Modern Greek Poetry in 1973
Kimon Friar believes that modern Greek poetry is “as rich as any in our time.” The selections he has translated for his anthology bear out these words, which themselves are as finely measured as this entire remarkable volume. It includes translations of more than 400 poems of some 30 poets.
There is great variety in the selection although both Rae Dalven’s anthology and the “Penguin Book of Greek Verse” include some other poets. There is a long introduction on the historical background, there are critical biographies of the poets, bibliographies, comments on Greek pronunciation and metrics, and a wonderful essay on the art of translation. All is carefully weighed and responsibly set down. Friar tells us that this has been the work of 25 years and it has been done with the help of most of the poets he has been translating. The result is such that every reader must rejoice that Friar has been able to see the work through to its completion.
From Cavafis to Elytis. Translation and notes by Kimon Friar. 780 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster. $20.
Translations of poetry stand or fall on the degree of their success in communicating the point and beauty and force of the originals, and this volume contains many such successes. But an anthology as extensive as this of the poetry of a single people makes another appeal as well, inevitably projecting a characterization of the people whose poetry it is. Like many others Friar believes that modern Greek poetry deserves to stand beside the ancient and that we ought to recognize it as a continuing expression of the same civilization. He agrees with Constantine Trypanis, that we have here “the longest uninterrupted tradition in the Western World,” and in the modern Greeks we are seeing the descendants of the ancients carrying on a living heritage.
In the face of a claim like this, one soon puts aside any qualifications one might wish to make of Friar’s initial comparison, granting willingly enough the right of this poetry to stand alongside the splendid. literature of the 20th century in Europe and the United States, but if we should believe that current writing bears the stamp of the ancient life as well as of the intervening history of the Greeks we should, find our judgment profoundly influenced by factors we should not otherwise insist on.
There is more here than the philhellenism of the Hellenes. This itself is real enough, for Winkelman and Byron and Nietzsche have inspired Greeks with as strong an admiration for the ancient culture as they have the peoples of Europe and the West. The claim goes much farther. It is that in the verse of Homer and Sappho and Euripides, of Solomos and Sikelianos and Ritsos, there is the same distinctive spirit, the quintessentially Greek.
One is naturally skeptical of any claim as comprehensive as this. And even when one would like to believe that this is the same race, using a language recognizably the same, we know that every generation insists on differences from its predecessors and in matters of great importance. Each generation in the consciousness of its rejections and its affinities forms its own character, and if anyone were to undertake to define an all‐inclusive description for a hundred generations he would be compelled to ignore the differences that each generation itself makes so much of. The ancient past is very distant indeed. A claim of racial continuity can be maintained on a score of counts, but this is not the same as the conviction of commonness that the reference to “tradition” signifies. The history of Western effort since the Renaissance demonstrates the inability of a learned class or a people to take on for itself the combination of poise and energy and seriousness that distinguishes the classical spirit.
I am prepared to believe with Friar that throughout the centuries, shepherds, sailors, merchants, toilers, living under the same skies, on the same mountains and seas, treating with the land and water and beasts in much the same way, might manifest the likeness that kin know when they come upon each other. And even when one tries to allow the innumerable invasion of aliens, the long foreign occupations, the oppression, the continual mixing of blood, one might still—as most Greeks vehemently do—insist on a character distinct from their Bulgarian neighbors (anathema!) or the Illyrians or the Italic. Some characteristics of the modern Greeks are notoriously ones the ancients were know for, the unresting inquisi tiveness, for example, so much like the quicksilver St. Paul found in the Athenians.
In order to make a persuasive claim for continuity and identify one would need to show that in the thought and manners of the modern Greeks we see at work What we find in the minds of men who lent to their successors particular powers, of civilization and of speculation. Moreover, we should be able to point to achievements and events throughout the centuries where we would be able to say, here is the spirit of Solon or of Archimedes or of Aeschylus still at work, and we would wish to see in the lives of so many living under alien dispensations the same hopes and ambitions and powers surviving. But when one does look at the records, examining the subtlety and brilliance of Byzantine speculation, the piety of the medieval religious poems, the styles of the folk literature, the Romantic idealizations, we find ourselves falling back upon one factor alone, the survival of the Greek language.
Yet the most casual glance at classical literature, an appreciation of the articulation of the syntax, the elaborate control of the inflections, the authority it allows thought, all this adds up to a character not with in the province of the modern language Then, when one considers what the quantitative system meant for the verse, in enrichening texture and contributing to the clarifying of meaning, one knows one is speaking of a very different world indeed for the life of the spirit. The obvious fact is that, however much modern poets may hold to the conviction of the descent from such antecedents and however much they commit themselves to the demotic language, they are powerless to take up where the others left off. The promises of modernity are as enthralling as they are magnificent.
And so all Greek writers are caught in a raging controversy, compelled to discover the terms on which the living speech may be permitted to borrow from the classic. Friar reviews the solution each one of these poets worked towards for his own writing. They are all caught in cross‐currents. On the one hand they are driven to emulate the grandeur and to recapture the clarity of the ancient styles, and on the other they cannot betray the common, demotic speech which is the speech of the living people they are bound to honor. Solomos would endow the common language with the imaginings of ancient mythology; Seferis, exploring a most modern sensibility, welcomes the resources of an ancient radiance in eitrichening his language. Cavafy is at least as eclectic as Eliot.
So Friar too, making the claim as effectively as he does for the one continuing tradition, tempers it as indeed he must, particularly since in his very selection he admits a partiality for the poetry of recent years that has come forth under the influence of the French symbolists and surrealists.
As I see it, in this preference he is recognizing the closer affinity of the modern Greek to the tradition of Byzantine Christianity. As with his admired Kazantzakis, the visionary pas sion, the Nietzschean enthusiasms, the cults of the esoteric and the cabalistic are more akin to the mysticism and the spirituality of the orthodox tradition than to what we know of classical mysteries and cults. Lawrence Durrell and Kazantzakis read a modern fever into the Bacchic story; Freud persuades them to supplant theAppollonian with the Chthonic; and Friar, too, and some of the poets he is translating are pursuing the irrational in what are surely more modern than ancient ways. All the same, what Yeats thought he found congenial in Byzantine civilization has much in common with the kind of spirituality that modern symbolism also exploits and that the surrealists have pursued even farther. Many of these Greek poets on the other hand — Ritsos’s magnificent “Romiosini” for illustration —maintain an intellectual control in their celebration of the transcendental that is the hallmark of Byzantine spirituality and that Yeats himself could not maintain.
To conclude before I have more than touched upon the innumerable ideas this work suggests I may simply call attention to the essay on the art of translation in which Friar describes the nature of his own work, the processes and techniques he has employed, and in which he develops his own theories on the nature of translation. I believe this is one of the finest essays written on the subject. In this he characterizes his beliefs and his practice at once:
“The first duty of a translator with a protean sense of empathy, therefore, is to surrender himself as much as possible to the singular vision and aesthetics of the poet and poem he is translating. Nevertheless, true protean strength can arise only in a constant play (as all good actors know) between the singularity of the Original author and an almost equal singularity of the translator‐poet himself…. The translator’s voice should be there, but overheard, not heard, subordinated to the primary strength of the original creator.”
Friar has remarked that some of his friends have thought he sometimes made obscure poems too intelligible, and he apologizes for this. Then, too, in the growing use of free verse among the Greeks in this period his own characteristically free and fluid rhythms, serving English cadences, do not equally well preserve the rhythmic units of the Greek line. But I think one would never call any one of these translations prose, they keep too much of the quality of the original poems.