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Today is a national holiday in Greece, the day when Greeks celebrate the word “No!”
More specifically, the “no” Metaxas gave to Mussolini in 1940, which precipitated Greece’s involvement in World War II on the side of the Allies. Mussolini, who had occupied neighboring Albania, wanted to be able to occupy parts of Greece. Metaxas declined the permission (and most historians think he did so in French; but no matter, Greeks prefer the more direct Greek version.) Italians invaded; the Greeks pushed them back onto Albanian soil, handing them the first Axis defeat of the war. (The poet Elytis fought on the Albanian front, which is the subject of his celebrated and ambitious poem, “Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign.”)
I do think there is something surreal though in having a whole holiday for the word “no.” Preschoolers all over Greece have been learning this last week to write “no” in Greek–which is pretty easy, since it involves an o an x and a i–a circle, an x and a line–OXI. No funny letters that change if they are written backwards or upside down. Homes are decorated with Greek flags, and this morning there will be military parades through Constitution Square and school children will march in uniform. The student with the best grades gets to march in front of his or her class.
The refusal as a positive act. I have been celebrating Ochi Day by thinking of negatives in poetry–and how many of my favorite poems end on a “brilliant negative” in one way or another. Take the number of Housman poems that end on some kind of negative (with a not or a never or a none) for instance: “When it was not clay”, “Never turns him to the bride”, “A jonquil, not a Grecian lad”, “The lads that will die in their glory and never be old”, “No, my lad, I cannot come”, “Never ask me whose”, “That will not shower on me”, “And cannot come again” (and phrases like “The kingdom that is not”).
Shakespeare’s “Never, never, never, never, never”–where even the meter is denial.
Weldon Kees’ “I have no daughter. I desire none.”
Larkin all over the place: “And don’t have any kids yourself”, “Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless”, the wonderful litotes (and the motto of blurbers) from “Talking in Bed”: “Words at once true and kind,/
Or not untrue and not unkind.”
Hardy is a great poet of the negative–consider his perfect triolet, “At a Hasty Wedding,” the whole of which is a contrary-to-fact condition.
Why do these negatives always give me a sort of thrill? Why do my own poems so often end on a negative? Is it just morbid perversity? Why do refusals in poetry seem to me like positive gestures?
The obvious poem for ochi day is by C.P. Cavafy (my own translation here, from Smartish Pace–click for the Greek original). He takes his title from Dante:
Che fece . . . il gran rifiuto
A day arrives for some men when they must
Utter the great Yes or the great No.
And it is immediately clear which ones possess
The great Yes ready within them, and saying Yes,
They cross to a place of honor and self-trust.
The refuser does not repent. If there were rife
Second chances, still, he would again say No.
And that No—the right No—oppresses him all his life.