Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Odysseas Elytis

I am particularly fond of the modern Greek poets such as Constantine Cavafy, Angelos Sikelianos, George Seferis, and Odysseas Elytis. All of them are richly tied to the ancient Greek past while also being completely modern. It's a doubled stance that few other modern poets have carried off; perhaps only Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda have equalled this feat.

Elytis was a poet of deep ekstasis, as political as Neruda in his thirst for justice, but always lyrical and sun-drenched. He even talks about the impact of the sun on Greek poetry, and in his poetry.

One thing I find very congenial in Elytis is his ability to stay within the tradition of the Greek poets while also being deeply experimental, and arranging poems in ways you've never seen before. He constantly creates new forms for his work, but they are so connected to the subject matter that they seem to grow from within, organically, and even though they are new they seem completely natural and right. (This is an acknowledged influence on my own poetry.)

Burnished day, conch of the voice . . .

Burnished day, conch of the voice that fashioned me
Naked, to step through my perpetual Sundays
Between the shores’ cries of welcome,
Let your wind, known for the first time, blow freely
Unfold a lawn of tenderness
Where the sun can roll his head
Can enflame the poppies with his kiss
Poppies nourished by men so fine
That the sole mark on their bare chests
Is the blood of defiance that annuls sorrow
And attains the remembrance of liberty.

I spoke of love, of the rose’s health, of the ray
That by itself goes straight to the heart,
Of Greece that steps so surely on the sea
Greece that carries me always
Among naked snow-crowned mountains.

I give my hand to justice
Diaphanous fountain, sublimest spring,
My sky is deep and changeless
All I love is incessantly reborn
All I love is always at its beginning.

—translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

It is more typical than not that most English-language poets do not know this poet, or these poems. It's unfortunately very typical that English-language poets rarely know much about non-English poets.

A great deal depends on the translator. In my opinion, the best translators are poets themselves, with an ear for sound and rhythm and music. Perhaps many English-language poets are afraid of investing the time it takes to learn to translate poems properly. I learned enough German in graduate school to begin to do my own translations of Rilke. I was fluent enough in Indonesian, when I lived there, that I was able to read great poets such as Chairil Anwar in the original. I studied French for many years, enough to be able to read St.-Exupery and Voltaire in the original. This was years ago, in my school days, and I regret none of hte time spent on it, even though I'm out of practice now, and doubt I could do as good a job anymore.

Elytis' tone is often elegiac: the past exists for him as though a living image, a living place, still present in us now. This is another tone and topic that's common to many of the great modern Greek poets. Yet I find it continually fascinating that Elytis can say old things in such new, living language. He makes you feel it in your body, and your eyes are blinding by that Aegean sunlight.

Gift, Silver Poem

I know that all this is worthless and that the language
I speak doesn't have an alphabet

Since the sun and the waves are a syllabic script
which can be deciphered only in the years of sorrow and exile

And the motherland a fresco with successive overlays
frankish or slavic which, should you try to restore,
you are immediately sent to prison and
held responsible

To a crowd of foreign Powers always through
the intervention of your own

As it happens for the disasters

But let's imagine that in an old days' threshing-floor
which might be in an apartment-complex children
are playing and whoever loses

Should, according to the rules, tell the others
and give them a truth

Then everyone ends up holding in his
hand a small

Gift, silver poem.

—translation by Marios Dikaiakos

For modern Greek poetry, Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard are one of the best translating teams around. They have done Complete Poems of Cavafy and Seferis, and several anthologies of others. Another really excellent translator from the Greek is Kimon Friar; his Modern Greek Poetry anthology is over a thousand pages of good reading. Friar was also the chief translator into English of the novels and essays and letters of Nikos Kazantzakis, the writer of Zorba the Greek and The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, among many other well-known works.

Sikelianos is under-translated in English. I would like to see a Collected Poems in translation someday. One of my favorite poems of his is The Sacred Way.

For Elytis, Copper Canyon Press has several of his books translated by Olga Broumas, a Greek-born American poet in her own write. Copper Canyon has also put out spoken word CDs of some of their poets. I have one of Hayden Carruth reading from his collected shorter poems that is terrific. The Olga Broumas CD from this series contains both her own poems, and her translations of Elytis. I have seen her give readings, and she's really good at performing the poems; she almost always reads some Elytis as well as her own poems. I think her Elytis translations are luminous and exalted.

Seferis and Elytis were both awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. That's one reason they're well-translated, while Sikelianos isn't as well-known. There is a Sikelianos Collected Poems in Greek, but it hasn't yet been fully translated into English. By contrast, there are two Elytis Collected Poems by different translators, that I know of, and three different Collected Poems of Cavafy, and also two of Seferis. Sikelianos is, of this group of modern Greek poets, in some ways a quiet mystic, with a quieter voice. But all of them are Greek to the core. English poet Rex Smith has done a few excellent translations of Seferis; they were friends, too. Seferis openly admitted to having been strongly influenced by T.S. Eliot, but what he did with that influence, in Greek, was I think very original, and not at all dour or despairing the way Eliot could be.

The one Elytis anthology to have, if you can only have one, is Eros, Eros, Eros, which is a selected and last poems anthology, which also contains some extracts from Open Papers, a book-length essay in which Elytis writes incredibly poetic prose about poetry, his writing habits, his sources, and much more; it's like a poet's journal, but exalted and filled with bright sunlight. Truly inspirational.

Elytis wrote this in Open Papers, and it stands for me as one of the best artist's statements of all time:

Don’t think me exalted; I’m not referring to myself; I speak for whoever feels as I do and is not naive enough to confess it. If a separate personal Paradise exists for each of us, I reckon mine must be irreparably planted with trees of words the wind silvers like poplars, by people who see their confiscated justice given back, and by birds that even in the midst of the truth of death insist on singing in Greek and saying, “eros, eros, eros.”

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