Why You Need to Know About Odysseus Elytis
You have a taste of tempest on your lips
And a dress red as blood…
Deep in the gold of summer
And the perfume of hyacinths—But where did you wander
Descending toward the shores, the pebbled bays?
Odysseus Elytis is considered Greece’s national poet alongside poets such as Homer and Seferis. He was born Odysseus Alepoudelis on the island of Crete in 1911, yet changed his name to avoid any association with his wealthy background. One of the words used to describe him in Greek is “leksoplastis” which means “the creator of words”. His assumed name, Elytis, is indeed a composite of his own devise that stands for those things he treasured most: Ellas, the Greek word for Greece; elpida, the word for hope; eleftheria, the word for freedom ; Eleni, the name of a figure that, in Greek mythology, personifies beauty and sensuality.
Elytis’ poems are open, flowing yet full of meaning and images. He was a breath of fresh air not only for Greek but also for the global poetry scene; in recognition of that, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Poetry in 1979.
The academy declared in its presentation that his poetry “depicts with sensual strength and intellectual clearsightedness, modern man’s struggle for freedom and creativeness. . . . In its combination of fresh, sensuous flexibility and strictly disciplined implacability in the face of all compulsion, Elytis’ poetry gives shape to its distinctiveness, which is not only very personal but also represents the traditions of the Greek people.”
Elytis’ love for his country is evident in much more than his choice of pen name. It is the driving force behind his writings, his inspiration and strength. In his acceptance speech he underlined that by saying “I would like to believe that with this year’s decision, the Swedish Academy wants to honor in me Greek poetry in its entirety. I would like to think it also wants to draw the attention of the world to a tradition that has gone on since the time of Homer, in the embrace of Western civilization.”
Throughout his life, Elytis never stopped traveling both in Greece and abroad. When in Paris, he was associated with a circle of artists including Picasso and Matisse; he shared with his friend and art patron, Teriade, a love for the art of folk painter Theofilos. In Greece he loved exploring the islands of the sunny Aegean in the summer. Elytis’ earlier poems are filled with images of sun, of light and purity, earning him the title of “sun-drinking poet.” His “Sovereign Sun” is an ode to optimism, a voice of hope in a ravaged country.
With the advent of WWII, Elytis was called up to fight on the Albanian front, where the Greek army managed to halt the Italian invasion.
Drawing from this experience he, like another Hemingway, wrote his “Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of Albania” in 1943. Elytis’ touching words are a cry of lament uttered by the young lieutenant and the whole Greek nation that suffered so much during the war; the tone is sorrowful, albeit proud.
Elytis’ most widely known masterpiece is the composition “To Aksion Esti” (Worthy It Is”). The poet submerges deep within Greek history and Mythology to draw images and sounds and combine them with the Byzantine, and later Greek tradition, in a poetic cycle of alternating prose and verse patterned after the ancient Byzantine liturgy. Centuries of Greek history are intricately woven in a tapestry of History that shows what is encompassed in the Greek Identity, the Greek Heart and Spirit:
“Worthy is the Light and the first, etched in stone, wish of man The vigor of the animal that guides the sun. The plant that twittered and gave birth to Day (Worthy is).
The Earth that plunges and then raises its neck, like a stone horse ridden by the open sea. A myriad of little blue voices and a huge white head of Poseidon”
“Aksion Esti” rose even more in popularity when it was set to music by Mikis Theodorakis in 1964 and received critical acclaim later in 1979, praised by the Nobel Academy as a masterpiece of 20th Century poetry. Odysseus Elytis passed away in 1996 but his heritage lives on today, inspiring and influencing young poets and artists from all around the world.