• Tag Archives 20th century Greek poetry
  • Odysseus Elytis turns 100 Amid the Ruins

    Odysseus Elytis, 1911 - 1996

    Greece is crumbling.  Papandreou has called for a referendum on the the EU’s bailout agreement, blazing a trail towards a European abyss. Now the EU is waiting to excise the sun-drenched country like a melanoma. In Athens, friendly young couples pickpocket helpful old men of their last euros. Once-thriving neighborhoods are now scarred with graffiti and patrolled by prostitutes from Africa.*  The exportable stereotype of the Greek male as a swarthy open-shirted devil seducing blond tourists has been supplanted by that of the spoiled, tax-evading professional throwing a tantrum over not being able to retire at fifty. Fifty also being the percentage rise in suicide.** Having scraped and clawed and bled their way up through a century of misery to a tenuous, teeth-gritted prosperity, its all falling down around their ears like a film of the Parthenon time-lapsed at one frame per century. You weren’t going to forget, were you, amidst all the news of plummeting stock markets and mounting chaos, that today marks the 100th birthday of Odysseus Elytis?

    Haven’t heard of him? It seems you’re not alone. Greek literature, to most non-Greeks, means Homer or Aeschylus. With a little prompting, the non-Hellenic reader may get a patchy, long-stashed image of Anthony Quinn dancing on the seashore and come up with Nikos Kazantzakis.  If you read poetry, you may be lucky enough to have become, along with Auden, an admirer of Constantine Cavafy, whose elevated verse articulated a profound longing for historic Greece through his fascination with beautiful young men. But mention Yannis Ritsos, Angelos Sikelianos, Giorgios Seferis, or Odysseus Elytis, and most people will give a blank stare.

    Greece, on the other hand – the Greece of its own better Angel’s, brave and tenacious fighters for independence, raki-drinking street-dancers with long memories of oracles ringing in their ears, home to one of the world’s oldest and greatest literary traditions – Greece holds its poets close with pride. And among them, perhaps Odysseus Elytis most of all. Long before he won the Nobel Prize in 1979, this intensely private man who lived for half a century in the same small apartment in Athens, harnessing French surrealism to the chariot of Helios, was venerated as one of the Immortals.***

    In a previous post I referred to Elytis as “tragic-eyed”, at best a misleading epithet, for his poetry is intense, optimistic, and frankly erotic.  Listen to this fragment from his early collection, Sun the First:

    I lived the beloved name
    In the shade of the grandmother olive tree
    In the roar of the lifelong sea.

    Those who stoned me live no longer
    With their stones I built a fountain
    Verdant girls come to its threshold
    Their lips are descended from the dawn
    Their hair unwinds deeply in the future.

    In Greece, 2011 has been officially declared the Year of Elytis. Readings, symposiums, installations of his art, and concerts of music inspired by his poetry have been going on for months and will continue through November. As unstable as Greece’s future is, it seems a small point of hope that it remains poet-honoring in this way.  Imagine America declaring this the “Year of Elizabeth Bishop”.

    In a post later this month I will give you Elytis’s famous poem The Mad Pomegranate Tree.  But for now, I leave you with this: A line of poetry by Elytis is currently on display in the Athens metro: “Take a leap faster than decay.”****





    ***The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis, Revised and Expanded Edition, Trans. by Jeffrey Carson and Nikos Sarris, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland (2004), p. xxxix.


  • “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow: Easter of God.”

    This week I had intended to publish the follow-up to my last post, about Derek Walcott.  But Holy Week has been its usual drama queen self, and no matter how I try to air out my religious sensibility, I’m always brought to my knees by its rapturous tragedy.  Consequently, another poet has been knocking about in my skull, clamoring to be heard: the lyrical and tragic-eyed Odysseus Elytis.  So, Walcott can wait another week.

    For some reason, I always associate Easter with Greece.  I love to prepare Greek food for the feast.  Two years ago, I made an enormous lamb pie baked in a crust of Greek bread (We ate it all week.  Making moderate amounts is difficult for me).  Sam makes tzoureki, a Greek braided bread, not unlike Jewish challa, with red-painted Easter eggs baked into the pleats.

    This year, Easter dinner will be, not Greek, but Italian, featuring a rustico casserole of cubed lamb tossed with herbs, garlic, tomatoes and  Parmigiano-Reggiano, layered with thinly sliced new potatoes.  I probably won’t be able to resist trading out the third cup of water the recipe calls for to be added before putting it into the oven with with wine.  As crusty as the potatoes will get, and as meltingly tender the lamb, Elytis, in spirit, is scowling at these plans.  What his country suffered at the hands of the Italians during World War II, the humiliation of foreign occupation, mass killings, rapes and starvation, would likely cause my cooking this year to catch in his throat. His experience as an officer in the heroic Albanian Campaign that resisted the Italian invasion of Greece became the genesis of the poem that marked the turning point in his career:  Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign (1945). In a letter to the translator Kimon Friar, Elytis wrote of its origins:

    ‘A kind of “metaphysical modesty” dominated me. The virtues I found embodied and living in my comrades formed in synthesis a brave young man of heroic stature, one whom I saw in every period of our history. They had killed him a thousand times, and a thousand times he had sprung up again, breathing and alive. His was no doubt the measure and worth of our civilization, compounded of his love not of death but of life. It was with his love of Freedom that he recreated life out of the stuff of death.”

    And so he wrote this magnificent cycle, fourteen stanzas, in honor of this imagined, composite, fallen soldier.  Without a trace of club-footed allegory, Elytis produced one of the most evocative Easter poems I know.  Here is the final stanza in Friar’s translation.


    Now the dream in the blood throbs more swiftly
    The truest moment of the world rings out:
    Greeks show the way in the darkness:
    For you the eyes of the sun shall fill with tears of joy.

    Rainbow-beaten shores fall into the water
    Ships with open-sails voyage on the meadows
    The most innocent girls
    Run naked in men’s eyes
    And modesty shouts from behind the hedge
    Boys! There is no other earth more beautiful

    The truest moment of the world rings out!

    With a morning stride on the growing grass
    He is continually ascending;
    Around him those passions glow that once
    Were lost in the solitude of sin;
    Passions flame up, the neighbours of his heart;
    Birds greet him, they seem to him his companions
    ‘Birds, my dear birds, this is where death ends!’
    ‘Comrades, my dear comrades, this is where life begins!’
    The dew of heavenly beauty glistens in his hair.

    Bells of crystal are ringing far away
    Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow: the Easter of God!


    Odysseus Elytis, made a Nobel Laureate in 1979, died in 1996.  This year, he would have turned one hundred.  Many regard him as the greatest Greek poet of the 20th century. Greece is making a great fuss over him this year, and as his birthday, November 2, approaches, I will almost certainly be publishing more posts on him.  But for now, this Easter greeting.


    Odysseus Elytis