February 16, 2004

Hungarian poet and politician visits this spring

Lailee Mendelson is communications coordinator for the Office of International Affairs.

This semester, students enrolled in the Emory College course, "Transition to Democracy in East Central Europe," are being taught by a professor for whom the topic is more than academic. In many ways, it's the story of his life.

Through an agreement with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Hungarian poet, scholar and politician Gyula Kodolányi is spending this semester at Emory with his wife, art historian and critic Mária Anna Illyés. Kodolányi is the author of several collections of poetry, essays and translations. His first collection of poetry, The Sea and the Wind Endlessly, published in 1981, was awarded the Mikes Kelemen Prize for best book of the year by Hungarian writers in exile.

In the late 1970s, Kodolányi was writing poetry and teaching American and English literature in Budapest, when like so many of his colleagues he was swept up in the underground activities of a burgeoning Hungarian opposition movement. "The movement was a kind of counterculture," he said, "made up of intellectuals from whom the call for democracy emerged and became increasingly articulate."

Kodolányi attributes much of that activism to his experiences in the United States. As a scholar studying American poetry, he twice was granted rare permission by the communist Hungarian government to travel to the States, in 1972 as an American Council of Learned Societies fellow at Yale University, and in 1984 on a Fulbright to the University of California, Santa Barbara.

"Those times I spent in America were field trips in democracy," he said, recalling how he and his wife avidly watched C-SPAN and made contacts with a network of Western journalists and diplomats.

By 1987, the clandestine Hungarian movements had developed into a number of open opposition parties, including the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), of which Kodolányi was a founding member. Three years later, the MDF won the parliamentary elections and with two other parties formed Hungary's first democratic government since 1948.

Though Kodolányi had planned to return to his poetry, he was asked to join the new government as foreign policy advisor to then-prime minister Jozsef Antall. From 1990-94 he advised on U.S. and European relations, especially on the planned integration of Hungary into NATO.

"But I was very determined to go back to writing, and losing the elections in 1994 suddenly made this possible," Kodolányi said. "Returning to writing was difficult. The psychology of writing is very different from being in politics. One is a very introverted activity, the other very extroverted."

Kodolányi now devotes most of his time to writing and editing the bimonthly intellectual and political monthly, Magyar Szemle, that he helped found. He still keeps his feet wet in politics, however, occasionally advising the president of the Republic of Hungary.

Illyés is former curator of the modern collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. She recently catalogued part of the vast library and correspondence of her father, famed Hungarian poet Gyula Illyés, who three times received Hungary's highest literary award, the Kossuth Prize. Last year, she donated this collection to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, making it available to scholars. Her latest book is Nineteenth Century French Works, an annotated critical catalogue of the Museum of Fine Arts' collection.

"My father was in contact with many important people in literature, such as André Breton, Paul Eluard and Boris Pasternak," Illyés said. "His library is a bit like a history of European literature from the 1920s until the 1980s."

Her husband has translated and edited several anthologies of American poets, including William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.

"You never learn as much as a poet as you do translating, because you really have to take the poem to pieces and imagine it in your own language," he said.

He added that crafting poetry through decades of state censorship was also a learning experience. "It wasn't possible to write straight political poetry," he said. "If you wanted to publish in the printed press, you had to choose your stratagems of saying what you wanted to say. It helped me evolve artistic strategies that have always been important to poets."