Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Poetry of Pasta

Jozsef Tornai (1927–) is a Hungarian poet and author whose work I first learned about this morning. The manner of learning is worthy of note. The medium was Twitter, where gifts of knowledge are tossed from person to person like bridal bouquets.

The path to Tornai began with Twitter friend @drmstream (on Twitter people's names or nicknames are preceded by the "@" sign). He mentioned "Average Waves in Unprotected Waters," a story by Anne Tyler first published in the February 28, 1977 issue of the New Yorker. When another friend, @Kcecelia, looked up the story in the New Yorker's online archives, she noticed and mentioned two wonderful poems by Hungarian authors that appeared within the Anne Tyler story's pages.

And so I came to read and love this poem. It is too fine to languish behind the New Yorker's subscribers-only wall and doesn't appear to be available anywhere else, so I offer it here.

Mr. T. S. Eliot Cooking Pasta
by Jozsef Tornai
Translated from the Hungarian by Richard Wilbur

That crackle is well worth hearing.
He breaks in two the macaroni tubes
so as to make them fit the pot,
then casts them with both hands into the water
above the white electric range.
The water bubbles, seethes, the pasta
sinks to the bottom of the pot.
Mr. Eliot casts a glance
through the wide kitchen window toward the park:
it is raining there, and water
pours down the trunks of trees in substantial quantity,
tousling the lawn into a poison-green
Sargasso Sea.
Which reminds him of the pot.
Just so much contemplation has sufficed
for the rising of the pasta
to the water's surface.
He fishes out the bouncing ropes
with a colander, American-made,
and runs cold water on them from the tap.
"One is obliged to do so; otherwise
they will stick together." So Mr. Eliot writes
to a friend, later that evening.
"Still, the most gripping moment
comes when the macaroni
are broken in two with a dry crackle:
in that, somehow,
one recognizes oneself."


  1. "The medium was Twitter, where gifts of knowledge are tossed from person to person like bridal bouquets." This is a bit of poetry itself. Mr. Tornai's poem is also amazing. What an utterly wonderful final five lines. They crushed me.

  2. Michele! What a gorgeous and apt post. Your writing just keeps getting lovelier.

    I'm enamoured of the chain that led to your post; beauty upon beauty: On Twitter, @drmstream noted a theme in my life of living by the water. I responded with a goal of living by the water in major cities: London, New York, Seattle, Paris. I included Baltimore in my list, and explained the inclusion was because of my love of Ann Tyler's Baltimore. @susanchamplin and @dandavenport mentioned their love for Tyler. @drmstream added his mention of the 1977 New Yorker Tyler story. I looked it up, and posted it. But, when I read it, I also noticed, and was deeply moved by, the two poems translated from the Hungarian that shared pages with the story. T. S. Eliot is a particular lifetime love, and knowing his work and life so well, the poem broke my heart with its beauty and its understanding of the man.

    It is such a fine thing to love a poem, and yet finer to find someone else who shares that love. You added to my pleasure by researching and writing about the whole subject so beautifully. How pleasing to know that Jozsef Tornai is alive. Since he was born in 1927, he wrote this affecting poem when he was 50. He is in his 80s now. I want to seek him out.

    Your phrase, "where gifts of knowledge are tossed from person to person like bridal bouquets," is marvelous. Thank you for tossing this poem out in a further bouquet.

  3. Thank you, Michael. Those last few lines are so simple but somehow they stir some sort of truth. They're also my favorites and, I believe, Katherine's too. It makes me want to read more of his work, but very little seems to have been translated.

  4. Katherine, thank you so much for filling in the details of how this poem ended up on DD. I missed @drmstream's original post about you and water, and missed the toss to Susan and Dan about Baltimore and Anne Tyler. The purely random serendipity is one of my favorite things about Twitter. Of course, it's not completely random, since we choose who to follow and create little communities.

    I also looked for more information on Jozsef Tornai but wasn't able to find much. B&N has a couple of English translations of Hungarian poetry collections, but most of its Hungarian poetry is by Attila Jozsef, who died in 1937 when he was only 32. I found a page of his poems here — you can see why he is so revered.

  5. I love this poem, and the story of how you found it. Twitter never ceases to amaze and expand me. (Or more aptly, you who I follow.)

    That instant when the pasta snaps? Absolutely love that, I just didn't know, until now, why.

  6. Thanks, J. That grip of the fingers and bend of the wrists followed by snapping is incredibly satisfying. Of course it took a poet to notice the beauty in an act so perfectly quotidian.

  7. This is lovely Michel, both the poem and your description of the serendipitous nature of Twitter. That snap is irresistible and a moment we all recognize.

  8. Thanks, Holly. I don't think I mentioned this, but I love the photo of your studio. What a wonderful place to work!

  9. This is amazing -- I love what you said about tossing the bouquet... it is like that isn't it?
    Such a remarkable world we live in, thank you for always showing me bits of it.

  10. the poetry of past - well said! bravissimo as the italians say! great post! thanks for sharing!

  11. Thank you. Good poetry makes my world rounder.