György Rába: Poet and critic whose verse targeted the intellect rather than the ear

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The Independent Online

György Rába was one of the last survivors of the generation of writers and poets based around the literary review Ujhold (New Moon), a group which left its imprint on Hungarian cultural life in the years following the Second World War.

Born in Budapest in 1924, he graduated in Hungarian and French literature at Péter Pázmány University, teaching in a grammar school from 1949-57. It was only after the revolution of 1956 that he was able to devote his considerable talent to literary research, which he carried out during the following decades in the Institute for Literary Studies of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

His interest was focused on the literature of the early 20th century, particularly on the life and work of the poet Mihály Babits on whom he wrote two seminal books, Babits Mihály Költészete (The Poetry of Mihály Babits, 1981) and the monograph Mihály Babits (1983). In the collection Csönd-herceg és a nikkel szamovár (Prince Silence and the Nickel Samovar, 1986) there are essays devoted to foreign poets such as Apollinaire, Cesare Pavese and Yves Bonnefoy, as well as Hungarian poets of the first half of the 20th century. His interest in the problems of translating poetry resulted in a study A szép hutlenek (The Beauty of the Unfaithful Ones, 1969), in which he discusses the brilliant but often unfaithful translation-paraphrases of the leading poets of the literary pre-war monthly Nyugat (West).

In fact, Rába's own first poems were published in Nyugat itself in 1941, his first book being published in 1943. He was a founding member of the periodical Ujhold, which came into being after the war. Rába's second book of poetry came out in 1947, but with the suppression of Ujhold by the Communist authorities, he remained silent and had to wait until 1961 for the publication of his new collection Nyílttenger (Open Sea).

This marked an important departure for Rába – he gave up personal lyricism for a severely "objective" form of poetry which uses universal myths to express personal drama. His typical verse form is blank verse characterised by a terse concentration of feeling and passion, not unlike the poems of Italian hermeticism. This kind of verse targets the intellect rather than the ear and has fewer followers than traditional or even early modernist poetry. Of his many books, the most accomplished is probably Próbaido – Új és válogatott versek (Probation Time – New and Selected Poems, 1982).

In spite of his poetic hermeticism, Rába was honoured by all political regimes, and after the Attila József Prize (1983) came the Széchenyi and the Kossuth prizes in 1993 and 2008 respectively. In 1983 he also achieved a PhD in literary science and acted for several years as vice-president of the Hungarian Philological Society.

His verse translations from French and Italian are highly regarded and in 1965 he edited an anthology of Italian poetry. Many of his translations were published in Idegen ünnepek (Foreign Festivities, 1973). English translations appeared in the second volume of the anthology In Quest of the Miracle Stag (Budapest-Chicago, 2003).

György Rába, Hungarian poet, translator and critic: born Budapest 13 June 1924; died Budapest 29 January 2011.