George Szirtes

Portrait George Szirtes
© Clarissa Upchurch

George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948. After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Szirtes and his family fled to England, where they adopted the English language and way of life. After leaving school Szirtes studied painting at the College of Art and Design in Leeds and at Goldsmith’s College, part of the University of London. Subsequently he worked as a teacher of art, art history, literature and creative writing at a number of different schools and institutions such as the Arvon Foundation. In the mid-seventies he wrote the first of a series of libretti for operas, musicals and oratorios, and his poems and drawings appeared in loose-leaf publications. He was awarded the Faber Memorial Prize for his first complete collection of poems, entitled »The Slant Door« (1979). In 1982 he was accepted into the Royal Society of Literature. Following the premature death of his mother he began to become increasingly involved with his cultural heritage. His first visit to Hungary in 1984 reinforced his interest in Hungarian literature and ultimately motivated him to become active as a translator.

Szirtes’ poetry combines vivid imagery and a strong awareness of form in the tradition of T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden and also reflects the Hungarian-Jewish-British identity of the author. For example, these aspects are combined in his ninth collection, descriptively entitled »Portrait of my Father in an English Landscape«. In a poem of the same name, fifteen sonnets in distinct sentences develop a fragmentary biography of the father, with photographs as constant points of reference. In their extreme formality, the drive behind Szirtes’ poems appears to be commitment to telling the truth. Since truth – as the author remarked, when awarded the T.S. Eliot Prize for his collection »Reel« (2005) – is »not entirely a question of evidence, information, data or falsifiable statements, but a matter of peculiar dogged complexity«.

The poet has been awarded multiple prizes and grants for his work and is also well-known for his numerous translations of Hungarian authors, including Imre Madách, Dezsö Kosztolányi, Ottó Orbán, Zsuzsa Rakovsky, László Krasznahorkai, Agnes Nemes Nagy, Sándor Márai and Ferenc Karinthy. For this work he has been awarded the Déry Prize, the Republic of Hungary’s Gold Star Award and the European Poetry Translation Prize. Szirtes’ varied output also includes poetry for children, a study of the painter Ana Maria Pacheco as well as articles, essays, anthologies and radio and television contributions on such topics as poets, poetry, art, translation and politics. He writes a blog on his website

Szirtes lives with his wife, the painter Clarissa Upchurch, in Wymondham, Norfolk. He is a member of the advisory panel of the British Centre for Literary Translation and the Poetry Book Society, a patron for the National Academy of Writing and a judge of numerous literary competitions.

© international literature festival berlin