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Culture

Prose and Poetry to Celebrate Greek Independence Day

March 26, 2017

By Eleni Sakellis

For Greek Independence Day, Greeks around the world will celebrate with church services, parades, and events to honor the freedom of the homeland. In this busy season, setting aside time to read Greek authors is a great way to celebrate Greek Independence and reminds us of the tremendous literary tradition from ancient times to the present. Here are a few books to read in honor of Greek Independence Day.

The Memoirs of General Makriyannis, 1797-1864 translated into English by H.A. Lidderdale was published by the Oxford University Press in 1966. A hero of the Greek War of Independence, Yannis Makriyannis rose to the rank of general and led his men to many victories. His real name was Ioannis Triantaphyllos, but because of his height, he was known by his nickname. He wrote his memoirs in the years before some of the most dramatic events of his later life including his incarceration, death sentence, and then pardon, occurred, though even by the end of 1850, when he completed his Memoirs, he had a great deal to share about his life and times.

The book is an extraordinary achievement not only for recounting an incredible life story but also because Makriyannis wrote the original in Demotic Greek, giving readers the chance to experience the language as it was spoken at the time. It was first published in Greece in 1907, and garnered little attention until an article appeared about Makriyannis during the German occupation in World War II. After that, Makriyannis’ popularity as a historical figure, writer, and hero of the War of Independence grew. Nobel laureate Giorgos Seferis called Makriyannis one of the greatest masters of Modern Greek prose.

Austerity Measure: The New Greek Poetry edited by Karen Van Dyck is required reading for poetry fans and those interested in the toll of the economic crisis on the Greek people, and the abundant inspiration it is providing for artists and poets in particular. If we believe that great art requires suffering, then Greece is truly poised for a renaissance in all artistic endeavors. Some scholars suggest that the cultural renaissance began in 2008 at the start of the economic crisis.

Poetry seems to be especially potent amid the crisis, with poets somehow able to capture the spirit of the time in their writing, the verses rapidly and vividly telling the individual stories of struggle. Austerity Measures captures that spirit in its pages, some of the poems translated for the first time into English. The six sections of the book group the poets into emerging schools of poetry, a positive sign for the state of Modern Greek poetry.

This unique view of the real-life experiences in Greece is framed in the lyrical and often brutal words of the poets. Poems by native Greeks, immigrants, and refugees are presented in this volume reflecting the changing demographics of the nation as everyone struggles to come to terms with the crisis. Poetry is everywhere in Greece now as it always has been, but the poems appearing in graffiti, on blogs, in literary magazines, and in public readings wherever people gather to protest and be heard, has taken on an urgency in these desperate times.

In her poem Heads, Elena Penga writes poignantly, “I remember caresses, kisses, touching each other’s hair. We had no sense that anything else existed.”

Stamatis Polenakis’ Elegy is heartbreaking. He writes, “Nothing, not even the drowning of a child, Stops the perpetual motion of the world.” The images of the refugees are now a part of the global consciousness, but Polenakis’ line cuts through to the heart of the matter. The death of a child is the death of hope, and yet, the earth keeps turning.

On Tuesday, March 21, editor Van Dyck and poets Maria Margaronis, Hiva Panahi, Gazmend Kapllani, Stephanos Papadopoulos, and Yusef Komunyakaa appeared at McNally Jackson, the independent bookstore in New York’s SoHo for a discussion and readings from the soon-to-be released collection of poetry. More information on the book is available at mcnallyjackson.com.

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