‘Greek Poetry in the Shadow of Austerity’ in The New Yorker (2017)
The poet Jack Spicer famously compared the poet to a radio: when the writer is really listening in, he or she simply receives transmissions at a certain frequency. Ultimately, Spicer implies, there’s little control over what comes across onto the page. This kind of thinking initially seems to concern the mystery of individual inspiration—where our ideas come from. But is there a frequency for public devastation that has grown too loud to ignore, signals that start to impinge on every part of life?
In Greece, for the past decade, the news has been grim, and there is a surplus of poets who have tuned in: “Poets writing graffiti on walls, poets reading in public squares, theaters, and empty lots, poets performing in slams, chanting slogans, and singing songs at rallies, poets blogging and posting on the internet, poets teaming up with artists and musicians, poets teaching workshops to schoolchildren and migrants,” as Karen Van Dyck writes in her introduction to “Austerity Measures,” an anthology that presents contemporary Greek-language poetry as a thriving community amid the turmoil.
After the world financial crisis, the Greek government’s inability to repay its massive public debt made the nation a conspicuous example of the fallout. The “solutions” proposed by the banks are now familiar: tighten the belt, slash public services and pensions, and insure that lenders are repaid in full. These actions have done little to create recovery: years after the shock, unemployment hovers around twenty-five per cent, the highest in Europe, and youth unemployment is at forty-five per cent. Despite the election of a left-wing government, serious change has proved elusive; Europe’s financial establishment has generated a gravity too strong to escape, despite recurring scares of a “Grexit” from the euro.
It’s become a cliché to say that we turn to poetry in times of trouble, or that we need the vibrant language of poets to console ourselves after disaster. Greece’s debt is a different kind of catastrophe, one that occurs in slow motion: its mechanisms are abstract and impersonal, although the consequences are very real for those who rely on government institutions. These strictures insinuate themselves into the ambience of everyday life and language, something that poets can observe with careful attention. Here, for instance, is the poet Elena Penga (in Van Dyck’s translation) describing a menace in plain sight:
The cherry trees in the neighbor’s yard haven’t had fruit for years. Four men enter carrying sticks. They enter the neighbor’s yard along with the rain. They’ve come to discipline the trees and chop them down if they don’t blossom. I watch the men hit the trees. I watch the rain hit the men.
A few unadorned sentences weave together several ideas: the sense of failed growth, the coercion that upholds the rule of efficiency, the passivity of the onlooker. Are the men from the government or from a corporation? It seems appropriate that we don’t know. This ordinary violence doesn’t need to be spelled out, it seems to say—it’s right in front of us if we’re merely observant enough to record it. This is a signature of the poets in “Austerity Measures”: the subtle effacement of boundaries between the political and the everyday.
Poetry and economics are not typically thought of as cozy subjects, and the few poets who have tried to tackle the dismal science head-on have not always done so successfully. (Think of Pound trying to explicate the finer points of usury in the “Cantos.”) In an economic system that scrambles extreme scarcity (of resources and public cohesion) and extreme abundance (of images and entertainments), individual action can seem disempowered or useless, lost in the churn of financial transactions. Perhaps there’s an “economic” role for poetry in the solitude and independence that it calls for: it remains completely under the poet’s control to create it as he or she pleases. Consider the difference in capital required between writing poems and making a film. All you need, for the former, is pencil and paper, or maybe just your memory.
Poetry also plays a role in the economy of time, filling the small intervals of people with irregularly scheduled lives: it can be written or read on a bus ride home, on a lunch break between shifts, or in the morning after a hangover. It’s hard to make generalizations about style in “Austerity Measures”—its hallmark is a huge diversity of its voices—but it’s notable that short forms predominate, as poets find themselves seizing on peculiar instants and crystallizing them, from stealing a neighbor’s Wi-Fi to cutting yourself while distracted in the kitchen: “let me at least / finish the dishes today,” Danae Sioziou’s poem “Around the House” concludes, coiled with quiet intensity.
The poets in the anthology are young, most of them under forty, but they inherit a rich Greek tradition of writers who seize a position in public discourse. In an informative essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the editor and translator Stephanos Papadopoulos gives a sense of the magnitude of this legacy:
Throughout Greece’s tumultuous history the poet has served as the voice for the silenced people. Greece has always been a hornet’s nest of trouble and corruption, as well as a victim of perpetual war and occupation. When Greece’s great poet, Kostis Palamas (1849-1943) died, Angelos Sikelianos’s (1884-1951) fiery poem and eulogy roused 100,000 citizens at the funeral into a furious demonstration against the Nazis.
Odysseus Elytis and George Seferis, both Nobel laureates, wrote politically charged work: one of Seferis’s iconic lines is “Wherever I travel Greece wounds me.” Another important story in this legacy is the Communist poet Yannis Ritsos, who ran afoul of multiple right-wing governments. His work banned, he was exiled to a series of detention centers on remote Greek islands. Even there, he continued his prolific practice, writing stark and surreal poems on cigarette papers and hiding them for preservation.
While many of the poets in “Austerity Measures” carry this activist tradition forward, one of the most striking features of the collection is its refusal to pin down what writing is and isn’t political. Van Dyck opts for a wider picture, including plenty of “work which doesn’t directly address the political situation,” thereby aiming “to provide deeper and more various answers” to questions of a poet’s responsibility in the political process. The book’s forty-nine poets are grouped into six loose areas of influence. This scheme, though inevitably imprecise, provides contours to a generation of poets who are largely unknown to English-speaking audiences.
The inclusion of the least obviously political poets is illuminating, as even the most hermetic work finds some foothold in the public disaster—the broadcast is loud and clear. The book’s first section, slyly titled “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” after T. S. Eliot’s famous essay, gives the picture of a pre-crisis literary establishment. Van Dyck describes these poets as prominent in the cultural scene, mostly male, and perhaps chiefly interested in contributing to an internationalist tradition of poets like John Ashbery and Zbigniew Herbert. (One poem in this section includes a prefatory warning, courtesy of its author, that it “should not be read as a political allegory as it predates the crisis.”) These poets are the least obviously “engaged” of the groupings, tending more toward formal play than explicit statements. But they can’t help but take the public temperature in their writing. Among them, the Celan-like, elliptical work of the poet Yannis Stiggas crackles on the page with particular energy. Take his poem “Simple Math,” here in Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke’s translation:
Reaching the fourth kilometer of silence
I dropped the nails I had for God and the sun.
Since then I’ve been going around with the great
zero under my arm.
To start with, it was an ordinary sleeping-bag
—you know, you get in, which means you start dreaming.
Now it is a huge boarding school
for the psychologically inflammable.
Since all this has happened with zero
imagine what might occur with One.
The poem begins with a complex image of financial dominance, with the speaker abandoning the physical nails of the cross in order to take up the abstraction of the mathematical zero. The simple reading is that his debt has become his cross to bear. But the poem’s sudden shifts make our understanding of order more slippery: the “To start with” ends up in the middle; the “ordinary sleeping-bag” quickly expands into the “boarding school / for the psychologically inflammable.” What feels like certain defeat at its beginning becomes the possibility of transformation by its end, the binary switch ready to be flipped on.
Not everyone is content with quiet epiphanies, though: a section that Van Dyck has labelled “Unjust Punishment” focusses on poets who mostly publish online—peripheral voices that are more given to criticizing establishments both political and literary. The most striking poet in this grouping, Jazra Khaleed, was born in Chechnya, “half Chechen Muslim and half Greek,” and is influenced as much by Greece’s underground rap scene as by any lofty poetic forefathers. The result is an explosive cadence laced, in Max Ritvo’s translation, with internal rhyme:
Junta: army in the streets. Toy boots on every Caligula kiddy’s feet. Mobsters larding the laws to pure pork-fat—no bone, no meat. The labor is sleepily grunting in their pens: doing Miley Mohawks and masturbating to the QVC TV gems. Our youth are milk powder when I fucking asked for cayenne. The rebels are truncheoned by the Megaladon policemen. The leopards are caged like KFC hens. And the poets? The poets are quiet again.
In the same poem, Khaleed’s sentiment toward the would-be aesthetes seems clear: “Fuck off, flower poets,” he writes. The co-founder of the important online magazine Teflon, Khaleed has cited Angela Davis and Amiri Baraka, among others, as influences on his group’s work. For many of the poets in this section, online writing also means free expression and dissemination without the “political” barriers of the publishing industry. Of the poet Yiannis Moundelas, Van Dyck writes, “He has yet to publish a collection, and may never do so: the place to be, he believes, is not on paper.”
One transmission that’s missing is the neoclassical—there are few references to Greek classics or to Greek mythology, the staple imagery and subject matter of such poets as Seferis, Cavafy, and others. When they do appear, they often don’t mean what one would expect. Perhaps there is a need, now, in this sparse new normal, to break with the past: old models won’t save anyone. The poet Stamatis Polenakis suggests as much in “Poetry Does Not Suffice,” translated by A. E. Stallings:
The sirens don’t sing, nor are they silent,
they merely stay motionless,
dumbstruck by the privatization
of the waves and no
poetry doesn’t suffice since the sea filled up
with trash and condoms.
The Odyssey, that indispensable story, has shaped a literary tradition and a national identity, but both seem fraught in a moment of corporate profiteering, environmental devastation, and widespread anxiety. Poets may need to find new ways to remain attuned to enormous changes that no one can foresee completely. “Austerity Measures” offers some clues as to what might be carried forward and what might be left behind.