Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou
Following Black Light
This is the second of two interviews conducted over a period of two months, through emails exchanged between Cambridge, UK, and Alexandroupolis, Greece, between November 2012 and January 2013. Some reshaping was done over the following months, and the final touches were made in October 2013.
A number of Greek terms are glossed in square brackets.
Paschalis Nikolaou: I would like to ask you some questions about Black Light, your homage to Seferis. What are your most distinct memories of the time of its writing, and of the mode of its composition? Was it different from that of The Easter Rising 1967? And was Black Light always meant to be a sequence, with a clear vision of the poem there-to-be-written at the outset, or did some these poems, with a shared origin, somehow ‘link up’ at a later stage?
Richard Berengarten: The matrix for writing Black Light in 1983 was very different. I wrote Black Light in Cambridge, not Greece, and though it emerged quickly, its gestation was longer, as were its after-resonances. While the immediate backdrops to Black Light are London and Pelion, underlying these are various other ‘psychoscapes’, as well as embeddings of a great deal of intervening experience, not to mention complex material which had been pent-up for a long time.
In June 1979, my first wife Kim and I separated. Shortly afterwards, I met Diana Lloyd, and we visited my friend Peter Mansfield together in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was directing his own English language school. He told us that he was about to run a teaching project called ‘English in the Sun’, which would take place in Volos. This was a brilliant idea because it brought together many facets of Peter’s areas of knowledge and experience – Greece, Greek culture, Greek language, and teaching English – even though I don’t believe he could have made much money from it, if any. As it turned out, he had several spare places, so he invited us to join him on the way out to Greece, and back, on his trans-European mini-bus. We jumped at the chance. I didn’t know Thessaly at all. Then, in the following year, he invited us to join him again, this time with Diana as driver and myself as an English language teacher. So I had two visits to Volos in the consecutive summers of 1979 and 1980, each lasting a month. Both periods were packed with discoveries.
In the following summer, I wasn’t able to go back to Volos, but experienced an intense longing to be there again. So that year, at home in Cambridge, I decided to allow myself to plunge headlong into ‘Greek nostalgia’, thinking that perhaps I could make something out of it. I set about re-reading all of Seferis’s poems, as well as his post-war journal, in which he had made notes about the “black light” while working on the poem ‘Thrush’ in 1946. That was when Black Light triggered. I conceived it from the start as a connected sequence, a self-cohering unity located in Greece and dedicated to Seferis, even though I wasn’t entirely sure how many poems it would eventually hold. The fact that each poem in the sequence has an epigraph from Seferis reflects that they were all, in one way or another, responses to his poems, as well as homage to him. Across a period of four or five weeks, I wrote most of the material in a kind of white heat or, rather, synaesthetic haze – immersed in Seferis, listening to Greek music, flooded by re-awakened sense impressions, and constantly working and reworking the poems, until I could do no more. Once this first phase cooled off, during a weekend visit to Stratford that autumn, Peter Mansfield made a close critical reading of the text with me, which enabled me to polish and finalise it Just as for many other poems of mine, he was the first interlocutor. My inner images of Pelion were the freshest, and these resurfaced quickly. They account for much of the ‘body’ of Black Light. Do you know Pelion and the Volos area?
PN: I’ve passed through Volos a couple of times but I spent a week on Pelion a few years ago, visiting the mountain villages, Makrinitsa, and several others. I can see why they’d make such an impression ...
RB: One of the most striking things is the area’s fertility. Apparently in ancient times Pelion was sacred to the god of healing, Asklepios, so it was forbidden to graze goats even then. The ravages of erosion over the centuries, typical of Greek mountains, were avoided.
During these two trips, I stayed in an apartment block owned by Dimos and Mairi Themeli in the small seaside resort of Alykes, just south of the city. Thanks to Peter’s expert knowledge, we explored the mountain and coastline panoramically and close-up – both on the blustery Aegean side and the peaceful Gulf side – including Zagora, Horefto, Tsakgarada, Aghia Paraskevi, Milina, Afissos and Kala Nera – as well as the ‘balcony’ villages of Makrinitsa and Portaria on the mountain itself, overlooking Volos. A boat trip to the tiny island of Trikeri in the Pagasitic Gulf occasioned the poem ‘Salt’, and the poem ‘Shell’ was based on the gift of a huge shell from a fisherman on the island. Only after writing these poems did I discover from a book by my friend Eleni Fourtouni that the island had been a women’s prison camp at the end of the Civil War of 1945-1949. If I’d known that beforehand, it’s unlikely that these two short lyrical poems would ever have got written. We spent the Festival of the Panaghia [Assumption of the Virgin Mary] making friends, eating, drinking and dancing at the village of Ksinovryssi [‘Bitter Well’]. And we spent many hours on the idyllic beach at Potistika below, which was then deserted but for the occasional goatherd. Here, greeny-white, pearly-shaped flowers grew in the sand, apparently thriving on the saltiness. Whenever I hear Theodorakis’s setting of Seferis’s poem ‘Denial’ and its opening stanza, I think of that beach:
On the secret seashore
white like a pigeon
we thirsted at noon;
but the water was brackish.
We slept a little out in the open, high above the beach, but spent much of the night watching mid-August shooting star showers. We made trips to the Neolithic settlement at Sesklo – which provided material for the poem ‘Neolithic’ – as well as to the Mycenaean site at Dimini, and we visited Meteora and Olympus.
At a modest taverna punningly named ‘La Skala’ by its owners, the brothers Karolos and Nikos Milanos, at 195 Ermou Street, Nea Ionia, a district of Volos, we went as often as we could to hear Karolos play. As a bouzouki-player, he was acclaimed as a daskalos [master]. Nikos accompanied him on the guitar, and sometimes on clackety spoons. The brothers had refused to go commercial because of their communist convictions. The subtleties of Karolos’s penia [solo improvisations] were comparable to the beauty and complexity of a John Coltrane solo. There were rarely other foreigners there apart from us. This repeated musical experience was part-inspiration for the introductory musical undertow to the Black Light in ‘The Voice’. In 1988, when I was living in Belgrade, I returned to hear them with Jasna Mišić. As she was a visitor from a Socialist country, in her honour Karolos and Nikos played Russian melodies. The evening promenade along the Volos waterfront itself was the setting for ‘Volta’, even though in the poem itself I pictured the sun setting over the sea, which would have been impossible for the real Volos, which faces east.
A non-Greek theme, which is layered into the book, derives from Celtic sources. My preoccupation with the resonances and connotations of ‘blackness’ as an imagem had grown out of research on Dylan Thomas and Ceri Richards in 1979-1980, especially on the painting, woodcut and drawings for the ‘Black Apple of Gower’ series. That material is published in Keys to Transformation, so I shan’t repeat them here, other than to say that alchemical resonances lurk in the ‘black light’ motif, which I interpret along Jungian lines, partly as the alchemical nigredo and partly as a symbol of fertility and regeneration.
I published Black Light myself in the broad context of the fourth biennial Cambridge Poetry Festival in 1983. The front cover of this first edition was an engraving by Renos Loizou, who ran the Gardenia Restaurant in Cambridge, depicting two old men in a kafeneion playing chess or tavli [backgammon]. The name I gave to the Cambridge-based press that issued the book was LOS Poetry Press, after the character in Blake’s Jerusalem and other Prophetic Books, and in particular as a response to two lines in Jerusalem, Book II:
Los was the friend of Albion who most lov'd him.
In Cambridgeshire his eternal station
“LOS is Poetry,” writes Foster Damon, “the expression in this world of the Creative Imagination.” Furthermore, LOS is SOL spelt backwards. So it was appropriate that the logo, designed by Will Hill, should incorporate the black sun, le soleil noir. This motif first cropped up in modern literature (so far as I know) in Baudelaire. It reappears as the name of a leading Surrealist publishing house in Paris, and then again in a story by André Pieyre de Mandiargues. So there are several resonances. In these ways, the theme of Black Light was encoded, organically, into the text, texture and trimmings of the book. More recently, I realised that the image of the black sun, or sun at midnight, corresponds to that of heaven being buried under the earth, which in the Yijing produces hexagram 11, Tai [泰], variously translated as ‘Peace’, ‘Tranquillity’, ‘Advance’ and ‘Great’.
PN: I’ve noticed that later editions of Black Light include more material. You’ve added in several new poems. Could you explain this?
RB: When I first published Black Light, I excluded two texts because I felt unsure of their quality. These pieces, which I’ve added in since then, aren’t new in the sense of being initiated after the others, but because they were finalised much later. The prose poem, ‘Ambassador (An Old Man in the Harbour)’ didn’t appear until the Slovenian-English bilingual edition of 2004. For that and all subsequent editions, Douglas Kinsey’s monotype, which illustrates that particular piece, has served as the cover design. It portrays Seferis sitting at a table in the ‘kafeneion after death’, where he chats with the poem’s speaker. Doug’s profile figure of Seferis is based on a photo. I think this prose piece, together with Doug’s image, adds a dimension to the book.
The second poem is a sonnet entitled ‘Night Bathing’. It didn’t appear until 2012 in the Spanish edition. Although I’d started working on this poem in 1982, I couldn’t get it to come out right at that time. Over the years, I occasionally returned to it, trying to make something of the draft, but never to my own satisfaction. The material was stubborn. It wouldn’t ‘budge’. There were lines that I just couldn’t get right. Then, thirty years later, I found myself taking it up again. My timing in this case turned out to be right. The drafts were there, on several pages, ready to be worked on, seemingly as fresh as if they’d been written the day before. There was a chime, a resonance, then a flurry of mental and verbal activity, over, in and around the drafts. Things happened, words slid into place, and the poem ‘came out’, effortlessly. I was astonished. The overall time actually spent in actually writing this piece was quite short, probably not more than a few hours, all told. But it took thirty years for it to emerge completely, a long brooding and hatching time.
PN: In the context of the various editions and translations of Black Light, I’ve a further question about reception. It’s now thirty years since you composed the sequence. What has struck you as most interesting about its reception, initially in 1983, as well as later? That is, in its ‘original’ form, and then in the bilingual Greek edition, as well as in other languages? I also have in mind its first publication only a little more than a decade after Seferis’s passing in 1971, and of your sense of its position in the context of your accumulated body of work now, forty years after his death.
RB: Before publication, one of the poems was noticed in 1982, when I submitted the opening villanelle, ‘Black is the light behind the blaze of day’, to the Arvon Poetry contest. It received the Duncan Lawrie Prize. But the book’s English launch didn’t quite go according to plan. I’d hoped the first edition would appear at the one-day Seferis conference at the fourth biennial Cambridge Poetry Festival in 1983. I had founded and co-ordinated the first of these biennial festivals in 1975, and the 1983 Seferis conference was the brainchild of Antoinette Moses and myself, following the successful conference on Mandelstam at the 1981 festival. But as things transpired, the co-ordinating committee decided to exclude my tribute to Seferis from the mainstream festival. Fortunately, a ‘Festival Fringe’ was capably organised by the young poet Steve Spence, then a student at CCAT, and these events turned out to be as interesting as the main festival, if not more so. The launch of Black Light took place in the Old Library at Pembroke College, along with that of two other books I was publishing at the same time: Homing, the first collection by John Paul Dick (more recently known as John Burnside), and Alcman Ape by Michael Benenson, a one-man drama dedicated to John Berryman. From the Seferis conference itself, I best remember a fine memorial tribute to Stavros Papastavrou – who taught modern Greek at Cambridge – delivered by his friend John Holloway, and an informal meeting with Rex Warner, who had translated a selection of Seferis’ poems, years before Keeley and Sherrard. His had been the first edition of Seferis I had read, as an undergraduate in 1962.
After this, Black Light went on to receive good notices and reviews, and two small editions of the book quickly went out of print. On the recommendation of Antoinette Moses, a third edition was republished by Aude Gotto at the King of Hearts, an art gallery and cultural centre in Norwich, as a Greek component in the 1995 Norwich Festival. When I gave occasional readings in England, audiences were responsive, especially to the poems ‘Volta’ and ‘Only the Common Miracle’.
So far, Black Light has been translated more widely than any other book of mine: into five languages. The Serbo-Croat edition was the first of these: it was published to coincide with a tour I did in Serbia in 1986, running poetry writing workshops for schools, the year before I went to live in Belgrade. The translator Bogdana (Boba) Bobić became a teaching colleague and a good friend. German, Slovenian, Greek, and Spanish versions followed; and most recently, a new Serbian translation has been made by Vera V. Radojević. It seems quite possible that the book will be translated into other languages too, especially those clustered around the Mediterranean. I’d like to see translations in Arabic, Hebrew, Portuguese, French, Turkish, Maltese. There’s an unpublished version in Italian, and some poems from the sequence have been translated into Galician. At any rate, this book has a life of its own.
Of all these versions, the one that pleases me most is the Greek one, in the translation by Nasos Vayenas and Ilias Layios. The relatively small Greek poetic community and the reputation of Nasos ensured that this volume received intelligent and attentive reviews in the Greek literary press. This included a half-page review in I Kathimerini, with my photo under that of Seferis, which delighted me, as well as other reviews. One response to this edition, by Maria Filippakopoulou, a bilingual reader, gave me a great deal more to think about. The critical essay she wrote on the book, in English, was partly responsible for triggering the idea of an experiment in translation, the so-called ‘Volta Project’ in Interlitq, which involved making versions of the poem ‘Volta’ into more than ninety languages, including the Greek version by Ilias Layios, and an introductory essay of my own.
Eventually, I included ‘Black Light’ in For the Living, the first volume in my Selected Writings series. This book consists of longer poems and sequences written between 1965 and 2000. ‘Black Light’ is placed slightly out of diachronic context, so that it follows immediately after a strongly contrasting sequence entitled ‘Day Estate’, set among the unemployed in the slums of England and Scotland in the 1980s.
PN: I’d like us to elaborate on a subtle differentiation here. You’ve written poems while actually living outside England, in Greece, Italy and former Yugoslavia. And you’ve written other poetic texts afterwards, in England, from a position of loss, absence, nostalgia. One is reminded, perhaps, of Joyce writing about Dublin from memory. Would you say that Black Light – perhaps the most significant and ‘intimate’ of your poems and poetic sequences relating to your ‘Greek experience’ – and written, as you have already mentioned, after your return to Cambridge – is also the one that is most steeped in nostalgia? How do you relate to these ‘psychogeographies’ when you’re inhabiting them, and when you’re remembering them?
RB: I like the term ‘psychogeographies’ for the way it encapsulates complex aspects of place. As for nostalgia, it’s integrally embedded in Black Light, as is eros. And I’m honoured that you should think of Joyce. But the key difference between my relationship to Greece and Joyce’s to Ireland, surely, is that Joyce’s exile was from his own birthplace. And he entertained such deeply ambivalent feelings about Ireland that he never went back to it. If you were to be reductive, I suppose you could say, Ireland is both ‘father’ and ‘mother’ to his writing. In contrast, the exile of the speaker in Black Light – if it can be called that – is from a locus that is both loved and longed for, without qualification. Actually, here I’d prefer to speak of dislocation and perhaps also of extraterritoriality than exile. In Black Light, since the loved locus is not the speaker’s birthplace, but ‘other’ rather than intimately familial, I think the ‘Greece’ that is imaged or imagined suggests several rather different interpretations. For example, the figure of the ‘I’ is presented as ‘foreign’ at various points. The speaker (implicitly) longs but is unable to succeed in breaking into – let alone wholly understand – the ‘code’ of the black light, because s/he isn’t a native. Then the voices (or rather, entities) that embody or carry (or ‘understand’ or ‘stand under’) the black light are quite varied and various. They include the land itself, the flavour and tang of the sea, an underwater statue, cicadas, an old shepherd at a Neolithic site, and a young woman called ‘Eleftheria’...
PN: Yes. And it has struck me before that one very noticeable feature of the sequence is precisely that this poetic voice shifts, is transmitted and transmuted, belongs to many carriers and positions – in the same way, perhaps, as there is no single stable poetic form across the sequence. There are prose poems, there are villanelles, there’s the verset. ... Could it be said that the experience of the ‘black light’ both ‘escapes from’ and ‘is captured’ in and by the poetic forms – that is to say, in and by language itself?
RB: That’s an interesting idea, that the shifting yet permeating – even all-permeating – presence of the black light itself through the sequence is actually embodied in permutations in poetic form. I’d never thought of that. I think you’re right to focus on the shifting quality of the sequence’s voice or voices, in its attempts to register or capture the light itself, as the key. Do you think something similar could be said about the varied forms in The Blue Butterfly: that these embody the butterfly’s flitterings?
PN: This could suggest that what the poetic ‘work’ of Black Light involves is the articulation, or rather, the translation of the light itself, as experience, into words. Light is a pre-verbal, primary phenomenon, anterior to language itself, existing long ‘before’ any human speaker could ever have touched it with words, and long before any poet could ever reach out towards it, reach out for it – whether as metaphor or to express how the light is felt (perceived, apperceived) experientially at any particular place and time. So what the poem does is follow and register the light’s variegated manifestations, in words, in poetry’s varied forms. In practice, perhaps this could be called a ‘multi-angle’ approach. And this kind of approach does appear to be patterned through The Blue Butterfly too, although here the ‘butterfly’ is evidently more tangible and definite than ‘light’, and has a clearer scope of reference, in terms of biology, myth and history.
RB: I think you’re right. The butterfly, like any ‘object’, is seen in and under the light. But light itself can’t quite be the object of seeing, or if it can, not in the same way. Light permeates, strikes and diffuses. Light is ‘seen’ only where and when it touches ‘things’. It’s the channel or mode through, in and by which the seeing of things ‘takes place’. I like your idea of the varied poetic forms in both books suggesting ‘a multi-angle view’, but – to continue your photographic or filmic metaphor – I’d say it’s not just a question of angles, but of all possible techniques of approach, registration, development and treatment, including range and focus, sharpness and blur, shadow, colour density, and so on. Thinking about light in this way is relevant to Seferis too.
As for ‘experience’ simultaneously escaping from and being captured in or by poetic form, in or by language, I think this suggests a paradox. Can words catch experience? Or do words form experience? Or do both processes occur, in a constant dialectical flow? And is there a difference between the ways in which language functions, on the one hand normatively (i. e. functionally, descriptively, etc.) and, on the other, poetically (i.e. ‘creatively’)?
What you say also reminds me of the imagem of the fishing net and rabbit trap of words that ‘catch’ meaning (the hunted creature) in the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), even though a subtly different point is being made there. Through a plethora of puzzles and riddles, foundation texts of Daoism like the Zhuangzi keep reiterating the inadequacy of language to contain or handle experience. Life itself, the weft (mesh) of phenonema, the extra-linguistic or non-linguistic universe, consistently refuses to be nabbed, bagged or bottled. Like a genie, it defies containment. It brims, overbrims, pours over, breaks boundaries, vanishes, reconstitutes itself, bounces back. And the tighter the definition, the more resistant the confined spirit. And the less adequate the ‘fit’, one might say, between signifier and signified, then the more irritable the friction. And the more fluid, leaky, and (ultimately) uncontainable anything we might even remotely call ‘meaning’.
The paradox that counter-poses and weighs ‘language’ against ‘experience’ or ‘phenomena’ could be re-articulated as something like this. On the one hand, we’re constantly aware that so long as language is normatively deployed, i e. so long as it’s considered ‘representative’ or ‘mimetic’ of an originary (prior, external, separate) reality, then we can scarcely hope that it will ever fully register or encapsulate the richness and complexity of that reality. From any such perspective, the gulf between signifier and signified is bound to be irreconcilable. On the other hand, in the acts or experiences of making and receiving poems, something different may – and often does – happen. It could be said that language itself becomes so charged and energised that it creates experience. The apparently unassailable, ineradicable écart (gap) between signifié and arbitrary signifiant – which has been monumentally enshrined, first in linguistics and then in all the social sciences, ever since de Saussure delivered his Cours de linguistique generale in Geneva – can be magically (musically, marvellously, and even if only momentarily and marginally) bridged or, rather, transgressed. Octavio Paz’s and every poet’s (and child’s) craving for “the age-old magic belief in the identity of the word and what it names” gets answered in and by the poem itself. For ‘experience’ flows out of the poem. The poem, as font (source) of experience, is the generator, not the mere container, of language and of meanings. So the language in the poem, of the poem, itself becomes originary. The poem, even if only momentarily, restores and restitutes an originary condition and our belief in that condition. In the beginning was not the World but the Word.
Ted Hughes’ deploys the identical imagem of hunting and fishing as the Zhuangzi, in ‘Capturing Animals’, his marvellous essay for teenagers about writing poetry. For him, the magical, elusive, transformational fish, fox or fowl of any poem of his isn’t primarily a previously existing ‘real’ creature that the poet is trying to ‘catch’ (i.e. recapture, invoke, recall, mime, mimic, reproduce, etc.) in words, but the ‘other’ that is the poem itself. So the poem itself is the creature, the catch – the aim of the hunt that haunts its hunter. The poet is its creator or demiurge. The poem itself is originary.
PN: And if we were to bring in our previous theme of ‘translation’ again, what should be made of the conventional distinction between an ‘original’ composition and its ‘translation’? Couldn’t it be said that your sequence Black Light is itself a translation, or even a translation of a translation, since it’s steeped both in your deeply personal readings of both Greece and of Seferis – as well as in Seferis’s own reading of Greece? In this situation, where is the ‘original’, and how is it shaped – and in what ways are definitions of ‘originality’ possibly extended?
RB: Maria Filippakopoulou has picked up on all of these aspects in her fine critical essay comparing the Greek translation of the book with the English ‘original’. As for the range of meanings encompassed in the word ‘originality’, I think it’s helpful to use the word originary here, in order to select out the idea of ‘point of origin’ and to distinguish that from the meaning-cluster ‘excitingly new’, ‘innovative’, ‘never thought of before’, etc., that’s contained in the word original. Of course Filippakopoulou is right, and you’re right too, in drawing attention to the fact that the sources for the ‘version’ of Black Light ‘delivered’ in English are Seferis’s ‘Thrush’ and his 1946 diary. Seferis’s poems, written in Greek (as well as their translations into English) originate my English poems. In this sense, it could be said, therefore, that the ‘translation’ of the English text into Greek by Vayenas and Layios constitutes a double movement: on the one hand, an ongoing continuation in transmission of a key motif originating in Seferis; and on the other, a ‘return’, a ‘homecoming’, almost as it were, a rightful restitution, of this – this what? what is it to be called? – key motif? imagem? core theme? central metaphor?, ‘ur-text’? – to its ‘source’ in the Greek language. For her essay’s title, Filippakopoulou deploys ‘Foreign In Our Own Country’, quoting the poem ‘Only the Common Miracle’ in Black Light, clarifying that:
[…] here ‘foreign’ is expanded to include the foreign within ourselves (Kristeva 1991), in terms of identity, self-perception, and (native) language. Its key element is the cross-lingual dialogue of poets, whether or not through translation; hence the relevance of looking closely at the bilingual rather than the original monolingual edition.
Most interestingly, in her reading, Filippakopoulou explores how and why, for her personally, the Layios-Vayenas Greek version is closer to being ‘originary’ than the English: first, because Greek is her first language; second, because of the freshness, expressiveness and ‘originality’ (in both senses) of phrasings in the Greek renditions; and third, because of the ‘direct’ influence of Seferis on both Layios and Vayenas. Here she probably has in mind Vayenas’s book on Seferis, The Poet and the Dancer [O Poiitis kai o Horeftis], which is regarded in Greece as a groundbreaking study. In close-text exploration of phrasings by Layios, she writes: “Layios encourages the reader to revisit the English poem [...] in the hope of finding in it some enlightening cues or clues for a word, or a turn of phrase, in the Greek poem – which, thanks to its authority and power, one can hardly call merely a ‘version’.” She goes on to suggest that, in Layios’s translations, “this ‘original’ emerges re-energised, transformed: and so much so that the [wording] of Berengarten becomes in effect the ‘translation’ of Layios’s [wording], rather than vice-versa, because it is assumed, on the basis of their de facto equivalence, that the English now illuminates the meaning of the Greek.”
Filippakopoulou’s complex and paradoxical interpretation is scrupulous is its attentiveness. Could it be, then, that in some curious way the (earlier) English ‘version’ can be construed as a translation of its own (later) translation into Greek? And if so, then which is originary? And which original? The entire nature of literary influence as usually interpreted, in linear historical terms, and the ways in which tradition is passed on are both called into question here. Filippakopoulou leaves these issues open and unanswered, though I think it could be interesting to pursue them through the idea that recursion and iterativeness operate as the main moving principles of influence, rather than the various – and often oversimplified – versions of ‘linear’ or ‘triangulated’ Hegelian dialectic that most literary historians seem to go in for. Here, a profounder question is implied or hinted at. Can a ‘later’ event ‘influence’ its ‘past’? Which brings us to one of the most exciting frontiers of speculation in contemporary philosophy. In Time’s Arrow and Archimedes’ Point, the philosopher and mathematician Huw Price, exploring some of the puzzles and ramifications of quantum theory, concludes that contemporary physics doesn’t necessarily require “the asymmetry of causation”, i.e. the mono-directional flight of time’s arrow.
PN: So, bearing all these questions in mind, all these positions: for you, is there – indeed can there ever be – any resolution of the tensions between what could be called ‘creative expression’ on the one hand and, on the other, ‘hermeneutic exploration’, in the sense of (your) making a sustained effort at understanding the specific emotions, senses, meanings of self-in-place, of a particular self in a particular place?
RB: I see both under the umbrella of heuristic discovery. Each new poem is a specific exploration of inscape, in the full Hopkinsian sense, and of minute particulars, in the full Blakean sense. These are the English pioneers I follow. The tradition of Midrash [מדרש), a Hebrew word and traditional practice among scholars, which means not only ‘investigation’ but also ‘interpretation’, ‘exposition’ and ‘story’, is also salient. Each poem is a new querying and telling. Each new poem is an essentially modest endeavour, rooted firmly and fully in its own now, and growing out of that now. It doesn’t replace any previous poem but, whether intentionally or otherwise, it may comment, draw upon and even shed new angles and textures of light on its predecessors. Paz writes: “Each reader is another poet; each poem another poem” And he adds to this: “Though it perpetually changes, poetry does not advance.”
PN: There are other instances ‘under Greek light’ scattered through your writing, before and beyond Black Light. Could we explore some of these more or less occasional poems, whether in early volumes or later ones? I’m thinking, for instance, of Pelion reappearing in Book With No Back Cover. Are there other poems you’ve written that belong in the ‘psychogeography’ of Greece, which have special significance for you? And do you see a cohering pattern to your Greek poems over the last forty-five years since ‘The Easter Rising 1967’?
RB: This is a probing question. I first thought of answering by saying that, other than the fact of their ‘Greekness’, I could make no generalisation about these poems; that they’re simply ‘part of what I am and what I do’. That statement would be true, though not particularly interesting or instructive. But after reflection, I realised that there is a motif among some of the ‘Greek’ poems that have followed Black Light, which includes that book too, though the thread is also woven into other areas of my writing, outside Greek contexts and settings.
This theme, in the simplest terms, is the struggle between eros and thanatos, with psyche hovering ever-present. For example, images of Pelion recur in several poems in Book With No Back Cover. The poem ‘Sonnenuntergangstraurigkeit on the waterfront at Milina’ is to do with eros. The long and astonishingly precise German word in the title means ‘sunset melancholy’ (literally ‘sun-going-down-sadness’). The piece is a partly ironic, partly affectionate sketch of a group of international tourists on a beach. It arises out of the same matrix as Black Light but is written in the verse paragraph, the mode of The Manager. Then there are two poems in the same collection whose theme is thanatos. The annual almond festival at the village of Kanalia is referred to in one of the ‘underworld’ poems in the same book, entitled ‘Hey you there Rolf’. Here, ‘Rolf’ refers to Rolf Dieter Brinkmann, and ‘Veronica’ to Veronica Forrest-Thompson, gifted young poets, both of whom died in separate tragic accidents immediately following the first Cambridge Poetry Festival in April 1975. The poem is a kind of ‘Lament for the Makars’. The second underworld poem is ‘And these were the wearers of the winged sandals’, a lament for Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators”, the dead poets, and especially Orpheus. Here his name is given in French, Orphée, which is meant to suggest a possible echo of Cocteau’s 1950 film, which I saw as a student in the early 1960s. Similarly, snippets of Greek phrases occur in The Manager and, more significantly, two deliberate intertextualities. One, from Theodorakis, “In the parks and among the flowering gardens” is a passage about growing old, and it attempts to translate my favourite Theodorakis song, a strikingly beautiful piece with a fantastic instrumental part, about a contest with Death, both in dancing and in playing the baglama [a smaller version of the bouzouki]. Here eros and thanatos vie in naked contest. Another quotation, from Seferis, is embedded in the penultimate section, which may be one of the book’s keys. Seferis’s line “I’m not talking to you about bygones. I’m talking to you about love” is turned into part of a declaration made on the phone, though it’s unclear whether this is in a conversation or left as a message: “No, it’s not the past I’m talking about. I’m trying to talk about love...”
PN: …I remember this – it is a beautiful, short piece. And very effective indeed, where it’s placed.
RB: Then, in my most recent book, Manual, which is a sequence on the theme of human hands, a group of poems is associated with Pelion, and particularly the village of Ksinovrisi [‘Bitter Well’]: “Outside the café underneath the plane tree / the old sailors play backgammon”, “The young wives toil uphill ferrying water”, and “By the well the tricoteuses”. Another poem in this group has the feel, for me, of Ritsos, though I can’t pin it to a particular source: “We went down to the river and it was dry.” And another has these lines:
Now that you are leaving,
your hands curled already over the oars
balancing them and twirling them
grooved in their oil-slickened locks,
take the boy with you.
This echoes section 17 of Seferis’s ‘Mythistorema’, and the song that Theodorakis made of it:
Now that you are leaving, take the boy with you also.
PN: These considerations, the ‘scenes of departure’, reverberate into your more recent work too, and in Manual, especially, I think.
RB: Definitely. In the same book, the concluding sequence of twenty poems entitled ‘The Loved Ones’ explores views from the banks of the river that separates the world of the living from that of the dead. Whether the standpoint of any particular poem is from this side or the other is left ambiguous. Each of these poems has ten lines, divided into two stanzas, representing ten fingers, two hands. The entire imagem is Greek; the river is the Styx; and several motifs I share with Seferis occur, such as statues. For these reasons, I’ve dedicated this sequence-within-a-sequence to Nasos Vayenas, who writes convincingly about Seferis’s symbolism of statues in The Poet and the Dancer.
PN: And the ‘study of death’ – mass death, in this case – is made, but even more intensely, in more concentrated form, in The Blue Butterfly ...
RB: Yes, the book’s starting point is a massacre. What’s more, the longest single poem in the book, which also happens to have the longest title I’ve ever given to any poem – ‘A conversation between a murdered man and a butterfly at one of the gates to the Underworld’ – is entirely Greek in its configuration of Hades. And the butterfly itself, whose presence motivates, moves and moves through the entire sequence, is also Greek: ψυχή, psyche, the soul.
Of course, to say that eros and thanatos are the only themes running through all these poems would be inaccurate, but these patterns can be traced, among others. And to discover this pattern through and thanks to this interview is revealing to me. So thank you. It helps self-understanding.
PN: Aside from many more interesting questions to do with the relationship between poet and interlocutor, or critic, that could be broached here, has our discussion suggested any other patterns to you?
RB: It draws attention back to a point so familiar that it gets taken for granted: the centrality of Greece and Greek civilisation (culture, art, literature, philosophy, science) to western and world history. So many of our archetypes and prototypes for thought and action are Greek, and our sense of both beauty and meaning is ineradicably tied to models in Greek myth and art. Think of Racine, Hölderlin, Goethe, Keats, Byron, Nietzsche, Freud, Rilke, Sartre, Kerenyi, Hillman ... and one keeps thinking of more. The list seems endless.
As for other patterns in my own work, exploring ancient Greek philosophy and history is a relatively new strand in some recent short unpublished poems. Small, ironic, and so far unpublished pieces like ‘A Respected Lady’ and ‘In Egypt’ were both written in 2007, while reading Legge’s curious Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity. And in 2012, I wrote a short piece entitled ‘Protagoras of Abdera’, snatched almost verbatim from a book on Greek philosophy by A. W. Benn. Then there are several short poems that belong to a sequence I’ve been engaged in writing for many years, entitled Cohering, based on the Yijing. This contains at least five poems on Greek themes, drawn from Herodotus’s account of Croesus consulting the Delphic Oracle, about whether he should wage war on Persia. Another of these poems, ‘Mountain fir’, derives from Homer’s description of a fir tree growing on the slopes of Mount Ida in Book 14 of the Iliad. These lines interest me because they distinguish between the words ἀήρ and αἰθέρ, from which our English words air and aether (and ether) have evolved. Homer’s majestic fir tree has its trunk in the ἀήρ, while its top stretches up into the αἰθέρ. So ἀήρ is below and αἰθέρ above, as everyone knows. But their relative position isn’t the only distinction: ἀήρ was misty, damp, hazy, while αἰθέρ was clear, pellucid, dry. They had entirely different qualities. I discovered this in Kahn’s study of Anaximander, the Milesian pre-Socratic philosopher.
PN: These last points are very interesting, in connection with the effects of the passage of time on continued and continuing experience. In this vein, could you also say something about your more recent visits to Greece, as well as to Cyprus, and how these have connected into your writing?
RB: It can take a long time for impressions to settle into poems. In the last few years, I’ve been to both Greece and Cyprus with Melanie Rein – then my partner and, since then, my wife. In the early spring of 2003, we went to Athens and the Peloponnese, where we stayed with the writer, poet, essayist and travel writer Anastassis Vistonitis and his wife Maria, whom we’d met at a literary festival in Dornbirn, Austria, and had got on with extraordinarily well. In Athens, it was curious and sad at once to return to Plaka and see my old house in Periandrou Street completely boarded up. This was the house where Kostis Palamas had died. It had suffered in the earthquake of 1999, hadn’t been repaired, and was structurally unsafe. Seeing it, I experienced a sudden longing to renovate and restore it, turn it into a cultural foundation – if I had enough money ... (if, if ...). In 2003, the entire area was being modernised in preparation for the Olympic Games in the following year, and it was extraordinary to see Plaka and Monastiraki transformed into a thriving hub for modern tourists, with neat pedestrian pathways all around the Acropolis. There was no sign of Tsoumali’s old rebetika dive in Areos Street. A shop selling clothes made in China and India occupied the space. … And now, only ten years later, in the wake of the overall economic disaster, even that moment of revisiting seems like an unreal bubble. … In the Peloponnese, we stayed near Pylos and visited several other places along the south-western coast, including the Venetian fortress at Methoni. Then, Anastassis drove us across the mountains to the Byzantine fort of Mystras and from there to Monemvasia, that extraordinary miniature peninsula, with its tiny gated entrance, where Yannis Ritsos was born. ‘Monemvasia’ of course means ‘single entry’, and connects with our word embassy. … We stayed overnight and saw the monument to Ritsos on the roof of a little house just inside the entrance to the fortress, next door to a shop still owned by a member of his family.
In 2005, Melanie and I stayed in Parga, Epirus, where we found an inlet across which orange-bellied sea swallows skim the water among the swimmers. That extraordinary experience, of swimming under and among those beautiful birds, has been trying to surface into draft poems in my notebooks ever since then, though it hasn’t yet fully articulated itself. And during that trip, we also visited Dodona, the site of the ancient oracle, a place in a valley as stupendous in its way as Delphi. I’m still brooding on the impressions of that place, with its theatre, and oak trees, and the mountains looming around. I’ve some preliminary notes for a possible sequence of poems, again thinking of Herodotus’s account of the oracle there. I’ve already mentioned the Serbian rainmaiden, Dodola. Jakobson actually suggests a possible etymological and mythical connection between this figure and Dodona – one that had occurred to me before reading his essay, though I’d thought it probably too far-fetched to entertain seriously.
In 2010, Melanie and I went to Cyprus. We stayed in Pissouri, a village ruined by British tourism and holiday homes, not far from the strategic air base at Akrotiri. We spent most days with Melanie’s sister Jude and her partner Peter Trenam at their house on the other side of Limmasol. At this time, Nasos was due to receive a literary prize in Nikosia, and Melanie and I attended the ceremony. I also gave a poetry reading at the Utopia boite in Limassol, hosted by Elefetheria Makridou and her sister, the singer Kristia Makridou, who set some of the translations of poems from ‘Black Light’ as songs, and sang and played them on her guitar. Nasos was present at this reading. At another evening at the Utopia, we happened to call in during an evening when a large group of PE teachers – all women, of all ages – were having a party to celebrate a colleague’s retirement. As teachers, it was their job to teach Greek dances, and they knew every one imaginable. So we were treated to a feast of skilled, spontaneous dancing, from the hasapiko, zeimbekiko and tsiftetéli, to rarer dances with complex steps from the Ionian and Aegean islands, and they invited us invited to join in. That evening took me back more than forty years to my first days in Thebes and Athens. Then, in the following summer, thanks to an invitation from Nasos’s bibliographer and Seferis scholar, Savvas Pavlou, I was invited to take part in an open air poetry reading and concert in Nicosia, under the full moon. On this occasion, among other poems, I read my two translations of Yakovos Kampanellis’s Mauthausen sequence, while Theodorakis’s melodies were played by the orchestra in the background.
PN: So, over the years, Greece has triggered poems of many different kinds, varying in length and genre?
RB: Yes, and these range from political and satirical to narrative, meditative and lyrical. And as you know – because I’ve dedicated the piece to you, Paschali – there has recently been an explicit return to a contemporary political theme, which surfaces in a short poem in Cohering, entitled ‘Biding (his) time’: a sketch of an unnamed country where there is unemployment, inflation, as well as strikes and riots. I wrote this in 2011, thinking of the economic riots in Athens in the wake of the rising EU debt. Then shortly after that, riots erupted in cities all over England too.
PN: Political themes in some of your recent poems take right us back to The Easter Rising 1967.
RB: Yes. And I’ve also been thinking a good deal about how the current global economic crisis has affected Greece. Mass unemployment, bankruptcy of the state, the huge (and probably unpayable) debt to the EU, waves of immigration, and the rise of the neo-fascist and ultra-nationalist Hrisí Avgí [Golden Dawn], have created drastic conditions for the entire country and for just about every family. You know this far better than I do. It strikes me that if it weren’t for the traditional strengths and loyalties of the Greek family, the present situation would be even worse. People wouldn’t be able to manage at all. And in Cyprus too. Do you think that’s true?
PN: I’d say so, yes. Though this factor is combined with the relative wealth accumulated, including personal savings, because Greece’s economy has still been in slightly better shape than in some other countries, for instance, in the Balkans. But at the same time, political divisions, past wounds, absolutism, intolerance, populism and conspiracy theories – these elements, already there before the crisis – have gained a terrible sharpness.
RB: Yes. And by now, in October 2013, in the wake of the murder of the anti-Fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas, and the arrest of some of the Golden Dawn leaders, Greek democracy once again seems terribly fragile. It feels like a possible repeat of the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1920s. And that brings with it a horrendous threat of déjà-vu, and fear of possible consequences. So in the last four years, the political situation, apart from being frighteningly precarious in itself, has shown the rest of the western world what risks economic collapse brings. And the rise of the Golden Dawn shows that Fascism never gets buried for good: it can make a come-back anywhere, any time.
PN: You’re right. It really is astonishing to see how some of these apparently ‘inevitable’ forces play out. From where I stand, these neo-Fascist elements epitomise the most violent and most radical of current perceptions of ‘what needs to be done’. And underneath it all lies this populism, manifesting itself in snap judgements and a rush to quick solutions, all based on facile formulas, slogans, and simplistic, reactive, overemotional thinking. What’s more, this kind of response is as typical of some groups on the extreme left as it is of the far right.
The first casualty in an impossible situation like this is reasonableness and any sense of measure, proportion, or balance. People just don’t think straight. In many respects, how could it be otherwise? Though one could also argue that, under the circumstances, many Greeks have shown a striking maturity. Even so, large numbers of people still do support formations like Golden Dawn, even in the face of everything that has happened. And despite the flawed, faulty, fatalistic ideologies they subscribe to, these people at the same time come across as energetic, engagés, determined, passionate, youthful, and patriotic. They promise to “make it new”, to ‘make everything new’. And without a doubt, there’s a strong allure in that for some people.
RB: This is a thought-through analysis. But it’s too soon for prognosis, presumably?
PN: Yes, far too soon, unfortunately, especially bearing in mind all the complex economic factors. And in an era of globalisation it’s difficult to return to even recent history for clues and lessons. But I suspect this is exactly the same kind of situation, and energy in response to it – along with all the illusions that come with it, the promised break with the past, and so on – that sucked in literary minds, like Pound, to such dangerous causes, as well as many of the ‘Futurists’ in pre-war Italy.
RB: Your analysis throws revealing angles and perspectives on writers like Marinetti, Pound, Wyndham Lewis and Roy Campbell, who all fell for Fascism in a big way. Does Golden Dawn have significant supporters, sympathisers and fellow travellers among writers and intellectuals too?
PN: Not that I know of, thankfully. There may be some silent supporters. But it speaks volumes that most writers and intellectuals don’t appear to have been influenced. It would be very worrying indeed if that wasn’t the case.
RB: So – on the one hand ‘black light’, and on the other ‘golden dawn’? Of these two, I much prefer the first. Incidentally, I’ve a recent short poem about Fascism, which will form part of Cohering, entitled ‘Like dew upon the morning’. It predates the rise of Golden Dawn. In writing it, I wasn’t thinking specifically about Greece. But its theme does apply, I think. Politics is – and has to be – a strand in my thinking about Greece.
PN: And that seems right and proper, I think. Your first arrival in Greece in 1967 coincided with such a exaggeratedly stressed and confused political situation that it was bound to make a lasting impression. But even in the wake of the 1967-74 dictatorship, and in the lead-up to the present crisis, there have been passions, divisions and wounds in Greek politics that I don’t think you’d find in most European countries – though possibly, they exist in other parts of the Balkans.
RB: Having lived in former Yugoslavia, I’ve thought a good deal about how many deep similarities Greece shares with its Balkan neighbours. I think this is an important and neglected issue for the entire region, and one that needs more exploration than we could give here. … But as for most westerners, we think of Greece as ‘Mediterranean’ but ignore the fact that its location is both Balkan and specifically Eastern Mediterranean. The geo-history common to Serbia, Albania and Greece, for example, includes: no Renaissance and no ‘Enlightenment’; from four to six hundred years of Ottoman occupation; then nineteenth century nationalism sprouting out of patriarchal village structures; traditions of banditry, feud and loyalty, all mushrooming later, into political heroism and resistance: the tradition of the andartis [resistance fighter, partisan]. For klepht [robber, brigand, bandit, highwayman] you can read hajduk, and vice-versa: it’s an identical phenomenon. And then early modernism and modernity, stitched into peasant societies ...
PN: This entire ‘setting’ is and provides a theme in its own right. A theatre full of believers, antagonists and mythic figures, it gives itself to writing. It’s perhaps no accident that there are so many ‘political novels’ written by Greek authors.
RB: Yes, like Antonis Samarakis and The Flaw, and Z by Vassilis Vassilikos, both first published in 1966, just before the 1967 coup …
PN: Precisely. And one can think of recent examples too – though less well-known, devoid of such ‘classic’ status, perhaps.
PN: All in all, in your ‘Greek’ writings, in hindsight do you see any further patterns and consistencies that we haven’t yet touched on?
RB: Perhaps I could sum it all up like this: although I don’t live in a physical Greece, a living Greece lives in me. And there are two further points to add here. First, this discussion is to do with elective affinities – the chimings of personality with place, of place with personality. Or, as you say, a ‘psychogeography’ – but in two senses: the psyche that ‘resides’ in a locus, and the loci that ‘resides’ in a psyche. And second, my Greek poems also fit fairly clearly into an established Anglo-Hellenic tradition of writing, one that flows into modernity from Byron, through Robert Graves, the Durrell brothers, Patrick Leigh Fermour, Rex Warner, Philip Sherrard, John Fowles, Peter Mansfield, Sebastian Barker, and Roddy Beaton, among many others. Don’t all these writers contribute to a certain kind of dialogue – a dialectic – though of course it’s one with many dimensions? And doesn’t this tradition include Americans too, like Henry Miller, and Edmund Keeley, though through differently nuanced lenses? I also think the conversation you and I are having now, via email, between Alexandroupolis and Cambridge is part of this dialogue. It’s one that’s recognisably poised between two civilisations and languages, each curiously, intimately, connected – could one even say chained? – to the sea: one grown on a peninsula, islands and coastlines of the Eastern Mediterranean, the other on a group of islands in North West Europe. It’s also a dialogue between qualities of light, between – on the one hand – the cloudedness of, say Turner’s paintings and Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ (“these clouded hills”), and on the other the cloudlessness of Seferis’s ‘Thrush’ (“light, angelic and black”).
PN: That’s true. Though in Thrace, where I come from, autumn and winter weather is very different from that of the islands in the summer. So, turning away from Seferis for a bit, and reconsidering what’s actually an often simplified, postcard-image of ‘cloudless Mediterranean skies’ – because it does rain in Greece too, as you know, and more so as one moves towards the north of the country, and into the mainland – could we make a small diversion into your long poem that’s based in part on your studies of Balkan rain-making customs? In a Time of Drought, which is focused mainly on Serbia, is an exploration of these folk traditions in the context of the collapse, the implosion, of Yugoslavia – a kind of spiritual and moral drought as well as a political one. And in your extensive glossary that follows the poem, you show that these folk customs actually have a Greek dimension too. In fact, just recently we confirmed this, after you sent me a YouTube clip, which was part of a documentary showing women performing the very same ceremony in a village in northern Greece. So, here borders are crossed and blurred. Could you elaborate on that?
RB: You’re right, in this seven part-poem, written between 2000 to 2011, I interpreted the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the late 1990s as a ‘drought’, in multiple metaphorical senses.
My primary sources were the Balkan rainmaking customs, which I first heard about from my younger daughter Arijana, who was going to school in Belgrade at that time and learning about them from her teachers. I went on to do a good deal of research of my own, and discovered that these village customs for warding off drought were pan-Balkan. In the nineteenth century and well into the mid-twentieth, they were widespread in northern Greece – as well as everywhere else in the Balkans, other than in the Croatian heartlands and Slovenia, though they did exist along the Dalmatian (Croatian) coast. So these customs belonged to pretty well every linguistic group: Albanians, Bosnians, Bulgarians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Romanians, Romanies (Gypsies), Serbs and Vlachs. And each group – rightly – considered the custom their ‘own’.
These customs were delicate and beautiful. They involved youngsters, usually girls – though in some regions, boys or young men – being decked out in leaves and, in some interpretations, being almost covered over, so that the performers looked like ‘little walking trees’. The most common form of the custom was a group of young girls going in procession around the village, and dancing, and singing ‘rainmaking’ chants, some of them very haunting, as in the example I sent you. They would go from house to house and the housewives would sprinkle or pour water over them. Local motifs varied from village to village and region to region, but in all cases they involved a rich fertility symbolism, through which you could see the pagan and polytheistic sources coming straight out at you, right at the surface, even though sometimes the words of the songs had been Christianised by substituting saints’ names, and the Virgin Mary, for the older deities.
The customs were first documented by the great Serbian ethnographer and dictionary compiler, Vuk Karadžić, in his pioneering Serbian Dictionary, published in Vienna in 1818. Gradually, other scholars found out about the custom and wrote about it, including Jacob Grimm in 1835, an English traveller called Alexander Paton in 1845, W. R. S. Ralston in 1872, and Sir James Frazer in the first volume of The Golden Bough, published in 1911. There are interesting references to the custom in a fine book published in 1914 on the transhument Vlachs, the shepherds of Northern Greece – also known as Arumonians or Aromanians – by two English classical scholars, A. J. B. Wace and M. S. Thompson. And as you’ve mentioned, very recently, I came across some new Greek video-documentation on these customs, including recordings of some of the songs, and, astonishingly, interviews with elderly women who – in some cases very vividly and poignantly – remembered taking part in them when they were young girls, perhaps sixty, even seventy years ago. Which would date their memories to just before or just after the Second World War. Incidentally, from the web-link I sent you, do you know exactly where this material was recorded? Was it in Thessaly? I know that the customs didn’t reach further south into Greece than that.
PN: These particular versions of the custom were from further north than Thessaly. The video segment I recall was extracted from a documentary broadcast on Greek national TV, recorded in the north-eastern region of the country, a village called Volakas in Drama, Eastern Macedonia. The women interviewed were talking about invoking ‘Perperouna’, and praying for rain after a prolonged drought. Their descriptions overall were strikingly close to the custom you had been following in a Serbian context.
RB: Exactly. The invocations are addressed both to and through Perperouna. What’s interesting about this name for ‘the rain-maiden’ is that West European classicists and ethnographers, being keen to work out what its etymology might be, naturally looked first to Greek, but were baffled. In 1903, a classicist called Abbott realised that the name was of Slavic origin, though perhaps there’d been others before him who’d made this link. Wace and Thompson did so too, making the connection with the god Perun, the Slavonic equivalent of Zeus the Thunderer. But it took a great linguist, Roman Jakobson – a Russian, the speaker of a Slavonic language – to come up with his brilliantly simple and retrospectively obvious solution to the puzzle, in papers written in 1950 and 1964. Perperouna, like all the many variants of that name that are to be found in northern Greece, up through Bulgaria, and as far as Romania, is a reduplicated, intimate, feminised version of ‘Perun’. Perun is cognate with Lithuanian Perkunas and the Norse god Fjørgynn, and possibly related to the ancient Indian rain god Parjánya. The Perperouna figure, the rain-maiden, then, is the handmaiden and perhaps the child-bride of Perun, the god of thunder, storm and rain. Jakobson also suggested that ‘Dodola’, the other main name for the rainmaiden, which is found in Serbia, is an onomatopoeic epithet attributed to Perun, suggesting thunder.
So, it appears that there’s no immediate Greek ‘origin’ at all for this apparently very Greek custom. The provenance is Slavic. However, in 1974, two other Russian scholars, Ivanov and Toporov, conjectured a “typological parallel” with the figure of Persephone, and so opened the tantalising possibility of a Greek etymological and mythological connection too, albeit a very distant one.
PN: To return to Seferis and to Black Light, how is Seferis different, special? And to what extent do you see him as being specifically Greek? Equally, aren’t there areas and aspects of his oeuvre that reach out readily to readers such as yourself? By which I mean, isn’t there already a Seferis ‘out there’, who is in contact with – and part of – and accessible to – international movements and tendencies in poetry? It’s hard, for example, not to think of the influence of Eliot on Seferis, and of Anglo-Saxon modernism, and indeed, it’s difficult not to compare him to Eliot.
RB: You raise many fascinating points here. In my thinking about poetry, I’ve moved steadily over the years towards a universalist poetics. This direction began to articulate itself as early as the early 1960s when I studied English at Cambridge. It continued in Padua and Venice under the influence of the English poet and Poundian, Peter Russell, and it developed further in the early 1970s, when I came under the influence of both Seferis and Octavio Paz. Unfortunately I never met Seferis, but I was lucky enough to get to know Octavio as a friend during the year he spent in Cambridge (1969-1970), and to read his writings extensively. Paz reiterates his own kind of universalism in several books. The most telling of these is a sentence in The Labyrinth of Solitude, which has almost become a motto for me ever since I first adopted it as one of the epigraphs to Avebury in 1972: “For the first time in our history, we are contemporaries of all humanity.” Paz makes related remarks in other books written around the mid-century. For example, he writes: “Today we all speak, if not the same tongue, the same universal language. There is no one centre…” And he adds: “I consider modern literatures to be a single literature.” It’s interesting to date these statements from around 1950 on – that is, after the end of the Second World War and not long after the signing of the United Nations’ ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ in 1948. Like Paz, I too believe that all modern poetry is a single poetry. By ‘modern’, I mean from Baudelaire and Rimbaud on.
PN: Paz cuts a fascinating figure. His was an incredible ability to encompass differing worldviews. No centre, indeed: his presence in India was also incredibly productive – some exceptional poems and travel narratives resulted from his time there. It is these poet-travellers, the world-seers, the universalists, the ambassadors (and in the case of Paz and Seferis, this title is also literal) who are perhaps best equipped to communicate the intricacies of modern identity.
RB: I agree. In one way, at least, though you could also argue that Paz is always centred – and deeply rooted – in his Mexican identity, just as is Joyce in his Irishness and Seferis in his Romiosýni, his Greekness. Incidentally, the last piece in Black Light is entitled ‘Ambassador’.
Even so, viewing Seferis in universalist rather than purely Greek terms, I think it can be taken as agreed by consensus that he is one of the very great poets of the twentieth century, in the company of, say, Cavafy, Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo, Rilke, Celan, Paz, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, Mallarmé, Valéry, Breton, Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and others. (Every reader of modern poetry will of course have a somewhat different list, though I suspect that some of these names are likely to recur on many versions.) There can be no doubt that Seferis must be thought of in the context of a world literature. As for my own response to his oeuvre, this is certainly conditioned by my reading of other twentieth century poets of this stature. However, precisely which qualities of Seferis merit his placement on a list of this kind, what inherent features and facets of his combine to constitute his greatness, his membership of this club, are considerably subtler, and not so easy to pin down. Let me suggest an approach to this issue.
For a start, I think Seferis’s qualities are intimately bound up with two sets of factors, one mainly temporal (diachronic), and the other mainly, though not entirely, locative (and synchronic). The best clue to the former is still Eliot’s classic essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. From quite early on, Seferis’s voice combines tradition and innovation in a way that that’s always his own, always original. This voice is neither shallow nor mannerist. Nor does the impression of originality result only from the fact that the particular timbre of this voice has never been heard before in Greek poetry, or for that matter, in any other, but rather because the voice is evidently fully at ease with itself. It comes across effortlessly; which is to say that it’s possessed by a recognizable authoritativeness and authenticity. Originality is manifest and clear in all aspects of language: form, diction and tone.
When it comes to the main influences on Seferis, in addition to the whole of Greek literature from the Odyssey and Iliad on, and (as you mention) Eliot and Anglophone poets, I think models provided by French poets shouldn’t be forgotten. As for Eliot, I think it’s worth remembering that if Seferis learned a great deal from the Anglicised American, this was less from what you might call the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Eliot than from Eliot-the-cosmopolitan, Eliot the lover of French symbolism and Dante, Eliot who – like Pound – took all of European literature as his stomping ground. What’s more, my belief is that Seferis, as an Ionian – as someone originally from Asia Minor – was as temperamentally international in his own right as he was a Greek. He was constitutionally suited to being a diplomat, which imposed a life of travelling, especially in the near East and Africa and, later, as ambassador to the UK. His internationalism isn’t only evident in his poetry: it’s a necessary, ineradicable component.
As for the second clue, I think this is to do with what I would call Seferis’s universalist and compassionate understanding of what it means to be alive and human, as a man of his time, in strong combination with the “minute particulars” of, his Romiosýni, his Greekness.
PN: It’s certainly more difficult to see Greekness / Romiosýni as a stable construct these days. What is your own personal response?
RB: But is Romiosýni really to be considered as a ‘construct’, which to me suggests a patterning that’s consciously made and chosen, in the way that an architect designs a building? I’m not a simple straightforward structuralist by any means, and I think of complex, intricate nexuses of habits, thoughts, feelings and perceptions such as these more as Weltanschauungen, ways of looking at the world and being in it, as conditions that are inherited and passed on. But, for the time being, and accepting that Romiosýni means ‘Greekness’ – or rather, a certain way in which a Greek person experiences and perceives his or her own ‘Greekness’ – to me this quality in Seferis shines out clearly, you could even say radiantly, through every word his pen touches. His Greekness is a core part of his humanness, or rather, his humanness is constituted, richly and fully, by his Greekness. Yet while Romiosýni in him is definite and recognizable, and flows into everything, it’s not solid or hard-edged, but mobile, liquid. Like water, it fills the lowest places. Like light, it’s all-pervading. What’s more, rather than being a provincialising or marginalising influence – an irritant, like, say, Larkin’s Englishness – Seferis’s Romiosýni is the key to his universalism. For this is rooted in both his belonging to Greece and his longing for Greece “wherever he travels”. In the same way, Paz, in The Labyrinth of Solitude and ‘Sunstone’, is irreducibly Mexican, and that condition is precisely the block out of which he carves his universalism. In both cases, these poet’s universality and rootedness in their own language, history, culture – and landscape – are correspondent, covalent, co-dependent.
And to explore the reasons why as a reader I turn to Seferis again and again for pleasure and self-deepening, and why as a poet I regard him, along with Paz, as a mentor, perhaps I could suggest what to me are key motifs, and give examples. First, as I’ve suggested, you can’t respond to Seferis only on a thin, cerebral level, as you can, say, to some English, American and French poets. There are necessary layers of engagement with his poems that are emotional, sensuous, and visceral. A reading of Seferis involves what he himself calls – in a key passage in his 1946 diary, where he is exploring the ways that the Greek light affects him personally – “body and soul”. As for the physical presence of his voice, this is strongly marked at all times, by which I don’t mean the kind of throaty, guttural quality that you get in, say, Ted Hughes, or the manneristic and at times clogged quality of, say, Hopkins, Dylan Thomas or W. S. Graham, but a kind of perspicacity that itself loads lines with syncretic and synaesthetic immediacy. Seferis’s artifice is subtle: while the tone and diction of his lines are always those of smooth (‘assured’, ‘easy’, ‘natural’, ‘normal’, etc.) conversation, delivered informally and immediately in the passing current of the now, what can leap out from these contexts is sometimes revelation, the numinous. Consider for example a line at the end of the poem ‘In the manner of G. S’:
Σφυρίζουν τα καράβια τώρα που βραδιάζει στον Πειραιά.
[Sfirízoun ta karávia tóra pou vrathiázei ston Peiraiá.]
(The ships hoot now that dusk falls on Piraeus.)
I’ve always thought this line to be among Seferis’ finest ‘small’ achievements, for its unobtrusive purity of music and its transparent simplicity as well as its centred, embodied love of the aural and visual …
PN: ... It’s a beautiful line …
RB: … and here, the ephemerality of the moment is simultaneously present to both hearing and vision: the hooting of the ships’ sirens, and the falling of dusk, both transitory. Within this lightly pressured presence is threaded a characteristic paradoxical twist. For here two skeins are wound together: one being the physically registered, tangible experience of beauty in all its fulness; while the other, coiling around the former, is the yearning – of the soul – for more than the moment is ever capable of offering. What I suggest as the twin ‘threads’ in this composite experience are anyway, in life, inseparable; so Seferis’s registration is authentic and loyal to experience.
To extend the metaphor: he presents (makes present) the knot of presence in its inextricable binding. Fulfilment (repleteness, fulness) is intertwined tight-as-can-be with the longing for what in any total engagement or involvement in presence must always be lost and abandoned, by the very nature of our living is spacetime: the thisness [haeceittas] of this now, this here, this present. Often in reading Seferis I have the sense that Goethe’s poignant salutation of the moment and simultaneous lamentation of its passing – “Verweile doch, du bist so schön” [“Stay a while, you are so beautiful”] – is constantly being configured, lost, reconfigured, in a wave pattern, like that of breathing, of the heart, systole and diastole, but with neither salutation nor lament ever needing to be expressed directly.
I suggest, then, that this combination of fulness and longing, as necessary components and complementary attributes of the now, is the key to Seferis’s specificity. In another more famous line, “Everywhere I travel Greece wounds me”, which opens the poem ‘In the manner of G. S.’, the physicality of the word “wounds” combines with a depth of personal feeling that encapsulates the condition of the exile longing for home, especially the Odyssean figure of the modern Greek sailor, ‘Stratis Thalassinos’, Seferis’s most typical, characteristic, and revealing persona. While this feeling as clear and definitive a statement of Romiosýni as you could expect to find, it’s equally communicable to anyone who has experienced Greek landscapes and seascapes, even as a visitor. In the territory of poetry, all minute particulars, all local habitations and names, all blessed rages for order, are lifted to universality, and, as in this case, express any wanderer’s longing for home, wherever that may be.
Coincident with this twinned physicality and longing, never detached from either, is the constant presence of eros in Seferis’s lines. Consider the image: “as a woman’s face changes yet remains the same / after she strips naked” in another of Seferis’s ‘signature poems’, entitled ‘Memory II’. As Emmanuel Lévinas keeps reminding us, it is always the face – in which is necessarily inscribed recognition of the face, of the other – that makes us most human. Here, the distinctly male eye of the poet in the persona of a lover – and, implicitly, of the reader too – gazes at a woman who is stripping, not only with erotic desire but also with implicit compassion and empathy. And again, while the picture is vivid, exact, lived in all its connotations, it is a fleeting one, grazed, touched, caught, held for an instant, and then allowed to pass. For what is focused on in the moment is not only the face of the woman in and of herself, in all her self-composure and self-belonging, but the face’s simultaneous mutability of expressions and recognizable constancy.
So eros is wholly humanised here, in the tenderest of erotic gazes. There’s no coolness, salaciousness or morbidity in Seferis’s gaze: it’s magnanimous, warm, compassionate, inclusive. Nor is it dualistic; and in this respect more than in any other, Seferis’s world-view is diametrically different from that of Eliot. For myself, I have to say that I find Seferis’s the more congenial. Sexuality in Eliot is always presented in the context of discomfort (nervousness, embarrassment, inhibition, shame, sleaze, etc.), as exemplified throughout the early poems grouped around ‘Prufrock’ and all through The Waste Land. In Eliot’s writing, sexuality achieves wholesomeness only when viewed or encountered symbolically, sublimated through religious experience or, as it were, ‘in the rose garden’. But in Seferis, eros is as inherent in the soul as in the body; there’s no separation or need for separation; flesh and spirit do not exclude each other. A celebratory eros is necessarily at the heart of his reader’s experience too. Heart is, I believe, the right word. There is a magnanimity here. In reading Seferis, you can suddenly find yourself surrounded by the numinous, while your feet are still fully on the ground.
PN: Following the same vein of thought – connecting Seferis and Black Light – I’d like to return to a hint you dropped earlier, when you used the phrase “focusing on this pervasive, shifting quality of the light itself as the key”. Can we conclude with an exploration of your specific understanding of this ‘Greek light’?
RB: To ‘focus’ on the light itself, and do so carefully and attentively, is a good idea. The trouble is, though, here I find myself on the edge of speech, risking mumbling and stuttering, because what I want to say doesn’t quite belong inside speech. If light could be understood and spoken as an articulate language, then that is where this speech would belong. The difficulty is to do with what we were saying about the non-tangibility of light earlier on, of the fact that as far as words are concerned, light is easy enough to write and talk about in its refractions, reflections and castings of (and on and off) objects, scenes, the seen. Words are inadequate, except perhaps, in poems. ... And here, one can only speak wholly personally.
At the severe risk, then, of clumsy approximation, I’d say this: that to me, the light is so naked in Greece. Or am I perhaps transferring epithets here? Do I mean rather that the Greek light is naked because whatever appears in and under it is or appears naked: stark, unadorned, ‘sculptured’, more so than anywhere else I know? A memory comes to me: sunset at Milina, the Pagasitic Gulf clear as glass, the slopes of Pelion washed in light. And yet, isn’t the opposite true too, or rather, just as true? That the Greek light clothes things in itself, drapes itself around things only to reveal them the more fully, like the pleats and folds that fall down the chiton on a marble statue. To me, then, the Greek light is full of contradictions. But that’s why it’s so powerful and delicate at once. Perhaps because it always seems to resolve these contradictions into a harmony, whether it falls on a crag on Olympus or shapes the shadows and contours on a bowl of Kalamata olives. ... I don’t mean to write purple prose here. I’m aiming for clarity, not ornamentation, which is of no interest to me. … And I can’t help thinking of the Greek words epiphany and phenomenon, both of which have passed into English, and both of which derive from the verb φαίνειν [phaínein] ‘to appear, to show, shine, appear, be manifest’ etc. This revealing link isn’t at all obvious to English-speakers.
And then there’s another contradiction: the way that so often the light seems utterly still, highlighting everything, every thing it falls on – even though you know it’s moving constantly – as the sea is always itself and nothing but itself, while incessantly shifting – rippling and swirling even when apparently mirror-calm. Above all, to me, this rapidly shifting quality of the Greek light between objects is what can catch simultaneously at throat and tear-ducts, lift hairs on the arms, and send chills down the spine. It’s the light’s constant transmutability between diametrical opposites: that of the black light within the white and of the darkness in the core of day, to its opposite, light-bedded, starry, inhering and inherent, in night, in light’s absence: all this and its countervailing movement, from the sun at midnight to the daylight sun at noon, contain the motif that is the key-of-keys to my experience of Greece, or if you like, to my image of Greece, my imaged–and-imagined Greece. It’s the darkness and the starkness of the light of day. I don’t mean this in a Miltonic, Luciferian sense “Dark dark dark amid the blaze of noon” – and still less in any Manichean sense. I mean it as the complex unity of everything coming together, a coincidentia oppositorum.
Do you have this perspective, I wonder? And if so, is it peculiarly ‘Greek’? Does a Greek take all this for granted? I don’t think Seferis did. I think it’s the core of what he celebrated, as Alexandros Kodzias told me in London in 1974, when I first heard from him about the “black light”.
PN: Well, the thing is, if you’re Greek, you do take it for granted. That is, until you travel, perhaps. When you first return from a lengthy absence, perhaps in northern Europe, like Seferis, Kodzias and so many others, then you realize how abundant it is, how all things often seem to be seared with light. Growing up, you don’t quite sense there could be less light, a different light. And of course it doesn’t have to do with the sun, as much as with a certain clarity, a kind of optimal contrast. When you’re in England, in some ways, you feel you’re seeing things through a filter, the edges of things are fuzzier, somehow. At least that was my experience.
RB: I think you’ve put it perfectly, Paschali, because you express it so simply. So matter-of-factly. Especially with the word ‘seared’. Sometimes in England, I have that same sense, and I hunger for that ‘seared’ light. And I miss it, dreadfully. At such times, I find myself feeling, as it were, ‘swallowed up’ by the inescapability of the greenness of Albion’s “green and pleasant land”, and long for a starker, brighter, drier light. … All of which brings me back to that core passage in Seferis’s 1946 diary about the “black light”, which as you know is the main originary epigraph for my sequence.
There is a drama of blood played out between the light and the sea, all around us here, that very few sense. It is not sensualism; it is something much deeper than the fleeting desire and the so persistent smell, let’s say, of woman that prisoners yearn for. There is a drama of blood much deeper, much more organic (body and soul), which may become apparent to whoever perceives that behind the gray and golden weft of the Attic summer exists a frightful black; that we are all of us the playthings of this black.
I think it’s worth exploring Seferis’s complex imagem of the black light by focusing carefully on what he says here. This text is just as complex as the passage in ‘Memory II’. First, he says that the drama played out between light and the sea (visual, vivid, sharp, naked, sensual, constantly shifting and moving) is one of “blood” (fully physical, bodily, human, vital, passionate, organic). Then, as if to clarify and qualify this, he emphasises that it isn’t “sensualism”, which I understand to mean, first, that it isn’t to be confused with languorous sensuousness, and second, that it isn’t only of the body. Yet at the same time, the striking and intimate olfactory image of the “smell ... of woman that prisoners long for” is at once fully ‘sensual’, embodied, erotised, and full of impossible desire and yearning. This presents the same kind of tension (as of a tuned musical string) that I’ve suggested occurs in ‘Memory II’. The dance between light and the sea is feminised, nakedly and in the closest proximity: it’s that of a longed for but untouchable, unattainable lover. By implication, too, subliminally, here the sea’s salt tang is associated to the point of identification with the “smell of woman”. (The Greek word here, mirodia, like English smell, is generic, ranging widely in its associations and attributes.) What’s more, if the eyes – which track the “gray and golden weft of the Attic summer” in the play of light and sea – are the long-range antennae of perception, the nose draws each quantum of experience, minutely, deep into the body itself, on and in breath, as hope, as promise, as attractor. Yet an attracting smell pulls (draws, tempts, tantalises, calls, evokes, heralds, hints at, etc.), but doesn’t itself fill or fulfil the human subject’s appetite (need, desire, longing). There’s no touching and no orality (imbibing, ingesting, eating, drinking), no satisfaction, only pervasion. So while there’s a radical internalising of the visual exterior drama of light and sea, of the perpetual interplay (movement, dance, shifting and transient transitions) between light and the surfaces of water, there’s also a radical longing for “more light” – Goethe’s dying words. In the very instant of light’s presence there is absence, and, equally, in this absence resides its presence. Its fulness is its emptiness and vice-versa. Which is also to say, there’s a (literal) synaesthetic intaking of ‘sight’ and “light”, an inhaling, an inbreathing, in through the nose, not the mouth, down deep into the web or “weft” of the lungs (which are a hollowed, inside-out continuation of one’s skin), and thence, into the “blood”. And so, this drama becomes even “deeper”, even “more organic”: “body and soul” together in one.
Here again, then, in another apparently spontaneous image, resides an inimitable resonance. And once again, here is no dualism, no protest, and (from a North European perspective) not even the most infinitesimal trace either of Protestantism or of Protestantism’s concomitant sentimentalities. Writing this in England, I can’t help reflecting that the haecceitas of Seferis’s vision isn’t one that could ever have been witnessed “among these clouded hills”, unless perhaps in Shakespeare’s tragedies. The spatial and temporal backdrop to the “drama” Seferis writes of is witnessed (and suffered) under unshrouded sky – beneath the αἰθέρ, towards and into which the topmost meristems of Homer’s fir tree reach. As Seferis goes on to clarify, its “weft” – consider other words in the same imagem-nexus: web, plot, map, structure, form, pattern, tapestry – also belongs to the soil itself, the land, soaked since Aeschylus in “blood”. The “black”, he says, is “frightful” (frightening, terrifying, awe-inspiring) in the sense that the gods inspire awe and terror, especially Dionysos. These associations identify the light as the stuff of tragedy, controlled by Ananke, determined by the Fates, and ruled by Hades, lord of death, and by Dionysos, lord of the dithyramb. The statement “we are all of us the playthings of this black” is explicitly tragic, comparable to Gloucester’s lines in King Lear “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. / They kill us for their sport.” And in this way, the tragic element is developed:
The stories we read about the houses of Atreids or Labdacids show in some way what I feel. Attic tragedy, the highest poetic image of this hemmed-in world, constantly striving to live and breathe upon this narrow golden strip of land, meanwhile, with little hope of being saved from sinking to the bottom. This creates its humaneness.
The black light, then is a stark, tragic light. Yet from it stems beauty. It consumes and devours, yet it uplifts and inspires. Its way is both up and down – in the sky – and all around, on sea and land – and under the soil. This is the same light that Yannis Ritsos writes of in Romiosýni, which Theodorakis turns into song:
Eτούτο το τοπίο είναι σκληρό σαν τη σιωπή,
σφίγγει στον κόρφο του τα πυρωμένα του λιθάρια,
σφίγγει στο φως τις ορφανές ελιές του και τ’ αμπέλια του.
Δεν υπάρχει νερό. Mονάχα φως.
O δρόμος χάνεται στο φως.
O δρόμος χάνεται στο φως
κι ο ίσκιος της μάντρας είναι σίδερο.
It’s impossible to translate, isn’t it?
PN: Well, here’s an attempt. What I’m trying to get out here is a transmutation, or at least an evocation or hint of the ‘sound’ of the Greek.
This place is like silence, severe,
so deep is its embrace of burning rocks
and light’s embrace of grapevines and orphan olive groves.
There is no water. Only light.
The road/path loses itself in light.
The road/path loses itself in light
and the shadow of the fence-wall, [is] iron.
RB: That’s good. And it avoids a bland literalism, which won’t work, will it? And along with the sound, it’s the sheer physicality of the stark light and unyielding silence, simultaneously hugging and clashing with matter, that’s impossible to get over into any one single English version. And the image of the road or way “losing itself in light” is perfect in visually accuracy, if you think of the warping shimmer, like liquid silver, on scorched tarmac under late afternoon sunlight. I want to translate each line in ten different ways, and each one I come up with is a compromise. Here’s an alternative attempt, based on yours.
This place is rock-hard/stone-hard, like silence,
it crams/hugs burning rocks in its embrace
and light’s embrace of vines and orphan olives / olive trees
There is no water. Only light.
The way gets lost in light
The way gets lost in light
and shadows are walled in iron.
Impossible to get it 100% right! The word “way” works quite well: it chimes with “walled”, but even so, loses the physicality of “path” and “road”. I’m reminded here of similar discussions and dilemmas in the course of translating Nasos Vayenas’s Selected Poems.
At any rate, what’s clear is that this light is specifically, tangibly, inexorable Greek. As well as the Oresteia, this light produced Homer and the Heraclitan fire on Kos, Anaximander and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and the Apocalypse of John on Patmos. The Greeks gave this light to the world.
PN: What of the other connection that you mentioned, between Black Light and the work you’re currently doing, based on the Yijing?
RB: This work-in-progress, a long poem with the provisional title Cohering, is a homage to the Yijing and is based on that text. Thematically, it continues the exploration I conducted in Black Light. I’ve only realised this ‘deep’ connection in making this interview with you. The dialectic between darkness and light mapped between the start of the Zhou dynasty (c. 1050 BC) and, say, the rise of the Han (207 BC), under the very different skies of China, is of comparable complexity, precision, enormity and grandeur to the Greek vision. In the Book of Changes, the Chinese explored the constantly oscillating interplay between the yin and yang lines, which they held to be the originary principles underlying the creation of Chinese writing itself, a writing whose acme of expression is delicate painting with a brush, not the incision of a knife inscribing serifs in stone. The most perfect registration of the union of opposites – and the key to unlock the black light – is the tàijí tu [太极图] – literally, ‘Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate’.
PN: Finally, I know your perspective on things is decidedly internationalist, and you often speak of a ‘universalist poetics’. Does this thinking start out from the assumption of the impossibility of borderlines in the modern world, and with questioning the place of the poet in it?
RB: No, not at all. And I wonder if your question suggests that some nuances implied in this perspective may need clarifying. And here I mean ‘nuances’ not in the sense of trivial or incidental aspects, but of details that make qualitative changes to the overall perspective itself.
My thinking is this: all persons and all things have and need borders. Without borders, no thinghood and no personhood. Which is also to say: no singulars or plurals; and no identity, no identities. (I’ve explored some themes related to this question, specifically vis-à-vis translation, in an essay entitled ‘Border/Lines’.) As for poetry itself, it’s rooted in the specific, the particular, the local. It has to be, because the image and the imagem are its substance, its stuff, its matter, and hence the necessary constituents of its being, its way of being. Image and imagem not only contain poetry’s form; they form poetry’s content. Poetry and specificity are inseparable: you can’t divorce or extricate the one from the other.
So, when I talk about a universalist poetics, I’m not challenging what might be called the rightness, rightfulness – or better, perhaps – the appropriate dignity of particular identities, but rather of the tendencies that all self-perceptions of this kind contain: to ossify into narrow, self-righteous, superior exclusivities, as, for example, in racist and nationalistic world-views. All such views are based on a view of ‘the human’ that is flawed because it is incomplete. Once again I come back to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and – as if as my ‘personal motto’ – to Octavio Paz’s statement: “For the first time in our history we are contemporaries of all humanity.”
What I’m after in poetry, then, is a marriage of this simple, directly felt perception and understanding of a shared and universal humanity with whatever is generated by “a local habitation and a name”: in short, the patternings of Blake’s “minute particulars”, which involve both. I confess to being less and less interested in contemporary poems that aren’t charged with some aspect of the energy that this dialectic generates.
As for identities, in the last resort, I think these are all mobile, shifting, adaptable, and porous. When a rigid sense of self-identity doesn’t match its surrounding context, the result tends to be absurdity or tragedy. And as for the poet’s role, hasn’t this always involved probing borderlines, and therefore exploring identities, including his or her own? This exploration may involve both a questioning and a celebrating. If for example we revisit Seferis’s sense of identity, his ‘Greekness’, in these terms, I think we find that he both questions and celebrates it: in his case his questioning is a celebrating. He’s an ‘ambassador’, then, in more senses than one.
I wonder whether you think Greek poets can still do this kind of thing in the same way. For example, is Romiosýni still relevant to poets writing today? And how does this motif connect with the current political and economic situation?
PN: My response would be that Romiosýni was relevant in Ritsos’s time, and in songs and cultural production of and from that time, but that it doesn’t really have much of an influence on the poetry and poems being written at present. Nowadays it’s the realities of migration and of everyday experiences of cultural encounter and dislocation that are key themes for many poets. These motifs certainly occur far more than they used to in, say, the 1960s or 70s. My own sense is that what we used to call Romiosýni is undergoing shifts, and these days gets more broadly discussed in terms of Ελληνικότητα another term meaning, literally, ‘Greekness’. – And Ellinikotyta is understood to suggest a tangle of character traits, worldview, cultural and linguistic attitudes and structures.
By this, I mean that the parameters of ‘Greekness’ have shifted, that it’s been destabilised by the fact that for the first time in our history we’re acutely aware of not being the ‘only ones’ living in this land, whereas in the past we were used to a sort of ethnic and cultural ‘clarity’. As I see it, we who live in Greece are experiencing shifts in consciousness, in how we perceive ourselves, so that in terms of political reality for example, there are currently strong reactions to these changes, which take many forms, some of them extremely defensive. This is of course partly due to successive waves of immigration during the past twenty years. But at the same time, it’s because we’re ever closer to the ‘global village’ ourselves. And the political and economic traumas we’ve been talking about are all part of this.
RB: I think this is a profound analysis. And yes, we’re all in it, all part of this condition. In Greece, just as for all of ‘Europe’, borders and identities are porous and permeable. Everyone is on the move, despite all attempts by governments to limit immigration. Multi-ethnicity and multilingualism are with us to stay. Certainly no dawn will ever be delivered by ethnic ‘purity’. And this mobility is having a profound effect on all our notions of tradition, in all spheres of culture.
Many of the great figures of Western literary modernism, from Yeats to Popa, Carlos Williams to MacDiarmid, Lorca to Seferis, stand as embodiments of what we could call ‘a national spirit’. But they all belong to a century that’s gone for good. Paz interests me because his vision embraces national identity but goes far beyond it – to a universalist position. He has a worldview, not just a view of his own land or his own language. For precisely this reason, his is a poetics for our time. Most poets writing today, so far as I can see, haven’t caught up with him. Most don’t see much further than localism – and nationalism.
PN: And to bring this point back to Greece again, for these and other reasons, in my mind, there’s a sort of ‘discoloration’ to what we used to call Romiosýni. So our approach to such notions is more complicated, and more ambivalent certainly, than it was in Seferis’s or Ritsos’s day, or even when you first came to live in Greece in the 1960s. Or to put it another way, the concept activates in different ways. When it comes to ‘Greekness’, things are less than fixed, more fluid; but perhaps exactly for this reason it remains a crucial question to ask: what is defined, or felt to be, Greek, ‘Hellenic’? Especially since these terms and adjectives often indicate different emphases, priorities – or exclusions, even.
RB: That seems entirely right to me. It’s true, I think, of all national and ethnic identities these days. Many of us, myself included, experience and recognise complex, overlapping configurations in our own identities and elective affinities. I’m convinced that there are and always will be diverse reference points for people to choose and identify with. The future is richly diverse. Cultures of the present in big cities like New York, London and Paris are polymorphic and international. This tendency is true even in small towns like the one I live in, Cambridge. When people of different origins live together, we need to develop ways of merging – or at least getting on. Respecting borders, we need to find – and build – inhabitable space.
PN: And it’s usually out of contexts and spaces such as these that a more original poetry will arise: new literatures that articulate the ways we live. And more questions about our future as humans, which we then proceed to answer, necessarily, together.
RB: Yes, with more questions, and with questions about questioning. Here, I can’t help thinking of the close of Cavafy’s great poem ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, written over a century ago:
And some who have just come back from the border
say there aren’t any barbarians any more.
So now what’ll happen to us, without barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.
These lines are of course capable of many interpretations. Among them is this implicit question: “Who is to call whom ‘barbarian’ anymore?” The poetry of today that most interests and engages me explores these grounds.
November 5, 2012 – October 20, 2013
Alexandroupolis & Cambridge
Many thanks to John Dillon for his invaluable recommendations in preparing this version and to Nasos Vayenas for checking and adding to factual details.
Writings by Richard Berengarten
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Eliot, T. S. 1932 . ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. Selected Essays. London: Faber and Faber.
———— ———. 1940 . The Waste Land and other poems. London: Faber and Faber.
———— ———. 1959. Four Quartets. London: Faber and Faber.
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———— ———. 2011. ‘Foreign In Our Own Country’. The Salt Companion to Richard Berengarten. Norman Jope, Paul Scott Derrick and Catherine E. Byfield eds.). Cambridge: Salt Publishing: 193-210.
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———— ———. 1959 . The Golden Bough, abridged version. London: Macmillan.
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———— ———. The Iliad. Tr. Ian Johnston. Arlington: Richer Resources Publications: 305.
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———— ———. 1982. A Conversation with George Seferis. Bilingual edition. Athens: Agra.
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———— ———. 1991. Strangers to Ourselves. Tr. L. S. Roudiez. New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
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Mandiargues, André Pieyre de. 1959. ‘Les pierreuses’. Feu de braise. Paris: Grasset.
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———— ———. Undated. ‘Σκαλα του Μιλανου 1’ [‘Milanos’s Scala 1’]. YouTube.
———— ———. 2004. ‘Κάρολος Μιλάνος, Τόλης Χάρμας - Συναυλία στο Βόλο 2004’. [‘Karolos Milanos and Tolys Harmas – Concert in Volos, 2004’]. YouTube.
———— ———. 2007. ‘http://www.rebetiko.gr/en/news.php?id=43’ [‘Karolos Milanos has died too’]. Rebetiko Online.
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Paz, Octavio.1967 . The Labyrinth of Solitude. Tr. Lysander Kemp, London: Allen Lane.
———— ———. 1971. Configurations. London: Jonathan Cape. Various translators.
———— ———. 1973. Alternating Current. London: Tr. Helen Lane. New York: Viking Press.
———— ———. 1987 . Convergences: Essays on Art and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
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———— ———. Undated. ‘Ο Γιάννης Ρίτσος στην αραβική γλώσσα - Η “Ρωμιοσύνη”’ [‘Ritsos in the Arabic Language – “Romiosyne”’]. A recording of Ritsos reading part of the poem in Greek, including the lines mentioned in this interview. YouTube.
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———— ———. 1969. Collected Poems 1924-1955. Trs. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. London: Jonathan Cape.
———— ———. 1974. A Poet’s Journal: Days of 1945-1951. Tr. Athan Anagnostopoulos. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press.
———— ———. 2007. A Levant Journal. Tr. Roderick Beaton. Jerusalem: Ibis Editions.
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———— ———. 1623. King Lear. ‘First Folio’.
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