Balla Zsófia: Biography

Zsófia Balla (Cluj-Napoca, 15 January 1949 –)

Poet, writer, journalist. Member of the Digital Literature Academy since 2016.


She was born on 15 January 1949 in Cluj-Napoca to an assimilated Jewish family. She did not know her grandparents; about 100 members of her family were killed in various camps. Her father was Károly Balla, a writer and journalist, and her mother, Berta Taub, who was born in Budapest, was a teacher at Babeș-Bolyai University.


1956–1968: Studies violin at the Music School of her hometown.

1965: Her first poems are published in the literary magazine Igaz Szó (True Word)

1968: Her first book of poetry, A dolgok emlékezete (The Memory of Things), is published.

1972: Receives her teaching diploma from the Academy of Music.

1975: Member of the Romanian Writers’ Union.

1972–1985: Music and literature editor of the Hungarian broadcast of Radio Studio in Cluj-Napoca.

1978–1982: Head of the Gábor Gaál Literary Circle in Cluj. Teaches Hungarian folk music and musical literacy in Dej. In 1982 she was banned from the city.

1985: Overnight, all rural radio studios are shut down.

1985–1990: Agro-industry correspondent for the central daily newspaper, Előre.

1980–1990: She is barred from leaving the country, partially barred from publishing, and her home and telephone are tapped.

1990–1994: Literary editor of Családi Tükör (Family Mirror) and A Hét (The Week), a family and weekly newspaper.

1984, 1991: Winner of the Poetry Prize of the Romanian Writers’ Union.

1990: Full member of the Hungarian Writers’ Association, and from 1994 a member of the electoral board.

1992: Invited to the editorial board of Jelenkor in Pécs.

1993: Lives in Hungary from this year on.

1997: Becomes a founding member of the Society of Hungarian Writers, and after a year leaves the Hungarian Writers’ Association.

2005–2011: Host of the Amber Evenings – The Poet’s Theatre series at the Studio K Theatre.

2005: Editor of the world literature series of Scholar Publishing House together with Csaba Báthori.

2010–2016: Host of the Versközelítés series at Stúdió K Theatre (with Csaba Báthori).

2013: Full member of the Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts.

2016: Member of the Digital Literature Academy.


The poetry of Zsófia Balla has many roots. In terms of the circumstances of creation, her poems are divided into two distinct groups. Many of her poems were written during the decades she was living in Romania, as a member of the Hungarian minority. This period lasted until her resettlement in Hungary in 1993. During this period, between 1968 and 1993, Balla published eight books of poetry, and in 1983 a volume of selected poems was published in Romanian (translated by Aurel Şorobetea). In 1991, a book of selected poems, Animated Space (Eleven tér), was published. In 1993, the year in which she resettled, a book of selected poems entitled A Glass of Grass (Egy pohár fű) was published, and two years later, in 1995, a book of selected and new poems entitled They Way You Live (Ahogyanélsz) was published. These three volumes stand at the crossroads of two epochs; their material is mostly linked to her first creative period, though already containing the voice and themes of change. They are followed by three collections of poems that complete the mature trajectory of her career to the present day: The Third Story (A harmadiktörténet), The Cave of Summer (A nyár barlangja), and Other Holidays (Más ünnepek).

Zsófia Balla was born in 1949 in Cluj Napoca. She had barely begun her higher musical studies in her hometown before she published her first book of poems in 1968, The Memory of Things (A dolgok emlékezete). The origins, process, and subsequent development of her poetry are defined by four characteristics:

1. She was born into a minority – outside the borders of the motherland, and this means that the traits of her poetry are expressed in a partially separate corpus, unfolding under the constant and simultaneous pressure of a different, vast majority – which in its intellectual and linguistic forms is only loosely connected with the homogeneous motherland, and which can develop only in the face of increasingly difficult Romanian conditions, mainly through stubborn resistance.

2. Minority membership, in this case, not only denotes ethnic status, but also a history of fate stemming from family origins: from the very beginning, Zsófia Balla’s poetic and spiritual attitude has been decisively determined by the tragic, lifelong awareness of the Holocaust and its consequences. Around a hundred members of her family perished in the Nazi genocide. Her parents themselves returned home from German death camps in 1945–46, and although the family tried to renew its Transylvanian roots as members of the Hungarian minority, the decision to reintegrate and remain Hungarian was and would continue to be hindered by its inner disfigurement, the Protestant–Catholic (more broadly: the ethnic) environment, its mostly exclusionary basic attitude, and the contemporary state–civil historical responsibility which was concealed for a long time. All this was exacerbated by the increasingly unbearable political pressures (and the multiple deprivations) of everyday life under the Romanian dictatorship.

3. It cannot be concealed that the male-dominated attitude of Transylvanian society originated from its patriarchal perspective, and therefore contributes significantly to this artistic effort, which is shaped by multiple pressures. Zsófia Balla’s originally serene tone, her love of life, and her lively verve are influenced by these three restraints of the mind.

4. When reading her works, it is important to bear in mind that the majority of texts are always created in the grip of a partially hostile, but necessarily existentially inhibiting set of circumstances, and that these circumstances determine the deepest layers of lyrical expression. For decades, she realizes her life’s work against something, in a reservoir of linguistic exclusion, of seemingly lifelong „deviation”, in the awareness of the hopelessness of an unrealizable self-identity. In the depths of the corpus caught in the dictatorship’s minority press, there lurks the shadow of personal tragedies and depression, the constant haunting feeling of inferiority, the nightmare of stunted fulfilment, the demanding system of content obligations and commanding community expectations. This period of her oeuvre is deeply marked by the technique of „line-by-line writing”, complex silences, the muffled representation of the unspeakable, and forced immediacy. Here the poet is not struggling with the unspeakable, but with a protective concealment of the unspeakable, a boldly inhibited concealment.

It is an interesting and not well-known fact that the most emblematic piece of Zsófia Balla’s poetry, the poem „As I Live” („Ahogyan élsz”), was first published as the closing poem of the 1971 volume Apocryphal Song (Apokrif ének). The poem was originally nine lines long in summarizing the lineage of female figures in the Bible and Greek mythology. It radiates less of the abstract, universal, axiomatic force of the poem's final five-line version published in the 1991 volume Animated Space (Eleven tér), with its memorable, oft-quoted and much-analysed final line:

Again, I'll convert again,
I don't want to be any different
(I am afraid),
than what I want to be.

As I live, that is my home.

Balla’s puritanism shines a light on her later works, and indicates two important insights that have emerged over the decades: firstly, the self-identity-forming impact of art, and secondly, the decisive role of the practice of living in the creation of high art. In the eyes of the creator, there is no valid art without ethical authenticity, and part of ethics in artistic terms is the need to create a corpus of ever more general meaning, a corpus of content that transcends all boundaries.

In 1980, a new phase begins with the volume The Second Person (Második személy). The title is a symbolic overture, a poetic program: from the usual lyrical first person (I) and the impersonal, indifferent third person (she), the second person, the pronoun of devotion, of personhood (you), is elevated to a central function. Here, for the first time in Balla’s poetry, we find the large tabloid-like poems of parallel construction, which also employ the ideas and techniques of the avant-garde, and which create a kind of simultaneity of past discovery (personal and historical, individual and ethnic, abstract and concrete). The form suggests that the past and the present are simultaneously expressed in the mind.

The two most striking long poems in the volume are „PaterNoster” („PaterNoster”) and „From the Book of Daniel” („Dániel könyvéből”). The texts are a series of imaginative units of in-depth drilling into consciousness, of simultaneous descent and ascent, and in a circular dance of almost rough metaphors, they almost immerse the reader in layers of literary knowledge, sometimes hermetic and enigmatic because of private experience. „PaterNoster” captures the past and present of Transylvania in the movement of a rising and falling carousel, alluding to prayer and stretching the events of time into personal stories through the fragmentary evocation of a way of clinging to faith. In the long poem „From the Book of Daniel” we read about the time of the birth and death of a child, of a mother and child locked in a shared pit.

Second Person anticipated not only the renewal of classical technique spanning a good two decades, but also the expansion of themes, the emergence of a subtly ironic tone, and the prominence of personal events (the birth of a child, loves and losses). In the long poem „From the Book of Daniel”, the themes of birth, loss, the memory of the dead, the inside and the outside, the world and the home, death-rebirth, and of leaving and staying appear for the first time, and this is where birth, loss, and the memory of the dead became major motifs.

From 1980 to 1990, Balla was subjected to a partial publication ban and barred from leaving the country by the Romanian authorities. Although the poems of The Dances of Cluj (Kolozsvári táncok) were written before 1980 – the book was published in 1983 – the next volume, Traces of the Armour (A páncél nyomai), was only printed and published after the fall of the regime in 1991. In these works, the tragic sense of existence arising from minority anguish, personal traumas, complex losses, and multiple wounds is reinforced, while at the same time, the earlier fate of the minority seems to increasingly colour and enrich the approach of this poetry, which turns towards universal human issues, with indirect motivic accompaniment.

In the meantime, two German-language volumes have been published. The first, Schönes, trauriges Land (Beautiful, sorrowful country), published in 1998 by the German publisher Suhrkamp, was translated by Hans Henning Paetzke, and the second, Schwerkraft und Mitte (Force and Middle), was published in 2001 in Berlin by DAAD, with translations by Daniel Muth.

Balla is not a person who could leave her homeland easily. She lived through and suffered the worst years of the Ceauşescu era, the most severe years of deprivation and persecution, the last decade of tyranny, and only moved to Hungary four years after the revolution of 1989. Since 1993, she has been wrestling not only with the demons of authoritarianism, but also with the spectre of freedom. This is reflected in the broadening themes of her poetry, her deepening perspective, and her exposition of the human imperatives that are at all times, and on all, binding. The language of repression in Romania, which prevents the straightforward expression of serious content, sometimes showing only gestural but cryptic protest, and which allows for a variety of associations between the lines, is transformed: this is an age of maturity, a plane of transparent forms, a world of condensations and analyses, in which the boldly flowing but often curtained tableaus are replaced by a „poetics of existence”, focusing on questions of existence, daring to rise, unfolding a wealth of forms and speaking with poignant frankness, going back almost to biblical times, questioning the great human–divine patterns of events. Balla’s complex sense of life is confined with infinite discipline within the framework of a classical-modern tone, but she takes small steps towards the fashion for postmodernism without obligation in the mid-nineties. This intermezzo does not detract from the seriousness and authenticity of her messages, and the pre-Biblical imagery, the philosophical background, and the solidity of taste of her world literary orientation lend a certain stimulating side-effect, a fresh impetus to the waves of this middle period.

We have seen from the outset that Balla’s sensitive and sympathetic grasp of the world of the small and the modest inanimate is now turned with equal force towards the higher and deeper things, towards the materials of the invisible sphere. This transcendental consciousness, which grasps the sacral aspects of the world with ever deeper insistence, reaches, in the second half of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, the threshold of axiomatic insights and ultimate philosophical statements of a survey of the whole of human and natural creation in danger.

Balla’s poetry from the 1960s to the mid-nineties is reflected in the collection of selected poems As You Live, published in 1995. The book takes material from The Memory of Things to A Glass of Grass, but also frames it in a new and double-flashing frame. At the front is the didactic but also ars poetica-like long poem „Letter to a Young Poet” („Levél egy ifjú költőhöz”), juxtaposed with the first poem from the author’s first volume. And as a final piece of material, twenty-one pieces from the Budapest cycle are published as a reminder of a brief, temporary flirtation with postmodernism. 

In the second half of the 1990s, Balla’s poetry slowly changes direction; it returns to its original ideological basin, to the content that can be expressed in classical forms, and develops the elevated, serious style enriched with moral messages that have taken on a new form in her three most recent volumes (The Third Story [A harmadik történet], 2002; The Cave of Summer [A nyár barlangja], 2009; Other Feasts [Más ünnepek], 2016). In these poems, the outlines of friends both living and dead appear in visible and invisible shapes, the figure of the aging mother is exalted, the shadows of ancestors who perished in the extermination camps loom over the world, and the great predecessors of world poetry (Villon, Donne, Shakespeare, Goethe, Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes, Wisława Szymborska) are approached with artistic and ethical suggestions. The richness of her subject matter is characterised by poetic power, statuesque modelling, the need for height, and a search for a definitive means of expression.

What Balla says is circumscribed and perhaps eternal: she considers it her most important task, a lifelong challenge, to represent in her art the Holocaust drama of hundreds of thousands of people, parents and relatives, and her own second-generation trauma, to depict in her own words the wounds of statelessness and rootlessness, to make poetic „offers” to endure the disappointments of the friendly-literary sphere, the exclusion she experienced so often in her chosen homeland, and the fate of Eastern Europe in general. Her loneliness is no longer merely a reflection of personal loss, but an attempt to relate the solitude of the creature to the coordinates of the world state. With astonishing openness and candour, the poems record the conditional emotional yields of faith choices, the verbal dialectic of terminations and retentions, the stimulating inadequacies of unambiguous discourse, and the rite of the eternal search for life-meaning and temporary finds. Zsófia Balla’s poetry is essentially tragic, but her broad worldview is filled with deep and penetrating serenity. Her love of life is evident in her flowing and wavering, hidden, and sensual love poems, in the sensual materiality of her poetry in general. This is matched by her humour, her self-irony, and her frequent playfulness. At the bottom of her art, in her intellectual and emotional weighing up, she is mostly blinded by a soft, childlike voice sworn to the principle of hope, perhaps the most hidden yet most nourishing conviction of her life’s practice. Behind her outwardly dark and rough lyricism, there is usually a promise of a kind of archaic harmony, a profound sense of humour, sometimes emerging, of the possibility of goodness. This hope beyond hopelessness shines through in countless aspects of Zsófia Balla’s art. 

We will quote a short excerpt from the poet’s poignant essay, „The Grass”(„Fű”). After her visit to the death camp, she steps out of the gate, and while clutching in the palm of her hand – instead of the ashes of her grandparents – a few blades of grass, this indestructible symbol of eternal resurrection, she says: „My eyes, leaping, tried to cling: these trees could not have been here then, they are too thin. You mustn’t see, you mustn’t smell. Then, outside the camp, beyond all the gates, I was overcome with sobs at the sight of a bed of grass: this grass! It can’t be that this grass is alive, and they are here, scattered, dust and gravel! And where they are, where they are... I knelt, I plucked the green threads mixed with the earth, I gathered them in my pocket: I’ll take them, I’ll take them, they’re mine. This incurable green grass is mine. […] This voice from the depths lets us know – makes flesh – of our nothingness. But the body of voice that says it, the full music of the orchestra and the choir, makes the grass and flowers grow tall. The beauty of being in the moment, the beauty of being heard, is an eternal imprint that blossoms and flutters in this flood. A bubble in the amber of music: grass.”

In the many pieces of this poetry, we perceive on the one hand the strict inner obligation to preserve, to sanctify in memory, both in detail and as a whole, everything that has happened in the past, but also, on the other hand, the tireless effort to find the Good in our lives, to feel out the fragile spaces of dialogue, of human contact, which helps existence to continue. Time and again, Balla’s poetry convinces us of the recent insight that art can redeem all experience on the plane of beauty, or as the great French poet René Char wrote: „The poet, when all evidence has failed, responds to despair with a future full of holes.” If we read Zsófia Balla, we can believe that man, history, despite all the disappointments, is not finished, it is still open today. In the depths of each of her lines, there is a vivid, hard-to-hear voice saying: Dare to be.


The biography was written by Csaba Báthori, translated by Benedek Totth and Austin Wagner.