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Biography

1905 (11th April) born in Budapest, the son of an unskilled worker of Romanian origin and a washerwoman, lost both his parents at an early age
1910-12 with foster-parents, then (1917-18) at an orphanage
1924 studies Hungarian and French at the University of Szeged
1925 expelled from university for his poetry; attends university lectures in Vienna
1926 on a visit to Paris, he enrolled at the Sorbonne
1927 poems written in French published by L'Esprit Nouveau
1927-28 two semesters at Budapest University; meets Illyés and Kosztolányi
1930 joins the illegal Communist Party
1931 new volume confiscated; prosecuted; begins psychoanalysis
1933 expelled from the Communist Party; not invited to the 1934 Writers' Congress in Moscow
1936 Co-Editor of Szép Szó, an independent left-wing literary review
1937 addresses a poem to Thomas Mann, met him; following a nervous breakdown, subjected to drastic psychotherapy; commits suicide

Poetry in the 20s
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Attila József was the greatest Hungarian poet of the century whose poetry is shaped by surrealism, expressionism and Hungarian folk song. He translated extensively from French and German. The bitter misery of the working class and powerful images from childhood haunted him all through his life. His love poetry conveys a range of intense emotions, from tenderness and yearning to a demand of unconditional love, and bitter disappointment at its absence. His technique already full-fledged in his first volume, Beggar of Beauty, he developed his own freely associating metaphors in the expressionist poems of That s Not Me Shouting. In Fatherless and Motherless, as the translator Zsuzsa Ozsváth writes, he appropriated and perfected an enormous variety of classical, symbolist, and modernist structures, eclectically mixing and changing them with fiendish virtuosity... now he developed a genre, the thrust of which is anchored in the music of magic charms, spells, lullabies, nursery rhymes, and the Hungarian folksong. There is a new grotesque playfulness in his sequence Medallions . The poems of Chop at the Roots [or ] Knock down Capital are, as the title of the volume shows, strongly political in intention.

Poetry in the 30s
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His poetry achieves a mature complexity in Night in the Slums when he begins a series of large-scale philosophical poems, whose chief poetic device is a shift of perspective. As another translator, George Gömöri puts it, József s picture of the slums, of factory-land, dark warehouses and heavy freight trains, is realistic and transcends realism at the same time: things come to life, exude a dull sadness, the landscape permeates the poet s soul. The volume Bear Dance continues the exploration of reality, as in the love poem Ode : József s clear understanding of the physical reality of the world, even our own bodies, can be unsettling until we accept its beauty, writes a recent translator, Frederick Turner. In the final account of the last years, in It Hurts a Lot, József deals with such fundamental concepts as crime, punishment and hopelessness, the lack of order and freedom, and he seeks God as a vulnerable child might seek his father. In George Gömöri s words, There is something paradoxical, almost uncanny, about the poetic greatness of József s last four years. ... As with Hölderlin, it was balanced on the edge of the precipice that he wrote his most radiant and heart-rending poems.

Curriculum Vitae
1937

In this unexceptional biography, Attila József discovers the roots of his desperate search for identity: ... without parental supervision I skipped school and played in the streets. In the third-grade reader, however, I found some interesting stories about King Attila and so I threw myself into reading. These stories about the King of the Huns interested me not only because my name is Attila but also because my foster-parents at Öcsöd used to call me Steve. After consulting the neighbours, they came to the conclusion, in front of me, that there was no such name as Attila. This astounded me; I felt my very existence was being called in question. I believe the discovery of the tales about Attila had a decisive influence on all my ambitions from then on; in the last analysis it was perhaps this that led me to literature. This was the experience that turned me into a person who thinks, one who listens to the opinions of others, but examines them critically in his own mind; someone who resigns himself to being called Steve until it is proved that his name is Attila, as he himself had thought all along. (translated by George Gömöri) For József reality is like a river, like the Danube with its cargo of melon-rinds and paper-parings like moons, and apples like planets. Its ideal forms are not static and eternal geometries outside it, but more like the pillars of fire and smoke in the book of Exodus that go on before us within the real world, leading us into the future, transforming themselves according to the conditions of the time. ... For József the poet was an avatar of the ancient shaman-bard: a healer, a psychopomp, an explorer of new knowledge, the community s instrument of consciousness for apprehending its own dark realms of the spirit. (Frederick Turner)

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