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The Poets’ Greece

Twenty Contemporary Greek Poets

edited by Dino Siotis, by John Chioles
Wire Press, 130 pp., $4.95 (paper)

The Axion Esti

by Odysseus Elytis, translated by Edmund Keeley, by George Savidis
University of Pittsburgh Press, 86 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Angelos Sikelianos: Selected Poems

translated by Edmund Keeley, by Philip Sherrard
Princeton University Press, 144 pp., $5.95 (paper)


by George Seféris, translated by Rex Warner
David R. Godine/Nonpareil Books, 127 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Scripture of the Blind

by Yannis Ritsos, translated by Kimon Friar, by Kostas Myrsiades
Ohio State University Press, 251 pp., $20.00

Ritsos in Parentheses

translated by Edmund Keeley
Princeton University Press, 200 pp., $5.95 (paper)

The Fourth Dimension: Selected Poems of Yannis Ritsos

translated by Rae Dalven
David R. Godine, 184 pp., $6.95 (paper)

When the Swedish Academy announced its choice for the Nobel Prize in literature last year, the general reaction was one of bewilderment. Who on earth, people asked; was Odysseus Elytis? Some students of the international literary scene (“irritated,” as a friend wrote me, “at the selection of a man who hadn’t been published by Penguin”) hinted that the Academy’s recent habit of honoring elderly obscure poets such as Vicente Aleixandre or Harry Martinson was rapidly becoming an affectation. This is unfair to Elytis, a poet of large achievement; but it does pinpoint, with some force, the problems involved in getting Greek poetry across to a Western audience. An unfamiliar alphabet and language are only the first hurdles to be overcome. Behind them lie an attitude to life and a cultural tradition that are at odds with the AngloAmerican literary scene.

Poetry in Greece remains a natural part of popular life in a way that has long ceased to be true in the West.1 The editors of Twenty Contemporary Greek Poets claim that, on average, Greece sees two new volumes of poetry published daily, and from my own experience I would think their estimate no exaggeration. A spate of literary periodicals, some shorter-lived than others and with names like Tram and Parallax, provides a regular forum for young writers. What is more, they sell. One of the best-known and most popular recent Greek songs was a setting of a short lyric by George Seféris—another Nobel Prize winner, Greece’s second in only thirteen years.

Nor is this efflorescence exclusively urban or intellectual. Today, despite the destructive inroads made on local culture and dialects by the transistor radio and, latterly, television (still, luckily, hard to beam to some of the more remote islands and mountain fastnesses), Greece preserves, to a surprising degree, her tradition of oral poetry.2 In Crete, peasants continue to learn by heart long sections (sometimes all) of the 10,000-odd lines of Kornaros’s seventeenth-century epic, the Erotókritos, and couplets from it are printed on the back of the tear-off sheets of the little religious calendars that hang in almost every Greek home. Memory is reinforced by spontaneous composition: this is especially true of the ritual lament for the dead, the moirológhi, which has its roots deep in antiquity,3 and still flourishes in certain rural areas, above all the Deep Mani of the southern Peloponnese, where Patrick Leigh Fermor recorded a moirológhi composed for an English airman shot down at Limeni during World War II.4

Greek poetry stands in a curious and ambivalent relationship to the literary traditions of the West: at once their ancient fountainhead and, more recently, an odd tributary that, ever since the Greek War of Independence (1821-1830), has been moving uneasily back toward the main cultural tradition. On the one hand, Greek poetry offers the virtually unique phenomenon of a language and a poetic tradition that have evolved, unbroken, over three millennia. (To grasp this one need only leaf through a comprehensive anthology such as the bilingual Penguin Book of Greek Verse,5 which starts with the Iliad and ends with the early surrealist verse of Odysseus Elytis.) On the other, the impact, first of Byzantium, and then of the long Turkish occupation, effectively cut Greece off from the Renaissance, with all the impoverishment of language, parochialism, and subjugation that that implies. What other Western country, as Kimon Friar rightly asks, 6 has retained so clear an identity and integrity under such crushing odds?

This isolation brought, nevertheless, certain unpredictable advantages. It threw the Greeks back on their own idiosyncratic resources, sharpened imagination, bred suspicion of fashionable trends. Elytis, himself an accomplished painter and art critic as well as a poet, was one of the first to point out how, in the visual arts, Greece, unconscious of experiments in chiaroscuro and perspective, “still clung to the flat ideography of Byzantine icons and mosaics, which in their clear linear shapes and colors…were flattened out as though in a blazing and absolute light.”7 Those bright flat colors, that scouring sun, those mosaic fragments recur again and again in Greek poetry no less than in Greek art. Obsessions with freedom and death, both heightened by alien domination and incessant wars; the complex liturgical forms of the Eastern Orthodox Church: the vigorous oral tradition of folksong, epic, and ballad—these form the core of the modern Greek poetic tradition, on to which such latterday influences as Marxism or French surrealism have merely been grafted.

Another problem unique to Greece—at least in so exacerbated a form—has been the emergence of two competing literary languages, the demotic tongue, spoken on every street, and the so-called katharévousa, or “purist” speech. The latter, a largely artificial construction based on ancient Attic, was developed shortly before the Greek War of Independence, at the insistence of those philhellenes, both Greek and foreign, who dreamed of restoring Greece’s classical heritage, and found the common spoken tongue, with its slang, borrowed words, and lack of abstract terms, singularly inadequate for this purpose. Inevitably, having two languages not only created confusion in Greek education and literature, but also very soon acquired political connotations: advocates of katharévousa tended to be conservatives of the right, demoticists to be populists, liberals, ethnic idealists. Demotic was first recognized by Venizelos’s Ministry of Education in 1917, and has been in and out ever since, depending on the political views of those in power. George Papandhréou had school texts put in demotic Greek; the Colonels switched them back to katharévousa.

The best compromise, known as kathomilouméni, or “daily speech,” is a flexible blend of the two employed by some daily papers, based on demotic, but freely introducing abstractions and coining neologisms from the ancient tongue. It has, typically, attracted nothing but scornful criticism from purists in either camp. Ultimately, every serious Greek writer is, in effect, forced to invent his own language.8 Kalvos experimented with katharévousa, and so, surprisingly, did Cavafy, revealing “cunningly placed bits of whalebone in the more sinuous demotic.”9

But this linguistic ambivalence was also a sign of a far deeper fission, and conflict, in the body of Greek society.10 For over a millennium, after the division of the Roman Empire into East and West by Theodosius (AD 395), Byzantium, renamed Constantinople in honor of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, had preserved the Roman tradition in the shape of a proud, indeed unique, Christian theocracy. After the Great Schism of 1054 over the nature of the Holy Ghost, Eastern Orthodoxy’s links with the West were severed. The Byzantines did not think of themselves as Hellenes: to them “Hellene” was rather an opprobrious synonym for “pagan.” In their own eyes they were, rather, Romans (Romaioi). Ethnically, the mainland Greeks, whom they called “Helladics,” were no more than the occupants of an unimportant province of the Byzantine Empire. Apart from a brief Hellenizing movement in the early fifteenth century, shortly before the fall of Constantinople (1453), the notion of recovering, let alone emulating, the glories of ancient Greece gained no real ground until after the French and American revolutions, about 1800. Its chief proponents were Greek intellectuals educated, and for the most part resident, abroad, encouraged by romantic foreign philhellenes such as Shelley and Byron.

The idea of “Hellenism” was thus anathema, not only to the Orthodox Church but also to those countless simple, devout Greeks for whom patriotism meant the latterday revival of Byzantium: their talisman was not the Parthenon, but the great Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. (Even today travel agencies in Athens offer packaged Easter tours “to the City”: no need to name it, for a Greek only one city is worth consideration.) Their contempt for the ancient past was reinforced by ignorance. When one klephtic (guerrilla) leader heard himself compared to Achilles, he snapped: “Who is this Achilles? Did the musket of Achilles kill many?”11 Was the long, proud tradition of survival under the Turks, with its religious separatism, its klephtic ballads, its fighting priests, even its Karaghiozi shadow-theater, to be jettisoned in favor of some pagan dream foisted on the Romaioi by god less foreigners, who—brought up on Gibbon—dismissed Christian Byzantium as a barbarous, obscurantist medieval aberration?

Yet despite all this the notion of Hellenism took root. No one could deny that it played a vital role in winning the War of Independence, or that (with Constantinople still in Turkish hands) it offered a focal point, in Athens, for the nationalist aspirations of the new state. However much populist heroes of the anti-Turkish resistance like Kolokotronis and Makriyannis might grumble, Hellenism was from now on a permanent factor in Greek life. To encompass the tensions between Hellenism and Romaiosyne has ever since been an overriding concern of all Greek writers, a problem as difficult to ignore as to resolve.

The work of Elytis demonstrates that the closest links between modern and ancient Greece have little to do with intellectual theory or refurbished myth. The true perennial factor is Greece itself:12 that mountainous, harsh, limestone peninsula, with its scatter of islands, its violent storms, its whitewashed chapels, its poverty, its superstitions. In their isolation,13 the Greeks have preserved, below the threshold of public history, a peasant culture of extraordinary tenacity and complexity that reaches back into the remote pre-Christian past. Countless modern superstitions, legends, and beliefs have survived intact.14 A modern Boeotian farmer working the land around Mt. Helicon could feel a sense of kinship with his Hesiodic ancestor of the Works and Days (c. 700 BC), and indeed still shares many of his legends and agricultural observances. 15 The liturgical fabric of the Orthodox Church is seamed with a rich assortment of pagan symbols and ritual. That intricate modern taverna dance the zeïbékiko is directly descended from the classical Pyrrhic dance, while Lydian and Dorian modes still survive in the music that accompanies it.

Metternich once remarked, scornfully, that it was impossible to define what the word “Greek” meant, whether ethnically, politically, or geographically.16 In the climate engendered by the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) this attitude was understandable, but it provided an agonizing legacy for the Greeks themselves, of which their imposed Bavarian monarchy was only the most obvious symptom. Inevitably, much of their new literary theory was imported, for the most part from France.17 The educated Phanariot Greeks from Constantinople, who after 1830 flocked to the new capital in Athens, were French-speaking cosmopolitans, accustomed to high office, often in key diplomatic posts; not surprisingly, they had romantic visions of a rejuvenated classical Greece, in the style of Hugo or Byron. They also wrote in katharévousa—“the ugly purist screech,” as a distinguished (but far from impartial) contemporary critic describes it.18

Equally foreign in its antecedents was the remarkable school of poetry that developed in the Ionian islands, Zakynthos in particular, off the west coast of Greece. Since these islands had never come under Turkish domination, their links with Western Europe, in particular with England and Italy, were strong. It is one more paradox in the odd story of modern Greek poetry that the two main representatives of the Ionian School, Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857) and Andreas Kalvos (1792-1869), both began their poetic careers writing in Italian, and in fact never acquired perfect fluency in Greek. Both, further, wrote passionately patriotic poetry (the first few verses of Solomos’s Ode to Liberty were adopted as the Greek national anthem) while for the most part living abroad. It is doubtful whether Solomos ever set foot on the Greek mainland at all. Kalvos’s brief and disastrous encounter with the ugly internecine factionalism of the Greek resistance movement at Náfplion not only sent him scuttling back posthaste to Corfu and thence to England, but seems to have fatally damaged his poetic impulse.19 Yet it is in Solomos and Kalvos that we first catch that characteristic sensuous celebration of the light and landscape that has haunted Greek poets ever since, and that reaches its apotheosis in the work of Elytis.

  1. 1

    Cf. John Campbell and Philip Sherrard, Modern Greece (Praeger, 1968), pp. 214-215.

  2. 2

    I have always found it surprising that Milman Parry and his followers (A.B. Lord, J.A. Notopoulos, and others) should have concentrated their fieldwork among the Serbo-Croatians of Yugoslavia instead of looking to the Greeks themselves when seeking analogies and parallels for Homeric techniques of composition. Cf. A.B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press, 1960).

  3. 3

    See Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1974), especially pp. 36ff, 131ff.

  4. 4

    Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (Harper & Row, 1958), pp. 60-62. Oddly, this moirológhi is not referred to in Dr. Alexiou’s monograph.

  5. 5

    The Penguin Book of Greek Verse, introduced and edited by Constantine A. Trypanis (Baltimore, 1971). Like so many other valuable Penguin volumes outside the common run, this unique bilingual anthology is now out of print and unobtainable.

  6. 6

    In the introduction to his invaluable anthology of translations, Modern Greek Poetry (Simon and Schuster, 1973), pp. 5-6.

  7. 7

    Odysseus Elytis, The Sovereign Sun (Temple University Press, 1974), p. 8 (from Kimon Friar’s introduction).

  8. 8

    See the interesting remarks, apropos Cavafy, by George Seféris, A Poet’s Journal: Days of 1945-1951 (Harvard University Press, 1974), pp. 137-138.

  9. 9

    Patrick Leigh Fermor, Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (Harper & Row, 1966), p. 105n.

  10. 10

    See Leigh Fermor, Roumeli, ch. III, “The Helleno-Romaic Dilemma,” pp. 96ff.; Campbell and Sherrard, Modern Greece, pp. 19-49; R.C. Clark in Greece: The Modern Voice (St. John’s University, Jamaica, NY, 1974), pp. 153ff.; Philip Sherrard, The Wound of Greece: Studies in Neo-Hellenism (St. Martin’s Press, 1979), pp. 1-16 (rather too heavily weighted against Hellenism and in favor of the New Byzantium, but full of excellent insights).

  11. 11

    Cited by Richard Clogg, A Short History of Modern Greece (Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 38.

  12. 12

    Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke in Greece: The Modern Voice, pp. 15-17.

  13. 13

    Friar, Modern Greek Poetry, pp. 120-121.

  14. 14

    See in particular J.C. Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion (Cambridge, 1910, reprinted University Books, 1964), especially chs. I and II, pp. 1-291; and two books by Richard and Eva Blum, The Dangerous Hour: The Lore of Crisis and Mystery in Rural Greece (Scribner’s, 1970), especially pp. 203ff., and Health and Healing in Rural Greece (Stanford University Press, 1965), ch. II, pp. 20-35.

  15. 15

    Cf. Ernestine Friedl, Vasilika: A Village in Modern Greece (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), which studies a rural community close to Hesiod’s Ascra; and Peter Walcot’s Greek Peasants, Ancient and Modern: A Comparison of Social and Moral Values (Barnes & Noble, 1970), chs. II and III, pp. 25ff.

  16. 16

    See C.M. Woodhouse, Short History of Modern Greece (Praeger, 1968), p. 132.

  17. 17

    Friar, Modern Greek Poetry, pp. 13-22, analyzes these developments with considerable perception; cf. also Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, Greece: The Modern Voice, pp. 17ff.

  18. 18

    Zissimos Lorenzatos, “The Lost Centerand Other Essays on Greek Poetry, translated by Kay Cicellis (Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 93.

  19. 19

    See now Philip Sherrard, “Andreas Kalvos and the Eighteenth-Century Ethos,” in The Wound of Greece, pp. 17ff.

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