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Culture

Edmund Keeley, Preeminent Scholar and Translator of Modern Greek Poetry, 94

February 24, 2022

NEW YORK – Edmund (Mike) Keeley, renowned scholar, translator and Philhellene, passed away on February 23. He was 94.

Professor Dimitri H. Gondicas, the Stanley J. Seeger ’52 Director of the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies and Lecturer in the Council of the Humanities and Hellenic Studies at Princeton University shared the sad news via email, noting Keeley’s “immense, diverse, far-reaching and lasting” legacy as “the preeminent scholar and translator of modern Greek poetry of our time.”

According to the Princeton University website, “the road from Edmund Keeley’s birthplace to Damascus to a distinguished academic career at Princeton has been a wandering one; it has taken him to schools in Montreal, Thessaloniki, and Washington, DC before bringing him to Princeton as an undergraduate in 1945. Then he wandered again – into the Navy-before coming back to receive his B.A. in 1949. He departed once more in 1952 for a D.Phil. at Oxford, followed by a year of teaching at Brown University and a Fulbright Lectureship at Thessaloniki University before finally settling at Princeton.”

At Princeton, Professor Keeley taught in the English department, directed the Creative Writing Program, and virtually created the Hellenic Studies Program, while at the same time creating a reputation for himself as a novelist and translator of modern Greek poetry. His fiction won the Rome prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the NEA/PEN Fiction Award, and his translations of Seferis, Cavafy, and Ritsos earned him deserved praise and honors, including the Columbia Translation Center Award, the Landon Award of the Academy of American Poets, and the Premier Prix Europeen de traduction de la Poesie.

In the larger world of American letters, Professor Keeley was an important member of many organizations, including the Modern Greek Studies Association, of which he was its first president, and the Society of America, of which he was vice president. He served on the editorial boards of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Translation Review, and The Journal of Modern Greek Studies. For 15 years, he was active in the PEN American Center and served as its president from 1991 to 1993, championing writers’ rights around the world. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science. He retired as the first holder of the Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professorship in English.

Gondicas noted that “he was America’s most distinguished cultural ambassador to Greece.”

“Closer to home, Mike was a founder and pillar of Hellenic Studies at Princeton, ever since we launched our journey in 1979,” Gondicas said. “Without Mike, we wouldn’t be where we are today. For all of us in Hellenic Studies who had the privilege to know him, Mike was our teacher, mentor, colleague, comrade in all things Hellenic, fellow traveler all over Greece, and steadfast friend. Until his last hours, Mike kept asking about Hellenic Studies and our plans for the future.”

“We are working on an obituary and other arrangements to remember and honor Mike’s life and legacy,” Gondicas noted, adding that Keeley shared with the world his last poem, Daylight, chosen by the Hudson Review for their holiday card 2022: https://bit.ly/3JTX0zH.

Daylight

by Edmund Keeley

 

Our plague has various names

None as blunt as the Black Death

Of the Middle Ages yet still as dark

Unless you can somehow believe that light

From a flash of final recognition

Or anticipated otherworldly dawn

Will always arrive before the end

To mute the horror of so much dying

And your own waiting for what might come.

So why wait any longer,

Why not leave it all to Nemesis

And take a long walk outside

In whatever direction holds the prospect

Of your recovering things to remember

From those lighter years in open spaces

That shore beside an endless sea

The white mornings to lie in wonder

After the beautiful dark passages

Of nightlong loving and the dividends

Of having held another beyond

Any belief that it could possibly end.

 

“In sorrow for our loss, but also in celebration and gratitude for Mike’s life, his friendship and his gifts to our Hellenic Studies community, with kind wishes to all, ζωη σε μας,” concluded Gondicas.

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