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7 min read

Standing up for poetry

Krisztina Tóth's second short story for PEN/Opp - a multi-layered tale of hierarchy and inequality.

Credits TEXT: Krisztina Tóth Translation: Peter Sherwood March 13 2018

Hungarian writer Krisztina Tóth has written some twenty books, both prose and poetry. She is an acclaimed and popular writer, whose books are widely distributed in her home country. She often uses everyday motifs in her works, and draws an unvarnished picture of Hungarian society. Her work has been translated into several European languages.

I arrive at the provincial high school where on the Day of Poetry I am to offer a special literature class. The teacher who made the arrangements is waiting for me on the entrance steps. Her name is Erzsike, she seems to have a slight case of stage fright, and asks me to kindly drop by the Headmaster's office, as he would like to have a word before the event.

We are received by a beefy, severe-looking man. He motions me to take a seat in the armchair facing his desk, and returns behind it himself. Poetry is a fine thing, he says launching into his speech, and he considers it important that the children should profit from today's encounter. He voices his hope that the event passes off without any problems and expresses his regret that he cannot be present in person, as he has a mountain of administrative tasks to attend to. There is no one, he continues with some emphasis, to deal with these in his stead and in this institution – he now glances pointedly at the teacher, who has remained standing – every burden falls on his shoulders.

My distinct impression is that he would have been much happier had they invited a proper writer to speak, not a woman. A writer with a beard and a moustache, or – dammit – at least a pair of spectacles.

I sign the various pieces of paper, take one copy of the contract, then say goodbye. The Headmaster says he will try to look in at the end of the programme, if he manages to finish his work in time.

In the corridor I point out that I had not prepared a programme and would prefer to have a conversation with the schoolkids, to which Erzsike retorts that there are ten minutes scheduled for that at the end – they had prepared written questions for me.

We enter the assembly hall heavy with the sweaty smell familiar from the school events of my childhood. The childen are wearing their best clothes, and greet me in a chorus. A freshly coiffed teacher of Hungarian in a two-piece suit comes up to me and welcomes me with military stiffness, saying that the children's rehearsals have gone well and we would now hear them reciting my poems. I nod, startled. She will be in the chair, she whispers in my ear, but does not immediately sit down beside me, because it is customary for the teacher to share the children's suffering. I don't understand what she means by suffering, but just moments later it becomes all too clear.

Taking their cue from her strict glance, the kids step forward one at a time and rattle off with blank faces poems that I have written and which I would swear on oath were possessed of some meaning in their printed form. This is by no means obvious from the short selection of them here: clueless faces, glassy-eyed stares, hands scrunching skirt hems. These children's encounter with poetry is more like a drill, a kind of exam, a mini-matura. The programme goes like clockwork, the teacher shepherds the students off the stage, and the conversation can begin.

I turn to the audience and ask a question. Hands resolutely unraised, the children stare back with the blank faces of prisoners exercising in the courtyard of their jail. Fearing that the teacher might prompt someone to ask a question, I decide to read out a poem instead, in the hope of easing the tension. I begin with a poem with a bearing on Attila József, the teacher nods in approval. Meanwhile I sense that the Headmaster has entered the room and is gesturing, obviously keen to show he has now arrived.

When I finish, there is a minor commotion, people's heads swivel round. An elderly teacher steals along the ends of the rows of chairs, bending down like a late arrival at a film-show intent on slipping in quietly, with as little disruption as possible. She has a slip of paper in her hand. Those in the front row take it from her and pass it along until, to my surprise, the slip lands up with me, on stage. On it, in block capitals, are the words: ONE STANDS UP WHEN ONE RECITES A POEM!

Thunderstruck, I look up and see that the beefy headmaster is once again gesticulating. Now I understand why: he wants me to stand up.

I read out the message, into the microphone. A few people in the front row draw in their necks and mutter under their breath that I should stay as I am and then sneak a look behind them. The Headmaster and I stare at each other from opposite ends of the room and I say into the microphone that I would like to recite my poems in a sitting position, if he has no objection. A rebellious, revolutionary atmosphere sweeps the room, the teachers wait with flushed faces to see what will happen next. The response of the teacher of Hungarian on the stage is that I can do as I wish, and she glances to the back of the room as if to assure her boss that she is sorry, but this really was nothing to do with her, she could have told him in advance that it was risky to invite a real, living poet, and the whole thing was Erzsike's idea anyhow.

As I begin to speak it suddenly flashes through my mind that I may be putting someone's job on the line here. Erzsike's, for example, who had suggested I be invited, but perhaps others', too, maybe of everyone clutching my book in their hands, ready for me to sign it. They, above all, are the ones that I am addressing, and the children.

What I would really like to say, in this desperately airless, echoing room, is that poetry is music, poetry is ourselves, our very being, our identity, that we recite a poem not by heart but from the heart, and not "properly" but any old how, any old where. On a wet, sandy shore, standing in József's shaft of light, lying flat on our stomach on the roof of a train, sitting on shimmering cliffs, slowly, musingly, quietly, mumblingly.

The Headmaster strides out of the room, the children clap, a tall boy with sweaty palms hands me a bouquet. Maybe they will remember me, or perhaps I will disappear suddenly, like wild beasts' tracks in the woods – it is hard to know.

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