Thursday, April 10, 2008

Elytis' To Axion Esti: An Exercise

Here is an excerpt from a famous poem by modern Greek poet and Nobel Laureate Odysseas Elytis, To Axion Esti:



This is the original Greek. There are numerous translations available of this poem; but don't go looking for them just yet.

That's because this poetry exercise is a little different: It's about layout and typography. The exercise is to look at the format and structure, rather than the words of the poem. Look at the arrangement on the page. It is strophe/anti-strophe, chorus/anti-chorus. It is two voices on either end of the stage, as in classical Greek drama.

Is it a list poem? a call and response poem? a verse and refrain poem, but arranged for two voices? is it a dramatic dialogue, notated as if for performance? is it first person singular, or plural?

Just look at it for awhile, and write how you respond.



Odysseas Elytis was one of my favorite contemporary poets. His poems are always light-drenched, often ecstatic, and full of eros in its original sense: life-force. His poetry always makes me feel more alive.

He wrote the following statements about himself and his poetry in 1972:

It has been said that I am a Dionysian poet, particularly in my first poems. I do not think this is correct. I am for clarity. As I wrote in one of my poems, “I have sold myself for clearness.” I told you that I am critical of occidental rationalism, skeptical of its classicism, and that I feel the breach opened by surrealism was a real liberation of the senses and the imagination. Could one possibly conceive of a new classicism in the spirit of surrealism? Is this a contradiction in terms? Do you know the work of Hans Arp? There you have great simplicity! He is a classical sculptor, isn’t he? Yet he was a surrealist! In other words, the world of surrealism had its classicists and romanticists. Essentially, it was romantic movement. But Éluard, for example, I personally find more classical than romantic.

I never was a disciple of the Surrealist school. I found certain congenial elements there, as I have told you, which I adapted to the Greek light. There is another passage in my “Open Papers” where I say that Europeans and Westerners always find mystery in obscurity, in the night, while we Greeks find it in light, which is for us an absolute. To illustrate this I give three images. I tell how once, at high noon, I saw a lizard climb upon a stone (it was unafraid since I stood stock-still, ceasing even to breathe) and then, in broad daylight, commence a veritable dance, with a multitude of tiny movements, in honor of light. There and then I deeply sensed the mystery of light. At another time I experienced this mystery while at sea between the islands of Naxos and Paros. Suddenly in the distance I saw dolphins that approached and passed us, leaping above the water to the height of our deck. The final image is that of a young woman on whose naked breast a butterfly descended one day at noon while cicadas filled the air with their noise. This was for me another revelation of the mystery of light. It is a mystery which I think we Greeks can fully grasp and present. It may be something unique to this place. Perhaps it can be best understood here, and poetry can reveal it to the entire world. The mystery of light. When I speak of solar metaphysics, that’s exactly what I mean.

I am not for the clarity of the intelligence, that which the French call “la belle clarté.” No, I think that even the most irrational thing can be limpid. Limpidity is probably the one element which dominates my poetry at present. The critic Varonitis has perceived this. He says that in my book “The Light Tree” there is an astonishing limpidity. What I mean by limpidity is that behind a given thing something different can be seen and behind that still something else, and so on and so on. This kind of transparency is what I have attempted to achieve. It seems to me something essentially Greek. The limpidity which exists in nature from the physical point of view is transposed into poetry. However, as I told you, that which is limpid can at the same time be altogether irrational. My kind of clarity is not that of the ratio or of the intelligence, not clarté as the French and Westerners in general conceive it.

You always look somewhat puzzled, I notice, whenever I contrast Greeks with Westerners or Europeans. This is not a mistake on my part. We Greeks belong politically, of course, to the Occident. We are part of Europe, part of the Western world, but at the same time Greece was never only that. There was always the oriental side which occupied an important place in the Greek spirit. Throughout antiquity oriental values were assimilated. There exists an oriental side in the Greek which should not be neglected. It is for this reason that I make the distinction.

Let me conclude by reading to you a concise statement I have prepared concerning the aims of my poetry:

I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my conscience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses more in harmony with my dreams. I am referring here to a contemporary kind of magic whose mechanism leads to the discovery of our true reality. It is for this reason that I believe, to the point of idealism, that I am moving in a direction which has never been attempted until now. In the hope of obtaining a freedom from all constraints and the justice which could be identified with absolute light, I am an idolater who, without wanting to do so, arrives at Christian sainthood.


Here is a transcription of Elytis' Nobel Prize Lecture, from 1979.

Here's an essay about his collected poems. Here's a biography of Elytis. Here's a list of his works and of translations; probably the most accessible in English are the Olga Broumas translations. Broumas' translation of Open Papers is essential reading.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Dave King said...

I really need time to get my breath back, but I need to say something now. A really exceptional blog and a jaw-dropping post. I know I am going to be indebted to Jim for a long while for his link to you and to you for this post, for introducing me to Odysseus Elytis, his Nobel Lecture and his poetry. I wish I knew how to do the post justice, but to make the point I can say that I am adding you to my links after one visit - something I have never done before. Metaphorical beers on me all round.

4:45 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Dave—

Welcome aboard, and thanks for the wonderful comments.

Elytis continues to take my breath away, so I know the feeling. From time to time I like to take a moment to post appreciations here of some of my favorite poets, especially those lesser-known in English, or in the USA, and promote them a bit. This was one of that series. I'm glad it "got to you," I'm actually very pleased. Elytis is a deep well full of many surprising pleasures. Enjoy!

9:21 AM  
Blogger author said...

There is more to this poem than typography. It was also put to music which was one of the most popular songs of Mikis Theodorakis, and also made into a beautiful scene of filmmaking by Angelopoulos.

You can watch a video of the song performed with its composer Theodorakis conducting, Bythikotsis singing, and the whole audience singing along, at this link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hv8pj10MGi0

3:12 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yes, thank you, I'm quite well aware of that. If you read further on my blog, you'll discover that I discuss Elytis numerous times, and consider him quite important and influential as a poet.

I have two different translations of To Axion Esti, and I also have a recording of a partial performance of the Theodorakis setting. I'm also a fan of Theodorakis, and have some other recordings of his work.

I appreciate your posting the link.

Nonetheless, your comments missed my point entirely, which was that the typography reflects the poem's strophe/antistrophe form, and itself can be a source of inspiration. It's not only about content, it's about form, and typography reflects form. And that was the root of this exercise.

10:56 PM  
Blogger author said...

I think I did understand your point. Having read only this entry on your blog (I was researching a translation of Άξιον Εστί for another poem from the cycle), I don't know what else you've posted about that particular body of work.

However, the link was for the specific part of Axion Esti you've posted here ... "Τησ αγάπης αίματα.." just to clarify. There are many poems from the whole work that Theodorakis set to music.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Fair enough. Thanks for the clarifications.

Yes, I'm familiar with Theodorakis' settings. Somewhere on my shelves I have his oen book about music and poetry; in it, I believe he talks about his Elytis settings in some detail. I'd have to go find the book the remember the details, this is just off the top of my memory. A great composer who often worked in the national vernacular.

8:30 AM  

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