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As Odysseus Elytis remarked in his address to the Swedish Academy on receiving the 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Greek poet uses a language spoken by only a few million people and yet it is a language that has been spoken for over two and a half thousand years without interruption and with a minimum of changes. There was not one century, he notes, when poetry was not written in Greek, a fact which indicates the great weight of tradition borne by the Greek language and the great weight of responsibility for the modern Greek poet. In like manner, Constantine Trypanis notes in the Introduction to his anthology of Greek poetry from Homer to Elytis:  

          Poetry written in Greek constitutes the longest uninterrupted tradition in the Western world. From Homer to the present day not a single generation of Greeks has lived without expressing its joys and sorrows in verse, and frequently in verse of outstanding originality and beauty. […] It is a happy augury that in the last hundred years better poetry has been written in Greek that in all the fourteen preceding centuries; and that in the last fifty years, by the surrender of its political or purely national aspirations, Greek poetry has again achieved universal validity and significance.

                                               (The Penguin Book of Greek Verse 1971, p. lxv)

           Few would disagree with Elytis or with Trypanis concerning the traditional role of poetry in Greece or its flourishing in the first half of the 20th century when Greece produced a prodigious number of major poets, regardless of whether or not these poets achieved international recognition. Trypanis, it should be noted, was writing in 1971 when C.P. Cavafy had already attained international fame and his works were available in multiple English translations, when George Seferis had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1963), and when Yannis Ritsos and Odysseus Elytis were at the peak of their poetic maturity and were starting to appear in English translation and to arouse interest abroad.
           Today, some thirty years after the publication of Trypanis’ anthology, the English-speaking reader will most likely be familiar with at least one of these “Four Evangelists” of Modern Greek Poetry. However, apart from Cavafy, Seferis, Ritsos and Elytis (listed in chronological order of birth but also in the order by which they are generally known in the English-speaking world) few readers will have heard of any other 20th century Greek poets. The English-speaking reader might well be justified in supposing that these Evangelists left no disciples and that, in contrast to the first half of the 20th century, the second half has produced no notable Greek poets. This, of course, is not the case. Nor is it the case that subsequent Greek poets have not been translated into English. Nikiforos Vrettakos (1912-1991), Takis Sinopoulos (1917-1981), Miltos Sachtouris (1919-), Manolis Anagnostakis (1925-), Kiki Dimoula (1931-), Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke (1939-) and younger poets such as Yannis Kondos (1943-) have all been published in book form, while these and a host of others have been published in anthologies and special Greek issues of literary magazines. A great deal of Greek poetry has been translated but it has failed to make any impact in the English-speaking world and Greek poets are generally conspicuous by their absence from the shelves of English bookstores and from the international stage in general. 
           How is one to account for this absence? One might start in reverse by positing some tentative reasons for the relative success of the four Greek poets who attained varying degrees of international recognition, but also for their descending order of familiarity in the English-speaking world. Taking their poetic stature as given, one might say that Cavafy was also fortunate in being championed by the likes of Forster, Auden, Durrel and Bowra and in writing a kind of poetry that because of its thematic content and Cavafy’s peculiar tone of voice is familiar to the Anglo-Saxon poetic sensibility, especially in the rather prosaic and colloquial English translations in which he has come to be known. Seferis (Greece’s first Nobel-Laureate), unquestionably influenced by Eliot and with his modernist use of ancient Greek myth, is also somehow familiar when read in English translation and, like Cavafy, has just enough exoticism and antiquity in his themes to beguile the English reader. Ritsos, who was hounded in Greecefor most of his life because of his political persuasions, really came into his own in the English-speaking world during the Seven-Year Military Dictatorship in Greece(1967-74) when to translate him became an act of defiance against the military regime and a cry for democracy. Since then, he has sunk once again into obscurity in the English-speaking world, despite his having being characterised by Louis Aragon (1971) as “The greatest living poet”. A French poet’s susceptibility to Greek hyperbole? Perhaps. Yet nevertheless, a statement that should at least arouse the foreign reader’s interest. As for Elytis’ poetry, intrinsically linked as it is with the peculiar word forms and sounds of the Greek language, even the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979 did little to enhance his standing in the English-speaking world, and he remains largely unknown or ignored, despite the fact that all his works exist in multiple English translations. Of the four poets here, there is no doubt that Elytis has fared the worst in English translation. 
           Undoubtedly, what is a distinct advantage for Greek poets, namely their ability to draw on various phases in the Greek language — the ancient, biblical, medieval, learned and popular — becomes a distinct disadvantage for the translator of Greek poetry into English, which does not possess the same range of keys to allow the translator to reproduce the music of the original. For example, no corresponding English idiom exists for the purist (katharevousa) language often used in contemporary Greek literature to produce literary effects ranging from the officious and pompous to the ironic and hilarious. It is virtually impossible for the translator to reproduce this admixture of language in English. Yet it is not only the language but also the legacy of Greecethat becomes a distinct disadvantage in promoting contemporary Greek poetry abroad. Many contemporary Greek poets who have failed to make any impact in English translation have undoubtedly suffered from the legacy of Greece’s ancient past and of a particular perception of Greeceby Westerners. The absence in their works of references to antiquity or of folkloric images of Greececonflicts with what the English-speaking reader has come to expect. In contrast, poets like Seferis and Cavafy filtered their reflections on modern Greeceand their personal response to modern man’s predicament through the familiar prism of ancient Greeceand Greek mythology. Ritsos, too, in his later period, makes liberal use of the themes and characters of ancient Greek myths. Elytis, who consciously avoids any reference to ancient myth, nevertheless uses images from the Aegean world as a recurring motif in his early poetry and these images are reasonably familiar to the foreign reader. 
           Given that so much contemporary Greek poetry has, in fact, been translated, the lack of international recognition for the poets concerned might be attributed to the quality of the translations. It is always easy to put the blame on poor translations. Yet perhaps one should look to other equally important factors such as the distribution and marketing of Greek poetry in translation, and also to the lack of any effective policy on the part of the GreekStateconcerning the promotion of Greek literature abroad. Regrettably, the fate of modern Greek poetry in translation is often sealed by slim volumes published by small publishers which never reach the bookshops, let alone the reader. 
           In the thirty years that have elapsed since Trypanis’ appraisal, two whole generations of new poets have appeared whose poetry, even more so that that of preceding generations, is characterised by “universal validity and significance”, and who with their own concerns and modes of expression continue the unbroken Greek poetic tradition. Writing poetry always was and still is a national preoccupation in Greece, even if in recent years its privileged position in the preferences of the reading public has been lost to the novel, largely due, it must be said, to the marketing policies of the Greek commercial publishers. It remains, nevertheless, deeply and passionately rooted in the Greek psyche and the poets who succeed in achieving recognition represent only some of the peaks appearing above the surface of a deep sea of collective poetic conscience. If contemporary Greek poets are to have a readership beyond the borders of Greece and the Greek diaspora, this will require successful translations of their works and a policy for promoting them.