Poetry doesn’t sell too well nowadays. Perhaps it never did, really. Nonetheless, in the last two hundred years it was a highly popular cultural phenomenon, both for the elite and increasingly for the masses. Financially successful or not, poets and their often-cited, repeatedly hand-copied poems were known throughout the land, with iconic portraits of the national bards hanging in the aristocratic salons and in the bourgeois drawing rooms. More than anything else, the development of national education and curricula in the 19th century made sure to cement the canonical role and cultural reputation of a specific (mostly Romantic) concept of poetry, making it a basic element of modern life. Today, however, this age-old pedagogical approach, still focusing on the same iconic figures and texts, has trapped the very idea of poetry within a sterile amber casing, as a precious dead thing put on display. At the same time, with the immense transformations in popular culture, contemporary poetry can easily seem like a fuzzy, distant, unknown phenomenon which functions similarly to a strange subculture, the select club of the few who speak and can tolerate each other’s sophisticated, hermetic, or intertextual idiolect. No wonder that, especially in the last decades, sales for poetry volumes are down in comparison with other literary products, and their continued existence depends mostly on state subsidies and a sense of duty on the part of some publishers to engage in a cultural mission.
In any case, this is the impression one gets from surveying the opinions and comments on the state of poetry within the Hungarian literary scene. The consensus is that people do not read or buy poetry anymore since they feel it is outdated, not part of their lives, and that all poets are dead white men in school books—never having had the chance to hear or see the living, breathing, contemporary poets who write today. The conclusion is that poetry and poets are not popular or well-known anymore, that they do not fit into the frame of present-day success—and furthermore, they need promotion, quite badly, actually, in order to become cool, up-to-date, fresh, exciting, hip, trendy, etc. Leaving aside the highly successful movement of slam poetry (which was initially underground, yet managed to gradually conquer the Hungarian mainstream, and then national TV), what poetry needs then is discovery, mediation, performance, transformation, and accessibility—in the digital context.
As it turns out, poetry is in luck. Several young artists and writers are set on carrying out this exact task. The willingness and enthusiasm of these creative individuals—who, by some biographical or geographical accident, have spent their childhood devouring books—springs from a basic experience related to the social status of literature. They have all faced the contradiction between their life-altering encounter with the wonderful thing that is poetry and the general, stereotypical opinion which treats it as an anachronistic, ivory-tower item. The challenge: if people would only know, hear, and see what they did, then at least some of them would realize too how cool literature can actually be. Not an easy mission, for sure. In their initiatives, they wish to bridge a gap between traditional and new formats, and also to facilitate a transformation: they want to reconstruct literary texts in a different context, to reach new audiences and have different, wide-ranging effects. They have taken on the role of mediators, creating a link between the old, paper-sniffing generations and the new, digital, smartphone-obsessed, app-oriented, net-addicted generation. They are in the unique position to have a chance in succeeding in this task, since they understand both languages and habits, having access to both paradigms of culture.
As an illustration of what I have described above, I will present three different projects which engage in popularizing, mediating, and digitally archiving contemporary Hungarian poetry. Although all three are independent initiatives that are fuelled by determination and passion, they received formal and informal encouragement from the József Attila Circle (JAK), the main literary association for young writers in Hungary.
The first project is called “Búspoéták” (“Mopey Poets”) and basically consists of a Tumblr site where the—initially anonymous—blogger (the young poet and designer Réka Bordás) created stylized, humorous, cartoonish images from the easily recognizable paintings or photographs of both classic and contemporary Hungarian poets. The meme-like images are accompanied by funny or surreally absurd captions, inspired by the visual rendering of the given poet. For example, the message below the serious-looking 17th-century nobleman, warlord, and poet Miklós Zrínyi, is addressed to “Dear Louie XIV” and says: “We got shit-faced last night with my bro and spent all the money for the war. Pls send more. Your bf, MZ.” A particularly sassy image of Sándor Petőfi wearing a golden dollar sign on a chain features the request: “Draw me like one of your French girls.” And perhaps funniest of all is the series which inspired the name of the blog: the mopey faces of renowned poets Vitéz Mihály Csokonai, Endre Ady and Attila József—who sang obsessively about being notoriously heartbroken—accompanied by the ridiculous, weepy question addressed to their torturer-lovers: “Y u do this?”
The admittedly and consciously silly project became an internet sensation overnight and after a round of votes, some of the images were turned into t-shirts. Despite its silliness, though, the blog delivers a welcome and fresh critical commentary on the iconography of literature. This humorous criticism works in several ways: while poking fun at and deconstructing the idealized depictions and revered auras of famous literary figures, the blog—in selecting its targets—evens out and opens up literary history, mixing up serious, multi-volume writers with volume-less young poets. Anybody can and should be the butt of jokes, no matter the measure of canonization. In the process of having a laugh, poets become memes and thus easily recognizable, more internet and social media friendly. Through humor they enter into the newsfeed and timeline of those who would never click on their names or texts otherwise. The irony in the blog, while humorously re-contextualizing classical literary figures, also ridicules commercial attempts of re-inventing such icons as trendy contemporaries: showing both how their elaborate laments can be translated into meme-language, and also what potential internet-trolls our beloved poets could be today.
By Laszlo Szabolcs