David Ricks' Greece is a personal choice and not a thematic anthology nor of a certain generation. It covers one hundred years of Greek poetry, spanning from C.P. Cavafy (born 1863) to Alexis Stamatis (born 1960) and it is poetry which indicates the preoccupations of the Greek poets of the century we just left behind. Poetry, being "the natural language of all worship," subjects itself to certain visions and although for society poets will always appear like hoodlums, and delinquents, in this anthology the poets chosen do not ring socialist, surreal or subversive bells.
In Greece fifty-four poems of twenty-three poets are translated from Greek to English by fourteen translators. Which method did the editor or the translators use in selecting the poets remains a question. Was it a grab bag? Of the twenty three poets only one is a woman, Rhea Galanaki, who actually is a novelist -- she published one selection of poems, Cake, in 1975 -- and another participant in Ricks' anthology is Yorgos Ioannou, a superb short story writer from Thessaloniki who is not considered a poet.
David Ricks presents English readers with a fine, relatively small representative sampling of Greece's 20th century poetry. The twenty three poets represent only a tiny fraction of the entire poetic output of Greece, if one is to think that there are at least 300 or so poets who are as good as the 23 chosen and worthy of being translated. (In Greece, in the last thirty years there are two new poetry books per day).
The Dead And The Living
Twelve of the twenty-three poets are dead so we start with them. For C.P. Cavafy with his peculiar voice so much has been said and written. The Greek of Alexandria, who brought modernity to Greek poetry and a new aura to world poetry, stands high by himself. So do Anghelos Sikelianos and Kostas Karyotakis, the first a great lyrical poet who sung the anthropocentric Delphic idea, the second a bare voice of Preveza whose name is synonymous with pessimism and despair. George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis, the two Nobel laureates, and Nicholas Calas and Andreas Embiricos revolutionized Greek poetry, in the sense of form and style, and by daring to peel off unknown elements of language. Nikos Gatsos, known by every Greek for his lyrics for popular songs, influenced many poets, while Nikos Karouzos was a language poet mistaken for a surrealist. Next is Nikos-Alexis Aslanoglou, a poet from Thessaloniki whose melancholic and erotic poems are reminiscent of the great Spanish poet Louis Cernouda. And last is Andreas Anghelakis with a certain prosaic and erotic style pointing towards a beautiful decay. So much for the dead.
And now about the living. First we have the political poetry of Manolis Anagnostakis who speaks for the generation of the defeat and whose poem "Are you for or against" inspired many during the hated junta of George Papadoupoulos. Nikos Fokas' poetry is ridden with anguish and anxiety. Titos Patrikios, in the steps of Manolis Anagnostakis, is a political poet concerned with the past and the refraction of history upon the present. Yannis Kondos' almost surreal poems provide images with a certain counterbalance in the weight of a self-deceiving world. Mihalis Ganas is one of the most interesting and accomplished poets of his generation. His poetry, deeply rooted in Epirus history, traces the internal landscape of exile. Nasos Vayenas' ironic glance at the world accomplishes interesting achievements. Finally Argyris Hionis' style carries the advantage of paradoxes perplexed by familiarity-in-strangeness.
David Ricks in his Guest Editor's note states the absence from Greece of Yannis Ritsos, Takis Sinopoulos and "several notable women poets such as Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, Maria Laina and Jenny Mastoraki." Are we to think that if these five poets were included in Greece we would have a more complete volume of 20th century Greek poetry? For the reason that you can not have a volume of contemporary American fiction without including Raymond Carver and/or John Updike, you cannot have any reference to contemporary Greek poetry without including Nikiforos Vrettakos, Nanos Valaoritis, Miltos Sahtouris, Kiki Dimoula and Lefteris Poulios-just to name a few who didn't "make it" into Ricks' Greece. Nikiforos Vrettakos, the poet of love and peace, places humankind inside Hellas. Nanos Valaoritis, in the footsteps of Embirikos, continues to shape today's surrealist movement. Miltos Sahtouris, the superb partisan of dark poetry, and Kiki Dimoula are considered by many, and rightfully so, two of the greatest living poets of Greece. The appearance of Lefteris Poulios' first book, Poetry I, in December 1969, created a assured reaction from critics and poets alike and his latest books, even though hermetic, reflect a persuasion of dominant social issues.
Greek poetry has roots that go back to Homer and Sappho and sprouts that go deep all over the poetic fields of Europe. My question is why there isn't a highly informative introduction to contemporary Greek poetry in Modern Poetry in Translation. Greek poetry deserves a much better treatment than that of Mr. Ricks. All hail, though, to the fourteen translators for they did a wonderful job.
All in all, for the demanding reader David Ricks' Greece needs a repair; for the discerning reader it needs an overhaul.