A Greek poetry of defiance at a time of Left intellectual refusal

Τhe melancholic turn of Greek poetry in the 2000s is a very interesting part of the global melancholic turn of Left thought and culture (though much less politics and media) in the 21st century, and should be discussed in this larger context. This is a turn to a post-revolutionary/post-messianic worldview, which has been appropriately defined as an immanent, immediate, intransitive, intramural, and inventive standpoint.

Intimations of communist mortality appeared in the 1990s but the trend emerged full-fledged with the new century and continues to spread. The successive burnouts of the anti-globalization protests, the student strikes, the Indignant mobilizations, and the Occupy movements have led the radical Left to a fundamental crisis as it recognizes the scale of its failures:
it lacks not only a future but even a youth interested in one;
it is unable not only to occupy but even to demonstrate;
it cannot oppose exploitation since the proletariat has been replaced by the precariat;
and it cannot escape an oppression which emanates from banality more than authority.

This bitter realization forced the radical Left to debunk several “widely spread myths” that supported its failed strategy, like the ones listed in the Greek student leaflet “Occupation, not Democracy” (2006): “The majority is always right.” “Occupation is just a means to an end.” “Drawing the media’s attention to radical actions and demands is important.” “National coordination is necessary.” “When I grow up, I’ll at least have a respectable job.” “The university should provide important knowledge.”

Having abandoned such false beliefs and the plans for action based on them, today the radical Left dispenses with constructive critique to embrace uncompromising refusal. In light of the end of the future and the cancellation of hope, it refuses to seek a strategic program, improvements/reforms, legitimation, representation, work/production, and in general foregoes all demands. Its political focus has moved –
from identity to singularity,
from autonomization to anti-democratism,
from self-organization to confrontation,
from self-management to abolition,
from assemblies to insurrection,
from opposition to attack,
from protest to riot.
This is the project of the self-institution (not of society, as Castoriadis would have it, but) of the common (as post-Marxism does).

The on-going self-institution of the poetry common within the Greek literary milieu has been generating works of remarkable quantity, quality, urgency, and traction. Since poetry is no longer engagé or militant, it now confronts dynamically the challenges of defeat (not despair), melancholy (not mourning), and revolt (not revolution). Writers of this political and poetical disposition are deeply and explicitly melancholic because they have been all along pessimistic about a Left rule yet they refuse to mourn it and overcome it, and instead remain faithful to its ethical and philosophical principles. That is precisely why, more than any other past Greek poetry, it is the 1st and 2nd post-WWII generations (of the 1950s-60s) that appeal to them, the famous “Poetry of the Defeat.” Those poets lamented both the defeat of the Left in the Greek Civil War (1944-49) and the betrayal of its ideals by the Greek Communist Party. In addition to internal and internal exile, they faced party exile as well only to discover that their comrades knew when to fight but not how to govern.

Today’s Greek poets have been melancholic because, long before Left governance imploded in 2015, they knew that it was internally doomed. Remarkably, in the 2010s their poetic defiance and determination have been producing large-scale works (narratives, sequences, cycles etc.) that had been unthinkable for more than half a century. The narrower the political prospect, the broader the poetic project!

Since my “other self,” Pantelis Polychronidis, is a musician, the genre that these complex, polyphonic, often structurally musical works bring to mind is the cantata, which allows for a variety of styles as well as chamber, orchestral, choir and soloist forces. I am thinking in particular of Austro-Germanic works from early to late Modernism (Mahler, Schönberg, Hindemith, Krenek, Henze), and especially compositions based on Brecht by Weill, Eisler, and Dessau.* Even though they are not set to music, I would use the term “cantata” to identify the structure and scope of important thoroughly composed books like the following, published just during this decade and listed by their author’s last name.

Αϊναλής, Ζ. Δ. Η σιωπή της Σίβας (2011)
Αλισάνογλου, Γιώργος. Παιχνιδότοπος (2016)
Αμανατίδης, Βασίλης. μ-otherpoem (2014)
Απέργης, Ορφέας. Υ (2011)
Γαλάνη, Ελένη. Terrarium : Το πείραμα του Ward (2014)
Γιαννίση, Φοίβη. Τέττιξ (2012)
Γκολίτσης, Πέτρος. Η σάρκα των προσωρινών (2015)
Γώγος, Θάνος. Γλασκώβη (2104)
Δούκας, Γιάννης. Το σύνδρομο Σταντάλ (2013)
Ερηνάκης, Νίκος. Ανάμεσα σε όσα πέφτει η σκιά (2013)
Ηλιοπούλου, Κατερίνα. Μια φορά κάθε τοπίο και ολότελα (2015)
Ζαφειρίου, Σταύρος. Δύσκολο (2014)
Ζαφειροπούλου, Λένια. Paternoster Square (2012)
Ιωαννίδης, Παναγιώτης. Πολωνία (2016)
Ιωάννου, Θωμάς. Ιπποκράτους 15 (2011)
Κλιγκάτση, Μαίρη. Πλευρικά (2015)
Κορνέτη, Έλσα. Ο επαναστατικός κύριος Γκιούλιβερ (2013)
Κορρυβάντη, Κωνσταντίνα. Μυθογονία (2015)
Μάινας, Αλέξιος. Το ξυράφι του Όκαμ (2014)
Νικήτας, Ζαφείρης. Τα νερά του μετανάστη (2015)
Νικολαΐδης, Χαρίλαος. Αλεπού στον αυτοκινητόδρομο (2015)
Παπαγεωργίου, Φάνης. Η θάλασσα με τα 150 επίπεδα (2016)
Παπαντωνόπουλος, Μιχάλης. Βόλια (2015)
Παπαχαράλαμπος, Κωνσταντίνος. Είναι (2015)
Πέτρου, Δημήτρης. Χωματουργικά (2016)
Πολενάκης, Σταμάτης. Βερολίνο (2010)
Πρεβεδουράκης, Γιώργος. Κλέφτικο (2013)
Ρακόπουλος, Θοδωρής. Η συνωμοσία της πυρίτιδας (2014)
Στίγκας, Γιάννης. Βλέπω τον κύβο Ρούμπικ φαγωμένο (2014)
Συφιλτζόγλου, Κυριάκος. Στο σπίτι του κρεμασμένου (2015)
Τσαλαπάτης, Θωμάς. Άλμπα (2015)
Ψαρράς, Χάρης. Τα όντως όντα (2012)

* Unfortunately I am unfamiliar with the corresponding American cantata tradition, rich but neglected by both performers and scholars, which includes works like William Schuman’s A Free Song, Lukas Foss’ American Cantata, Ned Rorem’s Whitman Cantata, Libby Larsen’s Eleanor Roosevelt, and most recently This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest Inspired by the Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by my dear friend and highly distinguished colleague, Michael Daugherty, Professor of Composition here at Michigan, which has its world premiere tonight.

April 22, 2016

Blueprints For Our Failed Revolution
(lyrics by Charley Wu)

Tell me visions of the fall
Say, “Brothers and Sisters let’s stand tall!”
Well we had a plan–it was right,
It was right, it was right.
We thought we knew the Heart of Man.

Poverty and destitution brings,
An army of soldiers that can’t sing.
Well give me your hand–they’re crying
And dying to no end…
History will bury all my friends.

Obstacles, obstacles,
They’re laying barricades of Soviet-made
Disposable, oracles
We’re taking to the streets
Marching to defeat!

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