Modern Greek Poetry

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

The extraordinary renaissance of poetry in modern Greek has been acknowledged by eminent poets as diverse as T. S. Eliot and Czesaw Miosz, and many young American poets have indicated their debt to figures such as Constantine Cavafy, Odysseus Elýtis, Yánnis Rítsos, and George Seferis. Even such major voices in modern Greek poetry, however, are not as well-known as their French or German or Italian counterparts. Edmund Keeley (in collaboration with Philip Sherrard, whose book The Marble Threshing Floor, 1956, was a pioneering study of modern Greek poetry) is one of the preeminent translators of modern Greek poetry into English. In this critical study, he continues the work begun in his translations, making a rich poetic tradition more accessible to the English-speaking reader and perhaps inspiring a few readers to study these great poets in the original.

Modern Greek Poetry: Voice and Myth consists of nine essays written during a seventeen-year period; in addition, there is an interview with Seferis. This work should be regarded as a collection of discrete, separate pieces rather than as a single coherent whole, yet Keeley’s obvious mastery of his subject and his sensitivity to the values of the writers under consideration serve the purpose of a unifying theme. Keeley has himself bestowed a central thesis on his work, stating in his preface that the essays “illustrate how the best of the contemporary Greek poets succeeded in solving the problem of expressing themselves in the particular language and literary tradition they inherited.” They have combined this adaptation of the contemporary language and cultural heritage with a sense of man’s fragile position in life, an awareness that has been part of Greek civilization since classical times. One of the problems faced by the modern Greek poet has been, according to Keeley, that of accommodating the multivalent structure of the past to his own individual expression. Each essay focuses on the individual writer’s solution to this challenge.

The first poet whom Keeley considers (the subject of one of the two longer essays) is Constantine Cavafy. Cavafy was a member of the Greek community in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the “Greek diaspora.” In his poems, he reminds the reader that Greek ethnicity and culture became increasingly complex from the Hellenistic period and that this “foreign” strain has set the Greeks of the diaspora apart from those of the mainland.

Cavafy’s principal theme is history, for he writes about and judges figures and events of the past, his exile from the mainland furnishing him with a unique perspective. This perspective, coupled with the often puzzling relationship between the poet himself and his persona, complicates the tone of his work. The opposition between persona and poet duplicates in microcosm the tensions and complexities of the situation or personality with which Cavafy is dealing, providing an entrée into history at a particular time, in a particular place. Cavafy’s apparent obsession with history is not merely a game, for knowledge of history is knowledge of self. It enables him to define himself as a Greek and, by extension, all Greeks. It is vital, therefore, as both Seferis and Keeley maintain, to examine all of Cavafy’s work as a unit, seeing the expansion of his perspective during his career as a poet.

Keeley devotes two essays to Angelos Sikelianos, who was instrumental, along with Cavafy, in establishing demotic as the language of modern Greek poetry. Sikelianos is not nearly as well-known in the West as are his compatriots Cavafy, Seferis, Elýtis, and Rítsos, yet he is considered a fine poet; Keeley informs the reader that Seferis regarded Sikelianos as being as important to Greek poetry as William Butler Yeats was to modern British letters. Sikelianos’ best poems are his later ones, but because of his unfamiliarity in the West, Keeley has provided a discussion of the early Sikelianos and his background.

His work, centered on the pre-Socratic tradition, Orphism, the cult of Dionysus, the teachings of Pythagoras, the Mysteries of Eleusis, and the mantic center at Delphi, differs both from Cavafy’s Hellenism and Seferis’ Homeric and Platonic settings. The scholar Philip Sherrard has noted that Sikelianos considered man the means of communication between upper and lower states of existence, the visible and invisible. The poet is not, as is Cavafy, a recorder of history, functioning instead as a seer, a prophet, an interlocutor between the apparent and the hidden. It is through myth that the poet exercises his divine gift, myth as a revelation, a rift in the curtain between the seen and the unseen, the temporal and the timeless. His gods are not fabrications or rationalizations of the mysteries of nature; instead, they move in the modern Greek landscape as its original landlords. As a result, nature is synonymous with Greece. Sikelianos’ persona communicates with the gods and speaks in unison with a voice from the beyond, a bard more than a versifier. It is a voice lost, Keeley laments, in translation, perhaps even in being read silently. Sikelianos’ persona hails from the Dionysian world, not the Apollonian, a world misunderstood and only grudgingly accepted by Western readers.

Personal crisis before World War II was coupled with an ominous sense of the larger catastrophe through which Greece suffered early in the war to produce a changed, tragic note in Sikelianos’...

(The entire section is 2238 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Book Review Digest. LXXX, January, 1985, p. 61.

Choice. XXI, May, 1984, p. 1313.

Library Journal. CIX, March 1, 1984, p. 490.

Times Literary Supplement. August 24, 1984, p. 938.

World Literature Today. LVIII, Summer, 1984, p. 452.