EROS IN THE DIALECTAL POETRY OF CYPRUS

by  Yiorgos Moleskis

As published in In Focus, Vol. 9, No. 4, Dec. 2012

As regards the topic of my speech, let me specify from the outset that I will be looking at authored poetry in the Cypriot dialect from the age of Vassilis Michaelides onwards. To extend backwards across love rhymes and demotic songs as well as to seek associations with modern dialectal poetry are aims that lie beyond the scope of this presentation. 

The space occupied by the theme of erotic love in the dialectal poetry of Cyprus starting from Dimitris Lipertis is immense, perhaps bigger than that taken up by any other topic. I specifically begin with Lipertis because he, more than anyone else, had paved by example the path which learned poets were to tread, writing as they did in the Cypriot dialect; but Lipertis also opened the way for folk poets to advance from the lengthy narrative style of oral lore to folkloric, practical philosophical, amorous and other poems of limited length. Lipertis was, of course, preceded by Vassilis Michaelides who, after a long tenure in the formal language, the katharevousa and the demotiki, went on to write in the Cypriot dialect those poems which would elevate him to the status of an important poet, indeed the national poet of Cyprus. Nevertheless, it was Lipertis’ verse structure, style, choice of themes, and his wider folkloric and didactic approach, ingrained into traditional knowledge, that his subsequent dialectal poets would choose to cultivate. To a large extent, this also holds true for the topic under review, namely love poetry.

With reference to Vassilis Michaelides, this particular topic summons up his single love poem written in the Cypriot dialect – save his “myllomena” or risqué poems – titled “Ανεράδα” [The Fairy]. There should be no doubt that this renowned poem marks a special moment in the entire course of Cypriot poetry, and not just its dialectal manifestations. At the same time, it is much more than just a love poem. Written in verses that flow like musical melody, in Michaelides’ contemporary dialect of Mesaoria, natural and devoid of superfluous ornamentations, conjuring images reminiscent of a breathtaking landscape, this poem invites interest in a multitude of ways.

The poet creatively adjusts to his own choice of themes and poetics the erratic poetic motif of the fairy, variations of which may be encountered in demotic but also authored works of different peoples, for instance in the well-known demotic song “Ο πραματευτής” [The Peddler], as well as in an array of works by renowned poets, Greek and non-Greek alike, including John Keats, Alexander Pushkin, Heinrich Heine, Mikhail Lermontov, Valéry Brioussov, Georgios Vizyinos, Costis Palamas and others. Useful insight into this topic is offered by Lefteris Papaleontiou’s study on “The motif of the Fairy and the anxiety of the poet” in “Στοχαστικές Προσαρμογές. Για την ιστορία της νεοελληνικής λογοτεχνίας” [Reflective adjustments. For the history of Modern Greek literature]i.

Michaelides’ “Anerada” arouses mad and uncontrollable ardor into the man who comes across her, with promises of unspeakable joys and thrills along with hopes for a paradisiacal life; only to abruptly abandon him to despair, madness and death:

Λαλεί μ’ : Αν είσαι πέρκαλλος,
τωρά πκιον μείνε δίχως μου,
αν σου αρέσκ’ έτσι ζωή·
τζια ξαπολά ’ναν χάχχανον
ίσια ‘’νωσα το στήθος μου
πως αλλονάκκον να ραεί. ii

She said: “If you’re so stately,
go on, without me now live;
that is, if you have got the heart”.
Upon this she with laughter shrieked
and at her mirth I felt as if
my chest had almost nearly cracked.

Aside the motif of the Fairy, Michaelides’ poem contains a personal yearning which could have stemmed from a love unrequited. At the same time, it comprises allegorical allusions to some lost dream, or even poetic inspiration which guides the poet to magical worlds and lifts him to the highest heights before cruelly deserting him. This same motif is encountered in the poetry of Pavlos Liasides, for instance in the poem “Είσαι Ανεράδα” [You are a Fairy] which, as Lefteris Papaleontiou observes, evokes both the “Cypriot ‘demotic’ traditions about the fairies”, as well as Vassilis Michaelides’ “Anerada”iii.

You’ re not of one mind with us,
no woman’s womb has spawned you;
no angels hurled you down to earth,
whose seed you are, I’ll tell you;
of the waves, the tempestuous sea,
of the winds and of the highest cliffs
you are the daughter. But alas, you went astray
and I the first to endure the unforgiving pain. iv

The same motif of the beloved enchantress Liasides employs in a few other poems too; but there, it follows a reverse course and functions in a clearly allegorical manner: the poet is enamored with his “fairy” who appears at first unapproachable and unreachable, but after putting on a passionate struggle with all the concomitant faith and devotion, he finally wins her. Yet this fairy is not a woman; it is poetry itself:

Since I was seven I was struck by a single idea,
and unwillingly I fell in love with the daughter of a king.
I knew her not, but what of it? only in the mind’s eye
had I forged the image I imagined I had glanced at.
The yearning lodged in my heart, slowly eating away
had forced me to abandon school and leave half way through.
………………………………………………………………
So I crafted an airplane, my very own invention
and set out to find her or lose my life in trying.
………………………………………………………………
Thrice I roamed around the globe
until I finally met her, at twenty five and a half.
As soon as she laid eyes on me she put her arms around me
for she had love for me as well, in secret, as an infant!
I suffered dearly at the hands of fear and despair
but I have won her whom I love – poetry is her name.v

Of course, as already mentioned above, the man who established love poetry in the Cypriot dialect is Dimitris Lipertis. Amidst his poems of a moral-didactic and often folkloric disposition, with representations of mores and characters of the Cypriot countryside wherein the narrative element prevails, a considerable part is devoted to poems about love. These may be classified into two categories: those themed after love but which lack the personal biographical element, and those composed upon a personal yearning. The same categorization of Lipertis’ body of work is proposed by Pavlos Paraskevas in the introductory volume to the poet’s Complete Works, published by Chr. Andreouvi.

To the first category belong poems in which the poet-narrator presents a love story or a topic permeated by a folkloric approach engrafted into traditional knowledge. He either talks about the conceited or aloof woman who, at the end, pays the price for her refusal to fall in love with the passionate young man who lusts after her; or for the woman who denies and abandons her beloved to the throes of agony, e.g. “Η Κουκκουφέλλα” [The disgraced  woman], “Η κούφη της ελιάς” [The olive tree hollow], “Ο Δκιαλαλητής” [The town crier], “Η αππωμένη” [She, high and mighty], “Το άχιν της” [Her spite] and many more. Sometimes he employs a humoristic and ironic mood to describe female cunningness, as in the renowned dialogic poem “Η Γιαλλούρα” [The blue-eyed girl], or talks about beauty posing lethal danger to the young man who should become trapped in its web, as in “Πεζεύκει πίσκοπον” [She could make a bishop dismount his horse] and many more.

The second category includes an array of poems wherein the personal element is readily discerned on the planes of both myth and topic, as well as on the level of emotions. These poems lead us to conjecture that they draw on some of the poet’s biographical details, that they were spawned from a personal yearning, probably unattainable, either from the admiration and longing he had felt for a woman, or from lust. Of course everything is rendered in Lipertis’ poetic manner, with a large dose of imagination, fictional elements and images evoking an idyllic world – which is precisely why these elements are transposed and incorporated into Lipertis’ well-worked, distinctive poetics. At the risk of being wrong, in this category I would venture to place such poems as “Βούττημαν ήλιου” [Sunset], which despite its affinities to similar poetic motifs, expresses a fine, ingrained personal feeling; “Στην ομορφήττερην της χώρας” [To the most beautiful girl in the country], “Το τζιούριν” [The casket], “Μεθ θαρρευτείς πως εν να σου γελάσω” [Don’t think that I will deceive you], “Θωρώ σε τζι΄ούλλον έναν αρωτώ” [I look at you and wonder but one thing], “Το αερούδιν” [Breeze] and other. In the same category I would even place the poem “Οι πόθοι μου” [My desires]:

Μπορούν να κόψουν τον αέραν που περνά
Τζι ήντα ’σ’ ει μέσα του το χας, μπορούν να δούσιν;
Πόθεν η νάκαρα τ’ ουρανού εν π’ αρκινά
Τζιαι πού τελειώννει, ποττέ ξαίρουν για λαλούσιν;
Αν ένι τούτα βολετόν για να γινούν,
Τότες τα μέσα μου τζι εμεν εννά πεικάσουν,
Τότες τζι οι πόθοι μου τζι εμέν εννά φανούν,
Που φτερατζιάζουν τζιαι λαμνίζουν για να φτάσουν.vii
 
Can anyone stop the air from flowing through?
Or glance at what it is that chaos contains?
Whence starts the edge of heaven or its end,
Who knows? Or better still, who is to ascertain?
But if perchance such things are meant to be,
then what’s inside me will surely take shape,
then all my longing will emerge in plain view
complete with wings, yearning to fly away.

The example of Dimitris Lipertis was emulated by other learned poets. From the earlier ones, reference should be made to Antonis Klokkaris and Costas Markides, the authors of quite a few love poems broadly articulated within the spirit of Lipertis’ poetry. From subsequent learned poets, Costas Montis and Michalis Pashardis have written in the dialect. Of their works, quite a few have love themes and, albeit dialectal, they keep to the writing style and tone of their author – but not without a certain dose of mannerism, the mood to play with language and the theme uttered through it. This is amply evident in the dialectal poetry of Costas Montis:

Θωρώ την εγ κατάκλειστη για μέναν η καρκιά της
τζι αντίς να δω που να ισιώσω,
που να φατσιήσω της κκελλές μου να γλυτώσω,
βίρα τζιαι βίρα τζι’ αχτυπώ γυρόν
τζιαι μάχουμαι σαν το μωρόν
νάβρω μιαχ χαραμούαν να τρυπώσω. viii

Her heart is sealed to me, I know.
But do I look to run away?
To knock my head against a wall and so be saved?
Round and round do I prowl
struggling like a newborn
to find a crack and therein crawl my way.

Of special interest is the love poetry of Pavlos Liasides. Even though he initially followed the example of Dimitris Lipertis, as in writing short poems in the Cypriot dialect covering local, mainly rural topics, his is nevertheless a different approach, for Liasides uses language in a manner which is authentic and allows him to naturally identify with his topics. He lives everything from within, this is his own world; he is not a folklorist, he doesn’t represent a world he observes from the outside, but one he experiences from within, ridden with prejudices and phallocratic perceptions. Still, what affords him originality and poetic interest is mainly his revolutionary and subversive dispositions. These elements take up a large part of his love poetry, which stands out by means of its intense passion and wealth of moods. It is sometimes visibly “autobiographical” and other times given to amorous moods and imagination, forged upon conjured myths and stories. However, these poems too appear to draw on the poet’s personal biographical details and emotional “escapades”:

The girl I love is deeply in despair
Because of life, of bliss, because of love.
Stricken by grief and poverty she fares
whilst bringing comfort into my joyless heart. ix
or
Each Sunday, lass, as I pass along your alley
and you stand in the doorway smiling at me
then hunger leaves me as well as shame for what they’ll think.
Your love, your gaze, they nurture me and I invite
any physician to go on, examine me
He’ll learn a lesson of how to live eternally. x

The subversiveness proper to Liasides’ social-political poetry is extended across his love poems. In the poem “Έπαρ’ την να λείψει” [Do away with her] the poet appeals to the very Creator, asking him to annihilate the creature he has made, lest by the power of her beauty she should destroy the world:

Θεέ μου που την έπλασες λάθος σου ήτουν, σκέφτου
πόσα κορμιά στον πόλεμον του έρωτά της ππέφτουν
μμα ‘’χουν τζιαι δίτζιον. Έντζι έσιει άλλην να της ι-μοιάσει.
Το δειν της μιοάζει τα’ ουρανού πο’ ’σιει νερά τζιαι στράφτει
τζιαι ρίβκει τζι αμολόητον τζιαι τζιει που ππέφτει βλάφτει.
Μιτά της όποιος ι-μπλεχτεί αδύνατον να ζήσει
μμας τζι εν λεισιήνα πον ’φήννει το χόρτον να βλαστήσει.
Γι’ ανάρκωσ’ της τες ομορκιές, για έπάρτην να λείψει
γιατί τον κόσμον πο’ ’πλασες εννά τον καταρίψει. xi

My God, how wrong of you it was to have created her,
think of the corpses that amass fighting for her love.
No blame befalls them; she’s unique. The sky is in her gaze,
brimful with rain and lightning whilst casting the unsaid,
bound to ruin anything on which it goes to rest.
No man can weave his life with her and go on living full;
She’s like a lichen that prevents the grass from sprouting through.
But if her beauty you cannot revoke, then take her with you,
or else the world you’ve crafted, God, to nothing she’ll reduce.
 Immersed in passion, these verses are reminiscent of Vladimir Mayakovski’s poem “The Backbone Flute”: xii
What heavenly Hoffman
thought of your likeness, accursed and heinous?
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Only do this for me –
Take away that heinous
whom you’ve made my only beloved. xiii

Also of note is the love poetry of another significant folk poet of Cyprus, Kyriakos Karneras. His is a small body of work since, being illiterate, he had to compose his poems and commit them to memory until he could find a literate man to note them down. Nevertheless, Karneras has written a few beautiful love poems that although somewhat reminiscent of Lipertis or Liasides, are original works that bear his personal mark. A hymn to the beauty of the beloved, unattainable love, rejection, separation caused by death, but also the pleasures of an amorous affair that finds its way to consummation are the main topics of Karneras’ love poems – most of them succinct, with a distinctive clarity of images and feelings, and musicality of verses.

There is a bee that every dawn, instead of setting out
to gather nectar from the fields, the highest peaks and hills,
and choose the fairest of the buds so as to make honey,
to keep in store and eat each time with hunger she’s replete
prefers to rise at daybreak and merrily take wing
- given to tender lullabies and singing all along–
until she hovers round and round the woman that I love
longing to harvest from her cheeks the fruit to make honey.xiv

In other poems, Karneras revisits the topic of separation imposed on two lovers by death’s devastating intervention in their lives and love. I cannot tell whether these poems belong to the sphere of the imaginary, born under the bearing of Dimitris Lipertis’ renowned poem “Sunset” or if they embark from an actual event which had sealed Karneras’ personal life, a commonplace in folk poetry as far as sources of inspiration go; in any case, these poems are evidently permeated by fine, sincere longing:

If only I were the earth, my love of old, the ground
that holds you tightly in its arms;
of toil I’d be content to faint, promptly, without a doubt
nor would I’ve craved heaven to live among the birds.
If only I were the earth they dug to craft your nest,
the cresset for the candle that at your bedside burns.
If only I were the shroud, the olive wreath; to go
exactly where you are now, to merge with you in whole. xv

Almost every folk poet in Cyprus has engaged in love poetry. Boasting either more or less originality, their poems move within the framework presented above and allude to the work of the greatest poets who chose to write in the dialect. There is, however, another genre of love poetry, quite common in its own right, the short (either couplet, triplet or quatrain) amorous poem or song, which also engaged the efforts of most folk poets. This particular genre holds more palpable links to tradition and belongs to the sphere of oral or “performative” works, with strong pretenses to improvisation rather than written tradition. It is a genre usually sung at various events, often accompanied by violin; nevertheless, it is also encountered in numerous published collections of folk poets. Even though it does share common elements with the “tsiattista”xvi (lively, impromptu oral poetry), this particular category of love songs is quite different. It is true that folk poets did sometimes compete as to who would produce the best song, but not in the form of a rivalry; poetic dueling would be a more appropriate term.

Even though the theme on which love songs are crafted is predetermined and has its own rules, these songs do contain an impressive array of images, finds, comparisons and parallelisms. Their poetics is precisely based on resourcefulness, exaggeration and absurdity, through which ardor comes forth. The beloved’s pulchritude is unparalleled: a mere look or smile of hers suffices to elevate the enamored man to a state of elation or make him capable of tasks mightier than Hercules’. Her denial can kill him; her love can bring him back to life. There is, in other words, a designated poetics, an established, well-processed system of means and manners of expression, a circle of symbols and images, comparisons and metaphors skillfully employed to render amorous passion, describe beauty, express the power of love etc.

The poet of the amorous song is not necessarily in love, neither does he need to address his poems to someone in particular. No assortment of “fall-outs” and reconciliations, acceptance or rejection, smiles, held gazes and silences is necessary here. This is a game in progress, based on fixed rules, which allows an eighty-year-old man as much as a twelve-year-old child to compose and sing their own love songs – brimmed with passion no less. Here are a few samples:

Oh my beloved, whom I have lost, come back to my embrace,
and as my feet doth here stand straight on the grave’s steps
the Rock of the Greek I’ll lift and carry from Paphos on my back. xvii 
(Georgios Katsantonis)

I was with her when we had walked the outskirts of Skala
and in the salt lake when she laid her hands
the salt was gone, and now instead of giving salt
the lake does give sweet sugar.  xviii
(Kostas Katsantonis)

As she emerged and I saw her, a statue from the sea
my heart did nearly stop.
Death didn’t take me, I have lived, but not without losing
my hearing, and my wits
and also my tongue.  xix
(Nikolas Kouvaros)

Eros is a timeless topic, a perennial one, entrenched in the poetry of all peoples across time. It is expressed through an array of currents and styles, infused with the grain and colour of each epoch, but also with the mentality of a people. It appears therefore that the dialectal love poetry of Cyprus illustrates in, its own way, the amorous perceptions, desires and fantasies of the Cypriots during a period of historical and social evolution. Changes in the way of life and the retreat of the dialect have had their own bearing on poetry. But this is a subject that calls for a separate investigation.

Translated by Despina Pirketti 
Translator’s Note: All dialectal poems referenced in this essay are rhymed in the original, from which we give samples for our Greek-speaking readers. Even though a reproduction of the correspondence of sounds in the English translation has not been achieved in full, care has been taken to preserve the musicality of verses, which in quite a few fortuitous cases also does justice to rhyme. (D.P.)  

i. Lefteris Papaleontiou, Στοχαστικές προσαρμογές. Για την ιστορία της νεοελληνικής λογοτεχνίας. Gavrielides Editions, Athens 2000, pp. 17-56.

ii. Vassilis Michaelides, Άπαντα. Β’ έκδοση, συμπληρωμένη. Chr. Andreou Editions, Nicosia 2002, p. 125.

iii. Giorgos Kehayoglou – Lefteris Papaleontiou: Ιστορία της νεότερης κυπριακής λογοτεχνίας. Δημοσιεύματα Κέντρου Επιστημονικών Ερευνών, Nicosia 2010, p. 299.

 iv. Pavlos Liasides, Η παραλλαή του τζιαιρού. Nicosia, Cyprus, 1937, p. 30 [Cypriot text]v. Ibid. pp. 52-53. [Cypriot text]vi. Pavlos Paraskevas, Δημήτρης Λιπέρτης. Η ζωή και το έργο του. Chr. Andreou Publications, Nicosia 1988, p. 112.

vii. Dimitris Lipertis, Άπαντα. Chr. Andreou Publications, Nicosia 1988, p. 211.

viii. Costas Montis, Στη γλώσσα που πρωτομίλησα. Nicosia 1980, p. 15.

ix. Pavlos Liasides, Χάραμαν φου, Cyprus 1944, p. 19 [Cypriot text].

x. Pavlos Liasides, Τα φκιόρα της καρκιάς μου, Cyprus 1933, p. 22 [Cypriot text].

xi. Pavlos Liasides, Τραγούδια του νησιού μου, Cyprus, 1928, p. 29.

xii. Vladimir Mayakovski, «Στων σπονδύλων των αυλών» in Odysseas Elytis, Δεύτερη γραφή. Ikaros 1976, pp 185-196.

xiii. English translation by Andrey Kneller [Translator’s Note].

xiv. K. Th. Karnera, Ποιητικά Άπαντα. Ministry of Education, Cultural Services, Nicosia 1980, p. 30 [Cypriot text].

xv. Ibid. p. 29 

xvi. Inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2011. [Translator’s Note]

xvii. The poem was recited in the 1985 Kataklysmos Fair in Larnaka. It has been transcribed here from memory by Giorgos Moleskis.

xviii. K. Katsantonis, Κοτσινοΐτικα τραούδκια. Βιβλιοθήκη Κυπρίων Λαϊκών Ποιητών, Nicosia 1980, p. 7.

xix. Ανθολογία κυπριακής λαϊκής ποίησης. Ministry of Education – Cultural Services, Nicosia 1980, p. 194.

 
 

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