Provincials of Paros, my wife Elizabeth and I don’t often get the opportunity to strut our stuff in the great world. So when Nikos Sarris and I were invited to present a paper at the big conference in Rome on Odysseus Elytis, we jumped at the chance. Nikos and Marialena’s five-month-old son became the conference’s mascot, and indeed his infant cheer brought good luck.
Nikos and I started translating Elytis in 1974. In 1979 Elytis won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in 1997 Johns Hopkins published our Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis (revised and expanded in 2004), which has received much praise. We have also published articles about him and translations of him in many periodicals in Greece and America, and consequently we were well known to the other participants.
The conference was held at Rome’s great university La Sapienza, which was founded in 1303 by Pope Boniface VIII; Dante, who hated him for power grasping, damned Boniface to hell before he had properly died. The organizer was Paola Minucci, a professor at the university specializing in translation, whom I first met at the House of Literature in Lefkes in August. Her energy, efficiency, patience, and kindness made it all work; she is also a renowned translator of Elytis into Italian.
Most of the guests stayed four nights in a hotel near the university, and we ate all our meals together. We philologists, translators, poets, and critics had a love of literature and especially Elytis in common, and discussion was extensive, if sometimes contentious; I think we all made some new friends and got new ideas, based on our common interests. Half of us were from Greece, and half from Italy, and Greek and Italian were the conference’s two languages. It seemed very strange to me to be sitting at lunch with a table of Italians, sweating under my small command of their beautiful language, only to find they could all speak Greek.
The conference took place at the Athens Theatre, in the middle of the university, and over three days we heard over thirty-five papers. The hall was generally crowded with lovers of Elytis. Both Nikos and I did well, partly because we stayed within our allotted time (I read my paper, Beyond the Sunset: the Journey of Elytis’ Late Trilogy, in multisyllabic Greek). We also participated in a reading of Elytis’ throbbing love poem, The Monogram, in the half dozen European languages in which it appears in a new book; Elytis sounds very musical in Russian. The papers will be published next year.
Among other events were a buffet dinner at the residence of the Cypriot Ambassador to Italy (a nice place), a dinner in a taverna near the Vatican sponsored by the Greek ambassador, and a concert and reading at the Pietro da Cortona hall of the Capitoline Museum; the room was hung with Italian Baroque paintings, the best, of course, by Pietro da Cortona. The beautiful Piazza di Campidoglio – the hill was chief of ancient Rome’s seven, where Jupiter’s great temple reigned – was laid out and designed by Michelangelo, and in the warm evening light looked very festive, even though Marcus Aurelius’ bronze equestrian statue is only a copy. The concert featured the beautiful voice of Spyros Sakkas, accompanied at the piano by Giorgos Kouroupos; the songs, all setting Elytis’ words, were by Theodorakis, Hadjidakis, and Kouroupos himself (he and Sakkas have put out a CD of his songs). Elytis’ lovely widow, the poet Ioulita Iliopoulou, undertook the readings (earlier she presented a paper, and was generally and gracefully at the centre of things). It was an exhausting schedule, but not a dull one.
The day before, I must admit, Nikos sang an Elytis setting to a Byzantine melody, with me at the upright piano.
When Nikos and I began translating Elytis, we had no idea – who did? – that he would become Greece’s National Poet, and Elytis himself was certainly no nationalist. But he has, and that is probably because he embraced so much of the Greek heritage, is so full of hope, and uses more Greek words than any other poet; his language is suffused with the whole history of Greek. The Gloria section of the Axion Esti is almost a compendium of the Greek tradition, published at a time when Greeks were unsure of it. It is this richness that makes Elytis so difficult to translate, and that gives his translators – ten of them at this conference – headaches.
But whoever said great poetry must be easy? And Elytis published great poetry for more than sixty years. Here is a bit from his last and posthumous volume, From Close By:
Worldly things are sad. And also those outside
God has a lack of the living and has enclosed us in a little monastery
As if in a chicken coop lest we leave him. But
We do leave.
But he hasn’t left, and I am sure there will be more conferences on him: he is inexhaustible. And if the next one is as stimulating, productive, and enjoyable as this one, count me in.