I shall be a gardener
IN 1925 Attila József, one of Hungary’s best loved and most famous poets, wrote a simple poem called Kertész leszek – I shall be a gardener. This is the first verse:
Kertész leszek, fát nevelek
kelő nappal én is kelek
nem törődök semmi mással,
csak a beojtott virággal.
I shall be a gardener, I’ll grow trees
with the early sunrise – I’ll rise too.
And nothing else will bother my head,
except my tenderly grafted flowers.
But Attila was not a gardener. And he grew up far from any garden or flower. Born into abject poverty in the ninth district of Budapest – a tough, industrial, working class corner of the city – Attila lived a semi-feral early life. A self-confessed street urchin, he scrabbled to survive. His mother Borbála died of cancer when he was still in his teens. His father, a soap factory worker, had abandoned the family long before. Attila and his two sisters were like wild flowers, pushing through the cracks in the tough urban pavement.
Minden beojtott virágom
kedvesem lesz virágáron
ha csalán lesz, azt se bánom,
igaz lesz majd a virágom.
Every flower that I have planted
will be my favourite one of all
and if weeds grow – I won’t care
each flower of mine will come true
Planting myself in the soil
Attila got some schooling in the end, when his brother in law paid for him to attend. He even went to university, with dreams of being a teacher: but he was sent down for writing poetry deemed seditious by the state.
He travelled and studied in Vienna and Paris. He read Hegel and Marx, joined the – then illegal – Hungarian Communist Party in 1930, but was expelled from that too, for being too maverick and independent a thinker.
Tejet iszok és pipázok,
jóhíremre jól vigyázok,
nem ér engem veszedelem,
magamat is elültetem.
I shall drink my milk and smoke my pipe,
and closely guard my own good name,
no danger will ever reach me now,
I’ve planted my very self in the soil.
If the world should end…
How Attila longed for the peace and quiet of the garden. But it was never to be his. He suffered terribly from depression and schizophrenia. He was abjectly poor his whole life long. His brilliant mind was tormented to death. On the 3rd of December 1937, he died under the wheels of a train on the railway tracks at Balatonszárszó, whilst staying with his sister. Was it an accident – or suicide? He was just 32 years old.
Kell ez nagyon, igen nagyon,
napkeleten, napnyugaton –
ha már elpusztul a világ,
legyen a sírjára virág.
This is needed, so much needed,
with the rising and with the setting sun –
and if the whole world should one day perish,
may there be flowers laid on its grave.
In the century since his death, Attila József’s exquisite poetry has become embedded in the very soul of the Hungarian people. He never grew flowers – never planted trees. But the poems that he wrote, created a garden of the mind, as profound in impact as the desperation in which they were written.
*This was written in response to a mighty project with the Performance Ensemble, directed by Alan Lyddiard, with whom I regularly write and perform. It is called The Garden and will be a month long installation and performance in Leeds Playhouse, in the spring/summer of 2021. We will be exploring all things to do with the garden – from a single flower pushing through the ruined pavement of a bombed city, to an idyllic lush green oasis of flowers, trees and fruit. We all need a garden. In our minds and in our hearts and bodies. May that garden flourish.
**I have a long and loving connection with the beautiful, troubled country of Hungary. If you would like to read more about that, please take a look at my Blog and Features archive elsewhere on the website. And here is another piece about the remarkable Attila József Poems and Pálinka.