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MEETINGS WITH GREEK POETS

John Lucas

      

The first Greek poet I ever met was C.A. Trypanis. Sometime in the autumn of 1957 I went round to John Wain's Reading flat, where I was at University, to interview him for Tamesis, the university's literary magazine. From time to time a tall, distinguished looking man in a grey suit would burst in on our interview -I could hear the tap tap of his typewriter in the next room - and read a poem from paper he had obviously just torn from his machine. John would comment, more or less favourably, and the man would then back out. Eventually John introduced us and we shook hands. I don't recall what, if anything, we found to say to each other but I do remember thinking that Trypanis seemed too big for John's pokey flat.

       He seemed also too big for the cafe where I next came across him, Fuller's Tea Rooms, in Oxford. By now I knew he was a Professor of Byzantine Greek there, that he had few students, and that he was, therefore, free to spend much time working on his own poetry as well as the Penguin Book of Greek Verse (that anthology would eventually see the light of day for the first time in 1971). On this second occasion of our meeting I was with Ian Fletcher, poet, bookman and a lecturer at Reading; and Ian had been summoned to meet "Costa" as he called Trypanis, because Costa was still having problems with some of the poems which would be gathered together into his second Faber collection, The Cock of Hades. He had sent Ian the manuscript and he now wanted Ian's comments. Having ordered tea for us - of all the writers I have known Ian remains champion of champions among those whose round never came up. Trypanis began by rejecting every suggestion lan made and ended by accepting all of them. Looking through that volume now, and its successor, Pompeian Dog I am pretty sure I can guess aright each phrase that Ian supplied and it will invariably be the saving phrase of an otherwise whey poem.

       It's a puzzle to me now that such undistinguished work could ever have found so distinguished a publisher. It's true that Pompeian Dog became a Poetry Book Society Choice but I have a feeling that at the time Ian was one of the selectors. Trypanis certainly knew how to choose his friends. Did Seferis, I wonder, have anything to do with his being taken up by Faber? Seferis was, after all, a great friend of Eliot's; and Trypanis's work is deep in debt to the great Greek poet in subject matter - both poets are almost obsessively concerned with reading Greece's history through its landscapes - and occasional stylistic mannerisms. Besides, Trypanis's English —— as far as I know he wrote no poetry in his native language — is what a sympathetic commentator might call "lofty", which is how Seferis's style can at least occasionally be described. But Trypanis's unyielding correctness and occasional rhetorical over-reach combine to suggest that his poems are somehow translations. As I suppose in a way they are. He may have written in English but I am certain that he thought in Greek.

       Still, pace Christopher Ricks, Trypanis deserves praise for having got at least one thing right. When Pompeian Dog appeared in 1964, Ricks reviewed it none too kindly in The New Statesman. He took particular exception to the second stanza of December Twenty Four: "And the shed's floor sourly iced/Clings to the hooves of the cattle,/The legs of dim-eyed sheep rattle —/ A hard birth for Christ," "Rattle"? Surely a pretty desperate rhyme word, Ricks commented. At the time I was inclined to agree. But I was wrong. I have climbed hillsides in the clear, bone-dry Aegean air as sheep scampered away at my approach; and the sound they make is, no doubt about it, a rattle: as though numberless sticks are being dragged along iron railings.

       Trypanis's admiration for Seferis was equalled by his enthusiasm for Cavafy and must have helped to prompt my reading of the great Alexandrian. (Though Forster's essay also helped — in the late 1950s I was steeped in Forster's works and where he pointed there I went.) There is common agreement among Greeks that of all their great writers Cavafy is the most difficult to translate, especially into English. His subtle, quicksilver shifts of linguistic register, his use of now demotic and now "pure" Greek, his allusive manner are, they will tell you, almost impossible to capture in another language. This is no doubt so. Yet at least three of Cavafy's poems leap the barriers imposed by language. "The City", "Ikatha", and above all "Waiting for the Barbarians" belong to western culture as a whole: at once local and universal, they have surely entered western consciousness as definitive, almost primal utterances. From the first I felt that I knew why Cavafy was a great poet.

       I got far less from my initial reading of Seferis — whether in Rex Warner's versions or the later translations of Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Then, praise be, I came across Kimon Friar's anthology of Modern Greek Poetry and read his translation of Seferis's "The King of Asine". Like so many of Seferis's poems, "The King of Asine" is a meditation on Greek history, including mythic history, and of how the past can still be sensed as a living quality in modern Greece, is what Yeats would have called "a presence". The trigger that fired this particular poem is a mysterious phrase in the list Homer provides of those who sent men and arms to fight at Troy — the catalogue of ships. "Asine also" Homer says, and that is all. He gives no indication of the size of the king's contribution nor of what happened to the ships and the men who sailed in them. Seferis' poem begins with him visiting the ancient site of Asine.

       Asine is at one tip of a wide bay, about ten miles south of Nafplion, and when I went there for the first time early in 1985 what looked like an abortive archaeological dig had been abandoned and Asine was left alone: a rocky hill with caves that might, I suppose, have been burial chambers and, below, trenches scored in the sandy soil. It must have looked much as when Seferis visited it sometime in the late 1930s. Now it boasts a beach-taverna and at the opposite end of the bay the town of Tolon, with its growing number of discos and hotels, confronts the Saronic gulf into whose blue waters the king of Asine's ships would have steered before beginning the journey to Troy.

Towards the end of his poem, Seferis "looks at the stones and lingers, asking himself/are there I wonder/among these broken lines peaks edges hollows and curves/are there I wonder/........the movement of feature the form of the affection/of those who have so strangely dwindled in our lives/..... or no, perhaps nothing remains but the weight only/ nostalgia for the weight of a living existence"; and the poem seems to be fading out. Then

The shield-bearing sun rose fighting
and from the depths of a cavern a frightened bat
crashed on the light like an arrow on a shield:
"'Asinen te ....''Asinen te ......"
Was this the King of Asine
for whom we have sought so carefully on this acropolis
feeling at times with our fingers his touch upon the stones.

You know where you were when Kennedy was assassinated? I know where I was when I read that poem. Sitting in a little taverna off Acharnon Street, Athens, in September, 1984. I was there because I had accepted an invitation to be Lord Byron Visiting Professor of English Literature at the University of Athens for 1984-5 (the glory was all in the title); and that first meeting with "The King of Asine" was a key encounter. I knew now that Seferis was a great poet. I read his work, prose as well as verse, and then I began to read other Greek poets, began, too, to learn Greek, painfully and haltingly, determined at the very least to try to make literalistic translations of the more accessible poetry. One of the poets whose work I soon took to was Takis Sinopoulos and with the help of my friend Mano Georginis I made versions of what seemed to me then as now two of his major poems, "Elpenor" and "Death Feast".

       Sinopoulos was born in 1917. He trained as a doctor and then, with the outbreak of war in 1939, was conscripted to fight against first the Italians and then the Nazis. With the defeat of Germany came the cynical carve-up of Europe, into East and West. Greece had to be saved from communism. And so royalty and the collaborators returned to power. There followed the terrible civil war. Sinopoulos found himself recruited as an army officer, and was sent to serve with units in Thessaly and Macedonia. He was finally demobilised in 1949 and returned to his profession of medicine. But he was also a poet and he produced collections of poetry at regular intervals until his death. What drew me to him was partly the way his work, influenced by Seferis though it undoubtedly was, sounded its own note: of an almost eerie but plangent dignity in the face of disaster. Seferis had famously remarked in this poem "in the Manner of G.S." written in 1936, that "Wherever I travel Greece wounds me" and Sinpoulos's poems are about wounds which are often self-inflicted.

       Hence, "Death Feast" with its evocation of the second world war and the bloody years of civil war, years of what Sinopoulos calls "a black infection [which] covered the map,Greece gasping for breath." Yet the poem, which in many ways is a long lament for the dead — and Sinopoulos provides a litany of their names — ends with a calming, restorative vision of the fading away of old rivals, warriors, of a laying to rest of the antagonists who had remorselessly fed each other to the soil, whose understandable but pitiless heroism had caused such ravage. And here I might note, if only in passing, that the history of Greece over the past 500 years shows striking similarities with Irish history over the same period. Both nations suffered under nearby and brutal oppressors, the freedom of both was and in a sense remains partial and has been marked and marred by civil war; and the terrible beauty of heroic integrity has for both been an ambiguous blessing. I can imagine Sinopoulos breathing a prayer of gratitude for Joyce's famous remark that "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Hence, the ending of "Death Feast".

Little by little the voices died away.
Little by little as they'd come they disappeared.
They took to the valley, they dwindled into air.
For the last time I gazed at them, called to them.
The fire wasted to ash and through the window I saw
how with just one star the night turns navigable
how in the empty church the nameless dead            
are lain among heaped flowers, are anointed.     

       But history of a sort returned with the infamous colonels' junta of 1967. I was in America at the time and remember seeing Dean Rusk appear on television to explain to his countrymen that Greece was not yet ready for democracy, a remark so ineffable as to be beyond comment. It's a measure of the seriousness with which poetry was taken in Greece that the colonels hoped Seferis would give the odour of legitimacy to their cause. To their chagrin and his eternal honour he refused to publish anything in Greece while they remained in power. (They were still wounding Greece when he died in 1971). Seferis, who had been awarded the Nobel prize in 1963, was too famous for the colonels to touch. Not so Yannis Ritsos. He was rounded up and sent into internal exile.

       Ritsos had, of course, been a source of deepest irritation to right-wing Greece ever since an earlier dictator, Metaxas, had seized power in 1936 — "Wherever I travel Greece wounds me" — and as one of his first acts of office had ordered the public burning of Ritsos' elegy for a worker at a tobacco plant in Thessalonika, who had been gunned down for taking part in a general strike. Epitaphios would later be set to music by Theodorakis, who also made haunting, memorable songs out of many of the most famous modern Greek poems. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that because he set the poems to music they became famous. At all events, after the overthrow of the colonels in 1974, Theodorakis' concerts regularly featured his settings of Ritsos, Seferis and Elytis among others; and as a result thousands of Greeks could sing the poems of their great modern poets. I have been told that the famous November uprising of 1973, when students took to the streets of Athens, they were put down with appalling ferocity —was triggered by a woman singer who was one of the colonels' "trusties" and who betrayed their trust by introducing into a song she performed on state TV Seferis's line about being wounded by Greece. Whatever the truth or otherwise of that story there's no doubt that in Greece poets are, or until very recently, were objects of veneration; and Ritsos in particular became a kind of hero to the nation.

I was made aware of the aura surrounding him when, in October, 1984, I went to the first night of Jules Dessin's production of Heartbreak House at the national theatre in Athens. A few minutes before curtain up, with the majority of the audience already settled in their seats, two men entered the auditorium, arm in arm. Something like a shiver of expectancy ran through the house. Everyone turned to look in their direction, conversations petered out, stopped; and the tense silence was broken only when the slighter of the two men inclined his head as though in recognition of unheard applause. Then people did applaud. An usherette hurried up to them, wanting to show them to reserved seats at the front of the house. Smiling, they declined her offer and took their places in the middle of the stalls. "Ritsos and Theodorakis," my companion whispered. But I had already recognized them from photographs and I knew that it was Ritsos who had bowed his head in acknowledgement of the audience's attention.

       After the production was over I was taken backstage to meet some of the performers and as the poet was there I managed to shake hands with him and mumble some no doubt incoherent words of homage. I thought back to that night when, some years later, I heard of Ritsos' death and I thought about it still more when I saw on Greek television film of thousands of his fellow countrymen and women openly weeping in the streets as they sang Theodorakis's settings of his words. I don't suppose there will ever be another Ritsos, not just because he was sui generis but because the conditions that helped to make him a hero to the Greeks are unlikely to be repeated. Who could want them to be? The goons and thugs who in 1967 announced their intention of wrapping Greece in plaster were themselves an anachronism and only got away with their brutally stupid coup and its aftermath because of the brutal stupidity of the cold war.

       One of the prisons where Ritsos was held during the junta years is at Nafplion and there, just outside the perimeter walls, is a marble column on which is engraved a poem he wrote to commemorate the prison's political prisoners and which in my translation reads:

May this place be sacred
To the memory of those who suffered,
Who trod here barefoot on the snake of tyranny
And with their blood wrote its history,

       Not long after my night at the theatre I met Trypanis once again. With the overthrow of the colonels he had come back to Greece where he had served as minister of culture in the first post-junta government. Now he was in semi-retirement, although he had his own room in the Greek Academy, one of three handsome neo-classical buildings near the centre of Athens. (The others are the national library and the old university). I had agreed to write an impressionistic piece for The Poetry Review on Greek poetry and I was keen to discover Trypanis's views. He provided them for me in one memorably dismissive sentence: "Greek poetry at the present", he said "can be summed up in four words: 'Great quantity, little quality.'"

       I quoted that sentence to the poet and dramatist Andreas Angelakis, when I was introduced to him a few weeks later. Andreas had his own line in dismissive epigrams. "The sourness of the old and out-of-touch," he said. In an important respect he, too, was a hero at least some of his fellow countryman. Andreas was modern Greece's first openly gay poet, and in a culture which was and still is dominated by macho heterosexuality it took very real courage to come out as a gay man. He taught drama at a school in Pireus where he had to endure much homophobic hate mail and other, more insidious, forms of abuse; but through it all he remained a witty, resilient and tough-minded person; and he was a fine poet. Like so many Greeks he was multilingual - he spoke good English, excellent French, and he translated into Greek from both German and Turkish — and he was keen to know everything I could tell him about poetry in the UK. In the following years we became friends and he was planning to visit me in Nottingham when he was taken ill with what he must have known were the first signs of AIDS. He died before we could get very far with the translation we had planned of his Ten Metaphysical Nights with Cavafy an extraordinarily imaginative and provocative meditation on the great poet's life and work, including his homosexuality. I did however translate one poem by which Andreas set considerably store. It's called "Cartesian Logic."

 Each body suffers its own hell,
each scorches in its own fire;
each body yearns in its own way, 
embraces with its own special despair,
forces love right up to death,
forces it into a chamber with mirrors:
who are you? who is the other?
And so you lie still, to be caressed like a corpse:
the colour of the eyes changes, shifts to darker,
black, the mauve of loneliness, of the unfamiliar kiss.

Each body has its own sweat,
its own metaphysics
A pity, and yet you need this game of words,
abstractions, theories and the rest,
otherwise you'll curse the flesh sleeping behind you,
the unshaven face snoring by yours, totally unknown,
after it's robbed you of your embrace and sperm.

Andreas's poetry is much admired by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, an undoubtedly major poet, some but not enough of whose work has been translated into English. Her range is wide: from earthy to elevated. Poems of startlingly candid eroticism alternate with meditations of a bleakly metaphysical kind, and she moves eerily between vivid immediacy and grand abstraction in a manner which is habitual to Greek poets although it doesn't so readily find favour here. But then Greece never took to the new criticism, with its emphasis on the concrete and specific to the exclusion of all else. (Down with Shelley, up with Keats).

       The atmosphere for visitors at Anghelaki-Rooke's house on Aegina is one of carnivalesque. On a summer evening you sit at a wide, open porch, the house's terra-cotta painted walls behind you, watching in front the blue shadows that gather beneath the laden trees of her pistachio orchard. People drift in to pay their respects and draw up chairs at the long table on which are piled bottles of beer, barrel retsina in plastic bottles and, at Katerina's elbow, what my friend the novelist Michael Wilding once described as the largest bottle of ouzo in the world. There is endless talk, a good deal of laughter, much of it raucous or bawdy; and the conversation and drink usually last late into the night. Early next morning, though, the poet will be at her desk.

       Anghelaki-Rooke is I think unusual among Greek poets in that she makes a living by her work, which includes translation. At the moment she is making Greek versions of a selection on Heaney's poetry. It would be good to think that as generous a selection of her work could be made available in the UK - most of what has been translated is published by American small presses - and, if I can get the funding for a project I conceived some while ago, perhaps that will happen. At all events I'd be delighted if Shoestring Press, which I set up in 1994 partly in order to bring Greek poets in translation to the attention of English readers, could prove to such readers what they've been missing. I also cling to the hope that I'll be able to publish Philip Ramp's fine translation of a major work by Lydia Stephanou, Landscapes from the Origin and the Wanderings of YK, first published in Athens in 1965, re-printed some ten years later and whose importance to modern Greek poetry is widely acknowledged. Stephanos is not only a poet of distinction. She is also one of Greece's finest critics and a writer who, like Angehaliki-Rooke, is at home with the poetry of several cultures. She has for example written a most compelling account in French of some of the key elements in fin de siecle poetics; and her elegant apartment in Athens, with its furnishings, especially the delicately-carved side tables and chairs, and the prints and pictures that date from the last century, has about it the air of a French salon. Like everything to do with Lydia, like her poetry and her critical writing, the apartment is slightly fastidious. She is rightly admired in America for her studies of modern poetry. It's high time her poetry was made available for similar admiration here.