Attila József: A fine summer evening (translated by John Bátki)

John Bátki’s 1997 anthology of translated Attila József poems is one of the many books that I bought in a small handful of English and foreign-language bookstores in Budapest’s city centre during the 1990’s. I always spoke Hungarian fluently, yet as a teenager born in Canada, but living within the relatively large expat community of Hungary’s capital, I found Hungarian too onerous to read. Attila József (1905-1937), who died tragically at just 32 years of age, is one of Hungary’s “canonical” twentieth century poets. He wrote most of his work during the interwar years, from around 1923 to 1937, and his oeuvre registers and explores images of both urban and rural poverty, as well as concepts of class-based alienation. According to literary critic Lóránt Czigány, Attila József “is a symbol of the consciousness that was waging a losing battle against Fascism before World War II.”

Mr. Bátki drew parallels between Attila József and Jack Kerouac. “Both poets are preoccupied with the sadness of existence, both are ever mindful of emptiness. Kerouac’s is a more consciously Buddhist attitude than József’s–although in the 1934 poem “Village,” the Hungarian poet sees ’emerald Buddhas in the dewy grass…'”–writes the translator. Allen Ginsburg, who borrowed several phrases from Attila József, had agreed to write an introduction to Mr. Bátki’s anthology, but he passed away, with the pages of the translator’s unpublished manuscript piled on his bedside table.

The poem “A fine summer evening” shows Attila József’s capacity for observing, registering and framing the minute details of everyday life. The poem’s beginning and ending physically frames the image for the reader. The seemingly passive speaker, who is observing the bustling anxiety of the world around him, appears to tie together this otherwise chaotic image for us into a nice, orderly package.

(Christopher Adam)

József Attila with his partner Márta Vágó (circa 1928).

Attila József with his love interest, Márta Vágó (circa 1928). Socio-economic differences (Ms. Vágó came from a wealthy family and her parents were of the intelligentsia, while Attila József’s father worked in a soap factory and his mother was a peasant) doomed their relationship.

A fine summer evening

It is a fine summer evening.

Rumbling trains arrive and depart,
frightened factories are waiting,
soot-black rooftops are blackened by evening,
newsboys clamor under the streetlights,
cars scuttle back and forth,
streetcars clang in a great procession,
neon signs scream that you are blind,
walls that trail off into side streets
wave their posters back at you.
Ahead of you, behind, everywhere,
poster-faced men are scurrying,
and beyond the big city blocks you can see
climbing a man-ladder,
and veins are swelling
on the necks of angry avenues.
You can hear the silent office drudge’s shriek,
the slow footfalls of workers going home
as if they were old sages
with nothing left to do on earth.
You can hear the soft movement of the pickpocket’s wrists,
and the peasant smacking his lips
as he lifts a broad strip of hay
from his neighbor’s land.
I who am listening can hear it all.
The worm whimpers in the beggar’s bones,
women nose about me,
but I have come from a long way off,
so I just sit on my friendly doorstep
and keep silent.

It is a fine summer evening.


(Source: John Bátki, Winter Night–Selected Poems of Attila József, Corvina Books, Budapest: 1997, p. 10.)

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