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Maintenant #22: Kostas Koutsourelis An interview with Kostas Koutsourelis by SJFowler.

The saliva of the night on the neck of the day

We must ask whether poetical orthodoxies are the product of an approach to poetry, if such a thing can be quantified or analysed, or if there is no ethos that maintains beyond the individual and drastically unique schisms of the many national traditions. Is a British poet writing in the same parochial, anecdotal, self aware guise of his forebears 50 to 100 years past making the same poetical statement as a Greek poet recalling the strictures of his own classicism? Everything is relative to it’s source, to the poet behind the poetry. When we approach a poet with the composure and dexterity of Kostas Koutsourelis, so bound as he is to his nation, his heritage and the legacy of poetry in Greece, we must re-evaluate our own preferences and prescriptions and realise that to eschew the limitations of poetical dualisms (the classical versus the avant-garde) we must be receptive to poetry this potent. For the 22nd Maintenant interview, 3:AM Magazine hosts one of the finest contemporary Greek poets, Kostas Koutsourelis.

3:AM: Clearly Greece is a country with an immense tradition, and I say this avoiding allusions to antiquity. In reference to the last century the volume of profound Greek poetry has been immense. Is this acknowledged by the Greek poetry community –that is poets, critics, people in general– now?

Kostas Koutsourelis: The great majority of the Greek poets, critics and readers are aware of the significance of our poetic tradition, particularly of the modernist legacy of the 20th century. However, this is not always a blissful concession. The great names of the past cause insecurity too. In order to cast aside the heavy shadow of the predecessors, some contemporary authors are chasing originality, surprise and expressional excess with great zeal. This results in a tiring and tired mannerism, a flavorless sophistication and a useless constant effort to impress. As for the critics, they often try to reduce the significance of some eminent poets of the past presenting, however, a mean argumentation. Above all, political correctness and “critical” biographies are a commonplace nowadays. Luckily enough, there are always also people, who treat the past with sober and fair judgement recognizing its contribution, but they also keep their distance from it, when necessary.

3:AM: Is there a sense that contemporary poets are able or unable to meet the challenge of the recent quality of Greek poetry?

KK: General opinion has it that the level of modern Greek poetry is lower than the level of previous times, above all the period between the two World Wars and the decades after the World War II. Nevertheless, I have the impression that this is the case more or less for the poetry written in all European languages. If I’m not mistaken, modern French and English poetry for instance are also considered to be less interesting and less important than the works written in these two languages eighty or hundred years ago.

In my opinion, this is not a fair assessment. Poets at the beginning of the last century combined their names with a deep rupture, a real literary revolution. It is to be expected that the fame of the protagonists in this revolution comes sometimes ahead of the actual impact of their work. However, not all times are times of rebellion and reformation. Contemporary poets in Greece, but also in Europe and the USA, live and work under very different conditions today. We live at a time which leaves behind the 20th century movements of Modernism and poses completely new questions concerning aesthetics and ideology. The most capable of the modern poets are conscious of this fact and they sometimes manage to answer successfully these questions through their work.

3:AM: Does poetry play a significant part as an artistic medium in people’s lives in Greece? That is, is poetry read by many, in schools, by the average person? Are poets famed for their poetry still?

KK: In Greece, just like elsewhere in the western world, poetry is experiencing a restriction to a small, specialized audience. The average reader in my country does not read poems, not by actual poets at least. Maybe he/she is even anxious of them. Whether we like it or not, modern poetry has created the profile of being unapproachable and only accessible to the critics and poets themselves. And this through its hermetism, its abstraction, its “difficulty”, but above all through the detest of some authors for the common readership. At the same time, several publishing houses, for who literature means novel, find this situation convenient and promote it in a way. As for teaching poetry at school, this does not seem to be a serious counter-balance. Under these circumstances, even poets not difficult to decipher, find it hard to attract the attention they deserve.

In the past, poets in Greece became well-known to a wider audience through music, that is because their verses were put to music. Nowadays, even this notable song tradition tends to vanish. The song in Greece becomes more and more industrial and massive, restricted to certain forms and with rudimentary lyrics or even lyrics written in English.

Nonetheless, there are still poets alive, like Kiki Dimoula or Michalis Ganas, who have a large audience and whose way of writing is recognizable and popular. As for the new generations, they have turned to live events or publish their work on the internet. Conventional press, books and paper magazines are losing their importance.

Personally, I strongly believe that the future of poetry and its reception will strongly depend from our capability to make use of the potentials of these events and readings, as well as of the internet. Of course, it is necessary that we first revise our means of expression but also our thematic focus. The aim should be a more direct, open and extrovert poetry.

3:AM: I’d like to get a sense of the presence of certain figures of Greek poetry and their effect on your work and the work of poets writing now. Are they still well read and much discussed? Odysseus Elytis, for instance?

KK: Elytis is nowadays the most popular and widely read Greek poet. His popularity rose dramatically after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1979 or even after his death in 1996. We can explain this, when we consider his work. His poetry communicates a sense of togetherness and solidarity and so is directly criticizing the egocentric individualism existing today. His symbolic world is unique, but at the same time familiar, his love poems are accessible to everyone and his songs are always being sung. The mundane intellectualism, the dryness of the present poetic language, skepticism and the forced pessimism were all unknown to him. For Elytis, poetry begins where death has not the final word. I personally owe a lot to his work. I first read his work at the age of twelve and the contact with it was one of the main stimuli that made me turn to poetry.

3:AM: George Seferis?

KK: Seferis is the father figure of Greek modern poetry. He is the Greek writer who received the impulses of the western modernism, above all the French and the Anglo-American, and fitted them to the Greek literary landscape, making something new out of this meeting and refreshing our own poetic tradition. The Nobel Prize of Literature in 1963, with which he was awarded, is an acknowledgement of his contribution. Today, not only his poetry, but also his essays, his diaries, his prose and his translations belong to the canon. His literary criticism is always being widely read. However, his poetry is not what we would call accessible to the average reader. It has its own codes and keys. Seferis himself has been a poeta doctus par excellance and the readership he is addressing to is rather smaller than the audience of other, more expressive poets. What is being criticised about Seferis nowadays is the political side of his personality. Because of the fact that his influence has been and remains immense, some contemporary authors are trying to diminish it through criticizing the life and ideas of the person Seferis has been. Of course, criticism alone is not necessarily bad. Unfortunately, in Seferis’ case, the argumentation used is neither convincing nor fair.

3:AM: Angelos Sikelianos?

KK: Sikelianos is maybe the most controversial personality of the 20th century Greek literature. Being a great visionist, utopist and a really ambitious homme de lettres, he associated his name with some of the most crucial and essential texts of our language. Nonetheless, a significant part of his work remains unapproachable to the reader today. Like in the case of other European poets of his generation too –like the early Yates for instance–, it is not always easy for us nowadays to decipher and evaluate his work soberly. Fortunately, in the recent years the tendency to evade his work and the sentiment of embarrassment towards it are withdrawing. A new generation of contemporary poets and critics –to who allow me to include myself– contributed decidedly towards this direction. What I would wish, is a new fresh translation of his best poems, in the main European languages at least. I think that it would then become clear, what notable a poet Sikelianos has been and why he has been so appreciated by famous colleagues of him abroad, like Paul Eluard, Henry Miller, or nowadays Seamus Heaney.

3:AM: What has been the influence of Western European or American poetry in Greece? Is it embraced by younger poets or scorned?

KK: Modern Greek poetry has been greatly influenced by the European tradition, already from the late Byzantine times and much more from Renaissance onwards. In some cases like the one of Seferis, Ritsos, Kazantzakis and above all Cavafy, Greek poetry managed even to compensate for this influence by influencing foreign writers with its turn, even if on a minor scale. No wonder, this is the fate of the so called “minor languages”. It is easier for a mediocre English or North American poet to have an international career than for the best and most talented Greek or Polish writer. On the other hand, the encounter of the younger Greek poets with foreign literatures is not always without risks. They sometimes come out to lose their own voice through their attempt to adjust to the English or American standards. The absence of a deeper education, intertwined with the slavish adaptation of the kind, results in poor facsimiles. These phenomena do not appear only in Greece of course. In my country, just like elsewhere too, the real experts of the western European and American literature are few.

The genuinely fruitful influence is the less apparent one. Dionysios Solomos (1798-1857) for instance was deeply influenced by the European movement of Romanticism at that time. Nevertheless, this influence is so harmonically absorbed in his work, that it is almost not perceived as such. Kostis Palamas (1859-1943) was at his time one of the best informed readers of the European literature. However, in his own poetic work, the foreign stimuli have been perfectly digested by his own poetic voice.

3:AM: Do you work with a specific methodology? That is do you build from words, phrases, images, or do the poems come to you whole?

KK: The starting point for my poems is usually a persisting image or a rhythm crystallized in a certain phrase. The structure of the poem, that is the poetic morphology, is crucial to me. Without having to care about the form and the perfection of a phrase, every idea, even the most original one, is being diminished to a note, a kind of diary for personal experiences and thoughts. Most often, this prime image or rhythm dictates me the further evolution of the poem, whether it will be a metrical or rhyming poem, whether it will follow a certain strophic scheme etc.

Over the last two years, I’m writing a cycle of poems which are formally a variant of Dante’s terza rima. The need to follow specific rules proved to be extremely fruitful for me. Especially the rhyme, this major machine of poetic speech, is in my opinion a liberating means which allows fantasy to make the most extravagant combinations, submitting them at the same time to the economy of the whole.

Whether we like it or not, the free verse, with all the freedoms it offered to modern poets, has often encouraged nonchalance in writing. The gradual come-back of strict structures, which I also follow in part of my work, teaches the poet that the most important thing in poetry is not the spontaneous self-expression or the easy confession, but the completed and integrated expression, the Vollendung –a word used for this purpose by Gottfried Benn, a German poet I admire and poems of whom I have translated into Greek.

3:AM: You seem to be extremely careful in your construction poetically, your verse appears to have a classical appearance, in that it seems fueled by a poetic focus. Do you believe discipline of expression is a central facet of being a poet?

KK: I’m glad that you note that my verse tends towards classical forms. This is my intention, an intention –I should confess– not always conscious, but, as it comes out in the end, a permanent and consistent one. In other words, concerning poetic expression, discipline is the counterbalance of the poet’s freedom. Without freedom, the speech comes out dry and stereotypical, whereas without discipline it is being split up and spread towards something meaningless and redundant.

I believe that the excessive individualism concerning the means of expression, to which we were led during the 20th century, this constant and forced hunting of innovation that Ezra Pound called “Make it new!”, all this led contemporary poetry to a dead-end. When every poet has no other goal than to create a formal language which would be only his or hers, the result can not be other than the alienation of poetry from its audience. How many different languages and personal techniques could a reader digest, no matter how welcoming and adequate he or she is? Nonetheless, poetry is not fashion; it does not need to reinvent itself every five or ten years in order to comply with the standards of consumption. Poetry is not a good to consume, poetic forms neither; we don’t really need to throw them to the waste every now and then or recycle them constantly from the very beginning. The important thing is to render them new life.  

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 31st, 2010.