The modern Greek language has provided a home and inspiration for at least three great poets: Odysseus Elytis (1911-1996), Yiannis Ritsos (1909-1990) and C.P. Cavafy (Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis - 1863-1933). Kostas Kariotakis and Giorgos Seferis are generally added to the list, but the little I know of their work does not have a comparable appeal to me.
One must try to imagine the situation of these poets. In the face of a 2500 year literary tradition which includes some of the greatest works in any language, and in a backward country still emerging from a centuries-long domination by a very foreign culture, they had the temerity to break from the classical tradition and find a new energy in the new Greek language without sliding into a kind of popular doggerel, as did so many of their contemporaries. Each of my three favorites found his own unique response to this knotty challenge.
After Greece slipped from the grasp of the enfeebled Ottoman Empire, it became the plaything of other empires - the British and the Russian (soon to become the Soviet empire), to mention but two. Then the opportunistic so-called inheritors of the traditions of the Roman Empire swept into the country, followed by the goose-stepping minions of the Third German Empire when it became clear that the Italians weren't up to the job; a few years of fascist occupation were followed by a good thirty-forty years of Cold War ping pong, where the Cold War antagonists pulled the strings in the civil war that erupted again and again in Greece and only reluctantly calmed itself for certain periods of time.
Elytis was born in Heraklion on the island of Crete, but his family moved when he was yet a little boy to Athens, where he grew up and received his education. Though he greatly admired the poetry of Cavafy, he responded most strongly to French surrealism, which had a lasting effect on his poetics.
In 1936 a military dictatorship taking its cues from similar dictatorships in Germany, Italy and Spain elbowed its way to power in Greece. In 1940 the Axis powers occupied the country; Elytis, fighting in the Greek army against the initial Italian invasion, was seriously wounded. After his convalescence he participated in the resistance till the end of the war. The first and most violent phase of the Greek civil war played itself out from 1946 till 1949 (although one could say with some justice that it began as soon as Greece was liberated in 1944). The leftists having drawn the short end, Elytis fled to Switzerland and then France. He returned to Greece in 1951 to remain close to the Aegean Sea for the rest of his life except for brief trips abroad and another refuge in France after the 1967 military coup: the sea which provided central images for his poetry, its waters rapidly changing from idyllic blue calm to rage, its white cliffs, its sky, which can become the most incredibly deep, dark purplish blue in midsummer when it seems one is looking straight into outer space because all humidity has been burnt from the air, and, above all, its sun - oh, the powerful Mediterranean sun which causes all living creatures to lay in a two hour midday pause while it fills every available space.(*)
I first came to Elytis' poetry through German and French translations, but I decided to review one of his most famous books, Το άξιον εστί , (1959) in an English translation entitled The Axion Esti. Axion esti - worthy it is - is a phrase of praise and gratitude which occurs often in Greek Orthodox liturgy, but Elytis uses it not to evoke Christianity but to generate an ecstasy of laudation in his extremely complex, book-length poem on the eternal struggle man has with good and evil, both within and without himself.
The poem consists of three parts. "The Genesis" introduces the coming to awareness of the half-mythical persona who at times carries Elytis' autobiography and at other times could well be identified with the spirit of Greece.
In the beginning the light And the first hour
when lips still in clay
try out the things of the world
Green blood and bulbs golden in the earth
And the sea, so exquisite in her sleep, spread
unbleached gauze of sky
under the carob trees and the great upright palms
Elytis tries, successfully to my mind, to attain a certain majesty:(**)
And the one I really was, the One of many centuries ago,
the One still verdant in the midst of fire, the One not made by human hand,
drew with his finger the distant
sometimes rising sharply to a height
sometimes lower: the curves gently
one inside the other
land masses that made me feel
the smell of earth like understanding
So real it was
that the earth followed me faithfully
becoming redder in secret places
and elsewhere full of tiny pine needles
This first part, written in free verse, consists of seven sections corresponding to the stages of creation, the development of a boy to a man, the hours of the day from dawn to noon. So many lines made me stop and savor. This part is about the Good - Nature, learning, love and their joy.
Then danger arises and night suddenly falls.
The second part of the poem, "The Passion", is written using a number of forms, from strictly metrical odes to loosely rhythmic prose in sharp juxtaposition (according to the translators), and is structured in three segments - consciousness facing tradition, consciousness facing danger and consciousness surpassing danger (according to Elytis). In this part Elytis incorporates the turmoil of the Greek war of independence, the Second World War and the Greek civil war. This part is about the Evil - war, destruction, hate and enduring their griefs and pains. A brief, non-representative passage:
with their gold braid,
the fowl of the North and the beasts of the East!
After dividing my flesh in two
and quarreling finally over my liver,
"Theirs the smoke of sacrifice," they said,
"and ours the smoke of fame,
(The fowl of the North = Germans and Italians; the beasts of the East = Bulgarians)
Evil is overcome, but only in a stirring prophecy of the far future. For now, it is met and endured.
The third part of the poem, "The Gloria", is written in a strict form of Elytis' invention and is a hymn of praise to the world and life in light of the voyage through human evil and sacrifice recounted in "The Passion". Here the opening quatrain:
Praised be the light and man's
first rock-carved prayer
the vigor in the beast leading the sun
the plant that warbled so the day rose
The translators, Edmund Keeley and George Savidis, report that they were unable to translate much of the rhetorical richness of the original text, which sometimes echoes the language of the Greek Orthodox liturgy, sometimes earthy 19th century demotic Greek, and sometimes the language of the memoirs of a general from the Greek war of independence from the Turks, to mention but a few of the linguistic strands woven into the poem. Most of the intricate forms of the rhythmic and rhyme structures are left to the side, as well. Nonetheless, they did present a range of language in English from the colloquial through the formal to the grandiloquent. This translation is a great poem in English, however well or poorly it reflects the Greek original.
Some English translations of Elytis' work are poor things, but Edmund Keeley is a name to be trusted for translations from the Greek. I particularly recommend his translations of Cavafy's poetry.
(*) I lived on the bords of the Mediterranean Sea for 18 months, so I am writing from personal experience here...
(**) Variations of the first two lines arise again and again, tying the segments together cumulatively and ascendantly.