Seferis (more Greek Anthology...)
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.
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,...