A precocious child, Sándor Weöres (1913-1989) read everything he could get his hands on, including books on China, India and Africa, which was unusual at the time as studies were focussed exclusively on Europe. Taoism, Indian philosophy and European mysticism were defining experiences for the young Weöres (later on, he translated the Tao Te King into Hungarian). His poems were already published when he was 16, and very soon he became a regular contributor to the leading literary magazine, the legendary Nyugat.
From the beginning, critics were baffled by his formal and linguistic experimentation, since the long-standing expectation for Hungarian poets was to voice social and political concerns. Weöres, however, "wanted to find something which could not be expressed in any other way, in any other language other than that of poetry – something which did not exist outside poetry," as Zoltán Kenyeres writes.*
In the first half of the 1940s, he found it – at least this is what he claims in a letter dating from 1943: "at last I have discovered the content that cannot be divorced from the form... the content is not contained in the logical sequence but in the flash-like recognition of a rapport between ideas and in the harmony of their overtones." At a time when ideologies were rife and many of them performed poorly, the "unremitting quest and pursuit of the human ideal" may have become the last refuge of European man, Weöres seems to suggest. The land of art is that of possibility rather than reality, he argues, or rather, it describes a level of reality beneath the troubled surface. It is this deeper reality that emanates from Weöres’s poetry, serene yet playful.
In the 40s he experimented with automatic writing, creating nonsensical poems completely devoid of any semantic meaning, then ’translating’ them with several differing contents. (He also translated nonsense poems by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.)
After the Communist takeover in 1949, poets were expected to write social realist poems and write panegyrics to the new regime. Although the literary elite recognized his unusual gifts, he was labeled a ’nihilist’ by cultural politicians, since most of his poems contained no political message. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he was not allowed to publish his poetry, yet his creativity did not cease: he wrote several of his long mythical poems in the 50s, probably influenced by Eliot’s Waste Land that he translated during those years.
That was also when he started to write nursery rhymes. Unfortunately, his nursery rhymes – happily recited by Hungarian kindergarten kids of several generations – are the hardest to translate. As Tibor Kardos writes, Weöres "commands the spirit of the Hungarian language as Tolstoy did the spirit of Russian villages, the secret of both being their capacity for identification."
Although Weöres was never a favourite of the Communist regime, his Collected Writings were published in 1970 as the regime started to relax, and in 1972 he was awarded the most prestigious art prize, the Kossuth Prize. He continued to experiment, and in 1972 he published Psyche, a volume of poems, prose and various ’documents’ in which he created a fictitious poetess from the beginning of the 19th century, completely recreating the language, style and manners of the period. Psyche was made into a film by Gábor Bódy (Narcissus and Psyche, 1980).
Weöres's poetry also inspired composers like György Ligeti and Péter Eötvös. Many of his poems exist in English translation by some distinguished translators, including Scottish poet and translator Edwin Morgan (Sándor Weöres – Ferenc Juhász: Selected Poems, trans. E. Morgan, Penguin Modern European Poets, 1970; and Eternal Moment. Selected Poems, trans. William Jay Smith, Edwin Morgan and Alan Dixon. London: Anvil Press Poetry, Budapest: Corvina, St Paul, Minn.: New Rivers Press, 1988).
*All quotations are from Zoltán Kenyeres's essay in The Hungarian Quarterly, 1984/93.