Interview with Lajos Kassák

He wanted to become a worker, not a gentleman: for this reason he quit school when he was ten years old. Becoming a metal worker and tramp, he studied and struggled with himself and the world until his new style and new themes earned him a place in Hungarian poetry next to Ady and Babits.

Half-way through the First World War, he became leader of a group of revolutionary-minded artists, and his new ideas, new poetic attitude and new mode of expression made him a trailblazer of Hungarian socialist lyric poetry. During his exile in the twenties, he maintained a friendship and fostered a poetic kinship with Europe’s most original experimentalists in style. Dezső Kosztolányi, the youthful Attila József and the beginner Gyula Illyés were attracted to his personality like a magnet, as were Lőrinc Szabó, Miklós Radnóti and István Vas.

Controversy raged about him at the end of the First World War and continued to do so at the turn of the thirties and, for that matter, today.

In 1916, Kassák attacked Babits’s conservatism, declaring: “Art begins where you are capable of doing something in a way no one else has done.”" In 1919, in an open letter to Bela Kun, * he expounded his artistic creed about the supra-class position of art. While regarding himself as a poet of the working-class, he has, at various stages of his life, engaged in considerable controversy with the Communists.

All his life a fighter, a disputant and storm-raiser, Kassák has championed truths as well as erroneous views and has been attacked by both just opponents and uncomprehending enemies.

Albert Gyergyai, one of Kassák’s most loyal appreciators, warns us in one of his essays that “here in our midst lives a great poet, kindred in spirit to and a comrade-in-arms of the foremost poets of our time... one could hardly find a more talented poet of this era, the very man who could present to the outside world the most comprehensive and most universal aspect of Hungarian poetry.” Another critic, on the contrary, thinks that “his lustre, his poise, his healthiness are no present-day lustre, no present-day healthiness, no present-day harmony. It is humanism, but of an old kind ... Kassák has failed to evolve a harmony such as might be looked upon as a synthesis worthy of the poet’s era.”

Literary historians last year started a debate about Kassák’s proper place in ideological matters and how he should be assessed from the aesthetic point of view. According to some Marxist literary historians, for all

* Leader of the Hungarian Republic of Councils, 1919.


his record of revolutionary initiative, Kassák cannot be considered a socialist poet; others, on the other hand, see in him the founder of a new kind of socialist poetry to the extent that his poetry expresses universal humanism.

In the light of these facts, the poet’s views regarding the world in general and his art in particular are of unusual interest.


A few years ago, you conducted an inquiry among noted European artists. We would now appreciate an answer to your own question: “Do you see any progress in art; if so, in what sense?”

Obviously, as in all spheres of life, there has been some progress in that of art, though I would call it change rather than progress. Such progress, however, is confined to a very small section of art. What I mean is that there are great artists, but they tower above a surrounding sea of mediocrity. In my view, the vast majority of today’s works are anything but modern. Most poets of our time live off the leavings of the poetry of bygone days. They do not derive the substance of their poetry from present-day life, but work out variations on the content and forms of the poetry of times past. For this reason they fall away behind the science and technology of our era. What, when you come to think of it, is going on in science today? Scientists are discovering new phenomena in the world and interpreting them for us. I would call a poet modern who rediscovers the world for himself. The new poet will furnish a new content expressed in a new form. He will weed out some words from his vocabulary and rehabilitate others that may have seemed archaic. In my view, today’s poetry ought to be anti-poetry. Its content and form should widen our spiritual horizon, enable us to comprehend and experience wider areas of the universe, to sense more of the world; it should stimulate our reasoning to probe into the essence of things. Today, the mere fact that somebody is a good poet means nothing. I often receive poems submitted by students. They are definitely good poems‑‑what a pity they weren’t written by Árpád Tóth! They are fine flawless compositions, but light as a feather. What we need is not to polish up old styles but supply fresh material for poetry. And that you can do only by acquiring a wider and more profound knowledge of the world we live in.

Is that your poetical faith too?

Yes, I too am plagued by these thoughts. In the collection scheduled to appear next, I feel I have reached a new phase in my poetry. Its principal element is no longer music but the objective quality; not melody undulating in time, but an objective, graphic representation of the theme in space. Perhaps there will be critics who will have noticed that in conception and purpose these poems approach so-called concrete music, whose characteristic feature is not continuity but the position of sounds in space. When listening to Bartók's The Night’s Music, I feel I am actually in the night, sensing the sounds from various distances—that is to say, all that happens musically is happening in space. This kind of music is intricate, agonizing, provocative. In my new poetry I am aiming at such intricacy or, to put it more precisely, architectonic construction. The words appear not as musical but as quasi-material elements, I conceive of them and use them much as an architect uses building elements. I would call my poetry today architectonically constructivist.

How do you interpret the notion of modernism?

The question of modernism is raised very frequently nowadays, but often, I am afraid, without being properly thought through. Art today is divided into two parts. The one creates under the influence of the confusion reigning in the world. He is in the majority. The other seeks to create a synthesis, a state of equilibrium, in place of


chaos. In my opinion, the latter is the art of our time. Its adherents are not simply influenced by the age; they set their faces against the defects of our time by mirroring or advancing the consolidation of our individual lives and of the life of our society. It is no mere chance that architecture now leads the arts; for it has freed itself from all tradition. A building is no longer a cave or castle; it is intended to be the home of Modern Man, spacious and with plenty of light.

Of course, this conception calls for a new style in furniture too. One who lives amid plenty of space and light, surrounded by furniture unencumbered by trinkets, demands a lucid, exact art.

The artist of our time must be constructive and resistant to the confusion of the age. There is at present no middle course for the artist. I maybe speaking too categorically; but I am convinced any concession in this respect can only result in mediocrity.

You have said the modern artist rediscovers the world for himself. Do you think modern philosophy, social science and psychology can aid him in this effort?

No genuine artist can fall to be influenced by philosophy and social science. The artist is not independent of the outside world, of community life; in his works he reveals not only his own inner world, his ego, but also the condition of his environment. However, the poet speaks in a modulated, individual voice. He must make us see the world as viewed from a new angle that is all his own. Part of Thomas Mann’s work is, in my opinion, more an illustration of Freudism than original creation. Dostoevsky, for instance, could and did teach Freud; but it was from Freud that Thomas Mann learned. The artist must contribute something new. Cocteau, for instance, was a magnificent artist, but, coming after Apollinaire, he created little that is new. He was the graceful, mellifluous poet. He wrote some very fine words to chansons for Edith Piaff. Camus was more of an innovator, because he saw things from a new angle and successfully attempted to express what he saw objectively.

Is Camus a follower of existentialism?

No. Camus is one of the founders of that philosophy; consequently, his existentialism isn’t a borrowed tool but his medium of expression. Unlike Thomas Mann, Hemingway, for instance, enriched literature through fresh material. This, of course, has resulted in a change of style. He has numerous disciples also in Hungary. Though I speak of him in terms of praise, I have reservations about those of our young fiction writers who are his followers. I often get the feeling that they are turning Hemingway’s world view into a mannerism. I have read short stories about hooligans, espresso bar habitués. They were written with indisputable technique, but I failed to detect in them the same distance between the author and his characters I see in Hemingway. Hemingway places his characters in moral categories, whereas our young writers identify themselves with theirs. How many of them will be able to discard such identification only the future can tell. Undoubtedly, we have a good many young and gifted authors, but they have not yet learned how to husband their talent properly. They are living in a current and have not the strength to resist it; yet such resistance will some day give birth to their real artistry. The artists of our time, as I have said, must rediscover the world for themselves: they have to see and bear from a new angle phenomena and all things apprehensible by the senses. This new angle will be the yardstick by which the modernity of their works will be gauged. Don’t get me wrong—I am not demanding that young writers produce something extraordinary, something startling, something that has never been seen or heard of yet. What I expect of


them is a striving after lucidity, exactitude and simplicity. Simplicity, but not mediocrity. I want to see harmony, but a harmony of our time, composed of many layers. Poets should not simply put themes into verse, but make their poetry the new theme, the new discovery, of one’s memory, one’s emotions.

So that’s what you consider the purport, the ultimate object, of your experiments in style. How do you view your relationship to the various isms ?

Unlike many contemporary art critics, I regard the isms, for all their confusions and contradictions, as very useful.

The various isms have raised certain art problems and sought to solve them, thereby preparing the emergence of a new harmony, a new synthesis.

Reflecting upon my own art, I may safely repeat what I have said on several occasions: I have benefited from each ism, but have not joined any school, as I think the purpose of every school has been to answer only this or that problem of detail. In my work you can find the dynamism of futurism, the lyricism of expressionism, the objectivity of cubism and, last of all, the comprehensive structural aims of constructivism. In contrast to all schools, I insist on synthesis. It is my belief that in poetry as in painting I have achieved an austerity of structure, a basic use of colours and an unequivocal use of words. I regret very much that I’ve had no opportunity so far to appear before the public with my paintings. I feel sure that in Hungary, as in other countries, truly modern visual arts will come to the forefront; but I greatly regret that so far we have had no opportunity to admire the best creations of these trends, only imitations, and ill-assorted, immature works. If this continues, it will cause confusion, I think it is absurd that, while paying homage to the farthest-seeing science and marvellously precise technology, we should foster backwardness in art, which so deeply affects our spiritual and emotional life. Art is no luxury article; it meets an important need. If this demand is nor met at the proper time and in the proper manner, then the individual’s spiritual and intellectual world as well as that of the broad masses will become mechanized and their striving after better things decrease.

No doubt you are aware of the debate literary historians have conducted concerning the valuation of your art and as to whether or not it is to be considered socialist. How would you describe the nature, the essence, of your socialism, your relationship to the labour movement?

I know that some critics and literary historians question my being a socialist. But the same critics will tell you that I am a constructive moral person, an anti-fascist, anti-militarist and anti-chauvinist. And yet they do not consider me a socialist. What else am I expected to do? That such doubt was entertained in my regard at the time of the so-called personality cult is not surprising, for then it was not facts but dogmatic myopia that determined a man’s character and fate. It is true that I am no party politician, but I think it is no less true that for more than half a century I have been portraying the life of the proletariat and that I have been fighting with the purest art forms to change its plight. True, in our political system today, I speak not so much of proletarians as of men, because this country’s policy and economic organization have made men of proletarians; my mission as an artist is therefore to keep human curiosity alive, to help pave the road of development emotionally and intellectually, to preserve truth and freedom—that is to say, all that can be expected of an artist without indulging in romantic effusion and hollow grandiloquence. Do I consider myself a socialist, then? I do. In the purest and most sober human sense of the word.


Are you aware of a contact with your readers? Does your art get through to those for whom it is intended?

In recent years, the door has been opened to most of my work. Books of mine are published again, and editors seem to like my writings. What is more, I have been finding a response among the reading public. It makes me happy to see that, despite my advanced age, I am not addressed in tones of reverence and that I am appreciated for the active creative force in me. The forthrightness of my message and the purity of my form of expression are recognized.


At 77, Kassák continues to search for the new law, for the new order hidden beneath the surface. He is looking for this new order and new law in ultimate human values.

“It is not on the whim of the moment that I live, but in infinite continuity,” he wrote in a diary entry 20 years ago. “The past and the present and—so I believe—the future too mingle in me. Such is Fate, and it would be no use my rebelling against it. In my youth, I was by and large the same as I am today.”

That, I believe, is still true. His consistency, his loyalty to himself, and the unequivocal quality of his writings command respect even if we sometimes disagree with his views.


SOURCE: Erki, Edit. “Interview with Lajos Kassák,” The New Hungarian Quarterly, no. 16 (vol. 5, Winter 1964), pp. 192-196.

External Links

A Man's Life... in the Proletarian Movement: Lajos Kassák 1887-1967 . Barricade Collective, Winter 2006.

Life and work, with graphic image (reproduced above) and translated poems “The Horse Dies, the Birds Fly Out” (A ló meghal a madarak kirepülnek), “Artisans” (Mesteremberek), “The Dictator” (A diktátor), “The Factory” (A gyár), “Like This” (Így).

Babilonhu / BabelMatrix: Hungarians in the Tower of Babel:
The page of Kassák Lajos, English biography

Kassák Lajos, Hungarian Works translated to EnglishWorks:
The dictator {Tabori, Paul} (A diktátor)
The horse dies the birds fly off (Closing Part) {N. Ullrich Katalin} (A ló meghal a madarak kirepülnek (Záró részlet))
My Poetry {Makkai, Adam} (Költészetem)
I'm With You {N. Ullrich Katalin} (Veled vagyok)

Lajos Kassák - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Kassák and His Circle (Lóránt Czigány)

Kassák, Lajos | Budapest Poster Gallery

Selection of Dadaist Picture-Poems By Lajos Kassák from 1920-1922

On this site:

The Horse Dies the Birds Fly Away
(A ló meghal a madarak kirepülnek)
by Lajos Kassák, translated by Edwin Morgan

Kassák Sketches” by Ágnes Nemes Nagy,
translated by Tim Wilkinson

The Importance and Influence of Ady” by György Lukács

Reminiscences of Lukács by Tibor Déry

Imre Madách’s “The Tragedy of Man” by István Sőtér

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Select Bibliography

In Esperanto:

Laborist-portreto” de Lajos Kassák,
tradukis Kálmán Kalocsay

Metiistoj de Lajos Kassák

Fragmento el la Romano »Vivo de Homo«
Lajos Kassák, tradukis Ferenc Szilágyi

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 29 January 2016

Site ©1999-2023 Ralph Dumain