József is arguably the greatest Hungarian poet of this century, and this new collection of his writing is well worth having for the lengthy biographical and critical essays that proceed the verse. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Kafka, József’s life was short, and it bordered on the nightmarish. He was born in 1905 into poverty so extreme that to call his childhood Dickensian would be to glamorize it; he attempted suicide repeatedly (beginning before he was nine); and he finally succeeded in killing himself (under the most ghastly circumstances) when he was 32. In his brief lifetime, József was politically intrigued without being politically committed in any recognizable sense, and he managed to drift in and out of Marxism while remaining a deeply committed radical. His verse is a jagged, almost hysterically intense amalgam of nature imagery, cosmology, and bitter, yearning love poetry, with a surrealist edge that lends a bitter humor—but will move few to laughter. Almost all of his poetry was written in one 13-year period, and it bears the marks of such compression: it puts one in mind, in its overheated extravagance, of the power of extruded molten steel taking shape under the most extraordinary pressure—at once destructive and yet fiercely creative, with a powerful erotic charge. But the translations do József a disservice, yoking themselves to his rhyme schemes with results that are plodding and unwittingly quaint.
A useful collection for its extensiveness, but better translations by Edmund Morgan and John Bátki are available.