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SELECTED POEMS (poetry) (Nobel Prize: 1979)

By Odysseus Elytis
Chosen and Introduction by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
Translated by Edmund Keeley, George Savidis, Philip Sherrard, John Stathatos, Nanos Valoritis
New York: Penguin Books, 1981
ISBN # 0-14-042.289-7
114 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
July 2013

I have very mixed feelings about this book of selections from nearly 40 years of Elytis’ poetry. I have to imagine that the editors believe they have selected a decent representation of Elytis’ work and development.

On the positive side I love the Greece he writes about. I’ve been there several times, a couple a times for nearly a month’s time. As a tourist, and while not wealthy, I was able to at least live a comfortable enough life, in a decent place, eat and drink well, and travel about a good deal. Elytis sings the joys of the sun, the sea, the national character, the love of food and drink and dance and music, and most especially, the whole of nature. Nonetheless it is hard to think that Elytis’ view is as typical of the ordinary everyday Greek as he seems to wish. I seemed to see many people, the mass, especially away from central tourist areas, to have lived quite difficult lives that just didn’t seem to match the way Elytis tells it.

Elytis is certainly not easy. His images are more gently suggested than spelled out and too often I couldn’t really see or feel the world he was describing. When I could understand and follow him, which was less often than when I couldn’t, I enjoyed his writing and he stimulated many marvelous memories of my own experiences. But, alas, I struggled and will not likely be rushing out to read another of his works in any near future.

I will make just a few comments along the way. I did appreciate the introduction which set his work into a context for me even if it didn’t help much in my understanding his poetry.


Elytis tends to have three sorts of influence on his style:

  1. Like other Greek poets he rejects the classical tradition and writes in a more Demotic style (Demotic is “using the spoken idiom of the people as the basis for literary tradition” or “the modern form of the Greek language”).
  2. He relies on the great liturgical traditions of the Greek Orthodox tradition.
  3. He invests his poetry with the physical world of Greece:
“. . . its seas, its skies, its great mountain ranges, its dusty fig trees and its coruscating olive trees, its ancient monuments, its harsh, penumbral islands, its explosive light, all not yet violated by the grosser obscenities of tourism and commerce.” (p. xi)

Elytis wanted to escape the West’s expectation rooted in the Classical Greek tradition and early on he saw the model of French Surrealism as a way, as he says “. . . to make a sort of revolution by perceiving the Greek Truth.”

This description works so well for me. I was educated in the traditions of Ancient Greece, but I’ve never been much attracted to the literature of that period. However, I have read a great deal of the fiction of Nikos Kazanzakis’ vision of contemporary Greece which sounds much like what the introduction describes as “demotic” Greek. Further, from the 1980s into the early 21st century I’ve been to Greece several times for significant stays and the description of the introduction of modern Greece is the image I carry at the forefront of my own experiences.


“Ode to Santorini “ is a powerful paean to the volcanic eruptive birth of the island. Very nice!

“Body of Summer” tells of a man, a figure actually, who basks in the summer on the beach, yet survives the winter and again will return to the joys of summer when it comes.

Elytis shows the physical beauty and ruggedness of Greece, but too little is shown of how one lives there and who gets to enjoy these wonders and when. There are few details of the daily life of the average people, and they often sound idealized, and seldom concrete.

“Heroic and Elegiac Song For The Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign” was quite fascinating.

In 1940 the Greeks joined Albanian’s in a battle to keep Albania freed from Italian rule. Elytis was part of that campaign and this poem resulted. We follow the life of a young man who had been living a nearly utopian rural-boy young man’s life, then was called into soldiering to defend his country.

In one place he writes:

“For fate is no one’s widow
And mothers are born to weep, men to struggle
Gardens to flower on a young girl’s breast
And freedom to flash out unceasingly.”

In his poem ”From The Genesis” he writes of the creator

“And he spread his hands as would a young novice God creating pain
And mirth together.”

I was delighted with that image! “a young novice God . . .” Marvelous.

“The Gloria” was quite powerful, a real celebration of the sort of Greece I experienced in my visits.

The poem “The Mad Mad Boat” is a lovely poem which I take to be about Greece and its debt to the sun. Elytis is very lyrical and utopian when he goes into raptures about Greece’s nature beauty and resources.

The poem “The Cloudgather” makes me think that perhaps I am not the only one who found Elytis’ poetry to be rather difficult at times. He seems to acknowledge this himself:

“Ah how nice to be a cloudgather
to write epics on your old shoes as Homer did
not to care a bit if you please or not

Unperturbed you read unpopularity
this way; with generosity; as if you owned
a mint that you could close down
firing all the personnel
in order to cultivate a poverty all your own
that no one else possesses.”

Ah me, I walk away from Elytis’ book with such mixed feelings, but not likely to soon return.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett