May 16, 2013

Attila József

Attila József (Hungary)

Born the son of Áron Józef, a soap factory work originally from Transylvania, Attila József was born on April 11, 1905 in Ferencváros, a poor neighborhood of Budapest. His father abandoned the family of three children and his wife Borbála Pöcze when Attila was only three years of age. Living in extreme poverty, the children were eventually cared for the National Protection League and sent to foster parents in the country, where Attila worked on a farm. His foster father declared there was no name such as “Attila,” and renamed him “Pista.” So bad were the conditions on the farm, that the young Attila escaped back to his poor mother in the capitol city.

      At the age of 43, his mother died in 1919, and the young Attila was cared for by his brother-in-law, Ödön Makai, a fairly wealthy man who paid for the child’s secondary education. József later attended the Franz Joseph University, but was dismissed for writing a poem, “With All My Heart.”

      Without money, trying to eke out a poor living with his own poetry, József begin to develop symptoms of schizophrenia and was treated to what today might be described as a “personality disorder.” He never married and, other than a few affairs, fell in love with one of the women treating him.

      On December 3, 1937, at the young age of 32, József crawled through the railway tracks near the home of his sister, and was crushed to death by a starting train. Many authorities claimed the death was a suicide, but others declared it an accident.

      Despite these sad events, József is recognized today as one of the greatest and the first of modern Hungarian poets, and his work has been translated widely into numerous languages. At the early age of 17, when still in school, he published his first volume A szépség koldusa (The Beauty’s Beggar) in 1922. Despite his expulsion from the university, a mentor, Lajos Hatvany, saw that the young poet received a good education in Austria (1925) and in Paris (1926-27), where József studied French literature, particularly the work of François Villon.

       In Paris József published his second collection of poems, Nem én kiáltok (It’s not me who shouts), the year of expulsion and his travel to Vienna. In Paris he studied at the Sorbonne, reading Hegel and Karl Marx.

       His third collection, Nincsen apám se anyám (Fatherless and motherless), which demonstrated the influence of French surrealism and the Hungarian poets Endre Ady, Gyula Juhász and Lajos Kassák. The following year József joined the then illegal Communist Party of Hungary. His book Döntsd a tőkét (Blow down the block/capital) of 1931 was confiscated by the Hungarian public prosecutor and led to József’s indictment. Soon after, the poet left the Communist party.

       In 1932 and 1933, he wrote further collections of what is described as his mature poetry, Külvárosi éj (Night in the slums) and the poem Óda (Ode). Two further books appeared in 1934, Medvetánc (Bear dance), 1934 and Nagyon fáj (It hurts a lot) of 1936.


 A szépség koldusa (1922); Nem én kiáltok (1925); Nincsen apám se anyám (1929); Külvárosi éj (1932); Medvetánc (1934); Nagyon fáj (Budapest: Cserépfalvi, 1936); Ősszes versei és válogatott Irásai (Budapest, 1938);  József Attila ősezes verse (Budapest: Révai, 1950); Ősszes versei (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1984)


Poems (London: Danubia Book Company, 1956); Selected Poems and Texts (Cheadle, United Kingdom: Carcanet Press, 1973); Perched on Nothing’s Branch, trans. by Peter Hargitai (Buffalo: White Pine Press, 1978); Winter Night: Selected Poems of Attila József, trans. by John Batki (Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College Press, 1997); Poems and Fragments (Budapest: Argentum/Maynooth, Kildare, Ireland: Cardinal Press, 1999); The Iron-Blue Vault: Selected Poems, trans. by Zsuzanna Ozsvath and Fredrick Turner (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 2000); Attila József: Sicty Poems, trans. by Edwin Morgan (Edinburgh: Mariscat, 2001); Attila József: Selected Poems (New York: Universe, 2005); A Transparent Lion: Selected Poems of Attila József, trans. by Michael Castro and Gabor G. Gyukics (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006; PDF file:

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