GEORGE SEFERIS-Collected Poems//REVIEW

George Seferis’ Collected Poems

Sep 26, 2013

Christopher Doda

George Seferis, Collected Poems
Surrey: Libros Libertad, 2012.

For a poet of his stature, there are remark­ably few Eng­lish trans­la­tions of George Seferis’s work. A giant of Greek poetry and 20th Cen­tury Euro­pean poetry in gen­eral, Seferis (1900–1971) inherited the old­est sur­viv­ing lan­guage of the West and brought its poetry into the mod­ern world. He wrote dur­ing a long career as a diplo­mat with post­ings in Turkey, Alba­nia, around the Mid­dle East, Iraq, and the United King­dom, and picked up numer­ous acco­lades, along with the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 1963. Since his death, his fame has grown to the point where lines from his “Mythi­s­torema” were used in the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. In spite of this, there has been only one (that I know of) selected, pre­pared with the poet’s assis­tance, by Rex Warner in 1960 and then a com­plete poems by Edmund Kee­ley and Philip Sher­rard released in var­i­ous edi­tions between 1967 and 1995. Throw­ing his hat into the ring is British Columbia’s Mano­lis with Col­lected Poems, which includes a crit­i­cal intro­duc­tion, a gen­er­ous amount of the verse, a par­tial bib­li­og­ra­phy, end­notes, and the text of Seferis’s Nobel speech. One of Seferis’s most strik­ing lines is from “In the Man­ner of George Seferis”: “Wherever I travel Greece wounds me,” mean­ing both the nation and its long his­tory. Not sur­pris­ingly, places and fig­ures from ancient Greece pop­u­late his work: Agamem­non, Helen, Astyanax, Androm­eda, and Orestes all make appear­ances, but he also wrote often from the point of view of ordi­nary sol­diers, cit­i­zens and refugees caught in the hor­ror of cir­cum­stance, wit­nesses to his­tory but with­out any con­trol over their des­tiny, those who “knew that the islands were beau­ti­ful / some­where, per­haps around here, where we grope / a bit lower or slightly higher / a very tiny space.” I don’t know the Greek lan­guage and won’t pre­tend that I do but I can say that Manolis’s ren­der­ings are more col­lo­quial and less for­mal com­pared to ear­lier trans­la­tions. Con­sider his ver­sion of this stanza from “The Sen­tence to Obliv­ion”:

And what­ever hap­pened had the seren­ity of what you see before you
they had the same seren­ity because there wasn’t any soul left in us to con­tem­plate
other than the crav­ing to incise some marks on the stones
that have now touched the bot­tom below mem­ory.

And com­pare it with Kee­ley and Sher­rard:

And what then hap­pened had the same tran­quil­lity as what you see before you
the same tran­quil­lity because there wasn’t a soul left for us to con­sider
except the power for carv­ing a few signs on the stones
which now have reached the depths below mem­ory.

Not rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent, but Manolis’s ver­sion is less rhyth­mic and, one might argue, less poetic than the other. Over the years, Kee­ley and Sherrard’s trans­la­tions have emerged as defin­i­tive, par­tially due to lack of com­pe­ti­tion. This vol­ume is unlikely to chal­lenge them for top spot but vari­ety is nec­es­sary for the longevity of the poetry. (As an aside, I rarely men­tion this in reviews but the num­ber of typos, mis­placed punc­tu­a­tion, and con­fu­sion between Cana­dian and US spelling in this book is truly irk­some. And the low-res­o­lu­tion image of a sun­rise over water through ruined ancient columns on the cover would be bet­ter suited to an issue of The Watch­tower.) Hav­ing already released vol­umes of Con­stan­tine Cavafy and Yan­nis Rit­sos, Mano­lis seems to be work­ing his way through the 20th Cen­tury Greek canon. I won­der if there might be an Odysseus Elytis or Angelos Sike­lianos in the near future.
~ Christo­pher Doda is the author of two poetry col­lec­tions, Among Ruins and Aes­thet­ics Lesson. He is cur­rently work­ing on a book of glosas based on heavy metal lyrics.

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