(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Poetry is often a substitute or corrective for life. Nikos Pentzikis rounded out his first collection of poems, Ikones, during the difficult years of World War II. His family’s diminished status and his own disappointments had already induced him to find solace in Christianity, particularly in the Greek Orthodox faith, and not, like so many other men of his generation, in political engagement. If life seemed absurd, he would espouse the Christian myth, whose special kind of absurdity harked back to Tertullian’s early declaration of faith: “Credo quia absurdum” (“I believe because it is absurd”).

Pentzikis’s poems, however, proved that being a Greek Orthodox writer did not necessarily mean the conventional repetition of religious formulas and articles of faith. He shunned such abstractions and aimed, instead, for the concrete. In long, flowing verses which one could compare to deep breaths, he named all objects that had set his senses in motion, even the most humble, in order to place in relief the universal sympathy that governs them. He copied or reaffirmed objective reality in a way that helped him dissolve or forget his ego. The “I” became “we” or remained “I” in relation to others, not in isolation from them.


Ikones comprises responses to old letters, photos, and other souvenirs stored in a carton. (Much of Pentzikis’s work has taken its inspiration from the miscellaneous contents of such cartons.) The Greek title, Ikones, is ambiguous; it might mean “images,” “pictures,” or “icons” proper (that is, Byzantine religious paintings). In his introduction to the collection, Pentzikis stated that all but the last poem had been written while he was looking at a number of photos of sculptures from the Louvre. He then took great care to list all of those items, filling nearly a page, but not before he expressed some thoughts that made the list more meaningful. He believed that he should get down to basics,...

(The entire section is 821 words.)