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Translator's Note: Yannis Keats

Angelos Sikelianos is perhaps best summed up by David Ricks in his anthology, Modern Greek Writing (Peter Owen Publishers, 2003):

Prolific, vatic, uneven, yet a master of many complex forms, no twentieth-century Greek poet is more deserving of serious attention . . . yet no poet is so the despair of the translator.

The complex forms (Sikelianos considered himself an heir to Pindar), usually rhymed, in traditional or nonce stanzas or wildly heterometrical, are actually part of what attracts me as a translator—the maddening challenge of getting his bold, rhymed sonnets, for instance, accurately into bold, rhymed English. He was the first Greek poet nominated for the Nobel, though he never received the prize. He is often compared to Yeats, another poet/playwright of artistic greatness and idiosyncratic philosophy. (Take “Doric” and “Leda and the Swan,” for instance: both are sonnets of an eroticized rape/rapture at a safe Classical or mythological remove.)

“Doric” had long puzzled me—it appears to be set in ancient Greece, but why, and why Doric? I first encountered it in Keeley’s and Sherrard’s fine free-verse translation. The poem fully exploits that top-heavy asymmetry that gives the sonnet its dynamic energy differential: virginity versus sex, stasis versus conflict. But I only understood what this poem was “about” when I translated it for myself. The importance of the girl’s hair being shorn off (therismeni—“harvested” or “reaped”) suddenly triggered the realization: she is a Spartan bride. (The Spartans spoke a Doric dialect.) A Spartan marriage was a curious affair: the bride, who had been ritually abducted, sheared off her tresses and awaited her bridegroom on a straw mattress in a pitch-dark room. Spartan maidens, like Spartan youths, received a formal education that included wrestling. Their marriage was consummated in secret, and for some time after, the pair met in clandestine assignations to whet their desire. I should have long ago picked up the obvious clue: Sikelianos places this sonnet between sonnets called, respectively, “Sparta” and “The Virgin of Sparta.”

“Yannis Keats” (from 1915) is a very different use of the Classical past. Sikelianos maintained a life-long interest in John Keats, delivering a lecture on him at the British Council in Athens towards the end of his life. What first grabs our attention is the title: not John Keats, but Yannis Keats (not even the formal “Ioannis”). He is making Keats a Greek and an equal, a friend. Strangely, the poem is set not in the present nor in Keats’s nineteenth century, but in Homer’s Bronze Age. In fact, we find ourselves smack in the midst of the Odyssey, with Keats as Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, at the brink of manhood, and the speaker as Pisistratus, his young friend and companion, son of Nestor. The details (such as the nudging of the foot) are taken straight out of Homer, and the scenes have a freshness and sparkle, not the old world traversed by long-suffering Odysseus, but a new world of adventure just opening up to young heroes. In a sleight of imagination, this vividly present ancient world also partakes of Keats—when we go to see the ritual sacrifice of the heifers, are we not the citizens who have emptied the town one pious morn in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”? Together the young companions make a road trip to see Menelaus and, especially, the bewitching Helen (daughter of aforementioned Leda and Swan). Yet the poem closes with a rejection of all this—Keats is in fact dead, in Rome.

In the last stanzas, Sikelianos performs yet another feat of connections. Keats’s death mask at the Spanish Steps becomes the gold mask exhumed at Mycenae in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann, who said, “I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon.” The distance between Sikelianos and Keats suddenly widens into an impassible and impossible gulf—if “Ode on a Grecian Urn” projects into a future, “midst of other woe/Than ours,” “Yannis Keats” plumbs into the past—death has made Keats as ancient as a Mycenean tomb, and the marvels with which the speaker wanted to dazzle him, dusty grave goods of antiquity. —aes

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This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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