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Attila József

1905–1937

Attila József, an acclaimed Hungarian poet, was born on April 11, 1905, in Budapest. His father, a soap-factory worker, disappeared when he was a toddler, and his mother died of cancer when he was fourteen. In an autobiographical note, József describes how his unusual first name led him to literature: “I believed the discovery of the tales about Attila had a decisive influence on all my ambitions from then on; in the last analysis it was perhaps this that led me to literature. This was the experience that turned me into a person who thinks, one who listens to the opinions of others, but examines them critically in his own mind….” He published his first volume of poetry while still in high school, although his work was not widely read until after his death.

After high school, he spent several years studying in Vienna and Paris and, upon returning to Budapest, joined the underground Communist Party out of loyalty to the working class. His adoption of Communism marks a shift in his poetry, as he turned his focus from a search for beauty to the plight of the lower class. His poetry is also characterized by a particular style of melancholy realism and a frequent use of free association.

Several of his poetry collections have been translated into English, including The Iron-Blue Vault: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2000) and Winter Night: Selected Poems of Attila József (Oberlin, 1997), and he cofounded the review Szép Szó in 1936. After a battle with mental illness, he was hit by a train and died on December 3, 1937.

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