Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Wherever I travel Greece wounds me - the Greek stories are everywhere - the Collected Poems of George Seferis

The ancient Greek plays are everywhere.  I think of them as foundations of Western literature, but still, I was not expecting to find in Ishmael Reed’s 1973 novel The Last Days of Louisiana Red, which is mostly about radical Black politics in Berkeley, an actor named Chorus who blames his professional and personal problems on Sophocles:

“What I did was to go back to see where I went wrong.  It started with plays like Antigone.” (end Of Ch. 5)

Reed’s previous novel, Mumbo Jumbo (1972), includes an alternate history of the Bible, so logically he moves to the Greeks in this one.

It was not at all surprising to find lines from Greek plays and from Homer running all through George Seferis’s Collected Poems: 1924-1955 (although half or more of the poems are from the 1930s, tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard).  The great modern Greek poets all seem to be myth-haunted.  Every island and city and bit of coast come with old stories, old literature, and Seferis embraces it.

He even writes a self-parody:

from In the Manner of G. S.

Wherever I travel Greece wounds me…

At Mycenae I raised the great stones and the treasures of the house of Atreus

and slept with them at the hotel “Belle Helène”;

they disappeared only at dawn when Cassandra crowed,

a cock hanging from her black throat.

And so on, the parody being that the poem is even more packed with ancient Greece than usual.  Every sailor is if not Odysseus then one of his doomed companions.  The sea is always the sea now, abut also the sea then.

Seferis gathered a collection of poems from the late 1930s into a “logbook,” an idea he liked so much it is now titled Logbook I (1940).  Europe was a dark place in 1940, but not surprisingly Logbook II (1944) is written from exile, in South Africa and Egypt.  Here his recurring character, a Greek sailor, adjusts to a new landscape and its exotic African lilies:

from Stratis Thalassinos among the Agapanthi:

There are no asphodels, violets, or hyacinths;

how then can you talk with the dead?

The dead know the language of flowers only;

so they keep silent

they travel and keep silent, endure and keep silent,

beyond the community of dreams, beyond the community of dream.

Some of this is straight out of the last book of The Odyssey, but it is as much about grieving for all of the newly dead in the Aegean Sea.  How do you talk to these dead?  What could you tell them?  Seferis’s poems are his attempts.


  1. Yes, this is the stuff, literature that sweeps in other literature, that pulls the references forward and backwards in time. Very exciting.

    The unpublishable novel I'm currently writing is, at least in part, a sort of version of the Odyssey, when it's not a version of Kafka and Ovid. So I'm all for the idea of dragging forth cultural foundations and building new houses out of them. I'll have to see about a volume of Mr Seferis. He apparently wrote a ton of stuff, and won the Nobel, if that means anything.

  2. It may be a bit of a curse for the Greek poet. Do they have to write about myths? The major ones all seem to.

    Luckily Collected Poems has plenty of notes, so I did not have to depend on my learnedness to know that a line is from Aeschylus or whoever.

    Without trying to, I have greatly increased my Nobel count over the past five or six years. Just rummaging around during the right periods, I guess.

    Your novel sounds like the kind of thing I like to read.

  3. Occupational hazard, I suspect, when you're a Greek poet.

    Elytis strikes me, as of the majors, maybe the least involved with classical themes. He makes up for it with Byzantine & Greek Orthodox, though. I wonder, but don't know enough to say, if there's less of it as poets move from Katharevousa to the demotic. The very words they use are less steeped in classical stories and place.

    It's an unfortunate move from my point of view...I almost feel like I can read Cavafy in Greek; Seferis still makes some sense; Elytis is pretty much translation only.

  4. Elytis, another Nobel. I would like to read the complete Axion Esti someday.

    The idea about demotic Greek being less steeped in Classical ideas makes sense.

  5. At least in terms of number of pages To Axion Esti isn't a major commitment. That's of course different from saying one has the smarts for it, and I'm not really sure I did when I read it. But glancing over it again now, I think I'd get more out of it than I probably did the first time. Mine's tr. by Keeley & Savidis with notes & looking at it now it seems reasonably lucid.

    One of these years I'll do more than dip into Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. Now that has some pages to it.

  6. Ah, Kazantazkis, yes, I hope to read that next year. Along with several other 800 page books. Why so many 800 page books?

    The Elytis poem can at least wait until I get to the 1950s. The Keeley and Sherrard Selected Poems had an excerpt that at least made it clear that I should try the whole thing. I'll need the notes.

  7. My obligatory online schtick is that no one should try to talk to the dead if it means trying to get an answer, and this has been true as far back as the Odyssey. We keep trying, though, and that's part of being human; one of our deepest longings is to continue to address those who are gone, even if we know there will be no answer.

  8. Nicely said. There are those times, and Seferis seems to have felt them strongly, when the dead are almost audible, are almost right here.

  9. I'm not crazy about Keeley and Sherrard -- "academic" is the word that springs to mind -- but Seferis is wonderful and deserved his Nobel. (He shared the general Greek foolishness about language, thinking the ancients pronounced Greek exactly as he did himself, but even a great poet is only human.)

  10. I knew a modern Greek specialist who was frustrated by the frequent new translations of Cavafy, when so many other great poets had just one or none.

    1. I can understand that -- I feel the same way about Tolstoy -- but the difference is that there are perfectly adequate translations of Tolstoy, and the same is not true of Cavafy (I suspect most people read Keeley/Sherrard, which does not sound like poetry to me).

    2. I don't know, there are so many versions of Cavafy now. The best seller on Amazon right now seems to be the Oxford version by Evangelos Sachperoglu. The 2009 Daniel Mendelsohn version is the one I remember getting a lot of attention.

      While with Seferis, it's K&S or learn Greek, and that's unlikely to change. I agree about the quality of their translations, by the way. They are functional. They got a lot done, there is that.

    3. Ah, I haven't kept up with Cavafyana, clearly. This makes the Mendelsohn version sound good:

      After more than a decade of work and study, Mendelsohn—a classicist who alone among Cavafy’s translators shares the poet’s deep intimacy with the ancient world—gives readers full access to the genius of Cavafy’s verse: the sensuous rhymes, rich assonances, and strong rhythms of the original Greek that have eluded previous translators.

    4. There was definitely a little "Cavafy boom." Perhaps driven by queer studies, perhaps even because he is so good.

  11. I was underwhelmed by Mendelsohn's--which surprised me, I like him as an essayist--but for me it's only advantage is that it has more.

    I find the Sachperoglu pretty good, but I don't particularly object to Keeley & Sherrard either.