Muse goes cosmopolitan; Irish Poetry After Yeats, edited by Maurice Harmon. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 231 pp. $8.95. Odysseus Elytis: Selected Poems, selected by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. New York: The Viking Press. 113 pp. $11.95 in hardcover, $5.95 in paperback. Maria Nephele: A Poem in Two Voices, by Odysseus Elytis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 74 pp. $10.
Ah, the Muse! She is the mythical patron who assigns artists both the task and the spirit of creation. If there is any truth to the idea of the poetic Muse inhabiting a locale, it is when a country has kept alive its poetic traditions - when the history, folklore, and natural voice of a people are regarded and preserved, even as they evolve and become new. By these standards, here are poems from two regions where the Muse has maintained residence for centuries.
By the opening of the 20th century, the traditional culture of Ireland was well on its way to extinction. Yeats and the writers of the Literary Revival began a movement to regenerate the ancient Gaelic culture and language and to establish a distinctive tradition apart from that of English literature. ''Irish Poetry After Yeats,'' an anthology of poets from the three succeeding generations, offers a clear perspective on the results of that development. The collection features an extensive sampling from seven of Ireland's finest poets; it begins with Austin Clarke who began publishing during Yeats's last decade, and culminates with Seamus Heaney, an immensely popular writer in Ireland and America as well who is too often branded as ''the new Yeats.''
Within this range of poems we watch how the writers struggled to affirm the spirit of Yeats's vision but at the same time to distinguish themselves from the master, to create new voices and subjects. Though Irish folklore, mysticism, and rhythms of speech are central to each of these seven poets, they were also greatly influenced by the modernists of England and America. No longer insecure about their ''Irishness,'' they felt free to blend the techniques and concerns of international schools with their own styles.
Some of the poets, like Heaney and Thomas Kinsella, are familiar to American readers; but there are strong voices to be discovered in the work of Patrick Kavanagh, Richard Murphy, Denis Devlin, and John Montague. The care of craft, the rich use of language and history, and the focus on nature and the Irish countryside - these find clear and individual expression in the works of these seven men. Maurice Harmon has carefully edited the collection, which is an important introduction to a country whose literature is one of the most exciting today.
About 2,000 miles to the southeast is the land where the Muse spent her childhood: Greece. Contemporary Greek writers are finally finding their way into translation around the world, and in the last two decades two poets have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The work of George Seferis, the 1963 prize winner, is already well read in Europe and America. And now the English-speaking world can experience part of the achievement of Odysseus Elytis with two well-done translations of his poetry.
''Selected Poems'' offers a sampling from 11 volumes of Elytis's work, from his surrealist ''Orientations'' (1940) through his Nobel prize-winning collection ''Maria Nephele'' (1979). In the early poems, Elytis consciously worked against the classical tradition, trying to reveal the truer influences on modern Greek life. Instead he drew his strength from the demotic tradition, folk ballads, and the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church. Perhaps the most pervasive presence throughout his work though is the physical experience of Greece: the sun's intense illumination, the seas strewn with jewellike islands, the life of its proud people beneath the invasion of 20th-century culture and politics. From these, Elytis crafts powerful and sparkling lyrics, sometimes bitter, often full of wonder and celebration.
The entire ''Maria Nephele'' has also been released in a separate edition, and in this poem-sequence, Elytis has created a perfect form for uniting the ancient and contemporary worlds. The book is a series of paired monologues, a duel between two voices over the nature of our age. Maria Nephele (''Maria Cloud'') is a young woman with radical ideas and a razor-edged wit; she would gladly destroy all of history and live instead in the clear present. The second speaker, the poet's alter ego, looks down time's long aisles and tries to see how mankind arrived at its current dangerous state. Despite their obvious differences, the two speakers share a common spirit and a corresponding sense of beauty, though it is obscured by their language and politics.
The several translators who have worked on Elytis's poems combine lyrical and romantic elements with hard-edged contemporary idiom and sensibility. Despite some awkward moments, the result is clear, intimate, and intriguing.