Jon Corelis: A Note on Surrealism and Modern Greek Poetry

The dominant force in Greek poetry since the 1930s has been surrealism, but a surrealism which played a different role than it assumed in cultures of more Western Europe. Where the original surrealist project was an attempt to break through the rational mind to reach the unconscious by using deliberately irrational imagery, Greek poets tended to use surrealism as a means of reflecting the current situation of their country, which in the half century beginning with 1921 went through a series of crises so horrible that life itself assumed the characteristics of a surrealist nightmare.

We see this special Greek form of surrealism at work most intensely in two very different poets, both of them well known in Greece though unjustly neglected elsewhere. One of them, Miltos Sahtouris, has created through the development of a style as spare and lucid as Baudelaire's a surrealist world of ordinary horror, where the most bizarre flowerings of intolerable anxiety unfold with dreamlike clarity at your elbow as you walk down the street. At its best, Sahtouris's method is capable of terrific effects: his great poem He is not Oedipus is a rare example of a surrealist political poem and surely one of the most effective anti-war poems ever written: it eschews any subjective deploring of war's brutality and instead makes you understand what it must really feel like to be blown to bits in a pointless combat.

But the most famous example of specifically Greek surrealism is undoubtedly Nikos Gatsos's long poem Amorgos, which was written in one all night session during the Nazi occupation of Greece and later became one of the most influential major poems of the postwar period in that country. Amorgos (the accent is on the last syllable) is a remote Greek island which figures nowhere in the poem and to which the author never in fact travelled, though I myself have been there. Section three of this poem in particular, with its brilliant and powerful refurbishing of the images and techniques of traditional Greek folk poetry, has become the classic poetic statement of the suffering of contemporary Greece. The fame of this section was further enhanced in the postwar years when it was set to music by the Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis and became a popular hit. The American equivalent of this would be if a musical version of the Phlebas the Phoenician section from The Waste Land had been recorded by a major rock group and gotten on to the top forty. The ludicrous impossibility of such a scenario says much about the comparative extent to which American poetry is integrated into its larger national culture.

The imagery of Amorgos part three, which proceeds from an agonized vision of a cancer-like perversion of nature itself, to a poignant appreciation of the eternal Greek elementals of sea, wind, cloud, flower, sky, bread, and water, generates a sense of horror worked through, of finding a consolation for the exactions of mortality in the majesty of the universe, and serenity through the acceptance of suffering. The former idea was perfectly familiar to Sophocles, and the latter to Aeschylus, which shows another salient characteristic of Gatsos's poetry: the use of surrealist technique to express very traditional Greek ideas.

This nexus of imagery still echoes in Greek reality. The first time I visited Athens, I was strolling down a street in the fashionable Kolonaki district a few days after Easter when quite by chance I happened across a public monument which I have never seen listed in any guidebook. In front of a modernistic high-rise office building was a small memorial consisting of a large, grim-looking, rusty iron door fitted with a barred peep-gate, and a stele with the relief of a bound naked man in a broken posture. By the door was inscribed in demotic Greek, "On this spot stood the torture chamber of the Gestapo"; and on the stele, in puristic Greek: "Traveller, behold a new sacrifice, made so that the ground on which you walk might be free." The door, obviously, was the actual original door of the place. All over the monument were bunches and garlands of flowers which had been left there on Easter Sunday, now dried and withering, and pasted to it were many handwritten notes, testifying to relatives and friends who had died in that place. The flowers, horror, and hope of Gatsos' lines were no mere literary device, but are something you can literally stumble over in the streets of Athens. Greece is like that.

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Bibliographical note: English translations of poems by Miltos Sahtouris and Nikos Gatsos can usually be found in larger public or university libraries. See especially Modern Greek poetry: Translation, introd., an essay on translation, and notes by Kimon Friar, New York, Simon and Schuster [1973]; With face to the wall: selected poems of Miltos Sahtouris / Translations and introd. by Kimon Friar, 2nd ed., Washington, Charioteer Press, 1980; and Charioteer: An Annual Review of Modern Greek Culture, num. 36, 1995-1996 Nikos Gatsos Special Issue.