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Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Religious concerns in Greek poetry

In reflecting on the increasingly prominence of existential concerns and religious imagery in the poetry of Tasos Leivaditis from the second period of his work onwards, N. N. Trakakis notes that ‘It seems that many other poets at the same time were similarly turning to the centuries-old language and tradition of Orthodoxy. [Odysseus] Elytis published To Axion Est (1959, Worthy It Is), [George] Seferis wrote his final collection, Three Secret Poems (1966), influenced by the Book of Revelation (having formerly rendered this, and The Song of Songs, into Modern Greek), and the former leftist Nikos Karouzos frequently deferred to religious themes.’

Philip Ramp writes that ‘… identity is at the centre of all Elytis' poetry … Elytis insisted on a "Greek" way, rejecting the murk and decay of the modern world and proclaiming the moment of the "mad" pomegranate tree his most enduring symbol …

Elytis was never to forget these experiences [during the Second World War]. His quest for Greece would continue but this new perspective would now be at its center. For a number of years after the war he produced little poetry, seemingly unable to find a way to express these new. more complex positions to his satisfaction. When he did find it, he produced his greatest work and one of the major works of this century: Axion Esti. The title literally means "Worthy It Is" but as the phrase forms a major part of the divine liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church a literal translation is of little use.

The poem is divided into three parts, each of incredible complexity and each one completely different from the others. One of the focal points of the poem is the phrase 'This/small, this great world!" which is frequently repeated in a variety of contexts with the cumulative effect of showing how the end is in the beginning and the beginning is renewed by the end where death is as much a miracle as life and the entry into death is but the entry into an "eternal moment". So the "everyday" images, as it were, in this poem vibrate, ripple sensuously with the energy of distant realms. The complexity of his forms helps Elytis draw antitheses together into one large unity without any apparent strain. But this was not his major point. His aim was to show that no matter what we experience it calls for total praise, it calls for our complete involvement. He does not deny the world is evil and oppressive but it is worth living through. And the emphasis here must be placed on through for in the end "it is the hand of Death/that bestows Life! and sleep does not exist." This is the price that all of us must pay but Elytis repeatedly stresses it: "WORTHY is the price paid". All of his old images and themes can be found here, and in abundance, but now the conclusion the poem builds slowly and inexorably toward, like a Mass, is more exalted than any one image for what is worthy is NOW and what is NOW is FOREVER (or AYE in the Friar translation). "NOW to the wild beast in the myrtle Now to the call of May/AYE to consciousness filled and Aye to the full moon's ray.. . Now to the blending of peoples and the Number Black/Aye to the statue of Justice and the Mighty Eye that's staring back/Now to the humbling of the gods Now to the ashes of mankind/Now now to Nothingness and Aye to the small world, to the Great!"’

Peter Mackridge notes that ‘Seferis’s poetry seems to have acted as a beacon on the youthful [Philip] Sherrard’s path, lighting the way to stages beyond itself.’

‘… Seferis’s final collection, Three Secret Poems (1966), which is Seferis’s most mystical work, imbued with his experience of reading and living with the Revelation of St John the Divine, which he was ‘transcribing’ (as he called it) into Modern Greek at the same time. In these last poems, it could be argued, Seferis not only depicts but enacts what Sherrard called, in the first of his astonishingly perceptive pieces on Seferis’s work, ‘the transfiguration of this world’(p. 74).’

‘In Mythistorema the poet shows his awareness that history, which seems to be characterized by injustice, is apparently at odds with nature, but that a reconciliation between the two at a deeper level is possible. Sherrard writes of Seferis’s umbilical attachment to the earth, and one of the things that impressedhim about Seferis’s poetry — and about Greek culture in general — was the bond between human beings and the natural world that, he believed, had been fatally severed in the West. Thus Seferis’s poetry combines the use of a living myth with abundant references to nature.

In these verses, then, the elements of nature accumulate human experience as a repository to be drawn upon by later generations — but only on condition that they ‘know their prayer’. This last point must have struck Sherrard forcefully: it is impossible to tap into the ancient wisdom stored up in the natural elements unless one has prepared oneself by means of a rigorous spiritual ascesis. It is this spiritual ascesis — the effort to establish one’s relationship with the physical world, with one’s cultural tradition and with one’s fellow men — that Philip Sherrard was engaged in during the first few years of his contact with Seferis and his poetry (especially from1948 to 1955), and Seferis acted as a kind of sounding board that helped the young Englishman to formulate the principles of his metaphysical quest.’

‘Having passed this beacon on his spiritual journey, Sherrard retained his respect and affection for Seferis and his poetry, and indeed his translation of the Complete Poems in collaboration with Edmund Keeley enabled the full range of Seferis’s poetic voice to be heard in the English-speaking world. For his part, Seferis was assisted by Sherrard and their mutual friend [Zissimos] Lorenzatos in working out his relationship with the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, but eventually Sherrard passed into realms where Seferis was unwilling or unable to follow him.’

‘There was, however, another Greek poet whose outlook Sherrard had discovered to be more congenial to his own. This was the older poet Angelos Sikelianos (1884–1951), who, like Seferis, combined a living mythology with sensuous natural imagery, but was not afraid to move freely between the physical and the metaphysical worlds — indeed, did not recognize any distinction between them.’

‘Seferis recognized the older poet as one of the few people he had known (Philip Sherrard was another) who totally devoted themselves, body and soul, to their spiritual quest.’

In introducing the poetry of Nikos Karouzos, Nick Skiadopoulos and Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei write that ‘poetry is not an affirmation of difference, but the surprising beauty of chiming antinomies. We might never transcend them, but it is up to us to put them together. Yet again, this voisinage is not to be identified with the necessity of chance as an eternal return. On the contrary it is a return from that very return:

Let us treat Yes as a No to No and No as a Yes […] And let us not forget
that this pissed affirmation crumbled down Nietzsche’s intellect in the dark
paths of this world. (2002, 88)

This return from the “vicious circle” should in no way be taken as a form of artistic prudence. Rather it can be seen as a dribble of demonic inconsistency as Dionysus transforms himself into a Christ that is in turn de-theologized: “Who can forbid that? Every man is capable of his own theology, nothing can stop him.” (2002, 73-74) This is a turn towards an existential vision of the world, historically coinciding with a particular political defeat of the Left, to which the poet devoted all his life:

after the defeat of the popular front I raised the question “why do we
exist?” while others were asking “why we failed.” (2002, 57)

But most of all it is a return to poetry that exceeds the existential question itself, going beyond the issue of faith.

Poetry comes in as a question of return after a defeat that is confessed in full profanity. Though it accepts the necessity of the defeat, it does not affirm it. Though it negates it, the negation is not in the name of a promise to be delivered in the kingdom of heavens. Following a historical and existential defeat, poetry is born post mortem. It signals a return to Christ as “groundless religiousness in the surprise of the real as such” (2002, 72) which is at once a return to the refuge of childhood. It is not a question of endurance towards an eternal return. Rather it is a question on the possibility of an existential return. Returning in a world as someone who cannot enjoy any returns exactly because he is averse to guarantees. A return without returns.’

Finally, in this review of religious concerns among Greek poets, Alexis Ziras writes of Greek ‘poets who wrote at great length on religious themes and created in the shadow of the overall Greek poetic canon, such as Joseph Eliya, G. Veritis, et al … our thought goes to Odysseus Elytis, Nikos Gatsos, D. Papaditsas, Nikos Engonopoulos, not to mention left-wing lyric poets: in particular Yannis Ritsos and Tassos Livaditis or ... Nikiforos Vrettakos … only little has been written … regarding the function of the transcendent element in modern poetry … However, the transcendent element, the expectation of incarnation through someone dear to us or through the state of the future, is manifest, whether we like it or not, in a series of 20th century Greek poets, such as Yorgos Vafopoulos, Takis Varvitsiotis, Nikos Karouzos, and not least Ektor Kaknavatos, Lefteris Poulios, and other descendants … I find that transcendent revelation traverses the poetry of Iossif Ventura.’


Aggelos Antonatos - Sunflowers.

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