Monday, May 8, 2017

My only care my language on Homer’s shores - Odysseus Elytis finds his subject - He was a brave young man

After reading a book of the poems of Angelos Sikelianos, I pushed on into modern Greek poetry a bit with the 1981 Selected Poems of Odysseus Elytis, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard in response to Elytis’s 1979 Nobel prize.

By chance, Keeley has a poem in the current Hudson Review (Spring 2017), titled “The Village Called Kolonaki,” which contrasts the Athens he clearly loves, a touristy place where a waiter recites the specials “in a modern epic mode,” with images of

the dark sides of disaster
of migrants crawling through holes
in barbed-wire fences
or falling off flimsy rafts
to drown in the once-blue Aegean.  (pp. 38-40)

His image of Greece is built of “certain charming clichés” which can be hard to surrender.

Odysseus Elytis was a descendant of Sikelianos, another poet who wrote against classical Greek reason.  He found his way through French surrealism, which he pulled into Greek.  The results, in his first books from 1940 and 1943, at least as seen in this selection, often look like clichés rearranged.  Take some images, some strong, some the usual stuff, shake them up, and sprinkle some Greek content – Santorini, Helen, the Aegean.  Maybe the English makes it too flat, I don’t know.

Then Elytis wrote the “Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign” (1945).  My prejudice, confirmed here, is that surrealism is a great training ground for young writers with no subject.  His war experiences, fighting the Germans, gave him a subject.  Elytis was also a second lieutenant, for what that is worth, and was likely lost in his own way, but not, like the hero of the poem, killed and left on an Albanian mountainside.

The mountains of Albania thundered
Then they melted snow to wash
His body, dawn’s silent shipwreck
And his hands, open space of solitude
The mountains of Albania thundered
They did not weep
Why should they weep?
He was a brave young man.  (stanza VI)

The poem is like Pindaric ode to a fallen soldier rather than a victorious athlete.  Much of the poem describes the lieutenant’s apotheosis, his ascent to some kind of heaven.  He is Hercules; he is Orpheus.

Hermaphroditic flowers salute him secretly
And with soft voices that fade into the air they speak to him
Love-sick trees bend towards him
With nests sunk in their armpits
And their branches dipped in the sun’s oil
Miracle – what a miracle – down on earth
White tribes with blue ploughshares engrave the fields
Peaks shine in the background
And, deeper still, the inaccessible dreams of spring mountains.  (XII)

The imagery is a mix of the pagan and Christian.  The last words of the poem are “Easter of God.”

In his next book, The Axion Esti (1959), Elytis plunges deeply into the language of the Greek Orthodox church.  The long poem is a liturgy mixed with prose passages that are autobiographical, from Elytis’s war – “First Reading: The March toward the Front” – and more traditional poems, or elements of the service turned into different kinds of poems:

from “The Passion”

     Greek the language they gave me;
poor the house on Homer’s shores.
    My only care my language on Homer’s shores.

The language transforms, though, and by the end of this passage, though, his only care is “my language with the first words of the Hymn!”

Keeley and Sherrard only sample The Axion Esti.  I would like to read the whole thing someday.

The poems from the 1970s, well, Elytis is back to poems I do not understand.  That middle period, though!


  1. I've never been crazy about Keeley's translations, but The Axion Esti is a great poem in Greek, and the Theodorakis setting is well worth hearing.

  2. Keeley can have a "translation by the yard" quality.

    I had not thought to look for a musical setting. I never do, but always should. Thanks!