I was not borne to be a poet and certainly never intended to be. Consequently I still do not regard myself as a poet; not even as a writer.
But poetry sneaked into my life very early and very naturally. I absorbed it with “Father’s Milk”.
One of my earliest memories, going back to approximately age two or even earlier, is of my father sitting by my bed, reciting his favourite Hungarian poems. If I close my eyes, I can still hear his voice, see him clearly, hear every line crystal clear and word perfect and can visualize the imagery within the poem.
It is so lifelike that it can still send shivers down my spine.
These poems were not just simple nursery rhymes; they were some of the very best of Hungarian poetry. Nursery rhymes and simple little nursery songs came later. A little later still came the Hungarian folk songs, with their – at times - bitter sweet, other times cheeky poetry. These I absorbed with my beloved “Grandmother’s Milk”. Her quiet, gentle singing often reduced me to tears, or into a heap of fitful, gurgling laughter, depending on the nature and content of the song.
Music and poetry were the staple diet of my early childhood, up to the age of six. Then came the turbulent years of war when - within the ensuing four years - our close-knit family was torn apart and decimated. One of my uncles on mother’s side was a writer and poet. His influence only reached me after the war, when he was no longer alive.
The trauma and pain of losing father, grandmother and so many of my close and beloved relatives, the chaos, viciousness and cruelty of war, with the ensuing uncertainty and distress were all formative influences that slowly but surely pushed me towards writing, expressing fear, hurt, loathing, longing in primitive verses. From the age of about seven there was a steady trickle of those outpouring emotions in rhyming verses.
Poetry and literature – not only Hungarian, but also embracing the best of the world’s literature, some of which, like Latin, we read in their original and in translation – featured high in my school curriculum. When the hormones kicked in my trickle of output grew into a steady stream of early poems, many of them full of gloom and doom, expressions of disappointment, rejection, longing, rebellion, betrayal, vicious sarcasm; all of them the true bread and butter material of youthful angst. They were not written and were never intended for public consumption. They were my “secrets”… fodder for my “bottom drawer”. So were my short stories, articles, parodies and other assorted pieces of written outpourings. I never intended to be a writer or a poet. I had other dreams and aims.
It was my university years, meeting with like minded, enthusiastic young people with enquiring minds, all keen to leave an imprint on this turbulent world, with the intention of helping humanity, doing some good for the improvement of the human condition, that lifted the lid slightly on my “bottom drawer”. Some of my “secrets” were out… open to a select few. Even then great caution had to be exercised, for those years were years of brutal political oppression, unremitting political censorship under Stalin’s Hungarian henchmen. The slightest deviation from the prescribed “political correctness”, from the Marxist-Leninist dogma, could mean imprisonment, exile into the Siberian Gulags, or even a death sentence. Many of my pieces of writing could have brought the wrath of the authorities down on my head, landing me in serious trouble.
Fortunately – and perhaps instinctively – I trusted all the “right” people. I was not betrayed by any of them and to this day I am truly thankful for their honest friendship.
Those were the years when my writing started to find “wings” and some of my pieces I could modestly describe as poetry.
Writing verses, poetry in Hungarian came relatively easy. The psychological foundation was laid early and the grammatical, linguistic and traditional poetic foundation was rock solid. Hungarian is a phonetic language, rich in literary heritage, symbolism, aphorism, proverbs, folklore, allegories and an almost infinite variety of poetic imagery. The language is a ready well of inexhaustible linguistic refinement and beauty. Almost all of the world’s literature was readily available in excellent translation. From the age of seven to the start of my university years, I read almost everything of what was available. I was a loner, I had plenty of time to read and there was no television, no computer games or other distractions in those days (save for girls!) to disturb my concentration. Additionally I was a regular theatre, opera and concertgoer and museum visitor. I had a vast “library” of images and heritage to draw from.
The Hungarian language also lends itself easily to writing poetry. There is no difficulty in finding rhyming words, as and when and where you need it; the accent in every word – without exception – always falls on the first syllable, there are no ambiguities in pronouncing a word and finding the right meter is relatively easy, regardless whether one uses very short or very long sentences or lines.
With those advantages it was almost too easy to write at least acceptable poems. No great talent was needed, only a little application and perseverance. I kept on writing, because it fulfilled an inexplicable need. I will not claim that I produced great poetry; most of my writing were never seen by anyone, let alone scrutinized by experts. A few - very few – of my poems pleased some of those who were “privileged” to read them. One poem – produced by demand of my student colleagues for a special meeting - had a public reading and was very well received by all. Two of my poems – written on the request of a friend in his name – were very well received by the young lady he was wooing. She never knew that I was the Cyrano de Bergerac hiding behind those passionate, pleading words.
Only one young lady was the legitimate recipient of a number of my poems… and she kept them all… together with the writer… which seems to indicate that she probably liked the poems…
Half a century later she still keeps them under lock and key… together with the writer…
The upheaval of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, subsequent emigration to England, starting a new life, learning a new language, running a professional practice and constantly updating knowledge to run the practice almost completely stopped me writing in Hungarian. I wrote only a few poems and a few short stories and articles, still only for private consumption. In the late fifties, early sixties I submitted eight poems (parodies of Hungarian poems, imitating the styles of well known Hungarian poets) to a London based Hungarian monthly publication, for a competition, where the parameters were very strictly defined. Much to my surprise they were all published as winners of that competition. I guess, they were probably the only ones submitted…
My command of the English language was adequate for everyday use, for writing letters and records and for general day-to-day and professional communication, but was woefully inadequate for producing anything that could be labelled as “literary” writing. I made a few attempts at writing poems in English, but was deeply disillusioned with the results. I found it almost impossible getting the right “tone” and had great difficulties with rhyme and meter. I gave up. I had no joy, no satisfaction in writing. Then, in the late nineteen eighties, after considerable nagging and encouragement from a number of people, I began writing my memoirs, first part of which was ready for publication in the year 2000. Writing poetry in English still did not feature high on my list of priorities. I found it hard enough to write my story, which took the shape of an autobiographical novel; I had neither time nor inclination to experiment again with poetry in a second language. I discovered during writing my book that my writing in English was somewhat idiosyncratic. My knowledge and use of English grammar was less than scholastic and my vocabulary rather limited for literary use. With those handicaps in mind, I was disinclined to indulge in writing poetry in English.
When I joined Authorsden, I had only one aim, namely to give my book a platform on the Web, a way of letting the wider public know about the story. It was a little later – at a friend’s suggestion – when I finally posted my first poem here. A few more poems followed. My book and short stories (all related to my autobiography) seemingly received little attention and only a few comments. The comments I received under my poems surprised me. Not wanting to give in to vanity I quickly withdrew all of them. In the meantime – encouraged by those earlier comments - I started writing more poems in English and started translating a few from Hungarian. I found it all hard going. The lines did not come with the same ease as it used to flow in Hungarian. They still don’t… The process of writing is not exactly a joy, but more like hard grind…. But it is a challenge…
After a while I decided that, what the heck!… if I write them I might as well post them here.
The worst that could happen, someone would write an abusive comment… In my advanced years I became thick skinned. I am not after praise or glory…
Writing is an experience, a way to communicate, to exchange ideas, to entertain, to inform and even to raise heckles occasionally… If I can raise an occasional smile in the process – for whatever reason – if I can reach another mind, or perhaps even touch another heart, my efforts – however humble and idiosyncratic they may be – will not be entirely wasted.
I was not borne to be a poet and certainly never intended to be. I still do not regard myself as a poet; not even as a writer. A long and eventful life’s experiences kept pushing me towards writing.
I am certain I will never make the grade to become a true poet or writer. But at least I can say: I tried… I had a go at it… and had some fun doing so…
© P. J. Oszmann (2004)