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Three perspectives

Greece and poetry” is a topic which invokes such an extensive journey that my necessarily brief comments can merely provide signposts to broader vistas or concealed locations along the way.  These constraints about where we might be expected to go require that I be explicit about where I am coming from. 

Three perspectives inform my presentation.  Although complementary in many respects, they should not be considered identical or immediately reconciled to each other.  In fact, setting up at the outset this kind of divergence is intended to help illuminate different aspects of the subject.


One perspective on Greek poetry and the arts involves my mandate as Director of the Press Office or Press Counsellor at the Greek Embassy, if you prefer a diplomatic title.  This mandate includes an interest in cultural and academic issues as they contribute to how Greece is perceived abroad.  Press officers endeavor to communicate to opinion-leading audiences significant information about those they represent, ultimately Greek citizens and taxpayers in this case.  To the extent truth is the most effective long-term propaganda, I should say bluntly that poetry and culture in general represent a potentially leading Greek “export” in terms of value added and intended impact.  To be able to communicate this point, however, one must consider the audience (outside Greece) and then adapt the message accordingly.  In other words, this perspective corresponds to an “outside – in” type of report on Greek poetry.


A second perspective, associated with the labors of an essayist or critic, is that of a cultural historian and university lecturer, an activity in which I was involved professionally when I lived and worked in New York.  This is an alternative approach invigorated by and fraught with anxieties of presentation and misrepresentation.  Whether academic or non-academic, audiences of diverging loyalties must be encouraged to participate in a process of intellectual exchange.  What is it that they already know about Greek poetry or about poetry in general and at which level are the remarks to be pegged?  These questions call for an “inside – out” status report, generated by insider knowledge and consideration of the subject and attempting to reach out to increasingly interested parties.


A third and final perspective is that of a writer, of someone specifically engaged in the field of poetry in Greek.  What is involved here, therefore, can be likened to a report from the frontlines or from the “downside-up.”  This is not simply a matter of having recourse to personal experience.  It also entails the responsibility of accounting for some of the concerns of Greek writers today, a requirement enhanced in my case by the fact, for instance, of being the only member of the Society of Greek Writers who is currently in Canada.


Let me now switch to what may be more delectable food metaphors in order to summarize and contrast the three heuristic principles inherent in my commentary.  The first perspective is akin to a view of a delicious meal of Greek poetry to which others may have not been exposed sufficiently.  The second perspective tells you more about the ingredients and how the food is made, while the third perspective is a view from the kitchen.


What do we know about Greek poetry?


On March 21, 2002, during a snowstorm, UNESCO World Poetry Day was honored at the National Library of Canada in Ottawa as a European Union-Canada celebration.  Following a Greek proposal, the event involved participation, on one hand, by the member states of the EU and the European Commission.  On the other hand, participants included the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, the Ottawa International Writers Festival, and the Griffin Prize for Poetry, which announced its finalists that day.  It was a memorable event, during which two poems from each of the fifteen countries comprising the Union plus Canada were read in the original language of composition, while translations into either English or French, whenever available, appeared on a large screen at the National Library amphitheater.


Greece participated with readings of an excerpt about the Sirens, from Homer’s “Odyssey,” and of Cavafy’s poem “Ithaca.”  Educators, diplomats, and writers were the readers of poems in twelve languages – Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish – starting with Spain, which held the rotating European Union Presidency, and ending with the host country, Canada.


Cultural officers from each country selected the poets and poems to be read at the event.  While this process was still under way, someone observed that Greece should have no difficulty making a selection, considering its current literary achievements and the fact that poetry in Greek has one of the longest lineages in any language.


That comment effectively summarizes what educated individuals worldwide are expected to know about Greek poetry: it combines a most illustrious pedigree with a distinguished modern record.  This is a record exemplified by two Nobel prizes for literature in the twentieth century, both awarded to poets, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis.  Moreover, especially those exposed to Greek music – and to contemporary composers like Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis – cannot fail to discern the important position of poetry in the neo-Hellenic cultural pantheon.  Many of the established melodies seem wrapped around the words of Greek poets.


This is what “we all know about Greek poetry” and it provides a recurring starting point for reflection, consent, and debate, and, at the same time, a concluding point that is both attractive and problematic.  How much do we really know?  How are continuities and discontinuities inscribed in the context of such an extended poetic lineage?  What sort of linguistic breaks were involved, as represented, for example, by the conflict between demotic and purist language choices?  Should we stress revolutions in style?  What is the relevance of modernist or postmodern composition techniques?  How important is poetry in Greece really?  How different are the answers during different periods?  Does making a song out of a poem facilitate its reception or only its reputation?


I will not attempt to respond systematically to all these questions, especially as they resolve themselves into further questions that presuppose even more extensive and concentrated consideration of issues raised.  Nevertheless, it is by seeking such answers that may, in turn, raise unexpected queries that we come to a less simple-minded view of the achievements and tribulations of poetry and of its cultural and intellectual standing in Greece today.


Einstein and Chaplin


In 1931, Albert Einstein attended in Los Angeles the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” with the filmmaker.  While surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd, Chaplin is reported to have told him:  “They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you.”


Almost a parable with two modern cultural icons as protagonists, this is a story about public reception that contrasts opposing expectations of comprehension regarding two realms revolutionized during the early part of the previous century.  On one side, there is the world of science and technology redefined by relativity physics; on the other, the world of art and entertainment altered by the twentieth-century craft of moving pictures.


When first hearing it, the story affirms a common-sense contrast between art and science as two separate cultures.  There is a sleight of hand involved, however.  Science is, in fact, contrasted not to art, but to entertainment, which is a mode of reception of the effects of art.  Going to the movies is not movie-making.  And entertainment is not comparable to science, but to its effects and their reception, i.e., technology.  As creative intellectual processes that presuppose cultivation and training in order to be grasped, science and the arts, including poetry, represent sister disciplines whose cutting-edge outcomes can be equally incomprehensible.  At the same time, unprepared as we may be to comprehend the conditions of their production – to the extent that they may appear as a cult’s inner sanctum – we can and should expect to have access, eventually, to the results of such production when they enter the public realm.


Memorably transparent with the aid of the Einstein-Chaplin parable, these distinctions are of immediate relevance to poetry, in both its aesthetic and sociological dimensions, in the Greek or any other modern context.  In the time of Homer and the ancient bards or even much later, when troubadours roamed medieval landscapes, poetry could legitimately claim the status of a mass medium or, at least, an art for the masses of aristocrats.  Gutenberg and his printed Bibles helped change all that.  Poetry as an art of sounds and meanings of words always seeks to return to its oral roots.  In fact, its renewal partly depends on the dazzling failures associated with such efforts.  However, the fact remains that it has irretrievably become a written art principally incarnated as modern lyric poetry, following Baudelaire and the others.


Rebirth of nations


The printing revolution had a contradictory impact on poets.  On one hand, it assiduously extended the influence of their work, which no longer had to rely on the availability of manuscripts or on recitations, even if reading books certainly required literacy.  On the other hand, by separating text from voice, it diminished their direct relation to an audience and confirmed the eclipse of poetry as a popular performance art.  Poetry had to reinvent itself as an interior struggle with the language, although this retreat from the public domain was not readily apparent until much later.  Occasional poetry shrank as inappropriate to this vocation, in a way not dissimilar to what happened in mathematics.  Having historically emerged out of the needs of accounting, mathematics has no track with such practicalities in its theoretically evocative, if not lyrical, incarnation today when it behaves itself as an esoteric queen of the sciences with unequalled impact upon, but not much immediate rapport with its subjects.


As profound reactions to what preceded them, romanticism and nationalism – twin sides of a single coin in the realms of culture and politics respectively – acted in the manner of midwives for the rebirth of poetries and nations in the modern era.  It is in their cauldron that poetry in Greece, as elsewhere, reclaimed itself as a modern art discipline in a country’s national language.  With both real and obligatory recourse to folk songs, it resolutely became the product of an individual creator, perspiring on his, and less often her, manuscripts to record presumed visitations by inspiring muses.  The ancient egg of modern poetry in Greece was fertilized by romanticism to produce a litter of national poets, i.e., creators with a mass appeal by definition.  Yet, they would have to establish themselves in a changing context, as the position of poetry had been altered radically, following the printing and related revolutions.


The emergence of Greece as a modern nation-state in the early nineteenth century is emblematically linked to the physical death as well as the metaphorical birth of a poet.  The one to join the society of the dead was Byron, who was claimed by the conditions endured by independence rebels during the siege of Missolonghi by occupying Ottoman forces.  The poet inspired to be reborn artistically was Dionysios Solomos, scribbling away on an island in the Heptanesos group, at that time under foreign control, but not too distant from the ongoing siege, that he imaginatively recreated in the “Free Besieged, ” an unfinished poem, like most of his work.  In ancient times, the role of Homer made Greeks people of that book. Aristotle’s student Alexander carried the “Iliad” on his campaigns.  In modern times, Greece and Greek poetry re-emerged simultaneously in a coup de maitre that nationalist historiographers would be hard pressed to invent.  Could there be any question about the role poetry was expected to assume?


It is easy to observe that national anthems have generally been written by poets of a second, at best, rank.  It may, therefore, appear unusual that, in the case of Greece, the words of the national anthem are derived from the work of such an accomplished poet as Solomos.  What is even more noteworthy is that he literally struggled to learn Greek in the process of becoming a poet, as Italian was a language he used natively on his Venetian-dominated Greek island and he could perhaps comfortably have become an Italian poet instead.


Greek poetry as diasporic


Throughout their long history, Greeks have been exceptionally successful in establishing diaspora communities.  This ancient trend has its modern counterpart in the experiences of Hellenic communities in Canada or elsewhere today.  Diaspora Greeks made a leading contribution to the establishment of modern Greece and, more recently, to its emergence as a significant partner in the European Union and an economic and political power in its region.   The convulsions of the twentieth century were, however, catastrophic for the descendants of ancient Hellenic settlements in the eastern Mediterranean, who often fled for their lives or were subjected to mass exchanges of populations.


Cavafy and Seferis, two key figures in modern Greek poetry, were both children of the diaspora.  Following an extended stay in England with his family early in life, Cavafy returned to live in Alexandria, his birthplace in Egypt.  The Seferis family, on the other hand, left Izmir (Smyrna at that time) in Turkey and moved permanently to Athens, where the Paris-educated budding poet was to join the foreign service.


The work of Seferis, as a poet and very sophisticated essayist, who eventually became the most influential voice of what is called the “generation of the (19)30s,” is in continuing dialogue with the catastrophe that befell Greeks outside Greece in the 1920s.  There is a melancholy tone that underlies his most outgoing assertions.  Moreover, in his search for Greek cultural icons from the past, he chose to place on a pedestal naif local artists, such as the self-taught painter Theophilos or another autodidact when it came to prose writing, the revolutionary war general Makrygiannis.


On the surface, Cavafy’s work appears pervaded by a sense of pessimism.  Nevertheless, when his poems focus on the ongoing conflict between poetry and history, where the latter must always win, poetry insistently keeps coming back in a roundabout affirmation of human folly and human perseverance at the same time.  “Dareios” is a signature poem in this respect and I will not repeat here what I have suggested elsewhere.


I must refer, however, to some suggestions regarding Greek poetry made at length on other occasions.  It is possible, I have argued, to reconstruct Greek poetry as entirely “diasporic” in its preeminent contours.  This is not derived exclusively or even primarily from biographical particulars of poets, such as those alluded to earlier.  It is a view, instead, that seeks to account for their work as it ranges over different epochs of Hellenic history and in whichever place Greek seeds found fertile ground.  Simultaneously, this view corresponds to the determination of these poets to write in Greek, a gesture embedded in the choice made by Solomos as an originative figure of modern Greek poetry.  It appears, after all, that poets choose their language as much as languages choose their poets. 


There is an important comparative corollary.  All modern poetry partakes of a condition of exile and represents a culminating moment in a diaspora of writing.  Consider now, in obverse sequence, the process of writing in the diaspora, whether factual or imaginary.  From this perspective, Greek poetry seems to encapsulate an exemplary condition.


Needless to say, this is a view that might be anathema to many in the generation of Seferis who struggled mightily to highlight the localized achievements of a national literature.  Nevertheless, it is not meant abstractly as a literary provocation intent on destabilizing received wisdom, but concretely as a means to comprehending in a rigorously comparative context some exceptional achievements of poetry in Greek.


A received poetry canon


The task of presentation I have undertaken requires that I recall, even if somewhat breathlessly, a few more names of Greek poets that currently comprise a canon established many decades ago.  Kalvos was a contemporary of Solomos, whose linguistically and technically demanding poetry cannot easily be accommodated by less equipped readers today.  More than one generation of poets is being sidestepped as the time traveler arrives, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth  century, to the prodigious Kostis Palamas, whose mantle as a national poet would not fit most of his poetic descendants.


In the period between the two World Wars and even before his suicide, Karyotakis achieved preeminence, richly supported by his poetic output.  He did not fare that well, however, among the exponents of a subsequent wave in poetry.  Along with him, several others, like Lapathiotis or Sarantaris, for example, fell by the wayside.  Greek poetry was reinvented once again.  By the time a new ranking was established, which was not before the 1960s, contemporaries of Seferis and Elytis had become known as the “generation of the ‘30s.”  In fact, during the 1930s, most critics thought there was no future to Greek poetry and innovations and achievements could only be expected from prose or fiction.


A monopoly of recognition was officially sealed by the Nobel awards committee, which had been prevented rather than encouraged to honor previous Greek writers like Nikos Kazantzakis or Angelos Sikelianos.  Perhaps a more onerous fate awaited poets who presented their work after World War II, even when some of them, like Manolis Anagnostakis or Michalis Katsaros, broke through the ranks into the limelight.


The work of the “generation of the ‘30s” deserves the praise it has received for its particular achievements as well as the innovations and renewal associated with its ascendancy.  It is noteworthy, nevertheless, that other leading poets, such as Yiannis Ritsos and Andreas Embiricos, partly sidelined on ideological grounds for their communist or surrealist sympathies, could only enter the canon as presumed associates and contemporaries of the dominant generation figures.  Others, such as especially Nikos Engonopoulos, never quite reached the prominence their work calls for.  It is encouraging that someone of the caliber of Kiki Dimoula recently joined the Academy in Athens.


Precursors and descendants


In a brief essay on Kafka and his precursors, Borges suggests that writers tend to define not the ones who follow, but rather the ones who came before them, by condoning a new order of precedence that reaches into the past.  There is much evidence of this retroactive impact in twentieth-century Greek poetry. 


The fact that poets seek out elective affinities among their predecessors, which would support and not undermine their creative project, cannot be considered surprising.  As a result, however, the establishment of the generation of the ‘30s coincided with an erasure of many who had preceded them, while contemporaries had to join the dance under these terms or stay on the sidelines observing others being inserted into a new literary order.  This situation partly explains, as I have argued elsewhere, why it took so long for Cavafy to be accepted into the canon, after he had gained a following abroad.


Moreover, it is not commonly realized how much of what is taken for granted as contemporary Greek culture was established on intellectual grounds elaborated by the generation of Seferis.  After all, Seferis was a figure in the mold of T.S.Eliot, the consummate American who became more English than the English.


Formulating in the 1930s what was then a new vision for Greek culture undoubtedly represented an immense achievement and solid ground for further cultivation.  Yet, as time goes on, the ecology of cultural diversity cannot be sustained in manicured gardens but only in wilder conditions.  This has been a task for my contemporaries, unwillingly grouped as the “generation of the (19)70s,” on the basis largely of when their earliest work of poetry was published. 


Coming of age at the time of a military dictatorship in Greece, we were perhaps blindsided by the obviously continuing importance of poetry under such conditions.  After all, an interested public purchased more copies of our early books than those sold by established poets at equivalent points in their literary career.


In a different context, I have described poetry in Greece as a “regulating discipline,” considering its public role and position in the context of other arts.  Such recognition was again imminent during the 1970s, its tail end extending several years after the restoration of democracy.  We were perhaps the only generation to have that experience, as well as its denial, in a relatively short span of years.


Poetry of substantial quality continues to be produced in Greek, whether validated by a large degree of public interest as previously or not.  It has probably become now more of a contest with the language itself, a condition very similar to how mathematicians struggle with concepts and numbers, regardless of how these may add up outside their own calculations.


How many of these new voices will be heard at home or abroad will depend not only on what writers themselves do, but also on the conditions of reception generated by institutions that mediate between writers and audiences.  Among these institutions, Hellenic studies programs, such as at Concordia University, can play a particularly significant role and should be recognized for their initiatives.


Closing remarks


Poetry has played a critical role in Greece.  At one time, poetry was a nation-building activity, while the nation was also active in poetry-building.  Considering the number of Greek speakers in the modern era, it is a craft with an outstanding record of achievement.  This reflects the historical depth of the language, which invites and supports the complex allusions of poetry, as well as the adaptability of Greeks in both supporting and throwing away their language.


Among twentieth-century Greek poets, especially Cavafy, whose poem “Ithaca” was famously read at the funeral of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, has extended his influence to major poets in English, from W. H. Auden to James Merrill. 


It is also of particular interest here that significant echoes of the Greek experience can be heard among many writers active here in Canada.  This is a list that also includes, besides Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen, Anne Carson, Michael Harris, Anne Michaels, and David Solway.  Moreover, a new generation of Greek-Canadian writers is finally coming out of the wings.


Regarding a single recent example, listen carefully to “Alexandra Leaving,” the seventh among “Ten New Songs” by Leonard Cohen, produced by Sharon Robinson in 2001.  Then read Cavafy’s poem “The God Abandons Antony,” where the protagonist is asked to “say goodbye” to the Alexandria he is losing.


To put all this succinctly, a discussion of poetry in Greece must be complemented by a discussion of Greece in poetry.


But I should conclude.  I have three recommendations regarding Greek poetry – as a press counsellor: read more; as a cultural historian: read more closely; and, as a writer: read with pleasure, both within and against the grain.