Everywhere you go in Greece you will hear one word: crisis. The origin of crisis is Greek, from κρίσις (krisis). We also have the Greeks to thank for democracy, politics and tragedy. I arrived in Athens for a convention of young European leaders a day after the government shut down ERT, the only state-supported broadcasting service in the country, putting 2,700 journalists out of a job. Also, in the aftermath of the IMF admitting “notable failures” in the Greek bailout, conceding that the harsh austerity measures imposed actually pushed the country into a further crisis. Amidst all this, to whom did I turn? A poet.
Stephanos Papadopoulos is a Greek-American poet whose childhood was spent in the sleepy suburbs of Athens. He has lived in other countries but Greece is home. Recently, in a brilliant article in the LA Review of Books, “Hurt into Poetry”, he suggests that in order to move forward, Greeks need to look backward, specifically, to poetry. “Poetry,” he wrote, “will not fix the economy or punish the Greek political elite for ransacking the country, but before we even think about economics, something needs to restore order in the average Greek’s proud and angry soul.”
I sit with Stephanos in a café in Monastiraki, the city’s old commercial centre, now home to a famous flea market. Stephanos tells me that what Greeks are suffering from is an identity crisis rather than an economic crisis. “We’re like adolescents,” he says, “We don’t know which way to turn…The only people speaking intelligently now are artists, writers and creative people. It’s not hopeless, there’s just need for a radical change, and I’m not sure Greeks are ready for that.”
Stephanos has written three books of poetry — Hôtel-Dieu, Lost Days, and most recently, Black Sea, which is a collection of sonnet-monologues that speak in different voices of the Pontic Greek massacre of the 1920s. Stephanos’s family is of Pontic and Cretan origin, and he says they still struggle emotionally with the memory of that genocide. None of the men of his family have gone back. But he went, by motorcycle, on a trip he describes as “going backwards in time”— staying in monasteries, visiting churches, and speaking with strangers. The result is a jewel of a compendium that tells of “harbours burned for the love of burning”, and “stubble fields of planted shallow graves”.
When Stephanos was 19, studying archaeology at the University of Chapel Hill, he met the poet Derek Walcott, and “boldly, stupidly,” gave him a few of his poems. Walcott invited him to tea. They talked about Cavafy, and Walcott asked if he was serious about being a poet. “You don’t want to drive fancy cars and live in a nice house, do you?” he asked. “It was terrifying,” says Stephanos, “He went through each of the poems, keeping some, and dismissing others by throwing them on the floor.” They’ve been friends ever since.
The last time Walcott came to Greece, he told reporters, “Every time a Greek poet lifts a pen he lifts a column.” The burden of a glorious ancient past affects everyone in Greece, particularly artists, but perhaps in these times of crisis, it wouldn’t be amiss to acknowledge a certain hubris, to look back: to Aristotle’s Politics, to the Parthenon, and to poetry.
The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist. E-mail: email@example.com