From the book “The collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis” Translated by Jeffrey Carson and Nikos Sarris, Revised and Expanded Collection, 1997,2004, The John Hopkins University Press.
The first edition of this book was the first collection of the poems of Odysseus Elytis in any language; the greek did not come out until 2002. Full presentation benefits great poetry.
[…] We began putting Elytis into English thirty years ago, even before he suggested it. He liked the fact that we are a poet and a musician working with similar materials, that we live in the Aegean (on Paros) and so are intimate with the physical as well as the emotional basis of his imagery, and thatwe began for the love of it, with no thought of publication.
“THE LITTLE SEAFARER”
“With Both Light and Death”
6. “What do you want”
What do you want what do you look for
where is the meaning that fell from your hands
The music you alone hear and the naked
Feet that shift earth like a dancer’s
While the comet of her hair tosses and a spark
Falls before you on the carpet
Where you watch the truth deceive you.
Where are you going what sorrow what burning
Dress is this that detaches your flesh what
Transformed ancient spring to make you give oracles
Thus leaf by leaf and pebble by pebble
Youth kneeling in the transparent deep
The more I sleep and dream the more I see you rise
With a basket of green shells and seaweed
Bitting as if a coin the same sea that
Gave you the very shining the very light the meaning you seek
Τι θέλεις τι ζητάς
που ‘ναι το νόημα που σου ‘πεσε απ’ τα χέρια
Η μουσική που ακούς μόνος εσύ και τα γυμνά
Πόδια που αλλάζουν γη σαν της χορεύτριας
Ενω τινάζεται ο κομήτης των μαλλιών της και μια σπίθα
Πέφτει μπροστά σου επάνω στο χαλί
Κει που κοιτάς να σε απατά η αλήθεια
Που πας ποια θλίψη ποιο καιούμενο
Φόρεμα είναι αυτό που σου αποσπά τη σάρκα ποια
Μεταποιημένη αρχαία πηγή για να σε κάνει να χρησμοδοτείς
Έτσι φύλλο το φύλλο και βότσαλο το βότσαλο
Έφηβε γονατιστέ στον διάφανο βυθό
Που όσο κοιμάμαι και ονειρεύομαι τόσο σε βλέπω ν’ ανεβαίνεις
Μ’ ενα πανέρι πράσινα όστρακα καυ φύκια
Δαγκάνοντας σαν νόμισμα τη θάλασσα την ίδια που
Σου ‘δωκε τη λάμψη αυτή το φως αυτό το νόημα που γυρεύεις
ΠΑΛΙΑΤΣΑΡΑΣ, ΜΑΥΡΟΥΔΗΣ, ΕΛΥΤΗΣ
Επτά τραγούδια για φωνή και κιθάρα
THE ELEGIES OF JUTTING ROCK
Men have a finite place
And the same space is given to birds but
Infinite the garden where, just de-
Tached from death (before disguised it touches me
Again,) I played and everything came easily to hand
That sea horse! And the pllp of the bubble breaking!
The little blackberry boat in deep currents
Of foliage! And the forward mast all flags!
For now they came to me. But I existed like yesterday
And later the long long unknown life of the unknown
So be it. Even when you say things nicely you ‘re spent;
Like the flow of water that soul after soul connects space
And you are found walking a tightrope from one Galaxy to another
While beneath your feet the chasms rumble. And you either make it or you don’t
Ah first ardors faintly impressed on my sheets. Oh female angels
Who signaled to me from on high to advance fearlessly into the thick of things
Since even if I were to fall from the window, the sea
Would be my horse again
The huge watermelon wherein I once dwelled unsuspecting
And those young servant girls, whose loose hair knew
With the intelligence of wind how to unwind over the chimneys!
Such truly amazing adjustment of yellow to blues
And the writings of birds that the wind pushes through the window
While you are sleeping and watching things to come
The sun knows. It descends into you to see. Because outside things
Are a mirror. Nature dwells in the body and takes revenge from it
As in holy wildness like a lion’s or Anchorite’s
Your own flower grows
which is called Thought
(No matter that, by studying, I have arrived where
I always used to arrive by swimming)
Wise men have a finite space
And the same space is given to children but
Infinite is death without months and centuries
there is way there to come of age; and so
To the same rooms to the same gardens you will turn again**
Holding the cicada that is Zeus and from one
Galaxy to another he takes his summers.
*Elytis also published this poem separately, in a little book that included many of his childhood photographs.
**”to the same rooms…turn again”: Elytis’s wording recalls and transforms Cavafy’s famous poem “The City” (The first in his poems):
No new lands will you find, you’ll find no other seas.
The city will follow you. to the same streets you will
turn again. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and in these same houses you will grow gray.
Μετρημένο τόπο έχουν οι άνθρωποι
Και στα πουλιά δοσμένος είναι ο ίδιος αλλ’
Απέραντος ο κήπος όπου μόλις απο-
Χωρισμένος απ’ τον (πριν και πάλι μεταμφιέσμενος μου αγγιχτεί)
Θάνατο, έπαιζα και μου έφταναν εύκολα όλα έως την απαλάμη
Ο ιππόκαμπος κείνος! Και της φυσαλίδας τσιούπ το σπάσιμο!
Του βατόμουρου το βαποράκι μες στα βαθιά των φυλλωμάτων
Ρεύματα! Κι ο πρωραίος ιστός όλο σημαίες!
Τι τώρα μου ήρθαν. Αλλά σαν χθες υπήρξα
Κι ύστερα η μακριά μακριά ζωή των αγνώστων η άγνωστη
Έστω. Και μόνο να τα λες ωραία ξοδεύεσαι* όπως του νερού η ροή
Που η ψυχή την ψυχή δένει τις αποστάσεις
Κι απο ‘να σ’ άλλον Γαλαξία βρίσκεσαι να σχοινοβατείς
Ενώ κάτω απ’ τα πόδια σου βοούν τα βάραθρα. Κι η φτάνεις η όχι
Αχ άχνα σχεδιασμένες πάνω στα σεντόνια μου πρώτες ορμές.
Που απο ψηλά μου ενεύατε άφοβα να προχωρώ μες στα όλα
Μιας που κι απο το παράθυρο να πέσω, η θάλασσα
Πάλι θα μου κάνει το άλογο
Το πελώριο καρπούζι όπου κάποτε ανίδεος εκατοίκησα
Κι οι μικρές εκείνες παρακόρες, το μαλλί τους λυτό που
Με τη νοημοσύνη ανέμου γνώριζε να ξετυλίγεται πάνω από
Τέτοια του κίτρινου στα μπλε αρμοσιά που αλήθεια να σαστίζεις
Και γραφές πουλιών που ο άνεμος τις μπάζει απ’ το παράθυρο
Την ώρα που κοιμάσαι και παρακολουθείς τα μέλλοντα
Ξέρει ο ήλιος. Κατεβαίνει μέσα σου να δει. Επειδή τ’ απέξω
Είναι καθρέφτης. Μες στο στρώμα η φύση κατοικεί κι απο κει
Όπως σε μιαν αγρότητα ιερή σαν του Λέοντα ή του Αναχωρητή
Το δικό σου λουλούδι φυτρώνει
που το λένε Σκέψη
(Άλλο αν, και μελετώντας, πάλι βγήκα εκεί
Που το κολύμπι μ’ έβγαζε απ’ ανέκαθεν)
Μετρημένο τόπο έχουν οι σοφοί
Και στα παιδιά δοσμένος είναι ο ίδιος αλλ’
Απέραντος ο θάνατος δίχως μήνες κι αιώνες
Τρόπος κι εκεί να ενηλικιωθεί κανένας ώστε
Στις ίδιες κάμαρες ξανά στους ίδιους κήπους θα γυρνάς
Κρατώντας το τζιτζίκι που είναι ο Δίας και πάει από ‘να
Σ’ άλλον Γαλαξία τα καλοκαίρια του.
ΤΟ ΧΡΥΣΟ ΚΛΕΙΔΙ: ΜΠΕΝΑΚΗΣ ΕΛΥΤΗΣ ΠΑΛΙΑΤΣΑΡΑΣ
“Three Poems Under a Flag of Convenience”
‘The Garden Sees’
5. What! I have thank God
gotten clear of those who
one day will surely prevail
may they never
reach out to me
there will always be two or thee
brave men to see the world
‘The Almond of the World’
the almond of the world
is deeply hidden
and still unbitten
a myriad possibilities shudder
around us which we idiots don’t
we never understood how pigeons think
two handspans above our head
what we had lost is already in play
before this body
that I am existed
a sea came first
full of little white rolling
vowels rattling: alpha epsilon iota
you’d say that even then
in the posture I had before descending into the Mother
I was shouting with all my might
aei aei aei
forever forever forever
but no one was ever willing to believe me.
Ah yes despite my will
the world was made so that
I write as though I were separated from my fate
the almond of the world
is bitter and there’s no way
you can find it unless
you sleep half outside of sleep
than all beings
buzzing on the planet
man is as if coming from elsewhere
and so he sounds out of tune
with a memory all fragmented but
inclined to miracles
maybe I’m wrong maybe it’s because
I don’t know reading and writing
I am hanging
since Heraclitus’ time
like the almond of the world
from a branch of the North Aegean
Come on then
forget me if you dare
the lizards on monuments ignore both sculptors and architects
axiomatically I am living beyond the point where I find myself
continuing along my mother
you will meet me even after death
no money at all exists there
life is perceived as something you can’t add on to
I stand and regard the waves
nothing more perfect more unadmitting of decay
has ever existed
I am alpha years old and European to the middle
of the Alps or Pyrenees
I never touched the snow
there’s not one who can represent me
war and peace ate me on both sides
what remained endures still
till when friends
must we lift up the excommunicated past
filled with kings and subjects
I feel like a seduced cypress
to which not even a tombstone remained
only empty plots rocks stone enclosures
and the inconsolable northwind
beating yonder on the factories’ high walls
enclosed there we all work as
elsewhere in History
years say spilled crude oil
P.S. But there is a different version: don’t believe me
the more I age the less I understand
experience untaught me the world
“Της πατρίδας μου πάλι ομοιώθηκα”
Odysseas Elytis was one of the greatest poets of modern Greece. He was born in 1911 in Heraklion, Crete and by the age of three he and his family came to Athens. He came in touch with significant Greek painters, poets and authors who influenced his artistic expression. His significance was highlighted when he awarded with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1979. Here we will approach some poems of this unique romantic modernist.
from “The Monogram”
“The Monogram” (1972)
“The Monogram” was written during Elytis’ stay in Paris from 1969 until 1971 and was published in Greece in 1972. It is a love song full of emotion and lyricism, pictures, thoughts and symbolisms. The poem reflects the agony of the creator before the powerful and invincible element of time and his efforts to create a harmonic order through the eternal beauty.
From “The Axion Esti”
“The Axion Esti” (1959)
“The Axion Estin” is inspired by the memories of the 1940-1941 war, the German occupation, the Greek resistance and the Greek Civil War that followed. Elytis has a living experience of all these crucial phases of the modern Greek history and understands them as aspects of the timeless siege of Greece by the forces of Evil. Axion Esti was made into a song and was generally enthusiastically received by the Greek readers and the literature critics. This did not happen only due to its artistic value, but also due to its operation as a fundamental work that redefined the Greek collective unconscious by elaborating repressed experiences and myths from the modern Greek history.
“When the first rain drop fell the summer died”
“Α beautiful and strange homeland”
“Marina of the Rocks”
“A taste of the storm on your lips” – the first verse of the poem is powerfully erotic. Odysseas Elytis, influenced by surrealism, bases his art on the power of the emotionally charged images and words.
He uses a powerful fantasy, completely subservient to the dream, in order to express a universal poetic vision.
ΑΞΙΟΝ ΕΣΤΙ, ΝΑΟΙ ΣΤΟ ΣΧΗΜΑ ΤΟΥ ΟΥΡΑΝΟΥ
MARINA OF THE ROCKS
You have a taste of tempest on your lips—But where did you wander
All day long in the hard reverie of stone and sea?
An eagle-bearing wind stripped the hills
Stripped your longing to the bone
And the pupils of your eyes received the message of chimera
Spotting memory with foam!
Where is the familiar slope of short September
On the red earth where you played, looking down
At the broad rows of the other girls
The corners where your friends left armfuls of rosemary.
But where did you wander
All night long in the hard reverie of stone and sea?
I told you to count in the naked water its luminous days
On your back to rejoice in the dawn of things
Or again to wander on yellow plains
With a clover of light on you breast, iambic heroine.
You have a taste of tempest on your lips
And a dress red as blood
Deep in the gold of summer
And the perfume of hyacinths—But where did you wander
Descending toward the shores, the pebbled bays?
There was cold salty seaweed there
But deeper a human feeling that bled
And you opened your arms in astonishment naming it
Climbing lightly to the clearness of the depths
Where your own starfish shone.
Listen. Speech is the prudence of the aged
And time is a passionate sculptor of men
And the sun stands over it, a beast of hope
And you, closer to it, embrace a love
With a bitter taste of tempest on your lips.
It is not for you, blue to the bone, to think of another summer,
For the rivers to change their bed
And take you back to their mother
Odysseus Elytis, winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Literature, was born in Heraklion, Crete, in 1911 and died in Athens in 1996. A major poet in the Greek language, Elytis is also one of the most outstanding international figures of 20th-century poetry. In his work, modernist European poetics and Greek literary tradition are fused in a highly original lyrical voice.
Elytis became acquainted with French surrealist poetry in the ´30s and was captivated by surrealism´s affirmation of feeling and the subconscious self, its rejection of traditional forms and rigid modes of poetical expression. An advocate of free verse, he discarded established verse forms and conventions considering them to be “vessels for the containment of the most heterogenous material”. He believed that poetical content determines an inventible form and he was dismissive of rhyme which he described as “lulling” and “superficial delight”. But he did not adopt surrealism´s free associations and automatic writing as proclaimed by Andre Breton. His is a mild and controlled surrealism, the syntax in his poems is not violated and, thanks to his talent, the juxtaposition of images is coherent and pleasurable. These qualities are manifest in his first collections of poetry (Orientations, 1939, and Sun the First,1943) which are joyous and radiant, celebrating the Greek landscape as an ideal world of sensual enjoyment and moral purity. The blue seas and the azure skies, the explosive light, the Aegean islands with their white cottages and bare rocks, the olive trees and the crickets, ancient amphorae and ruins, summer high noon and the etesian winds define the scene where life is liberated and triumphant, mystical and deeply meaningful. This free functioning of the human self against all restraints imposed by moral, social and aesthetic conventions, the creation of “a countryside of the open heart” is the young poet Elytis´debt to surrealism. But, as he put it, he did not serve surrealism, he asked surrealism to serve him.
In 1940 Elytis was called up as a second lieutenant and served on the Albanian front, where the Greek army checked the Italian invasion. His experience of war marks a departure from the sunny atmosphere of his early youth and poetry, colouring his long poem Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of Albania (1943). The figurative language still retains the wealth and boldness, the unexpected metaphors and startling images of his previous works, but the tone is sorrowful, albeit proud, and the context wider: the poet identifies himself with the lost lieutenant and the lamenting voice is the voice of his suffering nation.
The attempt of Elytis to identify himself with his nation and speak for himself and also for his country reaches its peak with Axion Esti (1959), his central and most ambitious work. This is a poetical Bildungsroman, a three-part composition of intricate formal structure, aiming to present modern Greek consiousness through the development of a first-person narrator who is simultaneously the poet himself and the voice of his country. It is at once an interpretation of the world as it is and the valiant proclamation of a belief in what it might be. Its three parts are named characteristically “The Genesis”, “The Passions” and “The Gloria”, and it culminates in a glorification of all ephemeral things, of what is Axion- that is, Worthy – in “this small, this Great World”. Elytis´poetical theory as regards “the view of things” is fully realized in this work. As he said in his address to the Swedish Academy on receiving the Nobel Prize, “apart from the physical side of objects and the ability to percieve them in their every detail, there is also the metaphorical ability to grasp their essence and bring them to such clarity that their metaphysical significance will also be revealed”. In Axion Esti, a major poem by any standards, these ideas are materialized poetically.
Elytis´later work consist of ten collections of poems and a substantial number of essays. Outstanding among them are The Monogram (1972), an achievement in the European love poem tradition, and The Oxopetra Elegies (1991), which include some of the most difficult but profound poems written in our times. It is significant that in these mature works the tone is no longer jubilant. Melancholy, reflection and solemnity gradually prevail, although the poet´s faith in the power of imagination and the truth of poetry (a belief that brings him close to the Romantics) is still unshakeable.
In all his poetry Elytis has consistently emphasized man´s primary innocence, dismissing guilt and fate, and professing the redeeming quality of light, the “Judicious Sun”. He criticized the vulgarity of contemporary society and culture; showed the possibility of a different relation with the things of this world; corrected our reading of nature and our concept of love; reformulated the fundamental, minimal essentials of life, insisting that History can be written anew, reaffirming Shelley´s famous dictum that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
In the art of poetry he restored the high romantic expression in a modern and most convincing way, gave fresh vigour to metaphor, image and alliteration, and created his own original forms of versification. Above all, he brought to Greek poetry a clarity and sharpness which it had not known since Solomos.
An ardent apologist of the poet´s vocation, Elytis never ceased from exploring poetry´s role in these materialistic times and it is perhaps apt to conclude this appreciation by quoting a concise statement he once made concerning the aims of his poetry:
“I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my consience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses into greater harmony with my dreams. I am referring to a contemporary kind of magic which leads to the discovery of our true reality¡ In the hope of obtaining a freedom from all constraints and the justice which could be identified with absolute light, I am an idolater who, without wanting to do so, arrives at Christian sainthood.”
© Aris Berlis
in Greece Books and Writers. Athens, Ministry of Culture-National Boook Centre of Greece and Agra publications, 2001
The collected poems of Odysseus Elytis Trans. Jeffrey Carson.Baltimore,John Hopkins University Press. 1997
What I love Trans. Olga Broumas. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press. 1986.
Selected poems Trans. Edmund Keeley. London, Anvil, 1981.
The sovereig sun Trans. Kimon Friar. Newcastle, Bloodaxe Books, 1990.
Journal of an unseen april Trans. David Connoly. Athens, Ypsilon books, 1998.
Carte blanche – Selected writings Trans. David Connoly. Amsterdam, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999.
Maria Nephele Trans. Athan Anagnostopoulos. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981.
The oxopetra Elegies Trans.David Connolly. Amsterdam, Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996.
Lof zij Trans. Hero Hokwerda. Amsterdam, Bert Bakker, 1991.
The Axion esti Trans. Edmund Keeley. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974.
THE SLEEP OF THE BRAVE
They will smell of incense, and their faces are burnt by their crossing through the Great Dark Places.
There where they were suddenly flung by the Immovable
Face-down, on ground whose smallest anemone would suffice to turn the air of Hades bitter
(One arm outstretched, as though straining to be grasped by the future, the other arm under the desolate head, turned on its side,
As though to see for the last time, in the eyes of a disembowelled horse, the heap of smoking ruins)—
There time released them. One wing, the redder of the two, covered the world, while the other, delicate, already moved through space,
No wrinkle or pang of conscience, but at a great depth
The old immemorial blood that began painfully to etch, in the sky’s blackness,
A new sun, not yet ripe,
That couldn’t manage to dislodge the hoarfrost of lambs from live clover, but, before even casting a ray, could divine the oracles of Erebus…
And from the beginning, Valleys, Mountains, Trees, Rivers,
A creation made of vindicated feelings now shone, identical and reversed, there for them to cross now, with the Executioner inside them put to death,
Villagers of the limitless blue:
Neither twelve o’clock striking in the depths nor the voice of the pole falling from the heights retracted their footsteps.
They read the world greedily with eyes now open forever, there where they were suddenly flung by the Immovable,
Face-down, and where the voltures fell upon them violently to enjoy the clay of their guts and their blood.
THIS WIND THAT LOITERS…”
This wind that loiters among the quinces
This insect that sucks the vines
This stone that the scorpion wears next to his skin
And these sheaves on the threshing floor
That play the giant to small barefoot children.
The images of the Resurrection
On walls that the pine trees scratched with their fingers
This whitewash that carries the noonday on its back
And the cicadas, the cicadas in the ears of the trees.
Great summer of chalk
Great summer of cork
The red sails slanting in gusts of wind
On the sea-floor white creatures, sponges
Accordions of the rocks
Perch from the fingers even of bad fishermen
Proud reefs on the fishing lines of the sun.
No one will tell our fate, and that is that,
We ourselves will tell the sun’s fate, and that is that.
“I LIVED THE BELOVED NAME…”
I lived the beloved name
In the shade of the aged olive tree
In the roaring of the lifelong sea
Those who stoned me live no longer
With their stones I built a fountain
To its brink green girls come
Their lips descend from the dawn
Their hair unwinds far into the future
Swallows come, infants of the wind
They drink, they fly, so that life goes on
The threat of the dream becomes a dream
Pain rounds the good cape
No voice is lost in the breast of the sky
O deathless sea, tell what you are whispering
I reach your morning mouth early
On the peak where your love appears
I see the will of the night spilling stars
The will of the day nipping the earth’s shoots
I saw a thousand wild lilies on the meadows of life
A thousand children in the true wind
Beautiful strong children who breathe out kindness
And know how to gaze at the deep horizons
When music raises the islands
I carved the beloved name
In the shade of the aged olive tree
In the roaring of the lifelong sea.
And so they found that the gold of the olive root had dripped in the re-
cesses of his heart.
And from the many times that he had lain awake by candlelight waiting
for the dawn, a strange heat had seized his entrails.
A little below the skin, the blue line of the horizon sharply painted. And
ample traces of blue throughout his blood.
The cries of birds which he had come to memorize in hours of great lonely
ness apparently spilled out all at once, so that it was impossible for
the knife to enter deeply.
Probably the intention sufficed for the evil
Which he met—it is obvious—in the terrifying posture of the innocent.
His eyes open, proud, the whole forest moving still on the unblem-
Nothing in the brain but a dead echo of the sky.
Only in the hollow of his left ear some light fine sand, as though in a shell.
Which means that often he had walked by the sea alone with the pain
of love and the roar of the wind.
As for those particles of fire on his groin, they show that he moved time
hours ahead whenever he embraced a woman.
We shall have early fruit this year.
Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
“DRINKING THE SUN OF CORINTH…”
Drinking the sun of Corinth
Reading the marble ruins
Striding across vineyards and seas
Sighting along the harpoon
A votive fish that slips away
I found the leaves that the sun’s psalm memorizes
The living land that passion joys in opening.
I drink water, cut fruit,
CONCH OF THE VOICE…”
Burnished day, conch of the voice that fashioned me
Naked, to step through my perpetual Sundays
Between the shores’ cries of welcome,
Let your wind, known for the first time, blow freely
Unfold a lawn of tenderness
Where the sun can roll his head
Can enflame the poppies with his kiss
Poppies nourished by men so fine
That the sole mark on their bare chests
Is the blood of defiance that annuls sorrow
And attains the remembrance of liberty.
I spoke of love, of the rose’s health, of the ray
That by itself goes straight to the heart,
Of Greece that steps so surely on the sea
Greece that carries me always
Among naked snow-crowned mountains.
I give my hand to justice
Diaphanous fountain, sublimest spring,
My sky is deep and changeless
All I love is incessantly reborn
All I love is always at its beginning.
dressed up as “friends,”
came countless times, my enemies,
trampling the primeval soil.
And the soil never blended with their heel.
The Wise One, the Founder, and the Geometer,
Bibles of letters and numbers,
every kind of Submission and Power,
to sway over the primeval light.
And the light never blended with their roof.
Not even a bee was fooled into beginning the golden game,
not even a Zephyr into swelling the white aprons.
On the peaks, in the valleys, in the ports
they raised and founded
mighty towers and villas,
floating timbers and other vessels;
and the Laws decreeing the pursuit of profit
they applied to the primeval measure.
And the measure never blended with their thinking.
Not even a footprint of a god left a man on their soul,
not even a fairy’s glance tried to rob them of their speech.
dressed up as “friends,”
came countless times, my enemies,
bearing the primeval gifts.
And their gifts were nothing else
but iron and fire only.
To the open expecting fingers
only weapons and iron and fire.
Only weapons and iron and fire.
© Translation: Edmund Keeley and George Savidis
From: The Axion Esti
Odysseus Elytis on his poetry
It has been said that I am a Dionysian poet, particularly in my first poems. I do not think this is correct. I am for clarity. As I wrote in one of my poems, “I have sold myself for clearness.” I told you that I am critical of occidental rationalism, skeptical of its classicism, and that I feel the breach opened by surrealism was a real liberation of the senses and the imagination. Could one possibly conceive of a new classicism in the spirit of surrealism? Is this a contradiction in terms? Do you know the work of Hans Arp? There you have great simplicity! He is a classical sculptor, isn’t he? Yet he was a surrealist! In other words, the world of surrealism had its classicists and romanticists. Essentially, it was romantic movement. But Éluard, for example, I personally find more classical than romantic.
I never was a disciple of the surrealist school. I found certain congenial elements there, as I have told you, which I adapted to the Greek light. There is another passage in my “Open Book” where I say that Europeans and Westerners always find mystery in obscurity, in the night, while we Greeks find it in light, which is for us an absolute. To illustrate this I give three images. I tell how once, at high noon, I saw a lizard climb upon a stone (it was unafraid since I stood stock-still, ceasing even to breathe) and then, in broad daylight, commence a veritable dance, with a multitude of tiny movements, in honor of light. There and then I deeply sensed the mystery of light. At another time I experienced this mystery while at sea between the islands of Naxos and Paros. Suddenly in the distance I saw dolphins that approached and passed us, leaping above the water to the height of our deck. The final image is that of a young woman on whose naked breast a butterfly descended one day at noon while cicadas filled the air with their noise. This was for me another revelation of the mystery of light. It is a mystery which I think we Greeks can fully grasp and present. It may be something unique to this place. Perhaps it can be best understood here, and poetry can reveal it to the entire world. The mystery of light. When I speak of solar metaphysics, that’s exactly what I mean.
I am not for the clarity of the intelligence, that which the French call “la belle clarté.” No, I think that even the most irrational thing can be limpid. Limpidity is probably the one element which dominates my poetry at present. The critic Varonitis has perceived this. He says that in my book “The Light Tree” there is an astonishing limpidity. What I mean by limpidity is that behind a given thing something different can be seen and behind that still something else, and so on and so on. This kind of transparency is what I have attempted to achieve. Is seems to me something essentially Greek. The limpidity which exists in nature from the physical point of view is transposed into poetry. However, as I told you, that which is limpid can at the same time be altogether irrational. My kind of clarity is not that of the ratio or of the intelligence, not clarté as the French and Westerners in general conceive it.
You always look somewhat puzzled, I notice, whenever I contrast Greeks with Westerners or Europeans. This is not a mistake on my part. We Greeks belong politically, of course, to the Occident. We are part of Europe, part of the Western world, but at the same time Greece was never only that. There was always the oriental side which occupied an important place in the Greek spirit. Throughout antiquity oriental values were assimilated. There exists an oriental side in the Greek which should not be neglected. It is for this reason that I make the distinction.
Let me conclude by reading to you a concise statement I have prepared concerning the aims of my poetry:
I consider poetry a source of innocence full of revolutionary forces. It is my mission to direct these forces against a world my conscience cannot accept, precisely so as to bring that world through continual metamorphoses more in harmony with my dreams. I am referring here to a contemporary kind of magic whose mechanism leads to the discovery of our true reality. It is for this reason that I believe, to the point of idealism, that I am moving in a direction which has never
The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis
revised and expanded edition
translated by Jeffrey Carson and Nikos Sarris. Introduction and notes by Jeffrey Carson
In awarding Odysseus Elytis the 1979 Nobel Prize in literature, the Swedish Academy praised him “for his poetry, which, against the background of Greek tradition, depicts with sensuous strength and intellectual clearsightedness modern man’s struggle for freedom and creativeness.” Throughout his long career as a poet, Elytis (1911–1996) remained true to his vision of a poetry that addresses the power of language and connects the history and mythology of Greece to the physical world and to the realities of the modern age. Renowned for their astonishing lyricism and profound optimism, Elytis’s poems capture the natural wonders of Greece and give voice to the contemporary Greek—and to a more universally human—consciousness.
Originally published in 1997, The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis, translated into English by Jeffrey Carson and Nikos Sarris, was the first complete collection of Elytis’s poems in any language. Included in this landmark volume were Elytis’s early poems, influenced in equal parts by surrealism and the natural world; Song Heroic and Mourning for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign, his epic poem connecting Greece’s—and his own—Second World War experience to the myth of the eternal Greek hero; his most ambitious work, The Axion Esti; and his mature poetry, from Maria Nephele to West of Sorrow.
For this expanded new edition, Carson and Sarris have added sixty free verse and prose poems first published in Greek in the posthumous 1998 volume From Close By, as well as a set of song lyrics, The Rhos of Eros, and a cantata, The Sovereign Sun, previously omitted. All have been translated with the same care and elegance as the rest of Elytis’s oeuvre, brilliantly rendering into English the Greek poet’s lyrical voice and the richness of his diction.
Odysseus Elytis was born Odysseus Alepoudhelis on Crete in 1911. His first collection of poems, Orientations, was published in 1939, and he wrote and published poetry until his death in 1996. Jeffrey Carson lives on Paros where he teaches at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts. Nikos Sarros also lives on Paros.
“Carson and Sarris have opened the gates of Elytis’ monumental mansion for English-speaking lovers of poetry to enter and feast on the poet’s worlds and words.”
— Anglo-Hellenic Review
GIFT SILVER POEM
Translation from Greek: Marios Dikaiakos
I know that all this is worthless and that the language
I speak doesn’t have an alphabet
Since the sun and the waves are a syllabic script
which can be deciphered only in the years of sorrow and exile
And the motherland a fresco with successive overlays
frankish or slavic which, should you try to restore,
you are immediately sent to prison and
To a crowd of foreign Powers always through
the intervention of your own
As it happens for the disasters
But let’s imagine that in an old days’ threshing-floor
which might be in an apartment-complex children
are playing and whoever loses
Should, according to the rules, tell the others
and give them a truth
Then everyone ends up holding in his
hand a small
Gift, silver poem.
From “Body of Summer,” 1943.
O body of summer, naked, burnt
Eaten away by oil and salt
From “Maria Nephele,” 1979.
If you are of the Atreides go
elsewhere to shout aloud.
Such fire doesn’t kindle the sun
here where conscience rose and
took on a maiden’s real body.
“Calendar of an Invisible April”
Translation from Greek: Marios Dikaiakos
“The wind was wistling continuously, it was
getting darker, and that distant voice was
incessantly reaching my ears : “an entire life”…
“an entire life”…
On the opposite wall, the shadows of the
trees were playing cinema”
“It seems that somewhere people are celebrating;
although there are no houses or human beings
I can listen to guitars and other laughters which
are not nearby
Maybe far away, within the ashes of heavens
Andromeda, the Bear, or the Virgin…
I wonder; is loneliness the same, all over the
worlds ? “
“Almond-shaped, elongated eyes, lips; perfumes stemming
from a premature sky of great feminine delicacy
and fatal drunkeness.
I leant on my side -almost fell- onto the
hymns to the Virgin and the cold of spacious
Prepared for the worst.”
Translated by Daphne on May 17th, 1995
By the first drop of rain the summer died
The words that had bore those stary nights got wet
All those words that had one sole destination You!
Where will our hands reach now that weather no longer cares for us
Where will our eyes rest now that the distant lines got dispersed in the clouds
Now that your eyes have shut above the landscapes that were ours
And now that we found ourselves – as if the mist went right through us-
totally lonely surrounded by your inanimate images
With the forehead against the window we wait upon the new torment
It ‘s not Death that will make us fall since You are alive
Since a wind exists somewhere and he will live you entirely
To dress you from the near like our hope will from afar
Since there is elsewhere
A greenest meadow far from your laughter up to the sun
Telling him secretely that we will one day meet again
No, it is not death we shall confront
But just a tiny drop of the autumn rain
A blurry feeling
The scent of the moist soil within our souls
that are continuously diverging.
And if your hand is not between our hands
And if our blood wont’ run within your dream’s veins
The music unseen within us and O sorrowful
Wanderer of whatever still keeps us alive
It is the humid air the come of autumn the depart
The elbow’s bitter support upon the memory
that comes out when night arrives to divorce us from the light
Behind the square window that looks upon the sadness
That sees nothing
Because it has become music unseen fire a strike of the big clock on the wall
Because it has become
A poem a verse upon a verse, a sound resembling tears and words
Words not like the rest of them but with the same destination: You!
“This flower of the flood and, do you hear me-
Once and for all we cut it
And it is not possible for it to bloom otherwise, do you hear me-
On another earth, on another star, do you hear me-
It does not exist, the soil, it does not exist, the air
That we touched, the same, do you hear me-
And no gardener had such good fortune in other times
From so great a winter and from so many northern winds, do you hear me-
To throw out a flower, only we, do you hear me-
In the middle of the sea
From only the desire of love, do you hear me-
We lifted up the whole island, do you hear me-
With caverns and caves and blooming cliffs
Who speaks to the waters and who weeps- do you hear
Who searches for the other, who cries out- do you hear?
I am the one who cries out and I am the one who weeps, do you hear me
I love you, I love you, I love you
from the “Monogram”)
Wind of the All Holy One*
– Odysseas Elytis
In one hand’s-breadth of sea you tasted of the bitter pebbles
Two o’clock in the morning, strolling through the deserted August
You saw the moonlight walking with you
Lost footstep. Or if it was not in its place, the heart
It was the memory of the earth with the beautiful woman
The wish which longed, within the bosom of the basil
For the wind of the All Holy One to blow on it!
Hour of night! And the north wind flooded with tears
Just now the heart shivered in the squeezing of the earth
Naked beneath the constellations of her silent trees
You tasted of the bitter pebbles in the depths of the dream
The hour in which the clouds let loose their sails
And without any apology from the sin, it traced
On its first flesh the weather. You can still see
Before the initial fire the loveliness of the sand
Where you played your oath and where you had the blessing
Hundred-petalled, open to the wind of the All Holy One!
(translation: Eva Johanos
*All Holy One- “Panaghia”- usual name for the Virgin Mary)
I don’t know the night anymore
poetry: Odysseas Elytis
music: Yiannis Markopoulos
I don’t know the night anymore, the frightful anonymity of death;
in my innermost soul there hangs a fleet of stars.
Evening star, guardian, shine beside, in the heavenly
breeze of an island which dreams of me
so I may announce the dawn from its high rocks
with my two eyes in an embrace they sail you with the star
of my right heart: I don’t know the night anymore.
I don’t know anymore the names of a world which rejects me.
Clearly I read the potsherds, the leaves, the stars.
My enmity is needless on the roads of the sky
unless it is my dream which looks at me again
with tears to cross the sea of immortality
the night which is only night I don’t know anymore.
(translation: Eva Johanos)
“A late afternoon in the Aegean contains joy and sorrow in such exact doses that in the end only the truth remains.”
(translation: Eva Johanos)
(Elly Lambeti reading)
However, I was made to be a kite.
Heights thrilled me even when
I stayed face down on my pillow
punished for hours and hours.
I felt my room ascend
I was not dreaming- it ascended
I was afraid and I liked it.
It was that which I saw how can I say it
something like “memory of the future”
all trees which were leaving, mountains which were changing their view
little geometric villages with curly forests
like adolescents- I was afraid and I liked it
to just touch the bell tower
to caress the church bells like orchids and lose myself…
People with parasols passed diagonally
and smiled at me;
sometimes they knocked on the window: “miss”
I was afraid and I liked it.
They were the “people on top” that’s what I called them
they were not like the “bottom” ones;
there were generations of them and many held in their hands a gardenia
some half-opened the door of the balcony
and put strange music on the record-player.
It was- I remember- “Annette with the sandals”
“The geyser of Spitsbergen”
the “Fruit we did not bite, May will not come to us”
(yes, I remember others, too)
I say it again- I was not dreaming
suddenly that “Open halfway your clothing and I have a bird for you.”
He had brought it to me, the Knight-bicyclist
one day when I sat and pretended to read-
his bicycle with extreme care
he had leaned on the side of my bed;
afterwards he pulled the string and I blew up into the air
they shone, my colorful undergarments
I looked at how transparent they become, those who love
tropical fruits and kerchiefs of faraway Epirus;
I was afraid and I liked it
my bedroom ascended
or I- I have never understood it.
I am made of porcelain and magnolias
my hand comes from the most ancient Incas
I slide between doors like
the most infinitesimal earthquake
which only dogs and newborn babies feel;
properly speaking I must be a monster
and yet opposition
always nourished me and that depends on
those with the pointy hats
who have hidden conversations with my mother
at night to judge.
the voice of the bugle from the faraway barracks
wrapped itself around me like barbed wire and everyone around me
applauded- splinters of incredible years’
At the spa next door, the faucets opened-
facedown on my pillow
I saw the springs with their immaculate whiteness which sprinkled me;
how beautiful, my God, how beautiful
down on the ground, stepped on by feet
that I hold still in my eyes
such a mourning from the distant past.
(translation: Eva Johanos)
We walked in the fields all day…
– Odysseas Elytis
We walked in the fields all day
With the women, the suns, our dogs
We played we sang we drank water
Fresh as it leapt out from the centuries
In the late afternoon for one moment we sat
And we looked each other deeply in the eyes.
A butterfly flew from our breasts
It was whiter
Than the small white branch of the edge of our dreams
We knew that it was never to be extinguished
How it had no memory of what worms it pulled
In the evening we lit a fire
And we sang around and around:
Fire beautiful fire don’t pity the logs
Fire beautiful fire don’t reach to the ash
Fire beautiful fire burn for us
tell us life.
We call her life, we grab her by the hand
We look at her eyes which look back at us
And if what intoxicates us is a magnet, we recognize it