CULTURE

Poetry — ‘terrified questions’

Poets may be crushed by the knowledge they inherit from their forebears that they are either operating in emptiness or that they themselves are the emptiness, like a black hole that absorbs meanings and ideas. The knowledge that magic has been lost halfway through history and that the muses now stammer out words that remain untranslated and untransmitted may crush them. But such bitter knowledge can interpret the seemingly paradoxical, almost provocative choice of George Seferis to start his «Log Book I,» first published in April 1940, with those disheartening lines by Friedrich Hoelderlin which sound like a funeral epigraph, like a warning of poetry’s constitutional incapability: «It often seems to me that it is better to be asleep than to find yourself without companions / and insist so. And what can you do in this state of suspense, what say? / I do not know. And what is the use of poets in a mean spirited time?» [Translation by Roderick Beaton in his biography of Seferis «Waiting for the Angel,» Yale, 2003.] We have at least two ways of dealing with this «unpleasant message» by Hoelderlin, as received and transmitted by Seferis. One is to seek verses by other equally melancholy poets that reinforce and legitimize the unconsoling message. The other is to direct our search to verses that contradict it, that enthusiastically, unreservedly express confidence in poetry and the poet. Conviction and praise We can collect many such verses, full of conviction and praise, verses that affirm poetry, but here a symbolic few will suffice, ones unleashed into the future by another innovator, Vladimir Mayakovski: «But poetry / devil take it, say – / the wretch exists / like it or not.» Mayakovski committed suicide in 1930, two years before Costas Karyotakis took his own life, bequeathing us the sound of a shot which has ever since sought its poetic and political meaning. Years later, in the footsteps of Seferis and Hoelderlin, Nikos Engonopoulos wrote the poem «To Constantinos Bakeas, who was interested in my ‘recent poems’» («In the Valley with the Rose Bushes» Ikaros, 1978): «Indeed / my ‘poetic’ production / has been practically / non-existent / of late / not of course that I’ve stopped / piling up / poems / and verses / and stories / and talking secretly to myself / but as I neglect / to put them to paper / I forget them / and naturally / I have nothing left to present / besides nobody asks me for them / I saw what little attention / those around me / paid to poems / for a future commentator / my old poems / will be more than enough / and how eloquent / my present silence / will be.» This is not a gratuitous, personal complaint, camouflaged vanity, cheap narcissism or a pose like that we who weave verses and say we are poets adopt in our second or even first slim volume. It is the depressing conclusion of a life, of the commonplace rendered in direct prose as «live and learn.» With all this in mind, Odysseas Elytis sounds right in his poem «Maria Nefeli.» He sounds right when he states, «In the emptiness I found treasures and now / in treasures I remain empty,» depicting the poet as an inescapably poverty-stricken Midas. And right when, continuing a thriving tradition, he gives his lyrical voice the sharpness of satire, speaking again and again of the «emptiness,» going in and out of it to dispel it, to restore to it the dimension of a game in a matter – poetry – that is sometimes eroded by pomposity. «What can I do with you my dear poets / who for years have pretended to be unvanquished souls / And for years you have been waiting for what I didn’t expect standing in line like lost property… / Even if someone calls you – not one of you answers / out there the world is a mess, universes are burning / Nothing. You claim – if only I knew why – / your rights over emptiness! / In times of wealth-worship / you, oh so nonchalantly, exude the vanity of ownership.» This emptiness motif, with its conviction of mortality and the inadequacy of poetic discourse, is picked up by Vyronas Leontaris in his fifth poetry collection «Until,» which came out last year. Here he is: ‘Poems happen’ «Let’s make an end to the wiles of writing and reading / poems happen / So, can I say what happens? The poem itself, that is / not its text / Can I? No, I can’t. And not (as others will tell you…) / because what happens is only what is here now / but because, simply I can’t / I am in the universe but where is the center? / I shout ‘Is there anyone here?’… A terrified question / strikes and echoes in the inner surface of emptiness / Because if nobody is there, who am I who asks? / A question in a question / a trap in a trap / emptiness in emptiness. But the center, where is it?» So is that poetry, then? A sequence of «terrified questions,» only questions, without certain answers, and thus without fallacies and illusions. It may seem that these questions come down like rain, but their ethic is liberating, and so, in essence, comforting.