Twenty Contemporary Greek Poets
Angelos Sikelianos: Selected Poems
Scripture of the Blind
Ritsos in Parentheses
The Fourth Dimension: Selected Poems of Yannis Ritsos
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…
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