About George Szirtes – Children's Poems
George Szirtes (b. 1948) came to England in 1956 as a refugee from Hungary. He was brought up in London, going on to study fine art in London and Leeds. He wrote poetry alongside his art and his first collection, The Slant Door, appeared in 1979 and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. After his second collection was published he was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Other acclaimed collections and translations followed, a return trip to Budapest in 1984 proving a particularly fruitful trigger for his creativity. Reel was awarded the 2004 T. S. Eliot Prize, and he has since then published two more collections for adults, The Burning of the Books (2009) and Bad Machine (2013), and two books of poetry for children, The Red-All-Over Riddle Book (1997) and In the Land of the Giants (2012), which won the CLPE Poetry Award.
Szirtes’ poems for children have a glorious imaginative range as they conjure such deliciously odd images – ‘The Bicycle’s Wrists’, ‘The Wasp’s Waist’ – from familiar objects and creatures. His subjects come palpably to life, like the ferocious flood falling in ‘fitful[s]’ of three-line stanzas, the topic unravelling and yet held together by the intricate rhyme running through ‘mottle / settle / Mutter / Spatter / letter / wetter’. By the time we reach a ‘Fleet or a flotilla’, the poem’s set of stanzas have formed their own creeping fleet of ships. And Szirtes’ clear enunciation of consonantal echoes builds a kind of kinetic energy in his reading here as the poem amasses its flooded world.
Wonderfully in tune with the peculiarity of people and things, he gives the inanimate ‘Cave’s Mouth’ great literal and psychological depth as it ‘gapes’ widely at the sea, and his reader is left ‘hardly able to believe’ the effect of the tide on the innocuous cave. Michael Rosen has said that after reading Szrites’ poems ‘the world wasn’t the same again’. Likewise, for the listener of these recordings, waves disintegrating on the shore are now ‘big hands’ trying ‘to hold on before the glass breaks’, while fish fingers become ‘miniscule digits at the end of [the fish’s] fins’ on the seabed. His translated work – from the Hungarian of Zoltán Zelk and Sándor Weöres – takes real delight in its (second) language and is read with exuberant rhetoric: one feels the breeze of sibilance through the poet’s imploring ‘Dearie me, you winter trees, / What strange behaviour, if you please!’ Szirtes’ reading voice has a distinct, foreign lilt and lightly waltzes through full rhymes as he weighs up the ‘The Bear’s Dilemma’. His introductions and lively inhabiting of characters – like the tool-laden Fred Alcock – add a whole other dimension to what Fiona Waters has called his ‘real poetry for children […] challenging, mysterious, lyrical [and] profoundly thought provoking’.
George Szirtes' favourite poetry saying:
'Art is a house that tries to be haunted.' – Emily Dickinson