News – 2nd June, 2008

From Jerome the Crab to Old Missus Fluff

Children’s verse in Hungary

News–2nd June, 2008


We are witnessing a phase of ever more splendid blossoming in the field of children’s poetry in Hungary. One after the other, impressive works are appearing to the delight of readers young and not so young.

To be sure, it is hard to define what we should mean by the term “children’s verse” but it is a fact that the poetry that young readers are feeding on on a daily basis is of a truly high standard in this country at the moment.
One of the emblematic figures in this field, Sándor Weöres, did not even have the younger generation in mind when he wrote the poems that later gained such massive popularity as children’s poetry. What happened here was a kind of borrowing – the hijacking of the original poetical intention and the conquering of an audience which is a different age group from the one intended. To be sure, borrowing poetry from a more general audience is not unprecedented for the younger generation. The first anthology (Versek könyve) to contain children’s poems by well-known poets appeared in 1943, featuring poets like Mihály Vörösmarty, Sándor Petofi, János Arany, Attila József and Erno Szép.
This volume may in itself have been a factor that inspired many authors in the second half of the 20th century to start writing for children. Another cause was that many poets were prevented by censorship from publishing the poems they intended for their adult audience, but they were free to publish children’s verse. This prohibition provoked the appearance of a number of finely produced volumes by Hungarian authors. It is enough to think of the surprising amount of humour in Ágnes Nemes Nagy’s poems for children (who could ever forget Jerome the Crab after reading about him even once), János Pilinszky’s highly emotional lyric poetry for children or the masterpieces by István Kormos, foremost among them Vackor, the hero, the most excellent of bears.
After the political transition, however, it was no longer political prohibition or any kind of difficulty that caused more and more poets to start writing for a young audience. Today our poets are all but competing for children’s favours. Sándor Kányádi, the grand old man of the genre is spoiling his young readers with true masterpieces – sweeping humour and profound wisdom are bound to accord them an eternal place in the kingdom of children’s verse in this language. In András Ferenc Kovács, we are finding another fountainhead of brilliant poems, while Ákos Szilágyi is tracing a special path to children’s hearts by creating sound poems and publishing his volumes complete with CD. The recordings lead children into a fantastic world of sounds, teaching them the enjoyment of the spoken word, demonstrating how a word can evoke any number of associations and inviting the listener to play through auditory correlations as well as the meaning of the words.
Dániel Varró, the other great favourite with today’s children, is a completely different character. An amazing juggler of rhymes, he does not attach tunes to his poems (even in the unique sense used by Ákos Szilágyi). His poetic technique is almost always virtuoso, his poems are easy to remember and his humour is an inexhaustible fount producing a hit parade of children’s verse which kids chant in the nursery school garden. Anna Szabó T. writes subtle, gently emotional songs full of humour for young children, her pen guided by deep identification and the streaming sunshine of humour. Krisztina Tóth’s pieces for children are sensitive, witty and lull the listener into admiration with their musicality. We must also highlight János Lackfi, László András Magyar and Bálint Harcos within the current scene in Hungarian children’s verse. Interestingly, it is hard to think of a poet who writes exclusively for children at this standard of excellence – every author we mentioned is also a major poet in the adult world of literature.
Talking of children’s verse in Hungary it is also inevitable to mention a few landmark events. 2005 saw the publication of an anthology entitled Friss tinta! (Fresh Ink!), illustrated by Mari Takács, and containing masterpieces by a number of excellent poets. This year three poets – Anna Szabó T., Krisztina Tóth and Dániel Varró, jointly produced Kerge ABC (Crazy Alphabet). The volume is indubitably an homage to Ferenc Móra and his Zengo ABC (Sonorous Alphabet), although the new volume differs both in structure and language from its classic predecessor. The third noteworthy fact has no date attached to it but must not escape mention. This is the ambition clearly noticeable over the past few years to produce children’s volumes which are not far from representing works of art in their own right. Readers are learning at a very early age that books are something truly special in appearance as well as in content.
Judit Ambrus
(Picture by Mari Takács)
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