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Attila József


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.

Selected Bibliography

The Iron-Blue Vault: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2000)
Perched on Nothing’s Branch (White Pine Press, 1999)
Winter Night: Selected Poems of Attila József (Oberlin College Press, 1997)

By This Poet


The Seventh (A hetedik)

If you set out in this world,
better be born seven times.
Once, in a house on fire,
once, in a freezing flood,
once, in a wild madhouse,
once, in a field of ripe wheat,
once, in an empty cloister,
and once among pigs in sty.
Six babes crying, not enough:
you yourself must be the seventh.

When you must fight to survive,
let your enemy see seven.
One, away from work on Sunday,
one, starting his work on Monday,
one, who teaches without payment,
one, who learned to swim by drowning,
one, who is the seed of a forest,
and one, whom wild forefathers protect,
but all their tricks are not enough:
you yourself must be the seventh.

If you want to find a woman,
let seven men go for her.
One, who gives heart for words,
one, who takes care of himself,
one, who claims to be a dreamer,
one, who through her skirt can feel her,
one, who knows the hooks and snaps,
one, who steps upon her scarf:
let them buzz like flies around her.
You yourself must be the seventh.

If you write and can afford it,
let seven men write your poem.
One, who builds a marble village,
one, who was born in his sleep,
one, who charts the sky and knows it,
one, whom words call by his name,
one, who perfected his soul,
one, who dissects living rats.
Two are brave and four are wise;
You yourself must be the seventh.

And if all went as was written,
you will die for seven men.
One, who is rocked and suckled,
one, who grabs a hard young breast,
one, who throws down empty dishes,
one, who helps the poor win;
one, who worked till he goes to pieces,
one, who just stares at the moon.
The world will be your tombstone:
you yourself must be the seventh.