11 April: the Day of Hungarian Poetry

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Last Sunday was 11 April: the birthday of Hungarian poet Attila József and the Day of Hungarian Poetry. Usually, this date is celebrated with cultural events such as poetry recitals and book presentations, while some coffee shops let you pay with a poem instead of money. In this blog post, we explain the background of Hungarian Poetry Day and tell you how it was celebrated this year.

The biography of Attila József

Attila József was one of the most famous Hungarian poets of the 20th century. Born to a poor family, he had a troubled childhood. He was expelled from university for his provocative poem Tiszta szívvel: this event is mentioned in another one of his poems, Születésnapomra. He was a profilic poet who also wrote prose and translated the works of many authors, most notably Arthur Rimbaud and François Villon. (If you would like to read more Hungarian poetry, we recommend the English translations published in the Babel Web Anthology.)

Ever since his childhood, Attila József showed signs of mental illness and attempted to commit suicide several times. It is believed that he was suffering from borderline personality disorder. He died at the railway station of Balatonszárszó, aged just 32. Although some claim that his death was an accident, the most accepted view is that he committed suicide.

The history of Hungarian Poetry Day

Events celebrating Hungarian poetry began in 1956, but they were originally held during the summer. Attila József’s birthday became Hungarian Poetry Day in 1964. The communist regime hailed him as a proletarian poet: although it is true that he had ties to the underground communist movement, his poetry goes beyond ideology. Hungarian Poetry Day is one of the few dates that were first celebrated during the communist era and lived on after the change of regime.

The Day of Hungarian Poetry in 2021

Given that Hungary is currently in lockdown, some events that are usually held on the Day of Hungarian Poetry (e.g. book signings) could not be held. Other events were moved to the online space (you can listen to the celebratory poetry recital of Vígszínház by clicking here), while journals published works of contemporary poets and people posted their favorite poems on social media.

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