George Szirtes


Image by Caroline Forbes








Where have you put it,

the dark I mean, she asks me,

but I cannot say.


The dark’s a cliché,

I plead without conviction.

There are words and states.


That’s just clever talk,

though not altogether false,

and it burns my mouth.


Then I remember

those pockets filled with darkness

I had to empty.


Turn out your pockets,

says the policeman. That dark,

is it yours, he asks.


How did it get there?

The policeman takes a look

and shrugs. It’s legal,


nothing important.

The drug in your possession

is your own business.


Thank you, officer.

I pocket my slip of dark

and go on my way.


That’s the dark I mean,

she says. It is your cliché.

It’s yours. It’s legal.




The Voices


One voice was picking itself off the floor,

another was ringing bells at the front door,

a third was shouting nonsense. There were more.


The voice of the old woman on the stairs,

the voice of Goldilocks and the Three Bears,

the voice of the man minding his own affairs.


The voice that held itself like a frail glass,

the voices on the train that we watched pass,

the breaking voice at the back of the class.


It was the night. A crowd of voices. Streets

with dogs and poor, the barks and brays and bleats,

reiterations, cries, endless repeats.


We heard the voices speaking very low,

familiar voices that we didn’t know,

the voice that stuck, the voice that once let go.


Let go, the voice said. Letting go is best.

Stray lines, the overheard, the voice addressed,

and so into the night with all the rest.




Variations: Ten Hauntings



When he lay NE-SW his mother’s ghost appeared in the jar.



When he sat by the east-facing window there was only the cat looking at the table.



When he walked by the church little devils were ringing bells over the field and a dead thrush lay on the path.



When he walked by the river a woman with three dogs asked him a question he couldn’t answer.



When he felt in his pocket he discovered his father’s old purse, soft, leather with a modicum of stateless small change.



When the radio was on it was as if his ears were not his own. They belonged to someone in another world.



When he sat in the armchair the rain was describing an event he couldn’t remember.



While he was waiting at the bus stop his own mortality passed him in a car and waved to him.



When he walked through the door the air was waiting for him with a faint smile on its face and a key in its hand.



When he looked in the mirror he was relieved to find himself, only better and somehow more complete. He resolved to return there more often.




Father’s Day


Behind the live face

another, between two lives

a third, ghost father.


Maybe it is him,

the unmirrored face that now

turns in your mirror.


– Hey, that’s my face there,

he declares, and your cheeks burn

with embarrassment.


He too is burning.

The face you can’t remember

is your common face.


He addresses you

by familiar secret names.

He wants to see you


as you see yourself.

There he is, beneath your face

searching for his own.


That’s the way things

are between you and your faces,

your doppelgängers.


– Father, where are you?

– I’m behind you. Keep moving.

Let me follow you.


So you keep moving

shifting between your faces,

he some way behind.


When he vanishes

his face remains beneath yours.

Then you too vanish.




George Szirtes at Wordsmiths & Co, November 2012





George Szirtes reads for Poets & Players on 9 November 2013





George Szirtes gives the closing provocation at Worlds Literature Festival 2012











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. His most recent collection, Reel, was awarded the 2004 T. S. Eliot Prize.

The tension in Szirtes’ haunting poems is partly a result of displacement and the consequent negotiation between a European sensibility and English culture. In particular the loss of his earliest home, the city of Budapest, renders the past deeply ambiguous, vulnerable to the reconstructions of memory. Poems that seemingly chronicle purely domestic moments have implications beyond the half open windows and doors of the rooms in which they take place, like the baby grand of a childhood apartment that « vanishes into the sudden dark//Of history and other shady business. » (‘Piano’) His poems reject the simplifications that belonging – to a country, religion or political movement – can demand. Thus the process of assimilation is satirised in ‘Preston North End’ where his Englishness is learnt through football’s tribal loyalties until « I pass the Tebbitt test. I am Alan Lamb,/Greg Rusedski, Viv Anderson, the boy/from the corner shop, Solskjaer and Jaap Stam. » But though he offers no easy narratives or identities he understands the impulse to try and make sense of the world through them: his poems are full of tenderness towards the dead, and by extension all of us who will one day be displaced by the passage of time like the girl in the photograph who « is touching because she is lovely/and gone. » (‘Meeting Austerlitz’).

Szirtes has described his poems as buildings and their mainly formal structures do have an architectural quality which his reading brings out. However, it’s the still slightly foreign music of his voice, the accent that is hard to place, which expresses the complexities of his work so beautifully.

His recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 1 March 2005 at The Audio Workshop, London and was produced by Richard Carrington.

George Szirtes’s Favourite Poetry Sayings:

« Poetry is a secret and subversive pleasure. » – Martin Bell

« Poets acquire humanity. » – Wallace Stevens

« Art is a house that tries to be haunted. » – Emily Dickinson

– See more at:



Going Places: An Interview with George Szirtes

By Jennifer Wong


Articles similaires