The flowering of Greek poetry in the 20th Century is one of the most interesting counterweights to the endless tragedy named modern European history. Constantine Cavafy, Angelos Sikelianos, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos, Odysseus Elytis--these poets have shaped the international literary landscape. And none is more exuberant in praising the things of the world than Elytis, about whom Lawrence Durrell wrote, "The Greek poet aims his heart and his gift at the sublime--for nothing else will do." Elytis calls himself a solar metaphysician; in the essays that make up "Open Papers," his primary statement on poetry, he explores "the mystery of light," the dazzling heart of his work.
Born in 1911 on the island of Crete, Elytis has spent most of his life in Athens, writing poetry and creating collages. In the 1930s he helped introduce French Surrealism into Greek poetry--a signal event in contemporary letters. Elytis adapted the ideas of Andre Breton and Paul Eluard to the Mediterranean world, and thus he heard that "secret voice [moving] within and beyond reasonable order, above and independent from time, and in constant duration. To render its presence sensible even for a moment," he realized, "was the poet's mission." This he has achieved in books of poems bearing such titles as "Sun the First," "Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign," "The Axion Esti" and "The Light Tree and the Fourteenth Beauty." In 1979 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
"Open Papers," first published in 1974 and translated now by Olga Broumas and T Begley, is a hymn to his poetic sources. Here are sketches of the Greek landscape, memories of his first encounters with Surrealist writings, and appreciations of pivotal figures like Rimbaud, Lautreamont, Eluard, Lorca, Reverdy and Picasso. This last Elytis wrote in French, in one sitting in 1951, after lunching with the great artist, who "seemed a rascal of 17, not a personage in his 70s."
Picasso was "a deep breath" for the poet, who in the wake of World War II, "in the huge hospital that Europe had become," was struggling to find his bearings. He had traveled to Paris in search of the most unfaithful of lovers, Poetry. Albert Camus and Rene Char among others befriended him, but it was at Picasso's table--where the artist's "analogies to life, to how we love or hate, danced before my eyes," Elytis writes--that he learned a central truth: "What must be practiced--assiduously, infinitely, and without the slightest pause--is anti-servitude, noncompliance, and independence. Poetry is the other face of Pride."
These lines conclude his autobiographical "Chronicle of a Decade," a sweeping essay of nearly 80 pages charting the growth of the poet's mind. From his earliest university days to his excursions around Greece and thence to life during the Nazi occupation of his homeland, we see Elytis come of age.
Now he is reading the Surrealists, "[breathing] in what was perhaps the last pure oxygen" available to the spirit in the years before the world was plunged into war. Now he is pinned down by artillery fire, unaccountably thinking about Cavafy's ability to adapt to anything.
"Deep down we knew, we felt it," Elytis says of his literary circle's wartime experience, "poetry was hope's ultimate refuge from general scorn, its only free stronghold against dark forces."
He recalls Matisse painting "the juiciest, rawest, most enchanting flowers and fruits ever made, as if the miracle of life itself discovered it could compress itself inside them forever," even as the ovens of Buchenwald and Auschwitz were burning.
If at times Elytis' sentences seem tangled, that is because he believes that even in prose, "it is the poet's duty to risk sudden and uncontrolled coups d'esprit, to provoke new oscillations by syntactical intervention and to acquire, in style and speech, something of a young organism's shimmer or the carriage of a bird toward the heights." Indeed, in many places in "First Things First" and "The Girls," the opening essays of Open Papers, Elytis' prose takes on both the color and accent of his verse:
On death's eve, tell me, how is a body suffered?
On death's eve, tell me, how is a white voice written?
We walked on some shore, not feeling each other. Someone's walking "was bothered by angel's wings." Until suddenly everything turned dark, and it seemed to him the far neck of the cove groaned deeply.
It's that I couldn't bear to be half in this world; I went after Poetry as after a woman, to give me child, as though from one to the other I might not die. I never thought to cry that everything was dim. If it were possible to save a palmful of clear water! I cried in front of waves and saw in poems the sky clear.
This version of "Open Papers" is roughly half the length of the original book; the missing essays are devoted to Greek poets and artists largely unknown in this country. This, then, is a selected edition of Elytis' most important prose work--a fact overlooked in Sam Hamill's introduction, which is notably short on information; a glossary would also have been useful. Nevertheless, readers will be grateful to Broumas and Begley for their labor of love.
"I want the first glimpse of the world," the poet declares. "May I never lose Columbus' emotion. There are so many little things no one has managed to explore." Fortunately, through all of his poetic voyages Elytis has kept that "rare excitement" Cavafy advised a certain traveler to cultivate on his way back to Ithaca. The record of his explorations--physical, spiritual and literary--is one of Greece's modern glories. In "Open Papers" we learn how and why that came to be.