Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou
Under Greek Light
This is the first of two interviews made with Richard Berengarten. Most of this interview was conducted over a period of two months, through e-mails exchanged between Cambridge, UK, and Alexandroupolis, Greece, November 2012 to January 2013. Final reshaping, cutting, and polishing carried on into the following months. Some Greek terms that occur are glossed in square brackets.
Paschalis Nikolaou: Some of your first poetic sequences drew on events unfolding in Greece in the late 1960s, notably ‘The Easter Rising 1967’, written soon after the coup d’état. Could you talk about the genesis of that poem? And could you reflect on the formal decisions you made in it, and whether you had any specific models in mind when composing it?
Richard Berengarten: ‘The Easter Rising 1967’ was triggered by the coup d’état on April 21st of that year. The poem’s first inklings came hurtling at me in the days immediately following the coup, and the sequence was composed, or rather, composed itself, very rapidly. Much of the poem was an immediate response to what was going on all around, like the repeated official radio announcements about what was suddenly, arbitrarily and absurdly being ‘forbidden’ by the self-appointed military authorities. For example, the word apagorevete [‘it is forbidden’], which kept reappearing in these radio announcements, pronounced in a heavily nasalised Katharevousa [‘purist’ Greek], turned in my mind into the fantasy-image of a besuited minor bureaucrat spouting repressive Kafkaesque nonsense, and out of this emerged the parody in section VIII. Incidentally, this response wasn’t just my own: it was based on the often hilarious send-ups my Greek friends were doing, in the spirit of kalampouri [pun, crack], as we sprawled around our portable radio, listening to the official announcements on the day of the coup, and those following it.
PN: It seems to me that in an extraordinary situation such as this, the violence done and the trauma inflicted immediately find their way into the twists and turns of language. The response seems paradoxical: it involves an immediate turning to, towards, and into language – and, simultaneously, away from it – perhaps because everything said and heard appears to take on an additional or dual meaning.
RB: That’s right. Whatever was previously construed as ‘normal’ is immediately turned upside down and inside out. Nothing is any longer what it seems. The trivial becomes significant and suddenly banal again. The literal is ironised and what would previously have seemed absurd becomes standard. Meaningfulness and absurdity oscillate and blur into each other.
More broadly, however, ‘The Easter Rising’ arose out of the life I was leading in early 1967 and the place I was living in: Thebes. In those days, this was a working town with a dusty main street, shops for basic provisions, a small vegetable, fruit and meat market, and a few salubrious restaurants. I was twenty-four years old. My first wife, Kim, and I had met as students at Cambridge, and we had lived together in Venice before marrying in London in November 1966, after which we came straight out to Greece. Thanks to introductions given to us by our Cambridge friend Peter Mansfield, who had lived and worked firstly in Crete and then Athens from 1963 to 1965, Kim and I had a joint contract to teach at the local frontistirio [private language school], a branch outfit with headquarters in Athens, called the ‘British Institute for English Language and Literature’ – which was misleading, because all the teaching was language, mostly at beginner and intermediate level.
PN: What was life like in Thebes at that time?
RB: Everything about Thebes involved novelty, and much of it, culture shock. Even the smallest details of life were different, puzzling, exciting. To me at least, in this setting the Greek myths seemed somehow alive, close to life’s surface. Whenever I tried to hold up a mirror to myself, I found myself chortling: an Anglo-Jewish London boy walking along Oedipus Street each day, to work in Antigone Street.
We lived on a sloping track called Daglaridou Street. Higher up, there was a cave which in springtime was suddenly full of huge butterflies with long antennae. They flittered out elegantly and looked as if they were flying backwards, swallow-tailed. I was convinced that Antigone had been buried in that hill-cave. From our veranda we had a panoramic view across the plain of Plataea, site of the ancient battle between the Greeks and the Persians, to Mount Kithaeron, oval-backed in the distance and blue-grey, purplish or mauvish, depending on the light. I also worked in the village of Plataea, tucked under the mountain. Several days a week, while Kim taught in the Thebes school, I took the rattly little blue bus across the plain. The Plataea school was a single-roomed building with a flat roof. Once, standing on that roof, I saw a stork flying off into the distance. I had already seen nesting storks in Romania and would see more, later in Serbia, near Novi Sad. But that particular picture of a flying stork stayed in my mind and gave rise to a poem more than thirty-five years later. On one Sunday at the turn of spring, Kim and I took the bus to Plataea and walked across the plain, picking little shards of ancient pottery out of the ploughed soil. We climbed Kithaeron past clumps of anemones as far as the snow line, where crocuses peeped out. But the peak turned out to be fenced off with barbed wire. We were shocked to discover that it was a military base. The fact that the site of Zeus’s and Hera’s nuptial rites was now occupied by NATO became a subliminal trigger for ‘The Easter Rising’.
Plataea was then mainly an Arvanitika-speaking village, whose Albanian name was Kriekouki, meaning ‘Redheads’. The stop where I had to wait for my bus from Athens back to Thebes in the late afternoons on schooldays was directly outside the village kafeneion, and I received cheerful challenges to chess games from the men sitting there, several of whom became friends. The games were quick, not only because they would get interrupted by the bus arriving but because, much to their delight, I always lost. I wasn’t much of a backgammon player either, but did learn to twirl komboloi [worry beads] as confidently as any native born.
PN: What was your house like?
RB: We occupied part of the ground floor of a small house with outside steps and two separate entrances. Upstairs lived our landlord, Yiorgos Liadis, with his wife, Eleftheria, and their children Anna and Antoni. Our small kitchen had a hob with two rings fed by a calor cylinder, and our loo was a crouch-and-squat affair in a cubby at the back of the yard. The family owned olive trees and beehives on a local hillside. They supplied us with the richest, smoothest olive oil I had ever tasted, even in Italy, as well as jars of thick honey. Once Yiorgos drove us out with the family to gather olives and collect full honeycomb trays from his hives. On that day, under one of his olive trees, we ate bread, salt and hard cheese – and of course olives. On the same small plot along Daglaridou Street lived Eleftheria’s sister, Fro-Fro (aka Euphrosyne) and her husband, and, in a smaller house between Fro-Fro’s and ours, the two sisters’ ageing mother and father. To us they were simply Yiayiá and Papoús [‘Granny’ and ‘Grandad’].
My most vivid memory of Yiayiá was soon after our arrival in Thebes. When we first moved from the local hotel to Yiorgos’s and Eleftheria’s place, there was no mattress on our wire-mesh bed. So several men designated themselves to accompany me to buy one on the high street. I wasn’t allowed to do this alone, because ‘bad people might cheat you.’ We often found ourselves being taken care of in this way, and by many different individuals, each one of them hospitable and solicitous towards us. We carried the mattress back, tied in string, a huge blue-and-white-striped, fibre-packed Swiss roll. When the strings were untied and it was spread out on the bed, suddenly all the women in the family appeared at once, and proceeded to rummage through our trunk to find our new sheets and pillowcases – the dowry, our trousseau. So the bed was made before our eyes in a jiffy. Yiayiá’s contribution was to disappear into her house next door and return with a handful of sugar-coated almonds, egg-shaped, which she threw gleefully onto the counterpane. She winked and cackled, nudging Kim and me in cheery blessings for fertility.
PN: I can imagine all this – sounds like typically Greek behaviour ...
RB: … And we used to sit out on the veranda chatting with the family, Kim more often than me. She reported back to me the frankness of the women’s talk, especially about contraceptive methods, which astonished me – young and naïve as I was. I often heard the teasing complaint “Richard, what d’you think you’re doing in there, all the time reading reading reading, studying studying studying. Come outside a bit, eh, sit around a bit and spend some time with us. Come on out, have a chat and a glass of wine!”
One good neighbour was Themistocles Valtinos, who lived on a large plot of land below, inside a sweeping, elongated curve of the main road from Athens. We marvelled to have a neighbour with such a distinguished name. He often popped in for a visit, bringing wine and attempting to engage us in philosophical discussion, despite our rudimentary Greek. When Christie Trist, an American friend of ours, arrived earlier that spring, Themistocles brought us a live duck for her. He led it up Daglaridou on a length of string like a pet. I don’t remember who beheaded or cleaned it for us. We took it to the local fourno [oven, bakery] to get it roasted. When we collected it, it was frazzled and inedible.
Our friends were all working people. The first person we met, on our first evening in one of the estiatoria [restaurants] on the main street, was Antonio, а Sardinian peasant who had been an unwilling conscript in the Italian occupation army during World War II. Now, more than twenty years later, he had returned to Greece after experiencing family difficulties and losing land at home. His job was to sweep restaurant floors and mop and wash up. Our Greek friends treated him sardonically but kindly. His local nickname was Makaronas. In England this might have been something like Spaggy or Spaggers. We got on well with him because we spoke Italian. His stories about the war’s end and his misadventures getting back home across Italy from Greece were hair-raising. Antonio was the only other local foreigner we knew, except for the poet Dick Davis and his wife. Dick had also studied at Cambridge. They were living in Halkidha, working at another branch of the same frontistirio.
Some of our friends had an air of being faintly risqué and disreputable, like the brothers Kostas and Angelos, who ran a garage. Perhaps the reason they decided to take us under their wing was that, being foreign, we were a bit of a diversion for them. Kostas was enormously strong, with a torso shaped like an isosceles triangle perched on powerful arms and legs. When he shook your hand in his huge paw, he would squeeze so hard till it hurt, and then mutter sotto voce in his minimal English, “Dead Fish,” an expression that seemed to give him huge satisfaction. His muscles brimmed through whatever snazzy suit he donned after voiding his mechanic’s overalls. He boasted that he could lift a car that had fallen on its side and hoist it back upright with his bare hands. Mitso, their friend, who attested Kostas’s claim, had a real (Captain-Hook-style) metal hook instead of a hand. I forget if he had lost his left or right hand, and it was taboo to ask him how this unfortunate accident had happened. This trio of friends used to take us to various village panyghiria [feast days, saints’ days], so at weekends we did a good deal of retsina drinking and dancing. We imbibed all kinds of music too, mainly laïka tragoudia [popular songs], but with a good dose of demotika too [folk songs]. With much encouragement from our friends, Kim and I began, stumblingly, to pick up the steps of some of the simpler round dances, as well as the zeimbekiko and hasapiko.
PN: Did you miss England at all?
RB: Social life aside, I had a solid teaching timetable, so time was full. The pattern of life was totally absorbing, and unlike anything I had ever experienced, a middle-class London boy who had studied at Cambridge and then lived in Venice. Life in Thebes couldn’t have been more different from whatever was happening in England at that time – the era of Harold Wilson, Swinging London, Carnaby Street. I never felt I was missing anything at all.
We had no phone or TV, only a portable wireless. The coup arrived the day after two good friends of ours from Cambridge had turned up on our doorstep, unannounced and drunk. They were the unlikeliest of harbingers. One was Peter Mansfield, whom I’ve already mentioned. Peter was a classicist, linguist, polymath, bon viveur, and fluent speaker of Modern Greek. It was largely his influence that had first taken Kim and me to Greece in the first place. Most of his contemporaries, myself included, regarded him as a genius, both intellectually and for the huge and infectious gusto he brought to everything he did. The other was the poet Mike Duffett, who now lives in Valley Springs, California. After arriving back in England loaded with money from a teaching stint in Saudi Arabia, Mike had gone to visit Peter, who was living in Cambridge. They had decided on the spur of a sozzled moment to splash Mike’s funds, fly out to Thebes, and surprise us. So they took a taxi from Cambridge to Heathrow, jumped on the first available Olympic Airways to Athens, and then transferred to a taxi to Thebes, pausing only to collect two of Peter’s old (or, rather, young) mangas friends from his Monastiraki days – Dimitrios Printzos (another Mitso), and Babis, who was a Vlach. Later that year, when we moved to Athens, Babis taught Kim some Vlahika.
That evening, we were all out drinking at a Theban taverna, together with Kostas, Angelos and Mitso-the-Hook. Peter had fallen asleep on – though luckily not quite in – the hole-in-the-ground loo, and seemed reluctant to wake up. He was a very large man, tall and overweight, and it took several of us to pull him out. Over the next couple of days, we sat drinking and cracking jokes as we fiddled with the knobs of our portable radio to get the BBC news reports. When we did manage to tune in, the bulletins bore no relation to what we were experiencing on the ground. I’ve entertained a healthy mistrust of the BBC ever since. A dapper army officer, who spoke quite good English, came round to check on us, icily polite. As foreigners, we weren’t at risk provided we kept our heads low. Each evening we just about managed to obey the curfew. Meanwhile, as if by some automatic signal, all our Greek friends suddenly remembered – and revamped – chains of jokes, veering between the gently ironic to the bitterly sardonic, from the previous dictatorship of Metaxas in 1939, to fit what was currently going on ...
PN: … showing exactly the same immediate transmission into the sort of verbal responses that we noticed earlier ...
RB: Exactly. And by this point, our sense of ‘normal’ reality’ was beginning – subtly and surreptitiously – to dislocate in many small ways. A kind of skewed, semi-ironic, semi-wistful set of perspectives filtered through and leaked into everything. The situation we found ourselves in was never quite nasty enough for us to be threatened personally, but as well as crass stupidity, which we had quickly recognised, it soon became clear that underlying the increasing arbitrariness of the new official rules and laws lurked a cold, sinister ruthlessness. It spelt repression and vindictiveness. When school restarted, I quietly asked my students if they and their families were all right. Fifteen-year-old Hristos [‘Christ’], one of the brightest boys in my Kriekouki classes, announced with deadpan face that his father wasn’t at home, but taking “a holiday, paid by the government” on one of the islands. There was a sense of surreal absurdity, anger and letdown, all weirdly juxtaposed and strongly contrasted against the setting of that balmy springtime, and the spring festivals.
PN: There was rich irony arising from the situation then – something that comes through in poems such as The Easter Rising. Changing the subject away from politics, how about Greek festivities, and customs? These often make an impression on people coming to Greece for the first time. For example, Kathari Deftera [‘Clean Monday, Pure Monday’]? And what about Easter?
RB: Yes, on Kathari Deftera, the first day of Lent, the big annual festival in Thebes drew visitors from all around: the Vlahikos Gamos [‘Peasants’ wedding’, or ‘Vlachs’ Wedding’]. To us this was the Orthodox equivalent of the Latin Carnevale. It had obviously evolved from some ancient spring fertility rite. This festival involves a pageant in which a young man from Thebes is ‘married’ to a young woman from the neighbouring small town of Livadia. The whole town turned out to dance in the streets, and the young men, including some of my students, wore foustanelles [kilts], with ornate blouses, embroidered tunics, little hats with tassels, and pom-poms on curly-toed shoes. The end of the ceremony was marked with the cry, “Einai gamiméni!” [“She’s (been) wedded!” – or rather –“She’s (been) fucked, deflowered!”]
Then there were the astonishing ‘pagan-like’ rituals of a Greek Easter, which Kim and I experienced for the first time, even to the extent of going down to the market to buy our own live lamb, which I carried home over my shoulders like some latter-day ephebe. On Good Friday, I watched the quiet, tethered creature being swiftly, expertly slaughtered and skinned by the local butcher on his rounds. I couldn’t help wondering if this blameless creature could possibly entertain some premonition of its own death. Eleftheria and Yiorgos helped us put the carcass on the spit, and Eleftheria used the innards to make avgolemono [egg and lemon] soup. The meaning of sacrifice as ‘making a sacred gift-offering’ became suddenly, graphically clear to me. At half past eleven on Easter Saturday, everyone in town trooped to the church bearing unlit candles. And at midnight, the long procession was rapidly bathed in a sweeping wave of candlelight, as each person in front turned to pass on his or her own little flame to whoever stood behind, and so on swiftly down the line, calling out the greeting and blessing, “Hristós Anésti!” [“Christ is Risen!”], which elicited the obligatory response “Alithós Anésti!” [“Truly He is Risen!”]. The spreading of these small lights through the darkness was extraordinarily beautiful: a radiant, transformative epiphany, which pierced right through me and made the hairs on my arms stand on end. I was deeply moved, despite my distrust of all organised religion, and in ways that I had never previously experienced from any Protestant, Catholic or Jewish ritual. In Greece, the gods come alive, including the Christian one. To anyone who hasn’t experienced anything like this, it’s difficult to explain this physically immediate sense of the numinous, its sheer palpability.
We woke early on Easter Sunday. At dawn the air above the whole town was smoky with fumes from charcoal braziers. Eleftheria and her children taught us to play a game similar to ‘conkers’, with eggs stained brilliant red from hard-boiling in cochineal-saturated water. You tapped your own egg over another that your partner in the game held in his or her fist, again following the formula Hristós Anésti, Alithós Anésti, as the shells of one or other egg – or both – cracked. Eleftheria served up her delicious avgolemono soup, and our lamb was roasted on the spit in front of the house, along with three others, one for each of the couples in her extended family. Gypsy musicians toured all the houses along the road with drums and clarinets, playing klarino melodies. We feasted, drank and danced on the veranda under the budding vine, and the gypsies moved on to the next house as soon as a bank-note or two had been stuffed into their hands.
In the middle of these festivities another friend from Cambridge turned up, the novelist Alexis Lykiard, also unannounced, with English and Greek friends from Athens. As it was our vacation from teaching, Kim and I decided on the spur of the moment to go off with him to Mykonos, where for the first time in many months we found ourselves among posh, plausible westerners, British and American tourists – including at least one self-consciously successful writer – all of them terribly nice, sparkling with fashionable, inconsequential chit-chat and trivial received opinions, expressed as clichés which they weren’t even aware were clichés.
PN: It’s interesting to register how a realisation that your position had already altered comes about. And your comment on how these people sounded, now far more foreign than you to this land, again brings to mind certain lines in ‘The Easter Rising’. The whole of section two, if I’m not mistaken.
RB: Yes, Mykonos was a shock. It was already a tourist paradise. It belonged in another frame of space-time, and hardly at all to the Greece we knew. We were glad to get back to Thebes, coup or no coup. In June, I listened anxiously to news of the Six Day War on our portable wireless.
So I didn’t need to impose myself stylistically on the material of ‘The Easter Rising 1967’. All I needed to do was soak up what was going on, allow myself to be a kind of sponge, perhaps a filter, for this welter of contrasting and sometimes markedly contradictory impressions. There’s a strong satirical vein running through the poem, and satire in any case depends on closely juxtaposed oppositions, as in the couplets of John Dryden and Alexander Pope. I can’t say there were any ‘direct’ literary models other than a Greek folk song about swallows that I had learned: “the twittering of swallows’ voices” occurs in the first line. As for my reading, at the time I was deep into Malcolm Lowry’s letters and Gareth Knight’s two books on the practical Kabbalah (Qabalah). Kim and I were both studying Kabbalah on a correspondence course with the Society of Inner Light; and she drew and coloured a tree of life, six feet tall, to hang on our wall. Lowry was a great hero of mine: I had received my parcel containing his Selected Letters fresh from Bernard Stone’s poetry bookshop in Kensington in February, and the first letter I received after the coup was from Lowry’s widow Margerie, in reply to the fan-letter I had sent her.
PN: So Thebes was your first encounter with the landscape and people of Greece. Apart from your trip to Mykonos, did you also travel around during that time? To any of the other islands, for example?
RB: We spent Christmas 1966 on Paros, visiting Mike Duffett, who had rented a house there. We took the boat from Piraeus, following our first visit to Tsoumali’s dive on Areos Street in Monastiraki, which had been recommended to us by Peter Mansfield. I call it a dive here, though the words boite and tavernaki might do just as well. This had been one of Peter’s old haunts in Athens a year or two before our arrival. A small, straggly, run-down place, it had nothing but a few tables along a sort of corridor, a meagre kitchen out back, a juke box, and an open floor space in front of it, just wide enough for dancing. The decor was shabby and the food rudimentary, but the retsina was as good as anywhere and the quality of spontaneous rebetika dancing by the clientele, stupendous. As we discovered later, most of the regulars were young working men or unemployed mangas types. Soon after Kim and I sat down at a table, we were approached by one of the young regulars. “You-English?” “Ye-es ...” “You-friend-Peter-Mansfield?” Our astonished “Yes” produced the response “So-you friend-ours!” We spent the night drinking and dancing with these new friends, and ended up somehow at a hotel in Piraeus. Later, when we moved to Athens, Tsoumali’s became a kind of club for us.
In spring 1967, Kim was pregnant with our first child, probably conceived on Mykonos. We decided that she would give birth in Greece, and an Athenian doctor, the first educated Greek we had ever met, befriended and promised to help us. Dimitrios Rouseas and his wife Roula both had exquisite, old-fashioned manners. Kim and I agreed that I would apply for a teaching job at the British Council. I wrote a letter to sound them out, travelled to Athens on the bus for an interview, and as a result was offered a part-time teaching job at their elegant institute in Kolonaki Square, by the-then English Language Officer, the kindly Jim Kerr. This multi-storeyed building was a huge contrast to the modest little frontistírio in Thebes. I was to start in the autumn. The move to Athens gave us a sense of huge excitement and possibility.
Thanks to an introduction from Mike Duffett, we spent summer 1967 renting a house on Paros for a few hundred drachmas (around five pounds) a month. It was an old house on a slope two hundred yards from a more or less deserted beach and about a mile from the main town – or rather, village – Parikia. The place had thick walls and no electricity. Water was supposed to be drawn from a well, but this had run dry. So I hauled our supplies up to the house each day in big plastic flasks from a tap at the end of the path, about a hundred yards away. Our landlord was Aristides and our landlady Aphrodite. She was as plump as he was skinny. Old and toothless, she rode a mule, which Aristides led, walking. She cackled when she laughed. The whole patch of dry stony land around their house was improbably full of the sweetest little melons, of various stripy colours, and whenever Aristidis and Aphrodite came to visit us, they would offer us several, which they would break open and we would suck and nibble together. Other friends of ours later came to live on the island, including Alan Trist, Graham Hardwick and Alexis Lykiard, though we saw little of them, except once when another Cambridge friend, David Moore arrived with his new Danish wife, and hired a boat so that we could all go to Antiparos, the neighbouring, smaller island, for a swim.
PN: So you had a wealth of images going past your eyes in just a few months. Could we talk now in a little more detail about the presence of the Greek landscape in your writing? It’s all there, from mountain range to seaside village – the surprising vistas, the hidden corners.
RB: In those early days, the most stunning place of all to me was Delphi on the south side of Parnassus. From Thebes, early in 1967, we took a bus trip. The road winds up via Livadia, and then, suddenly, you’re there, as if on a huge balcony, stunned by the breathtaking view down to Itea and the Corinthian Gulf. The moment you arrive, you know why the Pythoness made her home there, why Apollo’s temple was built there, why it was – and still is – a womb or navel for the world. You can’t help this knowing. The whole of it, the entire locus, is numinous. Spirit and matter meet and merge. You can’t not feel it. That view from the Delphi ‘balcony’ down over the valley to the sea was transmuted, more than forty years later, into these lines: “snake-guarded / Delphi brooding on waves over / its gulf of wind-tossed oliviers” and “summer-silvered / slopes to bee-haunted honeyed / Apollonian Delphi, set / in its green and ochre bowl / against Parnassian blue”. Curiously, this didn’t surface until 2008, in a sequence of seven poems I was working on, based on Herodotus’s account of Croesus and the Delphic Oracle, for the collection Changing.
PN: Then there is Greek art: especially the artefacts, votive representations and items of daily life in antiquity. Many of these speak to us millennia later. They hold meanings commonly accepted. For poets and artists, some pieces hold a more personal, ‘talismanic’ significance. Interest in sculpture has a prominent place in your work, particularly in your early books, Double Flute and Avebury. There appear to be recurring motifs. Can you comment on some of these significances, especially those that are more personal to you?
RB: In the museum at Delphi, I saw the bronze charioteer (c. 470 BCE) and many other ancient pieces. When I visited the National Archaeological Museum in Athens in autumn 1967, my expectation was high. Even though I was already familiar with some of its masterpieces – from replicas in London and the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge, and from illustrations – it was a powerful experience to stand in front of the originals. To me the most stupendous was the naked bronze Poseidon. But the pieces that struck me in the most ‘intimate’ way, producing an unexpected recognition tantamount to astonishment, were the two white Cycladic marble figurines of the flute player and harpist. I sensed a kind of personal connection, even a familiarity, with these pieces, because I had lived on Paros for several months. As an immediate and direct response to these Cycladic pieces, I wrote ‘Male figure playing a double flute’. This poem, in rhymed quatrains, emerged surprisingly quickly and effortlessly. It also turned out to be the first of my poems to be translated and published in Greek, and the same poem provided the title and cover design of my first book, Double Flute, five years later. The figure resurfaced once again, paired with the Cycladic harpist, in Avebury, in strong association with a beautiful feminised image of the sea, which I recaptured from Nikos Gatsos’s poem ‘Amorgos’: “great dark sea with so many pebbles round your neck, so many coloured jewels in your hair”. Another image that re-surfaced in Avebury was that of the two votive phalloi on Delos. From Mykonos, I had taken the short boat ride to the smaller island. A viper reared its head, spitting at our group of visitors, two yards away, on the dusty ground beside the statues of the two phalloi.
PN: I think you moved to Athens later on. When was that? And what was Athens like?
RB: In late August 1967, the time came to move from Paros to Athens. We stayed at the Ideal on Hermes Street, our favourite cheap hotel. Theodoros, the kindly, world-weary manager, always had time to talk to us. In our circles Theodoros was an institution to himself: whenever we came across him at his desk in the narrow lobby, at the top of a long flight of stairs, he was ready to conduct conversations with us on the entire sad state of the world. He reminds me now of characters out of 1940’s black-and-white films or Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy.
Roaming the streets of Plaka on foot, I saw many notices stuck up on walls announcing “ΕΝΟΙΚΙAΖΕΤΑΙ” [‘TO RENT’]. We were in luck: early September was the right season to take on a flat. A sign engraved above the door of a building in Periandrou Street read: “In this house died our National Poet Kostis Palamas, 27 February 1943.” I knocked to enquire on the off-chance, not really believing we could really rent such a place. The current tenant, a young seamstress, Tzeni [Jenny] was about to vacate the apartment to get married. She was happy to show me round. There were two high-ceilinged rooms, a tiny kitchen with an old-fashioned icebox, a bathroom with loo, and a corridor with a view up to the Acropolis from the little terrace inside the courtyard. It was perfect. I rushed back to the hotel and told Kim, who then came straight back with me to see for herself. Tzeni explained that a general owned the building, a supporter of Pattakos and Papadopoulos, we assumed. So I put on my only suit and best Cambridge manners to be interviewed by this plump little officer. Fortunately, the British Council vouched for me, and in this way, we got to rent this wonderful first floor apartment in Plaka, in a building which itself had a poetic heritage. All this seemed a fine omen.
We were blissfully happy. We bought all our cooking and eating utensils in the Monastiraki flea market, and some of our new (and Peter Mansfield’s old) friends helped us to buy larger things we needed and carry them home. One of these friends, Babis-the-Vlach, began to give Kim language lessons, while she began to build up a small clientele for private English lessons. Our bookshelves were planks placed on bricks. We planned to build up our furniture and belongings bit by bit, including things we would soon need for our expected baby. We sometimes ate at Barba Stavrou’s taverna, and went regularly to Tsoumali’s bar. It was pure pleasure to watch the young Greek men dancing there and, albeit clumsily, to learn some of the basic steps from them.
From the musical point of view, we knew even then that we were living in Athens at an exciting time, although it was probably not until later that we fully realised how important this period was, and how lucky we had been to stumble in on it. It would be truer to say that we sensed rather than understood that we were in the hub of things. The early to mid-1960’s was a great period in Greek music, when you could hear songs by composers like Hadzidakis, Theodorakis and Xarhakos on the jukeboxes, as well as a constant stream of fine rebetika and laïka. Some of the pop songs had a haunting beauty, an unadorned raw edge, almost a breathtaking focalised sting to them: undraped, sharp and clear, like the Greek light itself: ‘Éinai yia ména, to karávi’ [‘The boat is for me’], ‘Ta dheiliná’ [‘The Afternoons’] and the witty ‘Éiha’ gó kai mía gáta / pou éihe ghalaná ta mátia’ [‘I too had a cat, which had blue eyes’]. We twice went to hear Sotiria Bellou, one of the greatest rebetika exponents, at the taverna where she sang, somewhere in or near Monastiraki. We had arrived in Athens just after the peak of the wave of 1960s music. This first full experience of rebetika music and culture had a strong and continuing influence on my life, thinking and writing ever since. Once back in England, I wrote a short poem for Sotiria Bellou entitled ‘Zeimbekiko’. Monastiraki and Plaka had few tourists at this time. The area was Balkan, run down, unglossed. The neglected ruins of temples scattered around the area seemed only to add to the overall shabbiness. Hardly anyone was around out of season except locals and a few expatriates, mainly young people like Kim and myself. Tsoumali’s would routinely get raided by police, and if any of our young mangas friends there had left their identity cards at home, they would get carted off down to the police station, usually to be let out next morning, perhaps with a ticking off or a small fine. This never seemed like more than an inconvenience to them, which they shrugged off with typical bravado, at least in our hearing.
PN: Could you say more about friends in Athens at this time? Did you meet any other writers and artists?
RB: We met some fine people, mainly Americans, British, and Dutch expatriates, and of course many young Greeks. Our friends included Vito Orlando, a New Yorker and ex-G.I., of Albanian-speaking Sicilian descent, and Loukas, a brilliant dancer with a piercing, sardonic wit. As for intellectuals, Kim and I hadn’t met any at all in Thebes, and these kinds of acquaintance began for us only in Athens. Through Peter Mansfield, I met the poet Katerina Angelaki-Rooke, goddaughter of Nikos Kazantzakis, and through her, Kimon Friar, translator of Kazantzakis’s epic Odyssey, A Modern Sequel. Aged twenty-four, I was deeply impressed when I first visited him. His study was full of mementoes of writers, with framed paintings, photos and texts covering every space of every wall, including portraits of his one-time lover, the poet James Merrill, who in 1977 would win the Pulitzer Prize. Kimon became a good friend. Once we took him to Tsoumali’s, to see our handsome young mangas friends dancing. His eyes popped with an old man’s nostalgic pleasure.
One morning the gentle Philip Sherrard turned up, unannounced, on our doorstep. He was very British, extremely quiet and polite. He had been recommended to make contact with us by Kathleen Raine, whom I had met in London the previous year through Peter Russell, and with whom I was corresponding. On that particular morning, however, I had been up drinking all night with a very conversational and expansive American painter, Dick somebody, whose surname I now can’t remember. It was around 10 o’clock when Sherrard arrived. I had just got home and was still hazily, pleasantly drunk. To compound matters, I made the (to me) guileless and blameless mistake of mentioning that I had recently met Kimon Friar, and let it slip that he was a friend. Sherrard fled and I never heard from him again. Obviously I had blundered, making a disastrous impression, not realising how he disliked Friar. ... This was a huge pity, a missed opportunity, to get to know Seferis’s co-translator (with Edmund Keeley), a fine writer in his own right, and an authority on Greece. His book The Marble Threshing Floor was one I later relished. If I had been soberer, less tactless and less naïve, perhaps I might have gone on to meet Seferis too, who would in any case become a major influence on my writing. I was sorry but, well, too bad, I thought. It was just one of those things.
Once, when Kim and I were browsing in the flea market in Monastiraki, in a second-hand bookshop occupying a large semi-basement, I came across a copy of a paperback in English by Ezra Pound, published in Bergamo in 1942, at the time when he was ranting about Fascism and Jews. I bought it for ten drachmas and sent it by registered post to Peter Russell in Venice, who asked Pound to sign it. Astonishingly, Pound obliged and Peter returned the autographed copy to me. For one thing, this suggested to me that Pound couldn’t have entirely renounced his Fascist past. For another, I sold the book on to Alan Clodd for £40, a lot of money in those days. So, I thought sardonically and with no small degree of satisfaction: the young Jew profits from the old Fascist. I have an unpublished essay entitled ‘Ten Drachmas for A Pound’, about my strong ambivalence towards Pound and Russell and Modernist poetics. Its title is drawn from this episode.
Every day was full and huge and wonderful possibilities seemed to be opening up. Athens was exactly where Kim and I wanted to be. Even the political situation had its compensations, adding an edge, a sharpness, to daily life. As foreigners, we knew we were safe provided we kept our heads low. Anyway, I told myself, to try to get involved in politics with such a scant hold on the language and without understanding enough of what was going on would have been crassly stupid.
PN: How long did you stay in Athens overall?
RB: Very suddenly, in November 1967, after only two months of living in the city, I received a phone call in the middle of teaching my friendliest and most likeable evening class at the British Council. It was my cousin Brian Taylor, my mother’s employer, on the line from London. He came straight to the point. My mother was dying of cancer but didn’t know it. She had secondaries, was riddled with the disease, and had only months to live. She was 56 years old.
In that instant every sense of hope and happiness drained from me. Apart from the blow of the news itself, I knew that our time in Greece was to be rudely, miserably interrupted. I cancelled the rest of my class, and walked back to our flat across Syntagma Square in a daze, stunned, not knowing how I should break the news to Kim. She was as devastated as I was. Athens was over for us: suddenly unreal, past tense, third type conditional, an idyll. I was sad, bitter, angry, all at once – now having had my second attempt to build a life in the Mediterranean dashed, quashed, destroyed. Kim and I had already had to give up our lives in Venice two years earlier, and return to England, owing to the illness of another close relative of mine in London.
I don’t remember much of that time. There was a farewell party in Sotiria Bellou’s taverna, with all our friends from Tsoumali’s coming along to see us off. Amid the breaking of plates scattered around the drunken dancers, the thick haze of smoke descending from the ceiling, and the intensity of Bellou’s plangent voice against the background of bouzouki and baglama [a similar but smaller lute-shaped instrument], at one point I burst into bitter tears. Loukas saved the day by standing up and getting everyone to dance. He pointed at each person present, ordering sardonically in his broken English: “Now you cry, and you cry, and you cry – everybody cry” – which of course made us all laugh, including even me, despite myself. I careered out to the loo and found myself in the Ladies’ by mistake, where I discovered two young women weeping. One, I remember, we knew to be Bellou’s lover. The first line of one of Bellou’s songs seemed particularly apt. “I’ll send a letter to God, / with bitter words. / I’ll ask him to think a bit / about me too.”
The American poet and translator Philip Ramp and his wife Sarah were glad to take over our lease. I can’t remember a thing now about how we made it back to England. Kim reminded me later that I had returned as soon as possible, and she had followed some weeks afterwards, with our luggage, travelling by train. We didn’t tell my mother that we knew she had cancer, but invented the excuse for our return that we had decided that it would be better for the baby to be born in England. A very difficult year followed in London. I find it hard to speak about this.
PN: So you had to leave Greece, and there was a long hiatus before you returned.
RB: That’s right. I didn’t return to Greece for another fifteen years, until summer l981.
PN: But am I right in thinking you were still ‘involved’ with Greek matters? What form did that involvement take? How, for example, did your co-translation of Antonis Samarakis’ The Flaw come about?
RB: Apart from finding a job in London, the first thing I needed to do was to publish ‘The Easter Rising’. So I let it be known among friends that I had translated a poem by a young Greek poet whose pseudonym was Agnostos Nomolos – i. e. A. Nomolos – i. e. ‘Anomalous’. And Nomolos was, of course, also Solomon spelt backwards. Although several sophisticated Athenians in the London literary world seemed highly suspicious of my pseudonym, for example Nikos Stangos, editor of the Penguin Modern Poets series – various London literati almost started tumbling over one another in their anxiety to get their hands on the text. ‘The Easter Rising 1967’ came out as a poster poem tucked into the back of the January 1968 issue of The London Magazine, edited by Alan Ross. It also appeared as a chapbook from the Restif Press in Brighton, whose editors were friends of Alexis Lykiard. This was my first ‘book’, for which I successfully managed to evade getting credit because of its pseudonym. And for various reasons, that suited me.
Kim gave birth to our daughter Lara Sophia in London on 7 February 1968 in Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, West London. We decided on her first name after Doctor Zhivago, having seen the film, with Julie Christie in the part, months earlier. We chose her second name, Sophia, carefully and caringly, because of its meanings and associations in Greek [‘wisdom’] and because she had been conceived in Greece. Meanwhile, I managed to get my old part-time teaching job back at the East London College at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, which I began to supplement with literary hackwork. This included writing articles about Greece and book reviewing for Tribune, thanks to the literary editor Elizabeth Thomas, who became a friend, and later chaired the Cambridge Poetry Festival Society. And thanks to another fine editor, the novelist and literary critic Valerie Grosvenor-Myer, who was married to my cousin Michael, I began to review poetry regularly for The Times Educational Supplement and The Teacher. I also became a fiction reader for the publisher Hutchinson and several literary agents in London, earning between three and five guineas for writing reports on more or less unpublishable manuscripts, usually British, but sometimes from the Caribbean, and some written in Italian too.
Then Kimon Friar wrote from Athens asking if I could help find a publisher for Antonis Samarakis’s novel To Lathos (The Flaw). I managed to interest Michael Dempsey, a young editor at Hutchinson. Peter Mansfield agreed to translate the book with me, and the Arts Council of Great Britain supported us with a grant. We each took alternate chapters as individual first drafts and then revised them together to iron out inconsistencies. It was good to do this kind of work because it would have been impossible to get on with any writing of my own in that family situation. We were cheered when Arthur Koestler listed The Flaw as one of his choice ‘books of the year’ for 1969 in The Observer Review.
PN: Translation remains possible, then, a sort of consolation, when the ability to do original writing is paralysed?
RB: More like a substitute, I’d say, than a consolation. For me at this time translation also fulfilled the need to keep my hand in, by engaging with, shaping written words, making a text. A commissioned translation also meant earning a bit of money.
PN: When did you move from London to Cambridge? And in what ways did your move affect your involvement with Greek matters? How did this continue there, and in what ways?
RB: My mother died in August 1968 in Barnet General Hospital. Then my job at the East London College turned into a full-time post. We spent around 20 months in London, from November 1967 to July 1969. Starting in September that year, I was interviewed for a lectureship at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (CCAT, now Anglia Ruskin University), and got the job. So Kim and I plus baby moved to a small semi-detached family house in Great Shelford, a village several miles south of Cambridge. The Greek ‘presence’ in our lives continued fully throughout the next ten years, even though neither of us had the chance to go back. And this presence took on many forms and aspects.
Until 1974, so long as the Junta was still in power, there was a distinct political flavour to most of my involvement, which often combined or overlapped with literary activities. Following publication of ‘The Easter Rising 1967’, I was writing more political poems, and was active in the campaign to restore democracy in Greece. I took part in protests in Cambridge and in London, one of them led by Melina Mercouri, and was present at the demonstration at the Garden House Hotel, Cambridge, in February 1970, at which several protesters were arrested and later put on trial. One of the student organisers of this protest was Stefanos Pezmazoglou, a Cambridge undergraduate who had been my student in Athens two years previously. Informal meetings often took place in the Gardenia Restaurant in Rose Crescent, which became a kind of late-night club for some of us. This club-like atmosphere continued well into the early 1980s, when the Cypriot painter Renos Loizou and his family ran the restaurant. Renos became a close friend: an etching of his became the cover of the first edition of Black Light, and he later made several paintings based on my poems, especially two for ‘The Blue Butterfly’. I also appeared in Elizabeth Thomas’s Tribune poetry reading series at the Regent’s Park Library in London, reading parts of ‘The Easter Rising 1967’ and my other Greek poems, along with Nikos Stangos, who read some of his Ritsos translations, and Alexis Lykiard who read from his Paros Poems, a chapbook he had written with Alan Trist. I published poems critical of the regime in various journals on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, edited by the Greek-American writer Dan Georgakas, a friend since Venice days – as well as in Tribune, Greek Report and Hellenic Review. These last two journals were designed to look like The New Statesman. Hellenic Review was edited in London by the courteous Eleni Vlahou, a newspaper magnate and publisher-in-exile. Meanwhile, I reviewed Kimon Friar’s translations of Miltos Sahtouris in The Southern Review.
At around this time I got to know Stavros Papastavrou, a Fellow of Peterhouse and friend of George Seferis. I was particularly excited and encouraged when Stavros told me that he had shown Seferis some of my poems, and that Seferis had praised them. Even though that information seemed very remote from the way I was living and working at that time, I stored it carefully. Stavros’s favourite jacket was tweed. His personality meshed gentlemanly English understatement with cutting Greek irony in filigree combination. He once remarked that one of the reasons he became an infantry officer at the outbreak of war in 1940 was that he had been trained in the cavalry. In March 1971, he chaired a fundraising event for Greek political prisoners at the Friend’s Meeting House, next door to the ADC theatre in Jesus Lane. He asked me to appear on the platform with Raymond Williams, who was to give a lecture on Byron. We agreed that I should read part of ‘The Isles of Greece’: for me, a huge honour. Williams spoke in a quiet, authoritative manner for at least forty minutes, entirely extempore, except for a few notes scribbled on a postcard. I had regularly attended Raymond Williams’s lectures as a student and admired him and his writings enormously. In the same year, I put my Greek poems together into a mimeographed selection of poems entitled The Return of Lazarus, which I published myself.
PN: Apart from your mainly political involvement, were there other Greek contacts and contexts for you, at this time?
RB: In Cambridge, in the early days, it’s no exaggeration to say that through the first half of the 1970s I was sustained by Greek friendships, Greek contexts, Greek music, and Greek poetry, all of which were woven intimately into the pattern of my life.
On April 16, 1970, Kim gave birth to our son Alexander Peter Carey (Gully) at Cambridge Maternity Hospital in Mill Road. For several years after our arrival, Peter Mansfield lived in Cambridge until he moved to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1973. He had married Dimitra (née Proestopoulou), who was born in Thessaloniki. The Mansfields had two daughters, Francesca and Angela, born in the same years as our children. With infants of the same age, we spent a good deal of time together. The Mansfields were rich sources of material and information on Greek music and poetry. Dimitra had a large Theodorakis collection. She lived his music. Among his many songs and song-cycles they introduced to me was Mauthausen: I was deeply moved, and translated two of the songs; many years later I included these versions in The Blue Butterfly. My friend James Gordon sang them to his guitar when I gave poetry readings, including one performance on a BBC radio poetry programme.
In this period I also explored more rebetika, partly through Ilias Petropoulos’s groundbreaking book, Rebetika Tragoudia [Rebetika Songs], which Kimon Friar sent me soon after its publication, with the author’s signature – and partly through listening to recordings, especially of Sotiria Bellou, Markos Vamvakaris, Vassilis Tsitsanis and Yiorgos Zampetas. Around this time, I also began listening to Grigoris Bithikotsis and, later, to Nikos Xylouris. Then there was the heartrendingly beautiful recorded version of the Kornaros’ Erotokritos, arranged by Nikos Mamagkakis. This had a deep effect on me. The Erotokritos epitomised the kind of tradition I felt ‘I belonged to’, which I also felt ‘belonged to me’. At that time – as at many others – I was regularly experiencing a sense of dislocation from a good deal of English and American twentieth century poetry. It was as if much of this corpus no longer connected at the simplest, most visceral level, either with me personally or with my aspirations as a poet. This unease, particularly towards modern English poetry, is one that I often experience. It manifests as a kind of irritation. It includes an unease with my own unease, which in turn concatenates and intensifies the original irritation. At any rate, in their place, at this time, perhaps in compensation, I don’t think it’s surprising that I sensed a corresponding affinity with Greek poets, a wished-for (though impossible) ‘belonging’.
As for Greek poetry, during the 1970s, I deepened and widened my knowledge of contemporary Greek authors, reading Cavafy, Nikos Gatsos’ Amorgos and Odysseus Elytis’ Axion Esti, Yannis Ritsos, Miltos Sahtouris, and others. And most important and formative of all for me was the bilingual edition of Seferis’s Collected Poems, which I bought in 1971, two years after its first publication in 1969.
PN: I know of Seferis’s importance to you, above all from Black Light. How did you respond to the Collected Poems?
RB: I devoured the book, and ever since then, have found myself repeatedly coming back to it. The Keeley / Sherrard translations are authoritative and as transparent as they possibly could be. They work well in English and I am happy with them, even if here and there I might have come up with slightly different solutions. Most of all, with imperfect fluency in literary Greek, the side-by-side placement of translations and originals on double-page spreads has helped me enormously in understanding the originals. They hugely extended my knowledge of Seferis, which until then had been confined to Rex Warner’s earlier translations and the Keeley-Sherrard selection in the Penguin Four Greek Poets.
PN: Other than these poets you were reading, could you say more about your literary contacts and contexts vis-à-vis Greece during the 1970s?
RB: Seferis’s poems formed one of the main undercurrents for my reading and consciousness throughout that decade. And it’s curious to recognise in retrospect how other quite diverse people I knew at this time belonged, in one way or another, to that current. Stavros Papastavrou enjoyed introducing people to one another in his modest and self-effacing way. I’m glad to acknowledge my gratitude now for his gentle magnanimity of spirit. Thanks to him, I met several other people who were interested or involved in Seferis. In this way, Seferis’s writing became a common thread in several friendships.
For example, Roddy (Roderick) Beaton often visited our house in Great Shelford, when we would drink retsina and listen to Greek music. Roddy was then an undergraduate reading English at Peterhouse. He is now a distinguished scholar, Professor of Modern Greek and Director of the Centre of Hellenic Studies at King’s College London, author of a string of books on Greek themes, including a classic biography of Seferis. Kimon Friar was another catalyst. In September 1974, Nasos Vayenas arrived in Cambridge, where he was doing his Ph. D. on Seferis at King’s. Kimon had told him to get in touch and we quickly became friends. That meeting nearly forty years ago has had many outcomes. Nasos’s supervisor for his thesis was Stavros.
In 1974, I also met the novelist, short story writer and critic, Alexandros Kodzias, who was Cultural Attaché at the Greek Embassy. We met for coffee in Bayswater. I don’t remember the exact context but it was probably in connection with Embassy sponsorship for the Greek poets I wanted to invite to the first Cambridge Poetry Festival. Most of our conversation was about practical matters and not especially memorable, except for one point, which eventually turned out to be crucial for me. We were talking about Seferis, when Kodzias told me that he believed that the theme of the mavro fos [black light] in Seferis’s poem ‘The Thrush’, as well as in his post-war journal Meres [Days] was the key-of-keys to an understanding of the poet’s work. This certainly triggered something in me. It would lie dormant for a long while, nearly ten years – connecting with and transmuting into other motifs too – before surfacing as a major theme in my own writing, in Black Light.
PN: Could you say something about the first Cambridge Poetry Festival in 1975, which you founded? And about the Greek presence there?
RB: In 1973, I conceived the idea of organising an international poetry festival in Cambridge. I have written about that story elsewhere, so won’t repeat it here, except to say that the first Festival grew out of increasingly internationalist perspectives. It was a huge event: it included nearly a hundred poets, from many different countries. I naturally made sure that we invited a Greek contingent. This included Kimon Friar, delivering a lecture in the debating chamber of the Cambridge Union, entitled ‘The Use of Classical Myth by Modern Greek Poets’, on April 21, 1975, a year after the fall of the Junta and, coincidentally, on the eighth anniversary of the coup d’état. A forum on contemporary Greek poetry took place on Saturday April 19, with five participants: Kimon Friar, Katerina Angelaki-Rooke, Nikos Stangos, Takis Sinopoulos and Nasos Vayenas. The Greek presence at the Cambridge Poetry Festival developed in successive years, culminating in the conference on Seferis in 1983.
PN: To return to your own writing, in what ways and to what extent did Greek themes recur in other poems of yours in the late 1960s and 1970s?
RB: Greek themes were never far from my mind. Some of the poems I had written in Greece and Italy surfaced in Double Flute (1972), Avebury (1972), and Learning to Talk (1980). I wrote ‘Actaeon’ in Venice in 1965. Apart from ‘Male Figure Playing a Double Flute’ itself, the title poem to the first book, there were several other pieces directly connected with the figure of Orpheus (‘Orpheus Singing’ and ‘Noon’), which emerged out of an unsuccessful attempt to write a long poem based on the myth, when I was living in Thebes. These pieces were influenced by Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and Elizabeth Sewell’s book The Orphic Voice. There was also a poem entitled ‘The Guest’, dedicated to my friend the astronomer Michael Rowan-Robinson, who had been a fellow student at Pembroke College. Michael had been lucky enough to meet Seferis in Athens, and the poem’s epigraph was taken from one of my favourite of Seferis’s poems, Memory II: “Eínai pantoú to poíema” (“The poem is everywhere”). Then there was ‘Ode on the End of the Third Exile’, a narrative experiment in writing fourteeners, which conflated the Biblical story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale, and the Greek story of Arion, rescued by a dolphin. Mediterranean landscapes and seascapes entered this poem too:
Bearer of the double flute among those hill walled cities,
through villages hive crowned, smelling of resin and thyme
and the swallows going barmy in their ivy hung eaves ...
The English fourteener, with its marked caesura, isn’t so far from the dhekapendasýllavo [fifteen-syllable line] of the Erotokritos and a good deal of Greek narrative poetry.
PN: Talking of long-line poems, you’ve mentioned Nasos Vayenas, and you’ve said elsewhere that your method in The Manager, which deploys the long line of the verset, was influenced in part by him, after you had translated his early sequence, Biography. You say you met in 1974. And of course I know very well that your friendship continues today, since you and I have worked together on editing Nasos’s Selected Poems in English, The Perfect Order.
My understanding is that quite complex and subtle interchanges have gone on between you and Nasos for many years. How did your relationship and collaboration as poets evolve? And could you say more about some of its literary outcomes, on both sides, including translation?
RB: Seferis was the preliminary bond between us. I don’t think you can respond to Seferis only on a thin, cerebral level. If two poets meet who both like Seferis, and if they explore this, there’s likely to be more than just an intellectual conversation going on, more than mere acknowledgement of superficial affinities of taste. I think Nasos’s and my separate engagements with Seferis’s work meant a quick sense of mutual recognition between us, combined with an initial trust – signalling that even though we were writing in different languages, there were shared grounds and directions. Perhaps these commonalities were all the more interesting and surprising because we wrote in different languages. At any rate, we soon became friends and began translating each other’s poems. We’ve been doing this on and off ever since, not in any programmed way but simply whenever we’ve felt like it.
The beginning was modest enough. Nasos’s version of a poem I had dedicated to Kimon Friar appeared in Nea Estia in 1975, and I translated two of his short poems, ‘Eden’ and ‘Empty’, for a poemcard in Anthony Rudolf’s Mencard series. Then in 1978, I translated Nasos’s nineteen-part sequence Biography, with his help. And later, after the publication of Black Light in 1983, Nasos included his translation of one of its poems, ‘Only the Common Miracle’, in his book Flyer’s Fall, which interspersed his own poems with translations from other poets – an interesting experiment in itself, and typical of Nasos’s flare for poised and understated originality. After that, he translated the whole of Black Light with Ilias Layios. Black Light was the last project Layios worked on before his tragic death in 2005. Nasos’s tribute to him and description of how the two of them worked on the book is fascinating in itself and this essay of his is included in the Salt Critical Companion. Then, not long after you and I met, Paschali, at that London Magazine party in January 2004, we started discussing the idea of translating Nasos Vayenas’s Selected Poems, which eventually appeared in 2010-11.
On the surface, translating each other’s work might look as if an occasional unhurried game of poetic ping-pong were in progress. While that may be true at some level, there is more to it than that. For one thing, at the micro level, Nasos and I have often borrowed phrases from each other’s work, surreptitiously sneaking them in here and there. This game of intertextuality began early on, not in a particularly self-conscious way, but playfully, as sort of effervescence, kalampouri, jeu d’esprit, sprezzatura. We took phrases and images from each other, across languages, as if doing this were entirely natural. To give you one example in each direction: Nasos’s image “keeps putting on cassettes of old songs”, which I found in Biography III, reappears in my poem ‘Salt’ in Black Light. Conversely, my line “and so go forward into the last quarter of this century” in ‘For the New Year 1976’ transmutes into Nasos’s “With my collar up I cross over into the last quarter of the century” in Biography XVI. While intertextuality across generations in the same language tradition is common enough, I don’t believe that either Nasos or I would ever have felt quite so free to take these kinds of liberties with each other’s lines if we had been working as contemporaries in the same language.
PN: So this is translation as part of the poet’s equipage: translation as enabler. Self-censorship may be part of the picture, intra-lingually, yes, but here it becomes a mechanism that fosters association. So couldn’t this process, which happens internally, almost be said to be one of ‘constant translation’, perhaps even more so than these intertextual traces above already suggest? And aren’t there influences, movements, and patterns at work here on a larger scale too? For example, in terms of structure, models, and the overall shape of a work?
RB: Precisely. And what happens at micro levels turns out to be a very good indicator of what goes on at ‘higher’ levels of complexity. This is certainly what happened in the direction of Nasos’s key influence on my own work. Translating poems by Nasos has triggered ideas for me at periods very wide apart, first in 1979 and then in 2011.
I’ve commented elsewhere, in an interview with Joanne Limburg, on the effect of co-translating Nasos’s sequence Biography in 1978, so I won’t repeat that account here, except to say that the experience led directly, and in a curious way, to the writing of The Manager. Translating Biography was the key to opening up the entire process of composition.
Then, more than thirty years later, after working with you, Paschali, on editing The Perfect Order, the challenging but enjoyable experience of translating four of Nasos’s sonnets on writers and thinkers (‘Einstein’, ‘Eliot’, ‘Cavafy’ and ‘Borges’) from his book Sti niso ton Makaron [On the Isle of the Blest] also influenced me in a quite similar way. I often write sonnets as five-finger exercises, and have a number of drafts in my notebooks, most of which I haven’t bothered (or rather, haven’t had time) to polish, let alone publish. I realised that among these, accumulated over the years, there were several sonnets on painters, for example, on Goya, Rembrandt and El Greco. So the idea of producing a book of sonnets devoted to writers, artists and thinkers who have been important to me, on the model on Nasos’s book in Greek, suddenly became attractive. So far, I’ve written sonnets on Sappho, Thomas Wyatt, Sir Walter Raleigh, Jane Austen, Rimbaud, Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Galician poet Rosalía de Castro. This is a quite recent series that I’ve been working on sporadically, and there may be a book in the making here. It involves the pleasurable task of rereading poets I love, as well as their biographies, usually for the first time. Biography is a genre I was never especially interested in until this project emerged. I’ve sent some of these sonnets to Nasos and, recently, when we’ve talked on the phone, he has told me that he’s trying to translate some of them.
So this exchange goes on, in unexpected and surprising ways. What we’re talking about here, I think, is literary influence that works both ways between two friends and contemporaries, across two languages. There’s a recursive quality to it. This perhaps slightly unusual friendship has lasted for over forty years. Despite differences in poetic temperament, we share a great deal, and I’ve more sense of commonality with Nasos than with any contemporary poet writing in English. One of the main keys to the structure of this friendship is the practice of translation. Paschali, does any of this information suggests points that could be taken further, vis-à-vis translation theory – which I know is one of your interests?
PN: Not exactly ‘theory’. But an established practice among poets is writing about other poets – whether it is sonnets or not. Only recently an anthology of such poems was published in Greece by Fostieris and Niarchos. Poets seem to be constantly inspired by the lives and creative moments of other poets, including translations, for example Keats’s ‘On First Reading Chapman’s Homer’. And Nasos was doing this kind of thing, albeit in freer forms, from early on in his career (e.g. ‘Lord Byron in Rethymno’). It’s interesting, actually, how certain figures invite this sort of address more intensely. Cavafy is a case in point. Whether they know each other personally or not, poets do relate to each other in curious and passionate, manifold ways. And so many relationships are imagined, not actual, based on biography and reception, and reading experiences and ‘elective affinities’; but still, they come across as no less than real. Isn’t this one of the ways in which poems are imbued with life? In a way, poetry can’t work otherwise. Do you agree? And, even if this is perhaps going off in a different tangent, how does one explain Cavafy’s continued resonance, his increasing popularity?
RB: Poets writing about poets is clearly one of the ways in which a ‘tradition’ gets transmitted. In my own case, as a further example, I never met Seferis. But along with Octavio Paz, whom I was lucky enough to meet and get to know as a friend, I gladly acknowledge Seferis as one of the key influences on my writing. I have written poems dedicated to and inspired by both Paz (Avebury) and Seferis (Black Light). Goethe’s notion of ‘elective affinities’ is right too, though it could perhaps equally be said, functionally at least, that – insofar as these ‘affinities’ themselves may be construed as idea-threads, energy currents, meaning-bearing-strains, phylogenetic patterns, etc. – it is they that choose their individual bearers, as conduit channels, even as ‘hosts’.
As for Cavafy, Nasos explores this poet’s easy translatability and his extraordinary resonance across a wide range of languages in his anthology Conversing with Cavafy. His idea itself of assembling what he calls ‘Cavafy-inspired’ poems in this extraordinary international gathering, along with his elegant introduction, leaves little to be added. Following Nasos, I think the keys to Cavafy’s universality are to do with a bundle of qualities: above all, his exquisitely modulated ironies (or rather, his layerings of irony within irony within irony); the apparently (deceptively?) transparent surface of his language, which seems to flow through translation across many languages; and his precise registration of particularity, combined with his sweeping historical sense. To these I think must be added his quiet celebration of homoerotic experience, a motif that has been repressed in many cultures. I think this aspect increasingly garners empathetic reading as we move towards what I have called elsewhere a ‘universalist’ poetics.
PN: Yet, Seferis, I believe, has influenced you more strongly than Cavafy. His presence is nearer …
RB: … I admire them both equally. But Seferis connects with me in more personal ways and at multiple levels.
PN: Thank you for this account of some of your pathways into Greece, Richard. I remember the day in 2004 when I received a copy of the bilingual Greek edition of Black Light from you, with your dedication mentioning how happy you were at the ‘homecoming’ embodied in the translation. That book served as a further entry point into Greek poetry for me too, at a time when I was a doctoral student at UEA. It was a poignant experience, under Norwich skies, to be reminded yet again of the power of that ‘Greek light’ through the work of an English poet influenced by Seferis.
November 5, 2012 – March 5, 2013
Alexandroupolis & Cambridge
This text will appear in Richard Berengarten: A Portrait in Inter-Views, edited by John Dillon, Shearsman Books, Bristol, 2015. Many thanks to John Dillon for his invaluable recommendations in finalising this version, and to Kim Landers and Nasos Vayenas for checking and adding to factual details.
Writings by Richard Berengarten
Beaton, Roderick. 2003. George Seferis, Waiting for the Angel: a Biography. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Blake, William. 1956. [1804-1820] Jerusalem. In Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes. London: The Nonesuch Library.
Cornford, F.M. 1923. Greek Religious Thought: from Homer to the Age of Alexander. London: J. M. Dent.
Dodds, E. R. 1951. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Elytis, Odysseus 1980. The Axion Esti. Trs. Edmund Keeley and George Savidis. London: Anvil Press Poetry in association with Rex Collings.
Fostieris, Antonis and Thanasis Niarchos (eds). 2012. Poiitikes Synomilies: Ellinika Poiimata yia Ksenous Poiites [Poetic Conversations: Greek Poems about Foreign Poets]. Athens: Odos Panos.
Gatsos, Nikos. 1966. ‘Amorgos’. In Four Greek Poets. Trs. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, London: Penguin Books.
Grosvenor Myer, Valerie. 1977. Jane Austen: Obstinate Heart: A Biography. New York: Arcade Publishing.
Guthrie, W. K. C. 1950. The Greeks and their Gods. London: Methuen.
Harrison, Jane. 1922 [1903, 1908]. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Herodotus. . Undated. The History of Herodotus, Chapter 1 Tr. George Rawlinson.
Hughes, Ted and Drue Heinz. 1995. ‘Ted Hughes, The Art of Poetry’, Interview no. 71, The Paris Review 134, Spring.
Jope, Norman, Paul Scott Derrick and Catherine E. Byfield (eds.) The Salt Companion to Richard Berengarten. 175-180. Cambridge: Salt Publishing.
Kampanellis, Yakovos. 1965. Μαουτχάουζεν.[The Mauthausen Chronicle]. Athens: Themelio.
Kazantzakis, Nikos. 1967. The Odyssey, A Modern Sequel. Tr. Kimon Friar. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Keeley, Edmund. 1982. A Conversation with George Seferis. Athens: Agra.
Keeley, Edmund and Philip Sherrard (trs). 1966. Four Greek Poets. London: Penguin Books.
Kerényi, C. 1967. Eleusis. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
——— ———. 1976. Dionysos: Archetypal Images of Indestructible Life. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
——— ———. 1976. Hermes, Guide of Souls. Dallas: Spring Publications.
Kornaros, Vitzentzos. 1964. Ο Ερωτόκριτος [O Erotokritos]. Composer and director: Nikos Mamagkakis. Singers: Manos Katrakis, Vera Zavitsianou and Kostas Karras. Greek Art Folk Ballads LP Recording: Lyra 3501.
Knight, Gareth. 1965. A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism. Two volumes. Toddington, Gloucestershire: Helios Books.
Lowry, Malcolm. 1967. The Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry. Eds. Harvey Breit and Margerie Bonner Lowry. London: Jonathan Cape.
Lykiard, Alexis, and Alan Trist. 1967. Paros Poems. Athens: Difros.
Manning, Olivia. 1998 . The Balkan Trilogy. London: Arrow Books.
Memmi, Albert. 1968. ‘Negritude and Judeity’. European Judaism, Vol 3, No 2: 4-12.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1956. The Birth of Tragedy. Tr. Francis Golffing. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.
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Pavlou, Savvas. 2005. Σεφέρης και Κύπρος [Seferis and Cyprus]. Nicosia: B Publisher.
Petropoulos, Elias. 1968. Ρεμπέτικα Τραγόϋδια [Rebetika Tragoudia]. Athens: privately published by author at 32 Dimokritou Street.
Pickstock, Catherine. 2012. ‘Repetition and Things’. Paper delivered at P:ACE conference, Robinson College, Cambridge. October 28 (unpublished).
Pring, J. T. 1982 . The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Greek. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ritsos, Yannis. 1971. Gestures and Other Poems, 1968-1970. Tr. Nikos Stangos. London: Cape Goliard.
——— ———. 1974. Selected Poems. Tr. Nikos Stangos. London: Penguin.
Rohde, Erwin. 1966 . Psyche. New York: Harper & Row. Two volumes.
Sahtouris, Miltos. With Face to the Wall. Tr. Kimon Friar. Washington: The Charioteer Press.
Samarakis, Antonis. 1969. The Flaw. Tr. Peter Mansfield and Richard Burns. London: Hutchinson; New York: Weybright and Talley.
Seferis, George. 1960. Poems. Tr. Rex Warner. London: The Bodley Head.
——— ———. 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.
Sewell, Elizabeth. 1960. The Orphic Voice. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear.
Sherrard, Philip. 1956. The Marble Threshing Floor: Studies in Modern Greek Poetry. London: Vallentine, Mitchell.
Stavropoulos, D. N. 2008  Oxford Greek-English Learner’s Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Theodorakis, Mikis. 1966. Μαουτχάουζεν / Έξι Τραγούδια. [The Ballad of Mauthausen / Six Songs]. Columbia LP 70204.
Vayenas, Nasos. 1978. Biography. Tr. Richard Burns. Cambridge: Lobby Press.
——— ———. 1979. ‘Eden’ and ‘Empty’. Tr. Richard Burns. London: Mencard series, Menard Press.
——— ———. 1989. Η Πτώση του Ιπτάμενου [Flyer’s Fall]. Athens: Stigmi.
——— ———. 2000. Συνομιλώντας με τον Καβάφη: Ανθολογία Ξένων Καβαφογένων Ποιημάτων [Conversing with Cavafy: An Anthology of Foreign Cavafy-Inspired Poems.] Thessaloniki: Centro Ellinikis Glossas. [Centre for the Greek Language].
——— ———. 2010. Στη Νήσο των Μακάρων [On the Isle of the Blest]. Athens: Kedros.
——— ———. 2010. The Perfect Order. Selected Poems 1974-2010. Eds. Richard Berengarten and Paschalis Nikolaou. London: Anvil Press Poetry.
——— ———. 2011. ‘The Black Light of the Poets’. The Salt Companion to Richard Berengarten. Eds. Norman Jope, Paul Scott Derrick and Catherine E.
Wace, A. J. B. and M. S. Thompson. 1914. The Nomads of the Balkans: an Account of Life and Customs Among the Vlachs of Northern Pindus. London: Methuen.