by Mona Savvidou-Theodoulou
As published in In Focus Vol. 10, No. 3, September 2013
What poet is not in love with his Muse? What poet does not converse with his inspiration? These questions are, of course, rhetorical and speak to the obvious: the love relationship between poet and poetry, notwithstanding the existence of poets who do not concern themselves with the poetic art itself, other than as a means of self-expression.
In the case of the Modern Greek Literature of Cyprus from 1960 onwards, the poems written about Poetry attribute her true face to her identity. Poetry records the pulse of the historical journey and the political adventures, while the Poem, the Poet and Poetry become carriers of the styles of the times, of the experiences and their effects. They form a mural of words against time and death.
It is worth noting that, while anthologizing Greek-Cypriot poets for the theme “poetry on poetry,” in our effort to record everything written on the subject, we have identified 99 poets and 631 poems on Poetry. The numbers point to what the late G.P. Savvides has said: “It is doubtful whether there exists another island with more poets per square kilometer than Cyprus, with Japan as the only possible exception,” and adding that “this astonishing percentage is matched by comparable quality.”2 The nine Cypriot Neo Romantic or Symbolist poets3 are also anthologized here – poets of the generations between and after the war. The Anthology is divided into two volumes: the first compiles poems about poetry in general, and the second compiles poems dedicated to other poets and/or their poetry.
Study of the material reveals that the contemplations of Greek-Cypriot poets on the functional role of poetry, seeking self-knowledge and self-assurance, revolve around the following thematic axes: Memory-Oblivion, Truth-Illusion, Sadness-Rage, Self-negation-Self-affirmation. Before undertaking a discussion of each theme, we will examine the writing process, which all poets describe poignantly in relation to the seat of the soul, much in the same way it has been described by the ancients and by our national poet Dionysios Solomos.
“And poetry keeps vigil. It devours our guts,” writes Klitos Ioannides, while Pantelis Stephanou says the following about the process of writing a poem (in a poem of the same name):
“I shall rip out my bowels.
I shall ruthlessly uproot my bowels.
I shall put my bowels on display again. […]
Like Prometheus, the messiah!”
Pambis Anayiotos, who considers poetry a Holy Affliction from which he thankfully still suffers, writes:
“I unravel my guts in the light
to sing of the coming pain.”
“I write poems/and the blood flows far from my body again,” confesses Kyriakos Charalambides.
The poetic act is described as “bloody writing” by Nasa Patapiou as well.
“We shall never write a poem again
this void demands
much blood,” declares Klitos Ioannides.
And since Poetry is blood, Yiorgos Constantis declares:
“And the poet waters
in the open windows of the world.”
Poets believe that the “hooves of poetry’s stallion make thought bleed. And this brings freedom.” (Mona Savvidou)
“Verses of sharp crystal
you lay down on paper,
Must you perhaps fill with words
an inconceivable inadequacy –
beneath your feet
a gaping void?
What pedestal is this?” wonders Vasilka Hadjipapa.
“The words/are discharged sharp from the mouth,” explains Louis Perentos. And elsewhere he adds: “On windows I will scratch/the shrieks of my bound verses.”
“This is how poetry becomes the salt that runs in the veins” of poets, explains Andreas Christofides. “And the verses gnaw at their powerful temples,” adds Elli Peonidou.
Poets know that the inspiration “that sets fire” (Mona Savvidou) “shall visit at an unforeseen moment” (Elli Peonidou), that “it grinds its teeth on a sharp stone and returns again and again” (Michalis Pieris), “descending the stairs of the mind, creaking” (Michalis Pashiardis), “and writes on their skin with nails (Louis Perentos). Meanwhile, Michalis Pieris wonders:
“And there was neither door nor window
for you to enter into my life. How did you get in?
Through which crack? Any now, what do you seek?
my entrails were quivering
as though you were deep inside me, again you have descended
the steps in a new advent.”
And Vasilka Hadjipapa confesses:
“And believe me when I say that
on my own I do not write.
To my ear they are whispered
by a voice from the universe.”
She concurs with Michalis Pashiardis, who describes inspiration as “a stabbing voice in the universe.”
“I taste the vibration and the din of the centuries.
Words that writhe like serpents in my mind
and strike me with fatal blows.
threatening with the precipice.
They are words that tremble,
in danger of rupturing
laden with life essence and with the dead,” says Yiota Paraskeva-Hadjocosti for whom “the words dance the Pyrrhic at the cutting edge of death.”
Inspiration is described as “a bird of prey/[…]/with a bronze beak” by Christos Mavris and “like a beast” that “begins to tear and/devour the [his] entrails.”
Therefore, poets believe that “without burning up” the poet only “pretends to partake” in the poetic act (Michalis Pieris).
At this point, we turn to the most important and well-known Cypriot poet in the Hellenic world, Costas Montis, who has also written most of the poems on Poetics, that is to say poems on Poetry. We have counted 72 poems on the theme of “poetry in poetry” dealing with all its aspects. With his epigrammatic, incisive and ironic language, Costas Montas carries out the lengthiest conversation with the nucleus of poetry on record.
“All we who write verses,
all we, the encircling trauma of the Earth,
All we, who write verses
before the moon or the firing squad
who become recycled but not extinct
from Homer or before or forever
to our last insignificant one,
all we – what coincidence!
Without prior arrangement,
without prior contact!
What strange coincidence, my brothers!”
Now we begin the examination of the various thematic axes, starting with Memory-Oblivion.
The events of the last fifty years, from 1960 to the present, are transubstantiated into living consciousness; historical time and geographic place form the unified time-space continuum of the poetic universe. Jointly and inseparably, they compose the content of man’s self-awareness:4 The Zurich-London Agreements, the guarantor powers, a liberation struggle without vindication, the declaration of the Cypriot Independence, the inter-communal clashes, the treacherous coup d’état, the Turkish invasion, the occupation of 37% of Cypriot soil, two hundred thousand refugees – the displacement of one third of the population, hundreds of enclaved, 1619 missing persons, the declaration of the Turkish Cypriot pseudo-state, the climate of eudemonism and complacency, the discovery of mass graves, the identification of human remains, the vision of freedom and of the reunification of the island… Collective memory “becomes the master of sorrow” (Tefkros Anthias) of the poetic body, feeding the view of tragic and inspiration, yet without being able to “map out the dream” home (Alexandra Galanou).
“Only the dream returns that which cannot be returned/and only poetry reassembles the fragmented,” writes Yiorgos Moleskis. “Memory bravely steps on history/to nourish the poem,” observes Pitsa Galazi. But memory and oblivion, gripped by the fate of the divided island, tyrannize on the personal level as well. Poets consider oblivion as treason, both within the self and within history. “Poets leaf through the dictionary entries of oblivion,” explains Alexandra Galanou, “because poets keep memory alive, when others forget.” “Poets are primarily and always vigilant,” states Michalis Pashiardis. “Words become memories that scrape the heart with sharp claws,” adds Vasilka Hadjipapa. “Memories become ghost hunters” and “I will even slay remembrance/in case it transports my pen to feral, shallow worlds,” says Athena Temvriou. “Verses are chimes of memory” for Andreas Maloris, while “inspirations are sharp knives of memory” for Mona Savvidou, and “writing is a pregnant source that silently remembers” for Andreas Makrides. Michalis Pashardis writes the following in his poem “Do not forget”:
“If I write this for you now
it is to make sure, in fact, that we exist
that something which sustains us remains
something of us
like the name of the slain one, even, on the cross.”
Elsewhere he adds:
“Poetry has found me again
poetry has found me
and the forgotten dead
the handsome of tomorrow.”
Michalis Pieris, who admits that “memory scrapes me,” also says:
I will build the fabricated body: the dazzling
beauty, the incorruptible pleasure, the memory
that persists. The memory that hurts.
Within these walls I will enclose myself.”
Nena Filousi gives the following insightful verse: “Poetry is memory, memorial, monument.”
Now we proceed to the thematic axis of Truth-Illusion. The search for truth by all literary generations – by the 1960s generation that emerges from the 1955-59 Liberation Struggle, by the “torn generation” of 1974, and by the ground-breaking younger one, if we were to refer to generations in general terms although the term ‘literary generation’ is conventional, static and cancelled by the dynamics of literature – powers all poets in this remote region of the Hellenic World. Thus, the thematic axis of Truth-Illusion arises from, and is focused on, historical trials, tribulations and experiences. The poet writes with the intent “to carve out the imprints of truth verse by verse“ (Athena Temvriou). Dina Katsouri, in her poem “The poets and the conferences,” writes:
speak for those poets
who simply and eloquently
the pulse of the divided homeland.”
Pantelis Mechanikos writes:
“I believe in the poet of the fire
I believe in the poet who speaks to the crowd.”
“Shipwrecked in the sea of despair
we write with the ink of cuttlefish
verses about our wretched lives
we have betrayed our poetry,” says Yiorgos Constantis.
“(And) May the poet
born of this land
have a deeper language to proclaim” underlines Theodoros Stylianou.
And in the poem “Graffiti” Phoivos Stavrides writes:
“In order to be true to your time
throw poetry to the dogs
From the words keep only
those that shine light at the end of rage
And if they say that you have betrayed poetry
as long as you speak the truth, have no fear.
One who is choking does not sing;
“Tonight I will put my hands into the fire,” says Naya Roussou, “and tragically, fatefully I will seek/to move beyond the shadows/beyond the vacillations/of life and death.”
Poets, being “scions of truth” according to Kyriakos Charalambides, do not tolerate deception, falseness and selfishness, just as they do not tolerate the violation of human rights and complacency, or those who turn a blind eye.
“Let us stop writing at last/with sterile verses our poetry” proclaims Yiorgos Constantis and “with fake identities” adds Vera Korfioti.
“And the more true the verse is/the deeper it scratches your wound,” Yiorgos Moleskis declares.
Theoklis Kouyialis speaks “of the invisible wounds that are/still open and bleed.
[…] until they become dark circles around the eyes/ and pass imperceptibly into the [his] verses.”
Athena Temvriou writes:
“Each with his weapon/the pen and the alphabet and the gunpowder of the word smoking of truth and rage.”
We proceed to the thematic axis of Sadness-Rage, which ensues from the historical events and their consequences, from the grief from whose “oxidation” (Mona Savvidou) poetry is born and becomes manifest in the verses of poets, who become “crucified recluses/with baggage without arrival stamps” and “whose words taste of bitter almond, words are the wounds of the soul” (Yiorgos Constantis).
Yiorgos Constantis continues elsewhere:
“And the poet without shelter
alone in dark ridges
without a green wreath of glory
departs with his head in his hands.”
“Sadness and poetry have a kinship/the internal courtyard,” says Nena Filousi. Pitsa Galazi explains: “An arid place/hatches bitter poems,” while Andreas Pastellas describes poetry as follows:
“Poetry is a sad sister
sitting in the corner silently
or crying without tears on the banks of the Scamander
for the lost youth of Hector
who fights for eons on all the fronts of the world
and loses all his battles
and whose name is often found on the columns of the missing
who incessantly knits the shirt that he will wear
without hope of returning one day.”
In his poem “The words are a game” Lefkios Zafiriou says:
“my eyes inside sorrow
and sorrow outside –
I descend within myself
through the clerestory of poetry
the words are a poem
the words are a game
the great wound
one tear – almond
flows from inside me
and opens the poem.”
The poet with “his life sentence of sorrow for the lost summers” (Phoivos Stavrides) that lives “on a small divided island/with a red line/on the horizon” (Louis Perentos) and whose verses have become “one with the cancer of the soul” (Alexandra Galanou) passes from the poem, which is “the embrace of sorrow” (Alexandra Galanou), to rage.
“A poet is moving among us.
If ever you meet him
He is dangerous!”
The above prophetic poem by Doros Loizou certainly came true with the poet’s murder on August 30, 1974, when unknown assailants shot at his car.
“Do not deny the delirium of the fever
Because it is the bleeding wounds
That save us
Be a fugitive angel
In the shape of a small fist,” urges Andreas Maloris.
“What poet and craftsman what would I be,/as the Poet said. Better/that the poem be filled with rage, bile,/and contempt” proposes Michalis Pieris, while Alexandra Galanou wants the poem to be “a breakwater of rage.” Andreas Pastellas, in the poem “When poets decide to burn their poems,” presents the following image in “sparks of verses explode like small fists.” Meanwhile, according to Lefkios Zafiriou, “when freedom is lost, poetry becomes rifle and sword.” And Elli Peonidou, in addressing poetry, writes: “Poetry/Wrap yourself with ammunition rounds/and go, lead the way./I have recognized you.”
Now we move on to the thematic axis Self-denial-Self-assurance. In terms of the role that they believe poetry imposes, some poets say that they are not poets and renounce the role because, in their opinion, it is misunderstood, or because they understand it differently, criticizing and redefining it.
who told you
that what I do
is called poetry?
clumsily copy the Sun.”
“I am not a poet
I am a tracker
of the dream
I believe I write poems
with frankness and boldness.”
Under the title “Poets in bitter times,” Andreani Eliofotou says the following in the poem “Futility”:
“Above all else poetry toils in vain
And knows it, as it touches
the place of the heart
a hard stone.”
And Andis Roditis says: “I should get used to the idea that no one cares about poetry./But I will wait.”
Eleni Theocharous considers poetry “a post-dated check/barring unforeseen circumstances.”
Naturally, from self-negation stems the need for self-assurance, the need for the affirmation and recognition of poetry. This is what those who are “bitter within themselves” (Costas Montis) and the “sojourners of this world” (Phoivos Stavridis) state “and then come back to you again, oh poetry” (Lefkios Zafiriou) or “return to poetry” (Vera Korfioti).
Certainly, the most representative sample is given by Costas Montis in “Poets”:
“Former kings exist,
former presidents exist,
former prime ministers and ministers exist,
former this and former that,
only former poets do not exist.”
Without doubt, Costas Montis’ poem “Greek Poets” constitutes a deep confession, deposition and testimony from the farthermost edge of Hellenism, Cyprus, the survival nucleus of historical Greece. This poem expresses the poet’s bitterness and, in general, the sorrow of peripheral Hellenism about its persistent fate, about the disregard of metropolitan Greeks and of the rest of the world, about the absence of vindication for and recognition of its poets. Yet this is overcome by the Greek language in which they write, since language is a carrier of culture, consciousness, and a declaration of their identity, which encompasses the timeless sense of belonging to Hellenism and affirms their origins and, through this, their universality. With the existential anxiety that Costas Montis expresses, and with the heartbreaking grief that he experiences, he confronts History within this dominant sorrow, which is primarily racial, as did also C.P. Cavafy in the poems “Return from Greece,” “Poseidonians” and “Epitaph for Antiochus of Commagene.” Below is the poem by Costas Montis “Greek poets”:
“Few read us,
few know our language,
we remain without vindication or applause
in this remote corner,
yet this is equalized for we write in Greek.”
In the younger poets of recent years who try to find their voices within a context of alienation and inner solitude in the mutilated Republic, the attempt at self-definition and at the definition poetry becomes filled with anxiety for the debt that they feel they owe to poetry. According to Doros Loizou:
“for a homeland I have poetry
and I stand guard
with bullets my verses.”
Nadia Stylianou seems to respond to the above with a confession:
“And I – a self-exile from the world
embroider a Poem
with violet thread
for all I have never experienced
and again, I unravel…”
Daphne Nikita says:
“And I, on the edge of the thread
of wild strawberries.”
While Andriani Kritikou adds:
no longer write poems
or drive crosses into graves.
This is how we will always speak
with someone else’s voice.
confirming the confirmed.”
We should also mention the intuitive ability that many poets attain through poetry and end up calling themselves prophets. Like Yiorgos Moraris, they believe that “if the poet has breath he surrenders it to Sibyl” and, in order to have breath, he should be able to see “the ocean floor of his soul” and to reveal “the secret life of words” or, as Niki Marangou says, “the secret landscape of the soul.” Pambis Anayiotos, who “nails into the heart the spikes of hope,” calls himself a “bitter prophet.” Shortly before the tragic events of 1974, Elena Toumazi wrote the following in her poetry collection “Liturgy for the dead present”:
“poets will be born in the future
the same as life
later even later
no one would believe it: how many corners how many steel spikes
exist in an infant!”
Poets clearly believe that poetry “alone will survive death and the final destruction” (George Moleskis).
Another favourite theme among poets is the dialogue with other poets, poets whom they admire or with whom they share spiritual affinity. They dedicate poems to them or refer to their poetry in their own. They speak of and to the major Greek poets, but also of and to Greek Cypriot poets, such as D. Solomos, A. Kalvos, C.P. Cavafy, G. Seferis, O. Elytis, Y. Ritsos, N. Gatsos, N. Vrettakos, C. Karyotakis, T. Papatsonis, T. Livaditis, E. Vakalo, N. Michaelides, P. Liasides, E. Pallikarides, C. Montis, P. Meranos, P. Mechanikos, S. Lazarou, Th. Pierides, Th. Nicholaou, Y. Constantis, A. Pyliotis, D. Loizou, K. Charalambides, L. Zafiriou, N. Orphanides, et al. We also come across poems written about Mayakovski, Lorca, Holderlin, Ezra Pound and Arthur Rimbaud.
Some write of and to women poets. Adrianna Kritikou writes to Sylvia Plath, and Mona Savvidou to Virginia Woolf. Alexandra Galanou writes the poem “Sylvia Plath” and Pitsa Galazi writes one about Eleni Vakalo. Yiorgos Petousis writes about Pitsa Galazi where he includes a reference to Kiki Dimoula, while Maria Peratikou writes to Pitsa Galazi. Nasa Patapiou writes to Christine de Pisan, the poet of the Middle Ages.
At this point, it might be helpful to illustrate by citing the work of three poets:
In the poem entitled “To Andreas Kalvos (About Cyprus),” Costas Montis writes:
“Repeat that ‘lovely and alone’
repeat that ‘lovely and alone’.”
Elli Peonidou writes the following, among other things, to Pavlos Liasides:
“For you poet
Charon shall perish.”
Andreas Pastelas writes the following to Pantelis Mechanikos in the excerpt below:
“Such tales or parables, if you prefer,
we recount, poor Pantelis, in this desert land
that stones its prophets,
at the time when you, a small saint,
will be sitting at the feet
of John the Baptist
listening to him recounting
how they also took his head
for his silly frankness.”
They also write poems to poets with a critical attitude and often in caustic language toward critics and readers, or give advice on poetics to young poets.
We conclude with the key question that poets pose when they face themselves and try to define the vision that “shields their souls” (Yiorgos Constantis): Why do I write?
To shed some light on this, I cite the following examples:
“I speak of unfulfilled passions
beneath the surface of everyday things.”
“Perhaps I might validate the void
of my absence.”
“Why do I write?
But to defend
my innocent blood.
to keep immaculate and intact
the destination of man.”
how would the horse of time
and throw off
the rider death?”
“Whenever I wound
a defenseless word
it is so I can have something
to lay upon
the substantial wounds.”
“I think I finally know
why I write. Because I must utter a truth.”
write poems to set free
“My only weapon
This is why I defend myself
Because the poem remains
the only exit
for history to pass unmasked.”
Summarizing, from this palpation, the deposition of Cyprus on the poetic art, the poet, the poem and poetry, I revert to the poets themselves once more: For the Greek-Cypriot poet “poetry is blood” (Christos Mavris) and love, “an erotic act” (Elli Peonidou). “Stroking the words I am set ablaze/and playing with them I go up in flames” (Elli Peonidou). “It is a longing that no one/can uproot. It writes and it burns” (Christos Mavris).
For the Greek-Cypriot poet “the poem lurks behind what happens in life” (Phoivos Stavrides) “and continues to collect vowels as paraphernalia/to open doors for enclaved souls” (Yiorgos Constantis). “Invisible it still hurts” (Vera Korfioti) “and sings of its fever all day” (Yiorgos Constantis) “to sate the hunger of the soul of man” (Yiorgos Moleskis).
For the Greek-Cypriot poet “only poets tally the price of weapons anymore” and the poem becomes a homeland “to house the refugees with soil and water” (Pitsa Galazi).
I conclude with a poem by Pitsa Galazi as an epilogue. Entitled “Prologue,” it is the preamble to her poetry collection “Hypnopaedia”, published by Ekdoseis ton Filon in 1978. In my opinion, it encapsulates the essence of the poetic art, its depth and width, and the breadth of its meaning. Of the 75 verses, I cite the following:
is the memory and voice of my fractured generation.
The oxygen and the truth serum
in the dark hours of crisis.
is the revolt against servitude and settling
and the battle cry.
The way to endanger and to save myself.
The preservation of the seven-life reincarnation.
The magical water and the radiance.
is words with the triggering pin removed.
Supra-legality and mutiny,
and whatever they call “anti…”
but also the affirmation of beauty.
This is why I exist
in a time
When homelands are sold out,
and the candles for the brave melted down.
This is why I defend myself
I carry the fate of my generation on my shoulders,
expanding the limits of human endurance.
is an ark and poets travel
single-souled with memories and embracing things
historicising the floods.
Keeping untarnished the identity of our country
I speak in an odd language
– my only weapon –
and I defend myself.
Since even poetry has wound up becoming
a private affair.
Translated by Irena Joannides
1. Introduction to the anthology Poetry In Poetry published by the Cyprus PEN Centre and edited by Mona Savvidou-Theodoulou.
2. Savvides, G.P., The House of Memory, Athens, Spoudastirio Neou Ellinismou, pp 98-9.
3. Papaleontiou, Lefteris – Philokyprou, Elli, Cypriot Post Symbolist Poetry, Topos Publications, Athens 209, pp, 13,3.
4. Kapsomenou G., Eratostheni, Modern Greek Culture and the Mediterranean Cultural Prototype, New Hermes, The Intellectual for a New Illumination, Periodical publication of the Association of the Study of Greek Culture, Year 1, Issue 1, January-April 2011, p 61.