Black and light, sunshine and darkness, these were the two poles of Elytis' poetry, a pendulum between passion and patience, a bewilderment stretching throughout the day. At the beginning, he was acclaimed as the poet of the sparkling Aegean, of The Sovereign Sun, of "The Body of Summer". In his poems, especially "The Mad Pomegranate Tree", with all the answers to the difficult questions hanging from its branches ("Tell me, that which opens its wings on the breast of things / On the breast of our deepest dreams, is that the mad pomegranate tree?"), the sun occupied the land of Greece, as if death had never stepped on her territories, only resurrection.
But, while the poet had written in the past, "The sorrow of death has set me in such a fire, that my glow returned to the sun", it is with The Light Tree (1971), when he had just turned 60, that Elytis feels death starting to cast its real shadow. "The first time it crossed my mind to find an end in the midst of happiness. Death attracted me like a strong glaze where you can see nothing else."
Steadily, through collections like The Invisible April, The Oxopetra Elegies and finally West of Sorrows, the blend of darkness and light becomes just a pure black stone, an onyx. "A key turns both ways; either you lock yourself in or you open yourself to all."
The "poet of the Aegean" and of "the Greek sun" at this point, to my mind, becomes a really great poet. Because all great poets, or should I say those who belong to that "species" with more or less access to perfection, they all say the same thing, examine the same impossibility: how to live with all this darkness surrounding us, waiting for us, waiting upon us? And how, in spite of this, knowing only this, one can live a deep human life?
"Life is a chord / where a third sound interferes / and it is the one which tells the truth about what the poor man throws away / and what the rich man collects" (West of Sorrow). Again, "The sky [will be] the way children want it / with roosters, pine cones, azure kites / flags / On Saint Heraclitus' day / the kingdom of the child" writes Elytis. So too Jan Kochanaowski, the 16th-century Polish poet, asks for Heraclitus' tears to help him to mourn his "small girl, his little daughter". They both see Heraclitus related to a child's world.
They all say the same thing; but we, down here, we are not invited to the great conference of the immortals and we don't know it.
May I add to Roderick Beaton's excellent and moving obituary of the great poet Odysseus Elytis? writes Ian Martin.
Soon after the richly deserved award of the Nobel Literature Prize, Elytis was invited to London to receive an honorary degree. Although widely read in English he was not at all fluent in it, and I was among those asked to come forward and converse with our distinguished guest in his own language. What does one say to an outstanding poet, who is also a genuinely modest man? The last thing he wanted to talk about was his own poetic achievement.
The answer lay in a subject very dear to his heart: the state of higher education in Greece. A new university was being set up in the island of Crete (the poet's birthplace): I remember vividly how excited and eloquent this naturally shy and reticent man became on the subject. The University of Crete is now well established and flourishing: it is singularly appropriate for it to be associated with the memory of one of the century's very finest poets.Reuse content