Essay / 6 October 2022

The place of new Greek poetry in world literature today

Authors of the Week: Greece

Poetry and Reception

The position of Greek literature in world literature reflects the position of Greece in the world. If we try to put ourselves in the shoes of an average reader from one of the countries whose literatures participate in the global circulation of translated works to a greater extent than Greek literature, we imagine a perspective like this: we all know that something is there, in the south, sometimes we even hear some news from over there, especially when that news somehow relates to us. The news sometimes even grows into short-term trends, if it contains a promise or a threat of spilling over to the rest of the world. This is, of course, a cynical approach, but three events solidified this impression in us – Odysseas Elitis’ and Giorgos Seferis’ Nobel prizes and their aftermath, and the third, which is the main topic of this article, was the 2010s Greek economic crisis.

Greek Poetry – is it all just in our heads?

To Greek poets and readers, Elitis and Seferis are relevant because their works thematized topics relevant to us, and did it in a very profound way. Their works are, still, embedded in their contexts – complex poetic systems that had their predecessors, successors, time and place. Abroad, we can’t help but feel that these two poets are relevant because, unlike many equally good Greek poets of their generation, they won a big international prize. It is great indeed to have two Greek Nobelists, yet the question arises – ‘so what?’ Did these events spark long-term interest and improve understanding of Greek literature? Did they help reconnect Greek culture with the centres of European cultural production, making it an equal participant, rather than an exotic yet familiar, trendy addition to the main offer of the European canon? We don’t think so.

If two Nobel prizes weren’t enough to change the perception of Greek poetry abroad, the economic crisis wasn’t going to do it either, though it did spark some interest from foreign publishers when it started. Suddenly it seemed that almost everyone was interested in the sad song of the exotic birds. They hadn’t yet heard it, of course, but they believed it had to exist. The crisis was a great opportunity for many things: after a few years of being neglected, class as a topic of art took the centre stage in the cultural debate once again. Questions as to where globalized neoliberal capitalism was going were raised. Also, many tears were shed. Many, many tears of the now impoverished Greeks to touch the hearts of sensitive European readers.

But there was a slight problem that went largely unnoticed outside of Greece, but it sparked quite a debate on the Greek intellectual scene. It turned out that Greek poets, especially the younger ones, weren’t so keen on participating in these Greek poverty publishing specials. To understand this, it is first necessary to understand the recent history and circulation of translated works by Greek authors.

Why doesn’t anyone see these books we see?

Amongst the first intellectuals who wrote about the problem of translation of Greek works abroad was Vassilis Lambropoulos. He is C. P. Cavafy Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan, and he has endeavoured for decades to classify, analyze and promote Greek literature abroad. He is also the only scholar who extensively wrote about the poetic generation of the 2000s in Greece. When the topic of Greek translations became prevalent on the Greek intellectual scene, many respected names joined the debate. In an article titled The Place of Greek Literature in the World Republic of Letters, published on his blog Piano Poetry Pantelis Politics, Vassilis Lambropoulos writes:

Greek writers who live in Greece play no role in what Pascale Casanova has called ‘the world republic of letters’ (1999). Recognition in this prestigious republic eludes them. They are not unknown, their presence is sometimes noted, but they haven’t achieved the distinction that is generated by broad and lasting interest in works, schools or genres.

Lambropoulos sees the appearance of a small number of Greek authors on the international markets as a result of ‘tokenism, “equal opportunity”, today’s headlines on the “Greek crisis”, and networking’ (ibid), and believes, that as such, these books ‘do not become primary sources of value, knowledge, power, judgment, learning, selfhood and conduct, and sooner or later they are relegated to the introverted reading and teaching purview of Greeks and Philhellenes’ (ibid).

Writer Nikos A. Mantis, in his article for O Anagnostis, titled Συζήτηση: Γιατί δεν μας διαβάζουν στο εξωτερικό; (Conversation: Why Don’t They Read Us Abroad?), shares Lambropoulos’ critical perspective on the manner in which Greek translations are appearing abroad, and writes that ‘[b]ooks are certainly translated and published in foreign languages, but their shelf life in foreign bookstores remains short – with the possible exception of university libraries. Almost no title manages to acquire, not the status of a classic, but even a small recognition among the international audience’. The author looks for the reasons for this phenomenon, and argues that Greek literature may be uninteresting to foreign readers for historical reasons. He identifies three main causes for this lack of interest: ‘the Neo-Greek anthropotype’, which he describes as a ‘mindset that favours pursuit of survival’. It is, he believes, a mentality that is a product of special socio-economic conditions, and the authors socialized under these conditions have a ‘small and humble’ mindset, which is reflected in their works. The second reason is traditionally homogenous, mainly working-class Greek society that has often been endangered from the outside and whose aesthetics, derived from those conditions, are not compatible with the novel as a genre in which the bourgeoisie critically questions itself. The third reason Mantis pinpoints are the subjects of Greek literature which are rooted in the historical and cultural singularity of Greece. In his opinion, Greek history isn’t similar or connected to the history of any other European country, and it doesn’t fit any common categorization. However elaborate and complex his analysis may be, it has to be said that the characteristics of Greek “mentality” or social structure can’t be the main cause. It is always possible to find functional ways of presenting literature abroad, shaping the perceptions of already written works. These ways are determined by cultural politics and have to be planned out and put into practice. ‘They don’t understand us, so they don’t care to get to know us’ can be an observation that starts the debate, but what to do next?

No cultural product is simply understood in a different cultural context. It is not given that anyone from Greece would intuitively understand James Joyce’s Ulysses via some historical connection. Every aesthetics or poetics that has ever become dominant in Western culture at some point had a good marketing team behind it. Readers abroad are told that this way of writing is good, that this book is valuable so they should try to understand it. Who is doing this explaining for Greek literature? Who is the one who should be doing that? As much as one would want to believe that the problem is in the Greek books – which would make it easy to solve the problem by writing better books – the situation is, it seems, more complex, and it has to do both with how the Greek institutions treat Greek literature, and how this lack of coherent cultural politics results in a systemic lack of understanding, and in turn a lack of interest from abroad.

Mantis and Lambropoulos both acknowledge the fact that a handful of Greek books are translated abroad, and then not much happens with them. But where they differ is the perception of the root cause of this problem and the question of how to respond to this.

In the text Πώς μπορεί μια λογοτεχνία να έχει διεθνή απήχηση; (How Can a Literature Gain Recognition?) written for The Hartis Magazine, Vassilis Lambropoulos writes:

The reason is simple. Our translated writers are not reviewed, analyzed, compared, anthologized, or awarded. The translations fall into the void and are quickly forgotten, even when they are included in modern Greek series […] If a translated literary work is not included in the literary insert of a foreign newspaper, a review of books, a tribute, a conference, an anthology, a teaching manual, its translation means almost nothing. As long as it does not participate in literary discussions, exchanges, activities and studies, it remains mute and unknown.

If there were funds for international projects that would explore Greek literature, and a systemic way to implement these projects in continuity, the situation would be much different. After all, as writer and professor of neo-Hellenic studies at the University of Birmingham Dimitris Tziovas argues, ‘the promotion of Greek books abroad is often confused with the interest of foreigners in Greek literature. These are two different things. One has to do with the state’s cultural policy on books in general and not just literature, and the other concerns whether Greek literature is attractive to foreign audiences, and to what extent. “Why are we not read abroad?” […] is not the same thing as “What do we have to do to be read?”’

For a very long time, it seemed as though the authors had been left to individually engage in the survival of the fittest, whatever the fittest may mean at a given moment – having connections, an easily translatable style, or not relying too much on the Greek cultural context and its poetics that are specific to Greek poetry and not commonly understood abroad. When it seemed that there was no way to promote our books outside of the country, the Greek economic crisis became a globally-known phenomenon. Suddenly, this exotic isolated culture caught attention, and it seemed that the publishers abroad cocked their ears the better to hear about Greek literature. But, not much came out of this.

Finally, we had a topic that could sell our books internationally, and we had the publishers’ attention. But the problem was simply this: the crisis is not what we write books about. Yes, in the 2010s, many poets were writing about many things, including the crisis. But the crisis is not the common denominator of the most recent body of Greek poetry.

Can we sell books without selling out?

When there was suddenly an initiative for our generation to gather around the crisis, many poets felt they were being patronized and made to quickly produce new work to satisfy this demand for works on a topical issue. Also, many poems were deliberately misread as being about the crisis. It was a topic that was imposed from the outside, as the seemingly only opportunity to be noticed abroad.

The anthologies of works produced at one time and place should reflect the actual literary production of that time and place. From the gathered sample of the best works from that time and place, conclusions should be made about that corpus of work. This process was the opposite – it started from supposing what the main themes could be, and then trying to falsely represent the whole literature production by presenting a selection of works (often mediocre, written as side-projects, especially for this opportunity) that fit that theme – the Greek crisis.

It is no wonder, then, that writer and art theorist Antzela Dimitrakaki, in her essay Ελληνική λογοτεχνία – Crisis tourism; (Greek literature – Crisis Tourism?) written for O Anagnostis, called this interest “crisis tourism”, and perceived the potential submission of the authors to this interest as a way of self-colonization. In a provocative and insightful text, she writes:

[T]he bourgeois hegemony […] wishes, and succeeds, to bring everything to its own devices. After all, this would be hegemony: extracting consent instead of brute imposition. […] [T]he Western gaze wants victims, crises, disasters – that's what sells because the audience feels, illusory, that they are participating in some type of critique sitting in a screening room. […] [T]here is no deeper colonial logic than that which prompts you to consider ‘your crisis’ as capital that you have and can exploit. It is the last step in your descent into the well of your own servitude. […] [L]iterature shoots itself in the head when it accepts its imprint as crisis tourism. Even if it did it with some irony, its critical stance would be erased and all that would remain visible would be the articulated anxiety of belonging to the genesis of the crisis itself.

Similarly, Tziovas sees ‘[t]he “resistance to crisis tourism” and the refusal of the label by Greek poets […] as an act of resistance to the exploitation of the crisis, and to Western expectations for its literary representation’, he sees this reaction as a positive event – not as a retreat or a disappearance, but also as an implicit critique of the Western attempt to act decolonizing. This lack of interest to group themselves as “poets of the crisis” by the younger generation of Greek poets is, from this perspective, not a missed opportunity, but an attempt to correct the fact that even supposedly inclusive, decentralizing, decolonizing actions if they aren’t performed carefully, act in a colonial way.

No sooner than one thinks this debate has finally been resolved – proud Greeks, ignorant Westerners – the complexity of this subject reveals itself yet again, and from every conclusion three new questions arise.

For instance, it was not only ‘the Westerners’ that provoked revolt against the grouping around crisis poetry, this reluctance seemed to be a general tendency. Lambropoulos writes that, when he tried to promote Greek literature abroad, the poets weren’t keen on presenting themselves as a generation, and would rather prefer not to be presented at all:

In the mid-2010s, a very broad interest in translations of new Greek poetry arose in many languages […]. As a professor holding a neo-Hellenic chair […] I tried to analyze [some of this poetry] and present it in English with book reviews, studies and posts on my blog, as every professor does for his subject. But when I sought to engage in dialogue with Greek poets, to my surprise I met with an absolute refusal. All were willing to discuss things with me, but the vast majority emphasized that they did not want to be grouped in any way: ‘we are neither generational nor postmodern nor leftist nor melancholic nor women nor queer nor Southern nor colonialist nor performative nor any other methodological category. We do not accept to be grouped in any way by criticism and philology. We are each a unique poet and a unique poetess.’

What were they asking for? They demanded to be judged individually and interpreted solely by aesthetic criteria. When I answered them that, in analyzing cultural phenomena we necessarily grouped and generalized, and that it was not possible to write 30 books in foreign languages ​​about a group of 30 poets, no matter how remarkable they were, they ended the conversation by saying that it was better, then, to write nothing. And so nothing was written.

Was the reluctance of our generation to be grouped as poets of crisis a resistance to the neo-colonial gaze, or a resistance to any kind of naming and grouping by someone outside their circle? And was this reaction rooted in autonomy or spite?

It is a fact that there are no systematic attempts to promote Greek poetry sustainably. Therefore, if foreign publishers’ initiatives were rejected, one should think at least individual efforts by academics would be embraced. For instance, the prominent Greek poet and translator Dimitris Angelis wrote that since ‘the infrastructure that once supported [the Greek book], guaranteeing it a minimal base of readers, has been dissolved’, we should make the most of the windfalls like the spark of interest during the crisis.

It wasn’t, then, the question of whether or not we wanted to play the game by the rules. The question was whether we wanted to try to subvert the rules of the game (gather around the crisis and try to use it for our benefit), or to ignore the game altogether (refuse to be grouped around the crisis as a factor). But were we really strong enough to subvert the rules of the game on an international level, if we couldn’t even get our work respected in our own country? Were we resisting, or was it learned helplessness?

In the name of naming, and beyond the name

In her essay for O Anagnostis, Σχόλια και ερωτήματα για το θέμα “Ποίηση, κρίση” (Comments and questions on the topic of poetry and crisis), professor and literary critic Varvara Rousso writes: ‘the most interesting and most important question to examine is to what extent and under what conditions mature poets thematized the crisis in the 2010s’. It is, for us, a very important question, because it sums up the debate about the attempts to name our generation. To a generation of poets, it makes no difference whether their common denominator is determined by philologists, critics and scholars at home, or by the publishing houses abroad; it makes no difference whether the labelling is done by the traditional Greek elite institutions, or by the rules of the global free market. What matters is whether the label corresponds with what is in the texts – whether it truthfully reflects what we write about and who we are as authors. Was this a rebellion of young Greek poets against a subtle colonial form of pigeonholing, or a rebellion against the idea that we shouldn’t have the agency to label our generation ourselves?

The times of the avant-garde, of the manifests and their -isms are gone, and we witness a plurality of voices, styles and topics. One needs to find a way to systemize this body of work in order to understand and preserve it. But this isn’t an easy task since the new generation of poets distribute their works through channels that weren’t available before. Contemporary philology has yet to develop ways to approach a corpus that exists at the same time in fanzines and on the internet.

It is now obvious that this wasn’t merely a case of Greek poets being reluctant to participate in auto-colonial practices, but also a clash between the traditional philological way of categorising new poetry under a common name, and the free-market way of packaging the cultural product into a sellable item. Nevertheless, young Greek poets, unlike our older colleagues, never had a debate on this topic in the form of public discussions or a traditional exchange of essays in magazines and web portals devoted to culture. Some individual essays did appear (arguing that there was in fact no generation to speak of), but a proper debate never took place. Maybe it’s because of the post-postmodernist loss of belief in great narratives or monolithic movements, or because our generation debates mostly in chat rooms, on Facebook and through other channels that are traditionally not recognized as ‘real’ media. Most of us simply continued to write, as if finding a name for our generation was none of our concern. This is quite understandable, because the debate about our name was a struggle over the symbolic between two systems of power: the old institutions, and the new global market. Our struggle was of a different kind – focused on survival in a literary field in which many publishers charge thousands of euros to publish your book, where many festival organizers ask you to cover your travel and accommodation costs if you want to participate in their programme, where the state doesn’t finance the promotion of Greek authors abroad.

After all, we already have a few names – in Greece we’re simply known as ‘the generation of the 2000s’, and ‘the generation of left melancholy’, Lambropoulos’s coinage. These two names function perfectly fine. Whatever our name will be in the end, what we hope that we will be remembered for is not the Greek crisis, but our efforts to change the disrespect with which Greek poets are treated by Greek cultural policy-makers. And that disrespect lies not in this or that name, but in the lack of proper funding and infrastructure for literature. We must first build our base in a syndicalist manner, through joint effort. When we have a functioning system in place in which we can operate, and once we’re able to present our work abroad as equal participants in the global exchange, they can call us whatever they want.

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