‘Hurt Into Poetry: On Poetry and Greece’ (2013) by Stephanos Papadopoulos
I was raised in what used to be a sleepy suburb five miles from the center of Athens. I remember desolate summer afternoons with the world asleep during the siesta hours. We had an ancient black and white TV, but there was no TV to watch, just two dismal state channels with endless news and parliament sessions.At midnight, the national anthem would play behind a blue and white flag waving in the wind; a childlike animation of the city turning out the lights would dwindle to one last lit window — then the picture would go blank. The stores always seemed to be closed. Someone was forever waking up, or going to sleep, but never there. My parents would wait in line for hours to buy a stamp. At the tax office they were sent to floors that didn’t exist, then waited in more lines for more stamps — this time, inexplicable multitudes of stamps which would eventually be plastered to important documents then ink-stamped by angry civil servants. The big-handled, unwieldy, spring-loaded ink stamps were the symbol of our complicated lives. The bigger and louder the crashing stamp, the more important the employee. We waited; we learned to wait. We waited for Godot, but we were happy — it was 1985.
My father loved C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933). With a scowl of deep concentration, he would read poems like “Ithaca,” or “The God Abandons Antony.” He was amazed that this scrawny, reclusive dandy from Alexandria could be so powerful in his verse. It was the magic of poetry at work, or as poet Glyn Maxwell says, “what’s signaled by the black shapes is a human presence.” He had the collected poems of Edgar Allan Poe — the French went crazy for him, he would say, and a treasured volume of his most beloved François Villon, the first real bad-boy of medieval poetry. There was Kostas Karyotakis and of course Nikos Kazantzakis — mostly novels, but my father loved to point out that Zorba, the “greatest Greek of all” wanted “here lies a Greek who hates the Greeks”chiseled on his tombstone. Nobody but the poets can articulate this conundrum, this love-hate, madness of being Greek.
What does this have to do with poetry or losing our way? Greece has gone from knowing itself as a quiet, Mediterranean/Balkan backwater with a great literary and political history to an overhyped European fraudulence almost overnight. Poetry will not fix the economy or punish the Greek political elite for ransacking the country, but before we even begin to think about economics, something needs to restore order in the average Greek’s proud and angry soul.
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