As UEA poet George Szirtes starts a new chapter, we look back at his 20 year career
- Credit: copyright: Archant 2013
Countless Norfolk-based writers have benefited from George Szirtes' guidance during the last 20 years, while at the same time he has become one of Britain's most cherished poets. KEIRON PIM met him as he prepares to retire from academia.
Retirement represents a well-earned rest for most people but George Szirtes has a different vision in mind, one reminiscent of Tony Benn's comment on standing down as an MP that he was leaving Westminster so he could devote more time to politics.
As Szirtes – a poet, translator, critic, teacher, blogger, publisher, artist, prolific Tweeter, occasional playwright and librettist – completes his final semester teaching at the University of East Anglia, the intention is to begin working harder, which may raise eyebrows among those who have tracked his output in recent years. Might he and his wife Clarissa Upchurch, a fine painter whom he met at art school in 1968, at least demarcate the old and new eras by taking a short holiday? He almost chokes.
'A break? No! There's masses to do, there always is. I don't think I've ever been a week without masses to do, for 40 years. It's the way I like it.'
The plan instead is for 'more writing, more translation, more everything. Just fewer institutions!' While for the last seven years his employer has been UEA, where his title is Reader in Creative Writing, he spent 14 fruitful years before that at the institution he refers to as 'the art school' but which now styles itself Norwich University of the Arts. Countless aspiring writers have benefited from his guidance since his arrival in Norfolk, whether through formal teaching or happenstance.
The first time I saw Szirtes speak was in 2004 at the Assembly House in Norwich, when the New Writing Partnership (now Writers' Centre Norwich) held a writers' conference. In an address to the audience this black leather-jacketed, softly Hungarian-accented figure mentioned an aspiration to create work that is 'true in the way that poetry is true, and not in the way that evidence is true', and the phrase stayed with me, not so much as a desirable approach to newspaper journalism but as a useful reminder of how poetry can stir intuitions and sentiments that lie beyond conscious reason. He began trying to deploy words to this effect when aged 17 and is now 65, with 13 collections to his name.
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Ask about the moments that have given him greatest pride or satisfaction over the intervening years and he insists that he doesn't really look back, but now, sitting on a sofa at home in Wymondham and forced for a moment to survey his career, he mentions The Photographer in Winter: 'a book I published in 1986, I'm very proud of that. I think that contains the best long poems. I think Reel,' which won the T S Eliot Prize in 2004, 'was a surprise that people thought so well of it; that was an important thing…' He trails off. 'I don't go around thinking 'I'm proud of this or that', I really don't. I don't reflect very much. I'm always interested in the next thing, as soon as it's done. I hardly ever read old poems; I hardly ever read anything from the Collected Poems. You show that you're alive by doing the next thing.'
In general terms however he mentions some contentment at having forged a poetry that marries his adopted language with the cultural concerns of his native country. Szirtes was born in Budapest and left among a party including his mother, father and younger brother (Andrew, now a concert violinist) after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, in which state police and Soviet troops crushed a popular revolt against the communist regime.
'We lived in the centre of Budapest and all around us there were bullets flying around, coming at the flat. The opportunity opened up once the revolution was defeated and the borders were far from secure and were extremely porous. That didn't mean it wasn't dangerous, because there were guards, there were mines, but it became possible to get a train to a border village and simply walk across at night, which is what we did.
'It was actually on my eighth birthday that we crossed the border. It took some hours. It was through muddy fields and there was snow around; I fell into a ditch at one point. I managed to walk it, my brother had to be carried. All children had to be very quiet.
'We arrived in a copse in the middle of the night, about 3 o'clock, and suddenly there was a flashlight in front of us, and suddenly a woman screamed. I don't know how many of us there were – 12 or 13, something like that. And a man in uniform came out and he was Austrian, so we were on the right side. I was cold, it was November 29th, I was all wrapped up. There was a little case which it was my job to carry, which had the photographs in.'
He still has the case and the family pictures, a couple of which are reproduced on these pages. His parents had to trade their other possessions as payment to the people who guided them across the border, so 'by the time we arrived in Austria we had practically nothing. And after three days in Austria we flew to England.'
With help from charities and the Home Office, the family settled in northwest London, moving between 'nondescript places' – Hendon, Colindale, Kingsbury, Wembley, 'which at least had Wembley Stadium nearby'. Football has been a passion since a couple of years after his arrival when, in the aftermath of the Munich air disaster, a devastated Manchester United's improbable journey to the FA Cup Final enraptured the nine-year-old Szirtes 'at a deep mythical level, so my heart was sold'.
He remained in northwest London to take a foundation course at Harrow School of Art before heading north to Leeds School of Art, then after a year at Goldsmiths College he began teaching in 1973. For almost two decades he taught art and English at schools in Hertfordshire, all the while establishing himself as a poet, one whose work became increasingly coloured by themes of displacement, occupation, war and memory after he returned to Hungary for the first time in 1984.
Their visit to Budapest also influenced Clarissa's painting, which often features on his books' covers. She attended Norwich art school while George was at Leeds and returned to Norfolk with him in 1994 when he took up a permanent position there as coordinator of creative writing; his appointment followed a two-year freelance period in which he devised and established the school a new poetry course for a cultural studies degree.
Creative writing programmes were rarer then and he had the scope to shape something new and unusual, learning 'really by trial and error'. It was 'this great period at the art school,' he recalls, when 'I think there were seven or eight students who were poets who got this national award, the Eric Gregory Award, in the space of five or six years, sometimes quite soon after.'
One of them, Sam Riviere, later took a PhD at UEA under his supervision. 'George's teaching stands out increasingly the longer I've spent in universities,' Riviere says, 'due to his very rare willingness to go far beyond the duties of his role as a tutor, and to do this routinely, so that as his student you came to believe it was usual. This was most evident in his generosity with his time – he would be happy to talk at length about every poem you showed him, and read everything carefully and discerningly no matter how tentative or flawed your effort was.'
Andrea Holland has been a close colleague for 17 years, first at the art school and then later at UEA. She echoes Riviere's assessment.
'I have never met anyone who does not admire George, as a poet, as a teacher, as a colleague, as a man,' she says. 'The word I most often hear associated with George, and in particular his teaching, is 'generous'.
He is unstinting in his support for student writers. So many fine poets and writers have gone on to success after studying under George and it is impossible to imagine the Norfolk literary landscape, and Norwich, UNESCO City of Literature as it is now, not having had George's lively, good-natured presence at work in both universities. We owe him an awful lot.'
His impending departure from UEA was marked last month by an evening of farewell readings titled Poems for the Road, which his UEA colleague Jeremy Noel-Tod recalls as 'a genuinely memorable and unique event, which confirmed the warm and wide respect he commands among the younger generation of poets whom he taught in Norwich'. Noel-Tod remarks on Szirtes' 'rare ability to engage with emerging poets from very different traditions – American, Caribbean, South African, his own native Hungary – and draw out the best in their work, without ever imposing on their development'.
While his teaching of poetry has been lately been at undergraduate and postgraduate level, as a poet and former schoolteacher he retains strong feelings about how the subject is handled with younger students.
'I have been concerned about it,' he says. 'I've great admiration for teachers having been one. I understand their condition and their context. But I think poetry and the teaching of poetry is done under circumstances which don't help poetry. It's done to some degree in fear of poetry: 'You are now going to be given some very difficult text and your job is to decipher what this writer means.' Any intelligent student will say: 'Well why does a writer go such roundabout ways to say something if he means something else by it?' So I think teachers feel under pressure, they don't feel quite comfortable.
'I also think schools are under a great deal of pressure to produce exam results, and therefore to find 'right answers', and I think the whole point of poetry is that it's very hard to find 'right answers'.
They're under enormous pressure and have been for a long time to produce all kinds of results. But poetry tends to suffer more than most because its pleasures are to some degree based on things like ambiguity, wordplay… but you listen to kids doing rap or listen to kids tuning in to the words of songs, and it's there. It's not something that you have to drag them to. It's in them.'
Today he and Clarissa live in Wymondham in a house mostly built between the 16th and 18th centuries, full of books and their own murals and low beams that seek out the back of your head even when you've been warned (in my case, at least). Their daughter and grandchildren live in Norwich, their son in London. Szirtes remains 'at heart an urban creature' who used to think 'that lampposts were my trees and you orientated yourself by streets and parks', and who could 'live anywhere, because I'm living in my head most of the time'; but Norfolk's historic landscape – exemplified by the view of Wymondham Abbey from their upstairs window – and stimulating cultural climate combine to keep him happy here.
So what is the next thing he plans to embark on to show he's alive? There are several, of course: two Hungarian books to translate, a two-thirds written poetry collection to complete, possible collaborations with Clarissa and photographers, perhaps a memoir. January will bring the result of this year's T S Eliot Prize, for which his recent Bad Machine is one of 10 titles shortlisted.
Then there are working trips to Malaysia, Lithuania, America, maybe Hungary again. His energy remains as constant as his modesty and his refusal to indulge in more than the occasional glance over his shoulder.
'I seem to have been extremely resilient and energetic,' he allows. 'And very productive, everybody says. But it's not really anything I've been proud of. It's more: 'Oh, I seem to have done that. And that. And look, I've done that: that's a good thing, isn't it?''