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A Dialectic of forgetting: János Pilinszky and Ted Hughes

Rowland, Antony (2014) A Dialectic of forgetting: János Pilinszky and Ted Hughes. (Unpublished)

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Abstract

Critics such as Michael Parker and Neil Roberts have drawn attention to the influence of Eastern European poetry as a whole on Ted Hughes’s work, and in this article I focus on Hughes’s attraction to János Pilinszky’s verse in particular. Initially, this may seem odd, given Pilinszky’s pervasive Christian iconography, and the fact that—as I illustrate—the Hungarian poet vacillated between victimhood and complicity during the war. However, Pilinszky’s ruminations about trauma and memory strike a particular chord with the Yorkshire poet. Susan Bassnett, amongst others, has commented briefly on the affinity between the two writers, but in this article I explore the precise impact of Pilinszky on Hughes’s writing. Hughes was working on Pilinszky’s poetry with János Csokits in the early 1970s, until the publication of their translations in 1976: at the same time, he was writing two of his own collections that contain similar stylistics; Cave Birds, which he started in 1974, and Gaudete, which he worked on intensively in 1975. This synchronicity results in two collections that often read as if they were translations. Rather than fulfilling Harold Bloom’s magniloquent conception of the anxiety of influence as a violent “family romance”—in which the ephebe vanquishes the predecessor poet in order to survive—the relationship between Hughes and Pilinszky is that of fellow travellers who draw on aspects of each other’s work in order to refine previous convictions, rather than subvert the precursor’s aesthetics. I analyse Pilinszky poems such as ‘Unfinished Past’ and ‘You Have Had to Suffer Wind and Cold’, and extracts from Hughes’s Cave Birds and Gaudete sequences, in order to demonstrate the dialectic of influence between the two writers in the early 1970s, when, some critics argue, Hughes produced his best work.

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