Born April 11, 1905 in Budapest; died December 3, 1937 in Balatonszárszó. Poet, translator. Father a soapmaker who left family in 1908 to go to the United States to make money for support of family but got only as far as Rumania and never returned. Mother soon forced to board József and a sister with peasant family in Öcsöd through Országos Gyermekvédő Liga. József was seven when mother was able to support the family herself with earnings from domestic work. Family lived under continuing difficult circumstances, and children were forced to earn money through odd jobs. During World War I mother's health worsened, and children were often in care of other families. In summer 1918 József spent a few weeks in Abbazia on organized holiday for children. He was writing poetry regularly by this time. Went to relatives in Szabadszállás for food; mother dead by the time he returned. At this time his sister, Jolán, married Ödön Makai and undertook care of József and his younger sister. Tried to become deck boy for a time. József was sent to boarding school in Makó to resume studies, where he was an outstanding student. Worked guarding cornfields during summer. Attempted suicide and abandoned school studies. His poetry gained attention of Gyula Juhász (q.v.), who helped him to publish poems in periodicals and wrote introduction to his first published volume, Szépség koldusa (1922). Became independent financially through work as tutor and laborer, completed gymnasium studies, and entered University of Szeged to study Hungarian and French. Left university when professor vowed to use any means to bar him from teaching career because of attitude. Went to Vienna in 1925 with help of brother-in-law to study at university. Became acquainted with emigrant writers: Lajos Kassák, Tibor Déry, Béla Balázs (qq.v.), György Lukács, Andor Németh (who became best friend), and Lajos Hatvany. Shortly after return to Budapest went to Paris in 1926 with help of Lajos Hatvany. Studied at Sorbonne, became acquainted with works of Marx, Hegel and Lenin and with workers' movement, and joined Union Anarchiste-Communiste. Returned to Budapest in 1927. Poems were published in many periodicals and dailies, including Népszava, Pesti Napló, Nyugat, A Toll, and Korunk. Resumed studies briefly at University of Budapest. Formed firm friendship with Gyula Illyés (q.v.). Knew French and German, shorthand, and typing but could not obtain steady employment. Loved girl from middleclass family, but marriage did not take place. Hospitalized at this time because of neurasthenia. Increased political activities at end of 1920's. Joined Socialist party in 1929 and Communist party in 1930, for which he conducted seminars and lectures in Újpest, Angyalföld, Rákospalota, and Ferencváros. Attended illegal meetings and supported workers' cause by his writings. Participated in revolutionary mass demonstration on September l, 1930. Founded periodical, Valóság, in 1932, which was quickly banned by police. Often arrested for political activities. Insisted on combining ideas of Marx and Freud in lectures. Severed connection with Communist party in 1935 because of differences in views. Already considered as outstanding poet by Dezső Kosztolányi, Mihály Babits (qq.v.), György Bálint, and Gábor Halász. Broke friendship with Judit Szántó. Love affairs continued to be unhappy. Became editor of newly founded Szép Szó in 1936. Obtained grants from Baumgarten Foundation in 1936 and 1937. Grew increasingly despondent, with sense of being abandoned in alien world. Spent several months in hospital with help of friends. Care undertaken by sisters in Balatonszárszó. Gave up hope of cure in this isolation and ended life by throwing himself under wheels of passing freight train. Awarded Kossuth Prize for lifework in 1948.
One of the most important lyric poets in 20th-century Hungarian literature. Individuality emerged over long period of time through numerous Hungarian and foreign literary influences. Poems are full of humanism and will power and of desire for unity with outer world. Socialistic themes stem from love of mankind. Used great variety of poetic forms and techniques with skill. Translated numerous authors, as well as European and African folk poetry: among them, J. Hora, P. Bezruč, J. Wolker, Mayakovsky, S. Yesenin, A.Blok, Verhaeren, Rimbaud, and Villon (probably his best).
Editions of his poems are available in Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, French, German, Italian, Polish, Rumanian, and Russian; and some of his poems have been translated into Arabian, English, Finnish, Hebrew, Slovakian, and Swedish.