April is National Poetry Month and Greece has a wealth of poets to add to your reading list. From ancient times and Homer to some of the best known modern Greek poets of the 20th century like George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis, to the current generation of poets including Phoebe Giannisi, Anna Griva, Stamatis Polenakis, and Kurdish-Greek writer Hiva Panahi, Greek poetry continues to thrive.
The celebration of National Poetry Month in the United States was introduced in 1996, organized by the Academy of American Poets to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. Canada adopted the celebration as well in 1998.
Looking back, there are some Greeks poets who are perhaps less well-known because they did not live long enough to develop their work or gain the recognition they might have had if fate had not intervened. Their work is often full of potential, a snapshot of a moment in history, leaving the reader with a sense of what might have been.
One of the perhaps less well-known poets is Kostas Krystallis, a native of Epirus, whose work is mostly associated with 19th century Greek pastoral literature. April 22 marks the 125th anniversary of his death.
Born in the village of Syrrako in 1868, while Epirus was still under the Ottoman Empire, Krystallis wrote beautiful poems with an emphasis on nature, many based on traditional folk poetry. He started out writing in the archaic style, but switched to Demotic Greek after 1891, and was influenced by the New Athenian School, whose central figure was the renowned poet Kostis Palamas.
Krystallis wrote his first poetry collection, Skiai tou Adous (Shadows of Hades) while still a student at Zosimaia School in Ioannina. He was sentenced to 25 years in exile after the Ottoman authorities denounced him for the patriotic nature of his work. Krystallis managed to flee to Athens and worked various jobs while writing his poetry and prose. Never giving up the fight for freedom for Epirus, he also contributed to Foni this Epirou (the Voice of Epirus) newspaper (1892-94), and edited entries on Epirus for an encyclopedia of the time.
His poetry collection, O Tragoudistis tou Horiou kai tis Stanis (The Singer of the Village and the Fields) was critically acclaimed and praised in the Philadelpheio Competition, though the competition’s jury selected Giorgos Stratigis for the top honor which elicited backlash from Krystallis and literary circles of the time.
Krystallis won 2,500 drachmas in the lottery in 1893 which allowed him to publish a collection of his prose, Pezografimata, the following year. While working for a railroad company in the Peloponnese at the time and suffering ill health, he completed his 259 verse poem O Psomopatis and the long pastoral, Golfo. With his health deteriorating, Krystallis left for Kerkyra and then moved to Arta where he stayed at his sister’s home. He passed away there on April 22, 1894 at the age of just 26 from tuberculosis.
In his short life, Krystallis managed to produce some fine poetry, steeped in his love of nature, beginning with his early work in the Katharevousa and then Demotic Greek. Influenced by Athenian romanticism and then the New Athenian School and also deeply connected to the folk tradition, language, and songs of the homeland, Krystallis’ work transports the reader to the mountains and fields he so loved, expressing a poignant aspect especially in view of his tragically brief life.
Kostas Krystallis’ poems are available online in Greek.