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At LARB: Stephanos Papadopoulos on Poetry & Greece
Stephanos Papadopoulos historicizes poetry and Greece for the Los Angeles Review of Books: “Greeks have always held onto their poets with particular tenacity and respect. No one knows where poetry will reside within this age of technology and attention deficit, but with Greece bankrupt and begging for alms, for once, it needs to look backward.” Backward:
Throughout Greece’s tumultuous history the poet has served as the voice for the silenced people. Greece has always been a hornet’s nest of trouble and corruption, as well as a victim of perpetual war and occupation. When Greece’s great poet, Kostis Palamas (1849-1943) died, Angelos Sikelianos’s (1884-1951) fiery poem and eulogy roused 100,000 citizens at the funeral into a furious demonstration against the Nazis. Later when brothers killed brothers and masked Greek informers betrayed their own neighbors during the civil war in the 1950s, poets like Yiannis Ritsos’ (1909-1990) delicately wrought poems were an antidote to suppression, violence, and censorship. In the 1960s the military coup turned the struggling republic into a police state, a shadow play of CIA operatives, torture, executions, and student massacres. At that time, poetry entered the culture through music. George Seferis (1900-1971) wrote “Denial” as a love poem, but it entered the national consciousness as a song against the military junta after the composer and songwriter Mikis Theodorakis set it to music (b. 1925):On the secret seashore 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.
(trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
In September of 1971, thousands of Athenians marched through the city following George Seferis’s funeral procession; the entourage made its way toward the main cemetery, chanting the lyrics in protest of the dictatorship. It was the beginning of the end for the generals. Even today if someone starts the tune at a Greek dinner party, not a soul of a certain generation can resist joining in. I have attended events in Athens during which the entire audience has spontaneously erupted with this music, and this poetry. It is in the bones of every Greek who lived through the dictatorship. It is the literary equivalent of an evil eye, ex-voto, an apotropaic device to protect us from politicians and advertising. It reminds us about suffering and love.
How does a Greek poet, especially a young Greek poet, grapple with the burden of history and with the giants of both ancient and modern Greek poetry? When Derek Walcott was in Greece presenting his new book he told a group of reporters that “every time a Greek poet lifts a pen he lifts a column.” Seferis had nightmares about the Acropolis being sold off by an advertisement, that the columns were really tubes of toothpaste.
Great stuff. Read the full essay.