): 1.

Critiques Szirtes's writing style.

Murray Davis, Robert. Review of The Budapest File. World Literature Today 75, no. 2 (spring 2001): 342.

Gives a quick review of Szirtes's book The Budapest File.

Additional coverage of Szirtes' life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 109; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 61, 117; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 46; Contemporary Poets,...

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