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.