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.

Originally Published: October 28th, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. October 28, 2007

    After the final no there comes a yes
    And on that yes the future world depends.
    Or, if you prefer: "A little yes and a big No."

  2. October 28, 2007
     Don Share

    Miguel Hernandez:
    "No perdona a la muerte enamorada,
    no perdona a la vida desatenta,
    no perdona a la tierra ni a la lada."
    - from his incredible "Elegia"
    "No se por que, no se por que ni como
    me perdono la vida cada dia."
    - from "Me sobra el corazon"
    (can't get those accent marks in, sorry)

  3. October 29, 2007
     Emily Warn

    Perhaps your thrill in the negative is a resolve to bust through cultural and political hype in order "to look at life as it is." Joshua Weiner makes this point about Larkin's poems in his essay, which we published last week, on "Whitsun Weddings."
    "Yet for all his meanness, there is also irreverent wit and a melancholy mitigated by his resolve to look at life as it is. Readers came to trust him; his poems have a sense of psychological scale, candor, and a thorough ease with metrical forms that place Larkin firmly in a British poetic tradition. If his vision is elegiac, one of gradual diminishment, it is also one of rich and nuanced emotional response. Larkin is a great poet of middle age, whose instinct for social satire amplifies his sense of poignancy. Betjeman describes Larkin’s work as “tenderly observant”; that he could also be bracing and acerbic implies his complexity. (Robert Pinsky’s description of the poems as “sour, majestic refusals” captures it well.)"

  4. October 29, 2007
     Michael Gushue

    nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.
    And Donne's A Nocturnal on St. Lucy's Day overbrims with the negative.

  5. October 29, 2007
     Steve Mackin

    A national holiday to celebrate "No." I love that! It doesn't surprise me that as a poet, a storyteller, that you would be moved by the negative. It seems to me that art begins with the negative, the no, the denial, contention. That's where the drama, the tension, starts. If Antigone had followed Creon's decree there would have been no play. I remember hearing Leonard Bernstein say, during a NY Phil young person concert 40 plus years ago, that if you find something in a work of art look for its opposite for it's alway there. Joyce has Stephen tell us, in Episode 9 of Ulysses, Where there is a reconciliation, Stephen said, there must have been first a sundering. He's talking about Shakespeare's life, but he is also talking about the creation of art. It's obvious to me that the no is fundamental to art. We live for the No.
    I love your translation of the Cavafy poem. I have the Barnestone translation at my desk and I've been comparing the two. His is great, but I like yours better. Love the mirroring of the yes thrice in stanza one with the no thrice in stanza two. Love the alliteration in the second line of stanza two (love the music there and throughout). The pairing of rife with life is perfect. I'll bet Cavafy would have loved it.
    Saturday Night on 101
    Are you a god or a doggone clod?
    J. Joyce, Ulysses
    It’s not a progression to God, but a succession from dog.
    R. Spoo, Joyce & the Language of History
    It’s 10PM on a Saturday
    and we’re driving down an American road
    between bold commercial ziggurats
    of blazing neon and static stone upon the Peninsula.
    Ray Charles is praying on the radio.
    Taillights string before us like burning rubies
    and headlights are too many suns banished from the sky.
    Cheshire moon is a wedge of orange sinking in a dark sangria.
    The finials along the Bridge flicker across the obsidian Bay.
    And far, far away I see the glitter of the Cities.
    I’m an atheist to the marrow, but at times like these I look for God
    in the empty, inky windows behind these lies of lights,
    and I never find him: Elijah broadcasting through the radio?
    I don’t think so.
    SPMackin, September 18th 2007

  6. October 31, 2007
     Alicia (A.E.)

    Thanks for all these thoughts and comments. (Thanks, Steve, too, for your poem and kind comments on the translation--which takes some liberties in the effort to get across the rhymed nature of the poem.)
    It strikes me that there are two things at work in many (if not all) of these powerful "no"s. For one thing, so often what they deny, refuse, protest against, is mortality itself, is death, nothingness, ceasing-to-be, and as such are actually litotes--double negatives that make postivies--they are on the side of life. Then also, it seems that negatives couched in the positive act of the poem (as Poe's "Nevermore" in the gorgeous if over-the-top sonics of "The Raven") can never be entirely nihilistic.
    Thanks for helping me think aloud here!