New Greek poetry after its crisis

Below is my review of two anthologies of new Greek poetry which appears in the Journal of Modern Greek Studies 34:2 (October 2016). It places in α broad context of literary configurations Crisis: Greek Poets on the Crisis (2014), edited by Dinos Siotis, and Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis (2015), edited by Theodoros Chiotis.  The review is a counterpart to my essay “Left Melancholy in the Greek Poetry Generation of the 2000s after the Crisis of Revolution and Representation” which appeared as Journal of Modern Greek StudiesOccasional Paper” 10 earlier this year.  (This is the to press version of the review.The final, pdf version is available on the Journal of Modern Greek Studies site and through Project Muse.)

As an introduction to the review, poet Michalis Katsaros (1919-98) reads in Greek his legendary poem “My Testament” (1950).

 

Theodoros Chiotis, editor, Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis. London: Penned in the Margins. 2015. Pp. ix + 218. Paper £8.79.

Dinos Siotis, editor, Crisis: Greek Poets on the Crisis. Middlesbrough: Smokestack Books. 2014. Pp. 99. Paper £9.95.

 

If you stopped following Greek poetry around 1980, now is a great time to catch up with it. Of all the arts, poetry has been identified as the most representative of the current national crisis. It constitutes the major cultural domain where the Greek emergency and/or exception are being negotiated. What makes things even more interesting is that a crisis of poetry preceded the “poetry of the Greek crisis” and ushered in the most exciting new generation of poets in half a century.

The generations of the 1970s and 1980s were collective failures of form and force, but at least they produced a few excellent writers who continue to thrive, while that of the 1990s sank without trace, as poetry underwent a fundamental crisis of public meaning, even of civic confidence. For the first time in its modern history, it lost its faith both in its social mission and in the Revolution. This was due both to the eclipse 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 storytelling into testimony. Furthermore, all three poetic generations were overshadowed by the Greek postmodern novel of the postcolonial condition, which earned critical and popular recognition. Thus, the state of emergency for poetry came not after 2008 but after 1989, that is, after the exhaustion of political utopia and the rise of the traumatized self. In general, the crisis of Left culture preceded that of Left politics, and artistic dilemmas turned civic before moral ones turned political.

With the fin-de-siècle decline of literary and political grand narratives, however, a new collective project emerged early in this century, the poetry of Left Melancholy of the generation of the 2000s. Today, poetry seems to capture the general crisis so well because it went very creatively through its own immanent crisis and emerged with a skeptical mood of postrevolutionary disengagement known in political and literary theory as Left Melancholy. Several recent and forthcoming anthologies offer valuable opportunities to explore this major phenomenon. The two reviewed here open two different paths.

According to editor Dinos Siotis’s introduction to Crisis: Greek Poets on the Crisis, crisis is not a particular historical occurrence with its own unique character but a permanent Greek condition: it is diachronic (happening since “the capture of Helen,” [9]), Odyssean (“a journey into Greece” [10]), all-inclusive (social, economic, ecological, existential), and fundamentally poetic (since “every poet lives their whole life in a kind of crisis—real or imagined” [9]). Given the universality of crisis, the anthology has no particular viewpoint to suggest: 34 poets born between 1921 and 1983 are represented in alphabetical order, each with one poem, written in the span of 34 years, between 1979 and 2013. Based on the belief that poets are “in dispute with the cosmos” (9), it lets each poet’s single poem stand by itself, protesting human misery and denouncing all moral crisis. As a result, both introduction and structure encourage the impression that over the last three thousand years nothing has changed in Greek poetry.

Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis presents a quite different picture with a specific focus. Instead of arguing that poetry has been denouncing an ontic crisis transhistorically, it selects works that enact poetically the concrete crisis as they attempt, according to editor Theodoros Chiotis’s introduction, “to reclaim language from a semantic overdetermination imposed by the increasingly abstract processes of finance” (ii). Futures is structured around major terms of “bankspeak” (ii) to expose the erosion of public discourse by the vocabulary of global capital. Each of its four sections tells a multidirectional story of austerity through the strategic arrangement of its poems. 40 poets born between 1963 and 1988 are each represented in thematic order with 80 poems written in the span of 6 years, between 2009 and 2015. Contributors include Greek poets, poets of Greek descent, as well as others with a personal affinity for Greece.

Both anthologies draw on several translators in order to represent adequately the remarkable polyphony of contemporary poetry. If the first one is self-avowedly epic, the second might be called dramatic. Read together, they show how the crisis of poetry prefigured the “poetry of the crisis” by dramatizing the very notion of crisis. I list here ten specific strategies that made it possible for poetry to emerge out of the challenges to its of cultural legitimacy in the 1990s with a rigorous melancholic conviction and to assemble its autonomist politics in civic spaces of artistic performativity.

First, I name five projects of secession:

  1. The eclipse of French sensibility among poets. For the first time since the late nineteenth century, the allure of the Parisian language, poetry, café, and magazine has evaporated.
  2. Absence of explicit support for Syriza through writing, serving, or other direct involvement. Long before the party came to power, the generation of the 2000s was already post-Syriza.
  3. No poet pursues the avant-garde; code-breaking and noise-making are obsolete, since audiences are no longer shocked. Experimentation now rehearses the resonant possibilities of mixture and hybridity.
  4. The notion of the arboreal has been evacuated as organic, holistic, and consequential aspirations have been abandoned for nomadic pursuits.
  5. Painting as the favored art has faded, with the pictorial surviving only in some photographic projects. Music is the new central sister art, providing a broadly shared vocabulary, repertoire, and frame of reference.

In addition, there are five exercises in self-fashioning:

  1. The poets bring to their work high-quality academic training in a great variety of fields, often at the graduate level, as well, which of course requires familiarity with epistemological issues. As a result, this is the first generation of writers who do not just know Theory but actually do it in their own work.
  2. Almost everybody has lived abroad, and many still do. These poets are neither refugees from so-called lost motherlands nor émigrés. They are the new Greek global diaspora: cosmopolitan intellectuals at home anywhere who do not nurture a sense of nóstos.
  3. Critical reflection (be it review, essay, column, or interview) is cultivated together with poetry. These poets are impressively well versed in major works and contested issues.
  4. Professional and personal solidarity, both in public and in private, along the lines of civic friendship is a dominant mode of communication. Poets appear together all the time in physical, virtual, print, social, and other environments.
  5. Social media is an integral part of their network and communication. These poets remain connected and are intensely aware of each other’s work and plans.

Next, I identify ten distinct features of the generation/trend of the 2000s that can be discerned in the two books. They represent a summary of what makes this poetry the most interesting out of Greece since the generation of the 1960s, the second post-World War II generation. It is:

  1. an Anglophone poetry. Whether it is written in Greek or English, it is a poetry conversing with (mostly) English-language literature and thought, and therefore it speaks (mostly) English. It is written in a manner that makes it sound already under translation.
  2. a translingual poetry. It draws on several idioms and codes, from graffiti to rap, advertising to tweeting. It reverberates simultaneously on several registers. Its Greek is global, its transmission multidimensional.
  3. an intermedial poetry. It interacts with all the other arts and circulates among media, questioning normative notions of literariness.
  4. a performative poetry. It is embodied and acted up, mimicked and queered, deformed and dramatized. It appears in series, festivals, cafés, installations, sites, and happenings. Instead of quoting them, it de-cites and re-functions its sources.
  5. a precarious poetry. Taking formal risks, it escapes artistic integration and aesthetic integrity. The trajectory of its texts is uncertain, its course inconclusive. Any outcome relies on active audience collaboration.
  6. an operative poetry. It is a reactivating operation that seeks to render techno-discursive communication inoperative by resisting abstraction and automation and revitalizing the sensuous function of language within the social body.
  7. an emergent poetry. Its verses are propelled by successive emergencies and remain suspended in a continuous state of exception. Neither constitutive nor destructive, it pulsates with the destituent power of the transitory and liminal in flight.
  8. a melancholic poetry. It rhapsodizes the postemancipatory Left Melancholy under conditions of neocolonialism. It is not a poetry of defeat and despair but of diremption and dispossession, of revolutionary implosion and the un-Occupiable revolt.
  9. a molecular poetry. It assembles verbal haecceities in rhizomatic formations; it conducts advanced research; it engages in systematic critical writing; it expands in overlapping intellectual circles.
  10. a communal poetry. This is a chant of the commons and a song of friends. During a severe and multiple crisis, against all odds, it seeks to build agonistic solidarity and found a shared good life among the ruins of origin (national tradition) and destiny (messianic modernity).

The Greek generation of the 2000s has been composing a poetry of the melancholic history of intermittent insurgency, a revolt which functions irregularly as it starts, stops, and starts again. It is engaged in a major project of cultural (literary, artistic, and critical) critique of teleological (linear) history and organic (circular) poetry. In the interest of space, I have not mentioned names or quoted passages, though readers may find more detailed, developed, and documented readings in my blog, Piano Poetry Pantelis Politics (Lambropoulos 2014–2016). Instead, I have indicated major poetic lines of flight that draw a broad cultural plane of consistency, resist literary and national territorialization, and may be used to identify other artistic becomings in the transnational Greek sphere. Since this is a scholarly journal, I also chose to review these two books broadly as cultural documents rather than specifically as literary compilations. Hopefully, this systematic approach will bring them to the attention of the larger community of scholars, which they richly deserve.

VASSILIS LAMBROPOULOS

University of Michigan

 

REFERENCES CITED

Lambropoulos, Vassilis. 2014–2016. Piano Poetry Pantelis Politics: music, literature, friends, resistance (blog). https://poetrypiano.wordpress.com/.

 

 

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