Listening time: under 5 minutes.   This disturbing quotation is striking on several levels.   By the Hungarian poet György Faludy concerning his first few weeks of incarceration by the secret police, it first caught my attention for the sheer feat of composing poetry only in the mind, in a place where writing materials were hard to come by, and where, in any case, writing anything down could cost you a beating if not your life. 

But if this weren’t enough, there is the mental fortitude and discipline to continue composing despite the sounds and smells of horrific violence being inflicted around you, to which you know that sooner or later you yourself may be subject.

Also noteworthy is the shift in his perception of time, which would normally grind slowly in a prison cell, but due to the intensity of effort to write and memorize poems, flies by.  

WritingRedux Podcast

Quotation - Faludy - Happy Days in Hell

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My only problem was to memorize my poems.  On the first day I thought up only twenty lines, but gradually I increased it to an average of fifty lines a day.  I repeated each line twenty times, and all the previous lines three times in succession.  By evening I had always forgotten the whole poem but the next morning I knew it without mistake.  My preoccupation changed even in the subjective length of a day: to me the time from six o’clock in the morning when the guard appeared with the soup until between nine and ten in the evening when he collected the dixie, never seemed longer than three-quarters of an hour.  Thus, I completely forgot the present and the future and even came to disregard the noises seeping into my cell; except the brief howling to be heard once or twice a week, usually late in the evening that ended in a  short, strangled death-rattle.  The howl was always preceded by the guards dragging something mute and lifeless, probably an unconscious or drugged man, along the corridor, and by the sound of a body dropped into a bath filled with liquid.   The basin must have been somewhere at the end of the corridor, behind a cell door.  Five or six seconds after the howl I could smell acid, but whether it was hydrochloric acid or sulphuric acid I was never sure.  I supposed that the victim, become useless to the AVO either because he had already signed a confession or because he refused to make one, was beaten half dead and then thrown into the bath of acid.  For a few minutes I would stand petrified in my cell, but immediately afterwards I would find rhymes more beautiful and metaphors more unexpected than had ever occurred to me before. 

 

In a month’s time I could whisper to myself a whole volume of poems. 

 

Let us never take freedom and democracy for granted.  The good news is that Faludy survived the incarceration and the three years in a labour camp which followed, living to 96.

See also his comment on finding things to write about while in prison, and his other tricks for hiding poetry from state snooping.  And as a comparison for total focus, one by Saint-Exupéry. 

Written in happier circumstances, you may enjoy my quote-packed essay on memorizing poetry, in the illustrated text version, or in a podcast recording.    

Source: György Faludy, My Happy Days in Hell, trans. by Kathleen Szasz (London: Penguin Classics, 2010 (1962)), pp. 321-22

Photo credit: Chrisreadingfoto at pixabay

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