Bertók László: Biography

László Bertók (Vése, 6 December 1935 – Pécs, 14 September 2020)

Kossuth and József Attila Prize-winning Hungarian writer and poet. Founding member of the Digital Literature Academy from 1998 until his death.


László Bertók was born on 6 December 1935 in Vése, Somogy County, to a peasant family. According to him, his earliest literary experiences stemmed from kindergarten. He started to write poetry at a very early age. His first literary success came in high school when the Pécs journal Dunántúl published two of his poems in 1953. From then on, he consciously worked to become a poet, and sought a profession that was close to literature and which could help him fulfil his poetic ambitions. As such, on the advice of his teachers, he decided to become a librarian. But in 1954, after his graduation, he did not get into university and took a job as a postal clerk. In the meantime, he kept in touch with poet friends both old and new. At that time, in keeping with his origins, it was vernacular he was interested in. Besides reading the classics of Hungarian poetry – e.g. Mihály Csokonai Vitéz, Sándor Petőfi, János Arany – he also read the great poets of the first half of 20th century – Gyula Juhász, Gyula Illyés, Attila József, László Nagy – and the poetry of his contemporaries, such as Sándor Csoóri. In the summer of 1955, he was imprisoned on charges of sedition for some of his poems about the abuses committed against the peasantry under the communist dictatorship, e.g. the forced supplying of crops. He carelessly sent the poems to some of his friends by mail. Thus, as he often said about himself, it was not only the regional journal Dunántúl that made him a poet, but also the Secret State Police (ÁVH).

He did not have to serve the full eight-month sentence and was released after two months, but prison took a toll on his mental health. In the spring of 1956, he spent another month in prison, and was released again on appeal. Later, the remaining five months of his sentence were suspended for a three-year probation, but when he received the court’s decision, he was called up for unarmed military service as a „construction soldier” –that is, he was sent to forced labour in a uranium mine. He was there when the revolution of 1956 broke out. He and his fellow soldiers attempted to march to Pécs to join the demonstrators, but were prevented from doing so by the police. At the beginning of November, after the Russians marched into the occupied city, he went home to his parents on foot. At the end of the year he was discharged from the army.

His prison experience and criminal record made his life extremely difficult; they silenced him as a poet for about two years, and the experience stayed with him for the rest of his life. In 1957 and 1958 he applied to the Faculty of Law at the University of Pécs, but was not admitted. In 1959 he worked as an assistant librarian, where he began to once more write and publish poetry. 

In 1964, his poems were published in Swinging Bridges of Light (Lengő fényhidak), a collaboration with László Galambosi and Ida Makay. In 1965 Bertók moved to Pécs with his wife. In 1966 their son Attila was born. It was difficult for him to put down root in the city, but Győző Csorba convinced him to give the city a chance for the sake of his poetic career.

The 1970s marked the beginning of an agreement and consolidation in Bertók’s career. In 1972, at the age of 37, he finally published his first book of poetry, The Procession of Trees (A fák felvonulása). Thematically, the poems depict and analyse the situation of a young man leaving the peasant world and trying to put down roots in the city while the prison experience works in the background.

From 1975 onwards, he became more involved in the local literary scene: he was appointed to the editorial board of the journal Jelenkor. One of the most important results of his editorial work was the anthology Half a Pint of Shortage (Fél korsó hiány, 1980) which included poems by Lajos Parti Nagy, Gábor Csordás, Béla Meliorisz and György Pálinkás. The publication, with its cover design and photographs by Sándor Pinczehelyi and foreword by Győző Csorba, is both a jewel of Pécs literature and an important contribution to the literary history of Hungarian neo avant-garde/early postmodern poetry.

In 1978 his second book of poetry, The Choosing of Memories (Emlékek választása), was published. The basic tone of the poems is still in the tradition of László Nagy, but the subjective mode of expression is also dominant, and the emotional, experiential choice of themes is replaced by abstraction: philosophical, thoughtful, contemplative. This new poetic is brought to fruition in his next volumes, Time of Objects (Tárgyak ideje, 1981) and Root from Branches (Ágakból gyökér, 1984). The latter already seeks new directions: some groups of poems experiment with open, verbose formal language alongside/after closed forms. In lyrical substance, the self-reflexivity and meta-reflexivity which later becomes a new feature of his poetry in From the Snow the Footprint (Hóból a lábnyom, 1985) and The Tram Torn in Two (A kettészakadt villamos, 1987) begins to take hold.

The real breakthrough in Bertók’s career came with his sonnet era that began in the late 1980s and lasted for almost a decade. During this period, he wrote a total of 243 sonnets in a peculiar variation of form. Interestingly, his wavering of faith in language during the regime change was associated with freedom of expression: some of Bertók’s sonnets are about the end of the dictatorship, the Russian withdrawal, or the Yugoslav War, and thus the cycle can even be seen as a kind of chronicle of the times.

The regime change was also a turning point for Bertók in that it allowed him to write the story of his imprisonment, which was first published in Jelenkor in the summer of 1990, and then in book form in 1994 (and also in an expanded edition in 2016). For many, this documentarist prose had the force of novelty in explaining the unusual features of the poet’s career, and in presenting the crimes of the dictatorship from a first-hand perspective.

Bertók, who started his poetic career with considerable delay, finally „arrived” at the age of sixty. Although his poetry has always had a self-searching, self-analytical, contemplative character, the nineties marked the beginning of a period of farewell and existential summing-up, which is also implied by the title of his 1998 volume Boardspring (Deszkatavasz).

After his sonnet period, Bertók again experimented with more open forms, and poetic images and poetic situations, often akin to surrealism, seemed to be suitable for transposing life situations into poetry. At the same time, the February Knife (Februári kés, 2000) and Somewhere, Something (Valahol, valami, 2003) marked the emergence of a new poetic form. In the volume Little Threes (Háromkák. 2004), he collected his own, haiku-like, meditative poems.

In the late nineties, Bertók experimented with a new genre and published his only volume of prose, The Bumblebee in the Room (Dongó a szobában, 1998). This book brings together a collection of auto-fictional, artistic reflections on public life and public disposition written from the mid-eighties onwards in the form of short fiction and essays. His later prose works, From Home To Home (Hazulról haza, 2005) and Looking Back (Visszanéző, 2017), are more essayistic. His children’s poetry collection Döme, the Melon (Dinnye Döme) was published in 2000.

In 2005, at the age of seventy, he compiled a large selection of his poetry into the volume Plato Looks Through the Window (Platón benéz az ablakon), a collection of poems from his conviction fifty years earlier, which offers a powerful way of looking at his poetry from the perspective of the shock of his prison experience at a young age. In 2007 he published Ants Are Marching (Hangyák vonulnak), a book dominated by what Bertók calls the long poem, a kind of free verse consisting of thirty to forty lines.

In 2010, he published Friday on Sunday, a collection of snapshot poems consisting of three verses, each four lines long. His 2014 volume What Is There? (Ott mi van?) is formally heterogeneous: the first cycle continues the programme of long poems, the second of snapshots. The third cycle, on the other hand, introduces a new form: scribbles that formally reflect the difficulty and impossibility of writing, approaching total silence. The scribbles are two-line poems, almost without exception in couplets, which are then arranged in bunches of nine. In terms of genre, they alternate between epigrams, haiku, and aphorisms. A year later, on the occasion of the poet’s eightieth birthday, the new poems were published in a complete volume, entitled Scrawls on Straw (Firkák a szalmaszálra).

In his final years, Bertók lived in increasing seclusion at his home in Pécs, where his deteriorating health meant he was increasingly withdrawn – although he could be met on his usual walks in the city centre and was also open to receiving guests, his public appearances, especially outside Pécs, became less and less frequent, and he found it increasingly difficult to write poetry.

The incredible span of his career of unparalleled volume and significance ended in his eighty-fifth year on 14 September 2020. The publication of his latest volume of scribbles, entitled It Spins Together (Együtt forog), which he spent his final months editing, was published posthumously.


The biography was written by Balázs Mohácsi, translated by Benedek Totth and Austin Wagner.