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Kornélia Horváth: On the life’s work of Lóránt Kabdebó – Lyric theory, lyric history and Lőrinc Szabó

Kornélia Horváth

I. Theoretical and historical foundations of lyric poetry

Professor Lóránt Kabdebó, who passed away in January 2022, is considered by Hungarian literary scholars as an outstanding and influential figure in lyric theory, the history of 20th century Hungarian poetry and especially the literary work of Lőrinc Szabó.

His knowledge of literary theory and literary history is universal. In his extremely extensive oeuvre, he has also dealt with the work and influence of many other poets, such as Attila József, Milán Füst, Sándor Weöres, Magda Szabó, and, in terms of wider literary culture, with the poetry of Yeats, Rilke, Ezra Pound, etc. But he was also no stranger to the study of prose, epic and the novel. He has published several studies in this field, ranging from 19th century literature (see Jókai) to the Hungarian experimental prose of the early 20th century (Miklós Szentkuthy), Magda Szabó and the epic poetry of Győző Határ.

Before I turn to the details and evaluation of Lóránt Kabdebó’s research on Lőrinc Szabó, I would like to highlight the professor’s basic principles and innovations in literary and lyrical theory, or more precisely, to emphasise their importance and their founding power. In my view, Lóránt Kabdebó’s basic principles of literary theory have opened new avenues in the research of the history of 20th and, providentially, 21st century Hungarian literature. I would like to emphasize the following in connection with the concepts of literary theory and the insights into the history of literature that he introduced and applied:

1. The idea of the birth of the dialogical poetic paradigm, which Kabdebó links – quite rightly – to the work of the late Attila József and Lőrinc Szabó. The idea of dialogicity in lyric poetry is a new insight, since it is a concept that is usually associated with prose epic, following Bahtyin. Kabdebó, however, also ‘discovered’ dialogicity in 20th century Hungarian poetry, especially in the poetry of Lőrinc Szabó. He explains this in detail in one of his seminal monographs on Lőrinc Szabó (“Hungarian Poetry Speaks in My Language“, 1992)[1] and in his later study on dialogic discourse, The Birth of the Dialogic Poetic Paradigm in Hungarian Lyric Poetry.[2] 

Kabdebó’s argument about dialogic verse language is important here: “This creative mode (the dialogic poetic practice) appears in opposition to the monologue-type poetic language, which requires tonal unity and treats the sentence-judgment identity as an indisputable fact, since its one-way, goal-oriented solutions leave the poet poetically unsatisfied, giving the impression of insolubility, and thematically projecting consequences that discourage the person asking with the intention of searching. Instead of the traditional poetic discourse, a practice of interpreting the self and the world in ‘circumlocution’, of expressing the personality by talking to another about something, of bringing out and emphasising – even of making into a poetic organising force – the poetic dialogicity that is always present in any text. (In Hungarian lyric poetry, this practice was embodied in the poetry of Lőrinc Szabó in the last third of the 1920s, and he remains – along with Attila József – the most significant Hungarian master of this mode of speech.)[3]

2. Lóránt Kabdebó has done a great deal in the field of the theoretical question of literary modernity and its historical delimitation. This is not only a matter of the historical and theoretical “mapping” of 20th century Hungarian poetry, but also of its positioning in the European poetic canon. Kabdebó’s 2021 volume “The Brain of a Poet“, which discusses the work of Lőrinc Szabó in the light of modern European poetry, is a striking testimony to this. In this book, Kabdebó takes a special look at the Ady-Lőrinc relationship, i.e. the survival of the spirit and aesthetic-poetic conception of the West (“Nyugat”, a new literary journal in the first  four decades of the XX century in Hungary) in the poetry of Lőrinc Szabó, and then, as a corollary, he again analyses the question of the dialogization of classical modernity in the oeuvre of Lőrinc Szabó.[4]

3. The basic work of this theory is the 1996 publication Poetry and Prose in the Second Wave of Modernity,[5] which analyses this second phase of classical modernity, which was already preparing for late modernity, not only in Hungarian lyric poetry but also in epic poetry.

4.  The linking of ‘classicisation’ and ‘intertextuality’ itself seems a rather bold and novel undertaking in literary theory.[6] However, it is also very illuminating: as indicated above, Kabdebó relates this concept primarily to the late poetry of Attila József and Lőrinc Szabó. On the other hand, he sees the tradition of this poetic idiom in the history of European poetry, naming authors such as Dante (he emphasises the ‘insistence’ on it by the authors of the second modernity, which was also manifested in the translations of the Divine Comedy (one should refer here to Babits or Sándor Weöres), Browning, Baudelaire, Ezra Pound, Stefan George, T. S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad or Kavafis). He cites the poetry of Mihály Babits and Endre Ady as predecessors in the history of Hungarian literature, as authors who have adopted this “attitude”, i.e. the earlier tradition of literary theory and history, especially the (neo-)classicist and classical modern tradition (the latter in the 20th century), and the tradition of the “new” and “classical modern”. In his oeuvre, Lőrinc Szabó has partly carried on this tradition and partly incorporated it into his poetic work in a variety of ways, and in this way he has naturally transformed this multifaceted tradition.

Lóránt Kabdebó

II. Lóránt Kabdebó’s oeuvre Lőrinc Szabó’s oeuvre

Lóránt Kabdebó has explored Lőrinc Szabó’s oeuvre in a very diverse and multifaceted way. He has carried out extraordinary research on the biography of Lőrinc Szabó, on some of his life events, on the genesis of his texts, on the search for manuscripts and on the philological “reconstruction” of his texts. Of outstanding importance in this respect is the series of Szabó Lőrinc Papers (Szabó Lőrinc Füzetek), which he founded, which, in addition to the above-mentioned aspects, contains copies of documents from Lőrinc Szabó’s life, text-fact sheets, literary correspondence, poetic analysis and comparative literary history studies, and even translations of fiction by other authors, some of whom were foreign-language authors with whom Lőrinc Szabó came into contact in some way, through a connection with the history of influence or through his own translations. (A good example of this is the 9th issue of the Szabó Lőrinc Füzetek, published in 2009, which, in connection with Lőrinc Szabó’s translation of Remarque /Back from the War/, not only publishes the text of the translation itself (which consists of five voluminous parts), but also six related analytical and commentary studies, two of which were written in German..

The fact that Lőrinc Szabó’s Papers could be published in Miskolc, as a publication of the University of Miskolc, not only underlines the fact that Lőrinc Szabó was a native of the city of Miskolc, but also shows the esteem in which professor Lóránt Kabdebó was held by his own university. Lóránt Kabdebó was the founding Dean of the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Miskolc, head of the Department of Hungarian Language and Literature and the Doctoral School of Literature. Both in their number and in the diversity of their authors, the volumes reflect Lóránt Kabdebó’s profound, dedicated teaching and professorial qualities and activities, which have always been highly professional. Kabdebó educated countless students, many of whom researched Lőrinc Szabó’s life, work, or poetics, and published many studies on these subjects, including in the Lőrinc Szabó Papers, which Kabdebó founded. Many of Kabdebó’s students have obtained PhDs, many of them teach at various universities, and some of them are deans, rectors, and doctors. All this shows that Prof. Kabdebó has never “locked himself up” in his own humanities discipline but has always thought in terms of interdisciplinary cooperation between disciplines.

Lóránt Kabdebó has always paid special attention to the situation of Lőrinc Szabó’s oeuvre not only in relation to 20th century Hungarian poetic trends, but also to European lyric poetry and culture in general (again, we can refer to the emphasis on the influence of Dante or Max Stirner in Lőrinc Szabó’s poetry),[7] thus highlighting the European quality of Lőrinc Szabó’s lyric poetry and conveying to the Hungarian receptive audience the recognition of the poet’s cultural situation.

And since lyric poetry, the lyric poem in its very structure, was of great interest to Lóránt Kabdebó, we must turn to his extremely thorough analyses of the poem, which pay special attention to the lyric speaker, the poetic situation and, of course, the poetic language itself. Kabdebó’s analyses are never formal, on the contrary: they always focus on the semantics generated or created by the form. On the other hand, it is also necessary to see that this poetic semantics, which, according to Kabdebó, can only be revealed, understood and received through the structure, , rhythm, rhymes and “images” (metaphors) of the poem, has profound existential-ontological implications in Lőrinc Szabó. In other words, the poem meditates on the position of the speaker (the lyrical self) in the lyrical text and, through the semantics evoked by the linguistic-formal characteristics of the poem, on the position of the recipient in life and existence, or the position not yet occupied. What is more, in Lőrinc Szabó’s poetry, he mostly asks and shouts: perhaps one of the best examples of this is his poem “The Dreams of One”.

A brilliant Kabdeboan analysis of poetic language and form is presented in the interpretation of the poem “Willow on the lakeshore“, strongly inspired by Attila József, which starts from and builds on the inviting rhyme of the first line, the word “as if”. This word, which can be seen both as the equivalent of Lotman’s “If”[8] and as the realisation of Wofgang Iser’s  ‘as if’ structure (which Iser defined as the main characteristic of literature, the “self-acceptance” of the text),[9] also forms an enjambment in the poem. This “as if” thus further highlights the poetic theme of doubling, which is the focus of Kabdebó’s analysis, and through it and from the point of view of the subject, the problem of the “double” or the double world, the worldly and the otherworldly.[10]

Kabdebó’s other outstanding analysis was devoted to the famous poem The Dreams of the One in the volume of lyric poems entitled You and the World. Through an analysis of this poetic text, Kabdebó demonstrates the existence of Lőrinc Szabó’s dialogical poetic language, indicating that we are dealing here with a particular version of the self-propositional verse type (see the study by Béla G. Németh).[11] As he writes, with this “dialogue, the poet creates a specific variation of the self-referential poetic form, in which he gives equal opportunities to the voices that strive for self-fulfilment and those that are aware of the impossibility of doing so.”[12]  The two “I”-s of this dialogue are distinguished by the fact that while the one appears on the plane of desire and action, the other is contemplative, forced to suffer the very acknowledgement of the futility of desire, and to perceive and interpret the world as a “web” – insofar as interpretation is possible here. Kabdebó identifies this latter manifestation of the self with the role of the spectator, while he defines the “self” active in the world as an actor.[13] At the same time, he indicates that for Lőrinc Szabó, “the role of the actor is precisely that of movement, freedom, a constant sense of escaping from the constraints of the self”.  For the subject in the poem and for the subject of the recipient, this dual tendency is revealed as a “way of life”: “The path leads from the bound to the inner infinite, not towards the traditional psychological principle, but towards the knowledge of the biological organisation of the individual human being and through this to his liberation. That which releases us from the rules, which at the same time – the viewer (the spectator) is aware of this, he constantly says – also binds us.”[14]

As Kabdebó stresses at the end of his analysis, these two tendencies are essentially contradictory: only aesthetic creation can “unite and balance” them.[15]

Dr. Kornélia Horváth
Professor at Pázmány Péter Catholic  University (Budapest, Hungary)

[1] Kabdebó Lóránt, A dialogikus poétikai paradigma nagy pillanata: Szabó Lőrinc személyiséglátomása (Te meg a világ) in Uő: „A magyar költészet az én nyelvemen beszél”, Budapest, Argumentum, 1992, 36-56.

[2] Kabdebó Lóránt, A dialogikus költői paradigma megszületése a magyar lírában, in Uő: Vers és próza a modernség második hullámában, Budapest, Argumentum, 1996, 11-19.

[3] Kabdebó Lóránt, Bevezetés, in Uő: in Uő: Vers és próza a modernség második hullámában, Budapest, Argumentum, 1996,

[4] Kabdebó Lóránt, „egy Költő Agya”. Szabó Lőrinc pályaképe a „modern” európai költészetben, Budapest, Előretolt Helyőrség Íróakadémia, 2021, 9-55, valamint 56-127.

[5] Kabdebó Lóránt, Vers és próza a modernség második hullámában, Budapest, Argumentum, 1996.

[6] Kabdebó Lóránt, A klasszicizálás mint intertextualitás a modernség második hullámában, in Uő: Vers és próza a modernség második hullámában, Budapest, Argumentum, 1996, 44–50.

[7] In relation to Max Stirner see Kabdebó Lóránt: Egy költői beszédmód filozofikus átalakulása. Szabó Lőrinc és Max stirner 1., Az Egy álmai. Szabó Lőrinc és Max Stirner 2, in Uő, Vers és próza a modernség második hullámában, Budapest, Argumentum, 1996, 51-72., 73-117.

[8] Jurij Lotman: Kultúra és robbanás, ford. Szűcs Teri, Budapest, Pannonica, 2001, különösen: 207-220.

[9] Wolfgang Iser: Fikcióképző aktusok in Uő: A fiktív és az imaginárius. Az irodalmi antropológia ösvényein, ford. molnár Gábor Tamás, Budapest, Osiris, 2001, 21-43.

[10] Kabdebó Lóránt: „A magyar költészet az én nyelvemen beszél”, Budapest, Argumentum, 1992, 131-138.

[11] See Németh G. Béla: Az önmegszólító verstípusról, in Uő: 11+7 vers, Budapest, Tankönyvkiadó, 1984, 7–40.

[12] Kabdebó Lóránt: „A magyar költészet az én nyelvemen beszél”, Budapest, Argumentum, 1992, 37.

[13] Kabdebó Lóránt: „A magyar költészet az én nyelvemen beszél”, Budapest, Argumentum, 1992, 39.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Kabdebó Lóránt: „A magyar költészet az én nyelvemen beszél”, Budapest, Argumentum, 1992, 40.

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