When the Swedish Academy singled out Odysseus Elytis as the 1979 Nobel Prize winner for poetry, they added his name to the meager list of modern Greek poets we have barely heard of: Cavafy, Seferis, Sikelianos, anyone?
Modern music we may hear on FM radio. Modern graphics we may run into on the pages of weekly magazines. But the culture lag in modern poetry makes the Grand Canyon look like a crack in the sidewalk.
But good news: Readers who want to do some catching up with the modern poets may find Elytis's "Axion Esti," or "Praised Be," a reliable crash course. The Swedish Academy dubbed "Praised Be" as "one of the 20th century's most concentrated and ritually faceted poems." Published in Greece in 1959, "Axion" has been much translated abroad, and in America it finds admirable co-translators in Edmund Keeley and George Savidis.
The "Axion," or praise poem, is really a cycle of poems coordinating the growth of the poet's mind with the history of modern Greece. It is at once intensely private and demotically public.
It draws on the poet's childhood in Crete, among his family -- "boys with puffed out cheeks/ . . . old men, Familiar, ancient/shell-skinned, bearded," and a mysterious trio, "the three Black Women/raising their arms toward the east/Their backs gilded/and the cloud they were leaving behind/slowly fading."
It deals with the coming with the coming of "Others," the invading Fascist and Nazi armies, "those who wear the black shirt/and others [who] speak the language or porcupines/and there are the Raw-eaters and the Water-brutes/the Bread- fearers and the Leadenfaced and the Neocondors. . . ."
Against these invading forces the poet pits his identity -- he fought on the Albanian front in 1940 and '41 -- and the "Axion's" central section reads as part memoir, part apocalypse: "I see the nations, once arrogant, abandoned to the wasp and the wood sorrel./ -- I see see axes in the air splitting the busts of Emperors and Generals."
In its third and final section the poem draws upon the poet's love of his native land and its new-won freedom. The poet's eye, no longer the innocent eye of childhood dwells again, after exile, with renewed fervor and delight on The land that dives and rears its back A stone horse the sea rides the myriad tiny blue voices The great white head of Poseidon. The "Anxion" is a poem of many voices. It sings. It keens. It shivers. It sighs. It is filled with "windbeaten verbs" as well as sponges and jellyfish, swords and muskets, wooden tables, stained with wine in the axial sunlight, the distant flashing of the rainbow, kisses teeth to teeth, a wheelbarrow tilting on its side, a "philodendron on duty in the corner."
This is a rich, surreal, symbolist poem, its influences French and ancient Greek, its meanings Pythagorean and Heraclitian. "Axion" is a poem both wedded to the visual world and pointed toward "another world . . . very near yet still unseen," a hidden world of which "the trees starry with good will" may be read as the musical notation.
Elytis may be Greek to the modern reader, but he need no longer remain a stranger.