A crisis of Greek poetry before the poetry of the Greek crisis


Since Greece in the 2010s reminds many commentators of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, I believe we can learn a lot from the poets of both periods, and especially from their great collaborative projects, like those by Brecht and his indispensable friends.

Of all the Greek arts, poetry has been identified as the most representative of the current national crisis. This is why we find numerous anthologies and events on poetry and/of the crisis but next to no comparable disks, exhibits, or series. The poets’ common is the major cultural domain where the Greek emergency and/or exception are being negotiated.

Still, to speak of “poetry of the crisis” can be misleading for several reasons. First, in contrast to fiction, poetry has refused to depict or imitate the crisis. Second, such a designation would limit severely its relevance, making poetry appear interesting only under the present circumstances. Third, and most importantly, a crisis of poetry preceded the “poetry of the crisis:” What gives poetry its currency in Greek culture now is that, before the country’s socio-economic ordeal, verse underwent a poetic one. For these three and other reasons it is worth exploring poetry’s own immanent crisis at the turn of the century.

Poetry in Greece in the 1990s underwent a fundamental crisis of public meaning, even of civic confidence. This phenomenon was not entirely new: it had happened before, for example, in the 1920s. This time it was due to the loss of a major frame of reference with the collapse of the Left utopia together with the Berlin Wall, and to the pervasive narrativization of public discourse which turned all argument into testimony. As a result, poetry felt both ideologically and culturally marginalized, even redundant.

In response, during the 2000s many poets born around 1980 or a decade (or two) earlier made a bold move. Instead of responding to the loss of confidence with a new school of writing (the next avant-garde, as it were), they de-territorialized the main terrain by designing provisional zones in its peripheries. For example, in addition to the literary magazine and the poetry collection, they began operating in terrains like the bar, the gallery, and the bookstore, adding multiple sensory encounters with verse to the dominant ones of typography and recitation.

Another project of deterritorilization took place in the terrain of mood, where autonomous disengagement was now practiced as Left melancholy. The mood (as opposed to the sentiment) of melancholy arrived in Greece officially with the 1st Athens Biennale, “Destroy Athens” (2007), whose official pocket guide (2006) quoted Hardt & Negri on the crisis of post-modernity: “Crisis is coextensive with the postmodern totality of capitalist production; it is proper to imperial control. In this respect, the decline and fall of Empire is defined not as a diachronic movement but as a synchronic reality. Crisis runs through every moment of the development and recomposition of the totality” (Empire, 2001, p. 385). Despite the pressure of such an emergency, local participants to the Biennale seemed content to demythologize commercialized Athens and advocate the rediscovery of an authentic one.

When poets realized that other Greek artists chose the mourning on the ruins over the melancholy of destruction, they opted for what the autonomist Invisible Committee that same year called “secession:” “Local self-organization superimposes its own geography over the state cartography, scrambling and blurring it: it produces its own secession.” (The Coming Insurrection, 2007, p. 109). 18 poets seceded from the cutting-edge art that was radicalizing culture in order to save Athens from ontological destruction, and did it not by exiting the Biennale and heading to Mahoganny in search of “the way to the next whiskey bar” but by establishing the Karaoke Poetry Bar, their autonomous domain within the Biennale. For six month they collaborated with 34 artists to create this week-long intermedial “war-machine,” a “smooth plateau” for “nomadic art,” as Deleuze & Guattari would call it. This legendary project launched their systematic and ongoing involvement with the history of intermittent insurgency.

They also seceded not from capitalism but from far-left party politics as a project. They consciously withdrew from the politics of the party at the risk of being called “apolitical,” as poet Kiriakos Sifiltzoglou declared, again in 2007:


All things feasible make me weary

they always sober me up

even more so their art form

namely politics

I’ve always preferred

the non-feasible

the unattainable

much as I was reproachfully dubbed


I accept it

any equation, any label

suits me fine

I’ve always liked the neon signs,

the great, illusory dreams

An apolitical man on an avenue

(tr. Tonia Kovalenko)*

Working from the standpoint of the impossible philosophical destruction of Athens, that is, from the inability of Greek artists to destroy the metaphysics of Greekness, poets were able to anticipate not only the “coming insurrection” of Athens in December 2008 but also the ensuing crisis and the self-implosion of the Left in 2015. That is why they never wrote in support of Syriza, even when they voted for it. That is why they distrusted its “war of position” (Gramsci), vocally supported by the academic intelligentsia. That is also why, just a week after Syriza’s coming to power, writer Dr. Theodoros Rakopoulos could take a long view and remark soberly: “In Greece, all the discussion of an enduring event that transgresses politics and the polity, that mobilises affect and appeals to the many in emotive ways, should be seen in the light of the normalisation of the radical Left prospect that was solidified in the last 2,5 years. […] The radical Left’s build-up to power between 2012-15 shows that an event can, despite itself, be anticipated – and inserted calmly in the banality of the ritualized processes in place. It thus enters the trope of the electoral process and becomes domesticated, even banalised” (“Between event and ritual: the ‘SYRIZA elections’ in Greece”).

Thus the production of the sensible, namely, poetry as verse making, was actively redistributed as the Greek writers of the 2000s responded to the public emergency by emerging in public. Navigating the instability of intelligibility, they did not re-arrange the existing constellation but assembled a new one by moving collectively:
from the autonomous artwork to the intermedial terrain
from questions of (dis)continuity to negotiations of precarity
from national resistance to post-colonial mimicry
from the search for teleology to the acceptance of contingency
from the tactics of the avant garde to the strategies of hegemony
from representation to materiality
from installation to performance
from de Man to Deleuze
from refrain to rhythm
from critique to music
from negative attitude to Left melancholy.
It is clear that they did not move from one pole to its opposite but changed, or even suspended, the dominant terms of the dialectic.

My argument is that the state of emergency for Greek poetry came not after 2008 but after 1989, that is, after the exhaustion of political utopia and the success of traumatic story telling. The crisis of Left culture preceded that of Left politics, and artistic dilemmas turned civic before moral ones turned political (that is, before Left ethical exceptionalism rose to power and governance). Today poetry seems to capture the general crisis so well because it has itself gone through an immanent crisis very creatively.

My argument also acknowledges the tremendous collective and collaborative commitment of the following writers (in alphabetical order) as well as many others like them whose solidarity has been making their work meaningful and urgent: Yorgos Alisanoglou, Vassilis Amanatidis, Theodoros Chiotis, Yiannis Doukas, Nicholas Evantinos, Phoebe Giannisi, Petros Golitsis, Katerina Iliopoulou, Panos Ioannidis, Thomas Ioannou, Elsa Korneti, Eftychia Panayiotou, Michalis Papantonopoulos, Haris Psarras, Thodoris Rakopoulos, Vassiliki Rapti, Lenia Safiropoulou, Kyriakos Silfitzoglou, and Thomas Tsalapatis.

And what about the city of Mahagonny, you may ask, the city of material, moral, or governmental hedonism? Pantelis Polychronidis, my “other self,” would remind me of the finale of the opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930) by Weill & Brecht, where the citizens of the destroyed city sing (starting at 6:10 in the clip above):

Why, though, did we need a Mahagonny?
Because this world is a foul one
With neither charity
Nor peace nor concord,
Because there’s nothing
To build any trust upon.

Scene 20
A caption advises that, after Jim’s death, increasing hostility among the city’s various factions has caused the destruction of Mahagonny. To a potpourri of themes from earlier in the opera, groups of protesters are seen on the march, in conflict with one another, while the city burns in the background. Jenny and the whores carry Jim’s clothing and accessories like sacred relics; Billy and several men carry his coffin. In a new theme, they and the others declare, “Nothing you can do will help a dead man”. Begbick, Fatty and Moses appear with placards of their own, joining the entire company in its march and declaring “Nothing will help him or us or you now,” as the opera ends in chaos.


Το εφικτό πάντα με κούραζε
πάντα με ξενέρωνε
και η τέχνη του
η λεγόμενη πολιτική
ακόμα περισσότερο

Εγώ ήμουν πάντα
του αν-έφικτου
του άπιαστου

κι ας με φώναζαν υποτιμητικά

Το δέχομαι
κάθε εξίσωση κάθε ετικέτα
νομίζω πως μου πάει

Πάντα μου άρεσαν οι φωτεινές επιγραφές
τα μεγάλα όνειρα τα απατηλά

Ένας απολιτίκ μιας λεωφόρου

(Κυριάκος Συφιλτζόγλου, Έκαστος εφ’ ω ετάφη, 2007, p. 24)

February 25, 2016

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