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( 1949 )


1949 (5th Nov.) born in Budapest
1968–1973 graduates in English and Russian from Loránd Eötvös University, Budapest
1975–1978 graduates in Hungarian Literature and Linguistics
1973–1976 teaches in a grammar school
1976– present freelance writer and translator
1984–1986 contributes to the literary Kortárs
1986 works for the Foreign Language Journals Department of a newspaper publishing company
1988–present freelance writer
1991 spends a year in the USA as a Fulbrighter
1997–2000 editor of the poetry column at the literary Élet és Irodalom

His prizes include:
1990 Wessely Prize for the best translation of the year, 1991 Déry Award, 1992 Milán Füst Award, 1994 Attila József Prize, 1999–2000 The Soros Foundation’s Literary Prize

Foliage Above, Dead Leaves Below

In his first collection after the political changes of 1989, Péter Kántor wrote his most important poems to date, among them the long poem called “To Learn How To Live”, in which, “in his midlife” the persona of the poem decides to become a much more conscious being. In the long and decidedly complicated list of tasks, complete with all sorts of limitations and compromises, there is the inevitable foreboding of failure (like in the genre of burlesque). Besides (possibly) undertaking small or great matters, the poet wants to be faithful to the personal feelings and belongings. When all is said and done (come what may), one has to provide for the yucca palm (a plant that has become emblematic in Kántor’s poetry).


Selected from Kántor’s previous seven books, this volume presents the poet’s recurring motives (like the family photos described with a child’s eyes, the poems on history, on paintings or on dreams, etc.), and makes it possible to follow the road he has taken. According to the critic, Sándor Radnóti, Kántor’s main attitude is characterised by “a child’s astonishment and a more resigned amusement”, although in his mature poems he gains a kind of adult resignation. This may be the reason, says the critic, why Kántor, the translator of many polished songs (for instance Mandelstam’s poems), abandons this more musical form, and prefers writing long poems in free verse, or sometimes in a loose iambic metre or the accentuated rhythm natural to the Hungarian idiom.

Horse Relay

Trivial, mundane incidents, such as a telephone call, a stroll or shaving, loom particularly large in Péter Kántor’s poems. These slivers of life are always seen from the perspective of human existence, serving as intimations of man’s fleeting life span. A description of the simple act of shaving flips at the end into a bleak image the dead father looks back out of the mirror to say ‘just carry on unto death’ (Shaving). The poems frequently adopt very simple metrical structures, including genres such as the blues, haiku and the limerick, and even one-liners reminiscent of the utterances of Oriental sages. Such reductive compositions alternate with intricately structured discourses. Lyricism is achieved alongside fragmentariness, playfulness co-exists with tragedy. The family, relatives and, indeed, ancestors in general frequently crop up as subjects – persons with whom one may enter into dispute. Another favoured topic is dialogue with fellow poets, both past and contemporary. Together with many Hungarian poets (Sándor Weöres, Mihály Vörösmarty, Dezső Tandori, above all) who are important for the speaker here, Kavafy, too earns a mention that amounts to a recommendation. Kántor often inverts lines from his fellow poets, playing around with their texts and assembling them into collages, or at other times perpetrating ironic twists on centuries-old traditions. The title poem, ‘Horse Relay’ parades a series of surreal images in contrasting the concept of a sedate stroll with horse racing and flat-out speed. Kántor can write interestingly even about an international poets’ get-together (in ‘Durban’) and dares to pick a quarrel with Jesus Christ (‘The Men from Nazareth’), whilst he has an original take on the stink of pigs and a lot to say about horses as well as about ships and the sea. Last but not least, there is God, with whom he would prefer to make a contract in order to know who can reckon on what (‘What ought God be able to do?’).

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