Have ya’ll had enough of Greek poets yet? Hmmm. Probably so—this is the last one, promise. I am working on a review of George Seferis’ A Levant Journal, translated and edited by Roderick Beaton, due… erm, in a week or so I think. One of the curiosities of being an ex-pat poet is that people assume I am an expert on Greek poetry. And I guess the result is that I am becoming one!
The question that keeps niggling in the back of my mind about Seferis (1900-1971), one of Greece’s two Nobel laureates (here, by the way is his Nobel speech) is—is Seferis a great poet? He is clearly a major poet and an important poet and a good poet, as well as a major critic. But is he a great poet? And what do I even mean by that? Frankly, can I, not a native speaker of Greek, even judge?

It isn’t a question that pops in my head about Cavafy, about whom I have no doubts whatsoever that he is great with a capital G.
Seferis developed an Aegean Modernism, taking elements from French and English modernists (particularly TS Eliot) and bringing them into anAegean land-, sea- history- and myth-scape. Deeply personal and political, but often expressed through private symbols, the poems, without those personal and historical “keys” can seem hermetic. Maybe part of the problem is that in English it is hard to grasp the texture of the Greek. Lawrence Durrell confesses to Seferis, “We are having trouble translating you so that you don't sound like Eliot.”
I think the influence of Eliot seems more fully digested in Greek. Translated (back, as it were) into English, it can seem almost derivative, as:
Jerusalem, unruled city, city adrift!
Into the River Jordan
Three monks one day came sailing,
And on the bank made fast
A red, three-masted sailboat.
(translation by Roderick Beaton.)
Seferis isn’t the first person to bring free verse into Greek, of course, but he is one of the early practitioners. But, again, many of the poems rhyme, and without the music and juxtapositions and tensions rhyme sets up, the short song-like poems can seem almost banal. Keeley and Sherrard ingeniously and conveniently arrange Seferis’ Complete Poems into separate sections for the Rhymed Poems so that one at once knows the lay of the land. Take this deceptively simple poem (translated by Keeley & Sherrard):
On the secret sea-shore
white like a pigeon
we thirsted at noon:
but the water was brackish.
On the golden sand
we wrote her name;
but the sea-breeze blew
and the writing vanished.
With what spirit, what heart
what desire and passion
we lived our life: a mistake!
So we changed our life.
I’ve tried doing a rhyming version myself, and haven’t got far at all:
In the cove, the secret cove
White as any dove,
We thirsted under the shining vault
Of noon-day, but the water was salt.
Yikes! Terrible! ("A mistake!")
But just listen to this! (Do take the time—it is short and worth it). The poem was set to music by Mikis Theodorakis and became a famous popular song. At Seferis’ funeral it was sung by crowds in the street as a political anthem against the oppressive Junta. Imagine an English poem spontaneously turned into a popular protest song.
Here is a fascinating little interview with Edmund Keeley, where he relates how he had asserted to Seferis that Sikelianos and Yeats were both great poets, but Yeats was greater. This upset Seferis, who replied “What does that mean? For me, Sikelianos is the greater poet and Yeats is second in comparison. Because I am Greek and Sikelianos is the great poet in my tradition.”
It is a thought-provoking distinction. Cavafy is somehow easier to fit in with the English tradition—he is arguably a part of it, as deeply read in English (Browning for instance) as Greek. Seferis is less so. And perhaps when I am asking if Seferis is a great poet, I am really wondering where he fits in with Anglophone Modernists like Eliot. Maybe it is the wrong question. Maybe the point is he is a great poet in his tradition, a tradition to which I shall always be alien, however long I might dwell here, under the blue and white banner of the Aegean sky.

Originally Published: February 2nd, 2008

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. February 5, 2008
     Steve Mackin

    Thank you for this. I don't know Seferis' work, other than the few translations that have appeared on Poetry Daily, and what you present here. Those three stanzas are intriguing, and I love the song. Am looking around cyberspace for his presence and have ordered the Keeley/Sherrard translations from Amazon. I'm going to make the journey to George Seferis.
    As to what makes a poet great, isn't it that thing that is caught which takes them beyond their tradition? I think there is something in those three little stanzas of "Denial", the invocation and then denial of the muse, that touches my San Francisco psyche (I'm as parochial as a person can get). It translates, and I can sense the possibility of greatness in that. One of the ten thousand amazing things that makes Shakespeare Shakespeare is that he caught the thing so unerringly that he can find expression be he translated into English or Italian or Japanese (Once saw a German TV production of A Midsummer Night's Dream where each character spoke a different language - it worked for me). This seems obvious to me (seems - it is ever seems and never is).
    The designation of "major" to a poet seems to me to be tied to tradition, to the poet's influence upon other poets and traditions. The two are not necessarily joined or exclusive. I can think of major poets who are not necessarily great: Pound comes immediately to mind (everywhere these days, because of the Moody bio); manifestly influential, an instigator of traditions, but not great.
    Anyway, thanks for hipping me to George. I'll let you know what I think I find.

  2. February 7, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    I'm so glad to have interested you in Seferis, Steve. Some poems that provide good entrances to his work are "In the Manner of G.S." and "The King of Asine", as well as Mythistorima.
    Auden I believe makes the differentiation between minor/major and Great/non-great--you can be a major poet but not great, or a minor poet who is also great--sort of a Fox and Hedgehog distinction about scope I think.
    I've been rereading (or in some cases reading) the poems in preperation for this review. How topical this one suddenly seems:
    Actors, Middle East
    We put up theatres and tear them down
    wherever we happen to find ourselves
    we put up theatres and set the stage
    but our fate always triumphs in the end
    and sweeps them away as it sweeps us too
    actors and actors' manager
    prompter and musicians all disappear
    scattered to the five hungry winds.
    Bodies, mats, wood, make-up
    rhymes, feelings, veils, jewellery
    masks, sunsets, wails and howls
    exclamations and suns rising
    cast off helter-skelter along with us
    (where are we going? where are you going?)
    nerves naked upon our skin
    like the stripes of an onager or zebra
    exposed and naked, dry and burning
    (when were we born? when buried/)
    and taut like the strings of a lyre
    incessantly humming. Look also
    at our heart: a sponge
    ambling through the street and market-place
    soaking up the blood and bile
    of both the tetrarch and the thief.
    (transl. Keeley & Sherrard)

  3. February 7, 2008
     Steve Mackin

    Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! That is huge. I think I could place that poem, Actors, Middle East, next to any human event, from the grandest global madness to the most intimate and personal of toils, and it would ring profoundly true. I love the parenthetical pairings, and the thematic oppositions, acting (veiling) and exposure, the dry and the sponge, and the final image, pairing the ruler and the thief. Damn! I like that.
    Have been reading online material about Seferis' life (he has an okay Wiki), and I'm struck, on a superificial level of course, not being aware of all the details, of the similiarities between his life and Neruda's, how they were both politically active and had distinguished diplomatic careers, representing their governments to the world, how they both just missed seeing very dark times in their respective countries, and how their poetry became songs of freedom during the times of the generals and Pinochet's dictatorships.
    Anyway, I have a question: What is the fifth wind? I know of the Amenoi - Boreas, Notos, Euros, and Zephyros - but that's only four. He speaks of five winds.

  4. February 7, 2008
     Don Share

    Steve, generally, there were just four in Greek mythology, the ones you've named. Oddly, Euros wasn't mentioned in Hesiod's Theogony, if I recall correctly.

  5. February 8, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    If you are really interested in Seferis' life, I would highly recomment Beaton's biography "Waiting for the Angel". It's pretty dense and hard going in spots, and is as much a history of Greece at that period as anything, since Seferis was so caught up in the politics, but it is fascinating and certainly opens windows onto the poems.
    I think 5 winds is an Eastern designation--whether that is a deliberate exoticism here or a surprising surreal gesture I don't know--there is no note on it in the Savidis Greek collected. (Aristotle, I believe, designated 12 winds.)
    Tetrarch is also a fascinating word--a "tetrarchy" was the (Greek) name given by Romans to "the division of a country, as to Palestine"--it is a title that also immediately brings to mind Herod, who was tetrarch. I'm glad Keeley & Sherrard did not attempt to "translate" it. "Actors" in the title is also an interesting choice. In Greek, it is "theatrinoi"--which does mean actors, but comes to mean "insincere people"--histrionics. Beaton chooses to translate it as "mountebanks"--a choice that gets across those two senses. But the Keeley/Sherrard simplicity of "Actors" makes us think not only of dramatic but of political actors on the scene, which I think serves the piece very well.
    OK--off to write that review!

  6. February 16, 2008
     Jeffrey Carson

    Greeks, who don't read much poetry, remember Seferis' haunting lyric, "On the Secret Seashore", because of Theodorakis' haunting melody. Seferis thought that the caesura in the penultimate line was crucial to the meaning, and so disliked the music, which ignores it.
    The great poem by Seferis that has not yet found adequate translation is "The Cistern", with its innovative (for Greek) formal richness. I guess some things are untranslatable, like Victor Hugo or Angelos Sikelianos.

  7. January 12, 2009
     Nicola Benbow

    Are you able to tell me which Theodarakis CD has 'Denial' on it please? Many thanks.