Three Poets and the World

In 1925, aged 20, the Hungarian poet Attila József was expelled from the University of Szeged for a radical poem published in a periodical. He left Hungary for Vienna, where he squatted in a slum with tens of thousands of other people, many of them refugees from eastern Europe. He sold newspapers outside restaurants and cleaned university buildings. As he did for much of his life, he lived in housing he had no formal right to, and earned a living without a wage, unrecognised by the state. He existed, to use a modern phrase, in the informal economy.

After four months in ‘that frightful slum’, József had a rare stroke of luck. He was invited by the Hatvany family to live at their mansion. Even for those without benefactors with mansions to share, over the next few decades more and more Viennese residents became, as it were, legitimate (give or take a Nazi invasion). Land rights were formalised, social housing was built and slums diminished, as they did across Western and Northern Europe.


It seems unlikely that the informal settlements of the global south will dwindle as did their forebears in Europe, at least in the near future. In fact, slums are getting bigger. According to the UN’s 2003 report ‘The Challenge of Slums’, in 2001 around 924 million people, or thirty two per cent of the world’s total urban population, lived in slums. In the first thirty years of this millennium that number is likely to double. The term slum is usually defined by standard of living rather than rights to land, although it is often used interchangeably with informal or extra-legal settlement. In developing countries, the majority of people living in slums are also employed in the informal economy.


Contemporary slums are in many ways similar in the conditions they provide for their residents to those of Vienna in the 1920s or Manchester in the 1850s. Most lack basic amenities, are cramped, crowded and susceptible to the rapid spread both of diseases and flames. But whereas Victorian slums were largely a product of the industrial revolution, in the last few decades there has been, as Mike Davis puts it in Planet of Slums, mass ‘urbanisation without industrialisation’. The growth of huge informal settlements on the fringes of cities, in some cases larger than the cities themselves, has not necessarily followed economic growth. Davis argues that many poorer countries have been hamstrung by the ‘anti-rural’ terms of loans given to them for economic development by the World Bank and IMF, by which privatisation and the loss of a public sector safety net has been encouraged or even necessitated. Millions of people have moved from rural poverty in the hope of unpoor urban living, and instead ended up living in informal developments, subdividing the limited work available with those who were already urban.


The experiences of people living outside of the formal structures, their measures of deprivation and happiness, are of course diverse. But they share with József the condition of having ‘no country’. The speaker of ‘With a Pure Heart’, the poem that ended József’s academic career at the university, is a stateless orphan with no lover now and no grave when he is dead. He is a person without rights to being a person in an area where political representation is suspended, where normal rules don’t apply. From no-man’s land, being no-one, the poem’s way of asserting a self is radical and still shocking. ‘With a pure heart, I’ll burn and loot. | If I have to, I’ll even shoot’; he will die fighting and earn a burial, so that ‘death-bringing grass will start | growing from my beautiful, pure heart’. If being is being able to make things happen (as he wrote later in ‘Night in the Slums’: ‘damp and clinging wind | is nothing | but a fluttering of dirty bed sheets’, tr. Bakti) then his only way to be is to allow seeds to take root in his body. This is his abject redemption.


Should western nations be cautious of a supranational class of people who bear against them legitimate complaints? Davis thinks so: ‘[i]f the point of the war on terrorism is to pursue the enemy into his sociological and cultural labyrinth, then the poor peripheries of developing cities will be the permanent battlefields of the twenty-first century’ (In Praise of Barbarians). Davis’s use of the term ‘war on terror’ sounds dated, but the question Davis implies, of what sort of battlefield the poor peripheries of cities might be, is a good one. What might resistance look like? What ideas or practices might be resisted and in whose terms?


is a freelance writer, editor and poet from Birmingham. His poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Poetry London, The Threepenny Review and Rain Taxi. A pamphlet of his poems, All Safe All Well, was published by Flarestack in 2011.