Heaney's bog? Greeks don't have a word for it

Ireland and Greece have much in common - rural life, religion, diaspora. But poetry about wet places doesn't travel easily
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The Independent Online
I meet Kazantzakis's goddaughter in Kolonaki, Athens' Kensington. Katerina Angelakhi-Rooke is a well-known poet I last saw at a round-table workshop when she, I and Glyn Maxwell discovered deep rifts between Greek and British poetry. Now there are raucous cafe greetings. My daughter (grown-up talk, boring; in Greek, double-boring) sinks disgusted into Treasure Island. Heartless mum, dragging Girl Power through Athens with an improving book.

Katerina has just translated Heaney. Greeks often feel affinity with Ireland - something to do with rural life, religion and diaspora. "We know we're bringing up our children in this lovely place to leave it," said a Galway mother to me. Any Greek mum away from the city knows the same. Both countries became independent through unforgettable bloodshed, and the scars of civil war still throb. Feeling marginal and small, both secretly know they're at the centre of everything, and celebrate all this in songs that go back to masculine heroism and ancient gold.

Katerina, was it fun translating Heaney? A lot in common, Greece and Ireland? "Ye-es; but not for me. For me, the bog doesn't exist. Bog is a wet place with mosquitoes. How can Greek translate 'bog people'?" She laughs uproariously at Greek unbogginess. "And Heaney's language always chooses the monosyllabic word. All monosyllables!" she shouts, banging the table as if just let out of a monosyllabic Dartmoor. Fashionable Kolonaki looks round, checking our ouzo levels. "I was in a lot of trouble. You know how monosyllables go in Greek. I made my own selection, chose what I liked. Then they came ..." She shifts conspiratorially. A sinister helplessness, straight from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, swarms about us. Treasure Island gets looked up from, momentarily. "They came to interview me for my translation!" (Bastards, I murmur.) "I said 'No! Read a poem! Read Heaney!' "

How do poets live here? In England we do workshops, review books ... "Poets are lawyers," she says. "And," bellows John Chiolles from the next table. "One's a psychiatrist. He works as a psychiatrist in the evenings."

Amazing jobs, by our standards. Mike Donaghy got work showing tourists round Highgate cemetery but it didn't last long. Poets in England with regular jobs are probation officers, primary school teachers, the odd literary editor or publisher. Mainly they scrape away freelance, doing readings. "We don't have this 'readings' habit. There aren't any. Women poets live by translating - women translate, the men relate. Funny way round, isn't it?"

Do I sniff gender warfare? I ponder certain divisions (masculine metrics versus female openness) some people see in British poets. "When I started 40 years ago," says Katerina, "I was 16. Women's poetry wasn't anywhere. Now it's quite different. We have a lot of good women, maybe more than 50-50." She suddenly quotes George Steiner on the personality of languages. "He says English is 'created to conceal'. You can't know if the poet's in love with a man or woman! You can't do that in any other language!" (I remember a Cambridge philosopher, an incorrigible seducer now deceased, saying: "Ruth, I've quoted Auden's 'Lay your sleeping head my love' to so many women: I was horrified when I found it was written to a man." Tough. People who exploit poems get what's coming.) "Poetically," says Katerina, "the possibility is immense. English is a language of hiding and form."

And Greek poetry, now? "Modern Greek poetry came from surrealism. Surrealism is Mediterranean. It suits us. Gave us freedom. Connecting things in a rational way is useless in Greece. Life and poetry - nothing is connected." I disagree; but I'm only Mediterranean part-time.

Your godfather Kazantzakis: he wanted to connect things, didn't he? Did you learn much from him? "Last time I saw him I was seven. When I was two and a half I asked him, 'Do you love me?' He said 'yes'. I said, 'If you love me properly let's get under the bedclothes!' My mother took some years to tell me that."

Precocious lot, surrealists. What are you writing now, Katerina? "Last year I had two books out. One was a long poem, already translated into five or six languages. A Russian woman who knew some Greek came with a translation: I got the incredible feeling the poem was originally written in Russian."

Katerina knows Russian. Of course. Her father taught her when she was six. One vital difference between Greek and British writers is that in Britain the job requirements don't include other languages. Greeks take them for granted.

I move daughter and self to Delphi and prose. Kay Cicellis is a diaspora Greek from Marseilles. Her first languages were French and English. She used to run Athens' most cosmopolitan restaurant. Her first novels were written in English when she worked for the BBC. She remembers skiing in the Cairngorms ("Ruth - the porridge!") and wrote her first Greek piece during the 1967-74 junta, to show solidarity with the resistance. "Greek writers are obsessed with how small their language is," she says. We huddle above the Delphic valley feeling pretty small ourselves, the world's most spellbinding view smothered in snowstorm.

Why does Greek writing not travel much, Kay? She looks sourly at the landscape. The last thing she wanted was to exchange Athens and good food for blizzards and bad hotels. "We're introspective. We have moved away from modernism at last, and there are new themes in the Greek novel: action rather than stream of consciousness. But our novelists don't address the wider world."

Greece has best-sellers for the first time, but they are best-sellers for Greece - as, now, with film. A recent hit was The Cow's Orgasm: village teenagers and sex, a transferred sitcom addressing Greek taboos. A lousy film, but seen here as frank.

Did the junta hinder Greece? "No," says Kay. "They put us on the map. That film Z... It was afterwards we didn't go anywhere. Greeks are terrified of Greekness being corrupted. They seem to have lost the ability to be both Greek and citizens of the world."

Where to hear poets, since you're not living in Athens:

Don Paterson and Roddy Lumsden, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh; 30 April (0131 220 4349).

Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, Clarendon Centre, Brighton; 8 May (01273 709 709).

Andrew Motion, Old Operating Theatre, London, SE1; 8 May (0171-955 4791).

Sarah Maguire, Voice Box, Royal Festival Hall; 13 May (0171-960 4242).

Greek poets: contact Hellenic Centre, 16 Paddington Street, London W1 (0171-487 5060).

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