For a poet of his stature, there are remarkably few English translations of George Seferis’s work. A giant of Greek poetry and 20th Century European poetry in general, Seferis (1900-1971) inherited the oldest surviving language of the West and brought its poetry into the modern world. He wrote during a long career as a diplomat with postings in Turkey, Albania, around the Middle East, Iraq, and the United Kingdom, and picked up numerous accolades, along with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963. Since his death, his fame has grown to the point where lines from his “Mythistorema” were used in the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. In spite of this, there has been only one (that I know of) selected, prepared with the poet’s assistance, by Rex Warner in 1960 and then a complete poems by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard released in various editions between 1967 and 1995. Throwing his hat into the ring is British Columbia’s Manolis with Collected Poems, which includes a critical introduction, a generous amount of the verse, a partial bibliography, endnotes, and the text of Seferis’s Nobel speech. One of Seferis’s most striking lines is from “In the Manner of George Seferis”: “Wherever I travel Greece wounds me,” meaning both the nation and its long history. Not surprisingly, places and figures from ancient Greece populate his work: Agamemnon, Helen, Astyanax, Andromeda, and Orestes all make appearances, but he also wrote often from the point of view of ordinary soldiers, citizens and refugees caught in the horror of circumstance, witnesses to history but without any control over their destiny, those who “knew that the islands were beautiful / somewhere, perhaps around here, where we grope / a bit lower or slightly higher / a very tiny space.” I don’t know the Greek language and won’t pretend that I do but I can say that Manolis’s renderings are more colloquial and less formal compared to earlier translations. Consider his version of this stanza from “The Sentence to Oblivion”:
And whatever happened had the serenity of what you see before you
they had the same serenity because there wasn’t any soul left in us to contemplate
other than the craving to incise some marks on the stones
that have now touched the bottom below memory.
And compare it with Keeley and Sherrard:
And what then happened had the same tranquillity as what you see before you
the same tranquillity because there wasn’t a soul left for us to consider
except the power for carving a few signs on the stones
which now have reached the depths below memory.
Not radically different, but Manolis’s version is less rhythmic and, one might argue, less poetic than the other. Over the years, Keeley and Sherrard’s translations have emerged as definitive, partially due to lack of competition. This volume is unlikely to challenge them for top spot but variety is necessary for the longevity of the poetry. (As an aside, I rarely mention this in reviews but the number of typos, misplaced punctuation, and confusion between Canadian and US spelling in this book is truly irksome. And the low-resolution image of a sunrise over water through ruined ancient columns on the cover would be better suited to an issue of The Watchtower.) Having already released volumes of Constantine Cavafy and Yannis Ritsos, Manolis seems to be working his way through the 20th Century Greek canon. I wonder if there might be an Odysseus Elytis or Angelos Sikelianos in the near future.
Christopher Doda is the author of two poetry collections, Among Ruins and Aesthetics Lesson. He is currently working on a book of glosas based on heavy metal lyrics.
Unfold poetry in its many languages, from between the pages of Arc!