On 18 October 1979, one of Greece’s major poets, Odysseus Elytis, was awarded with the Noble Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy declared in its presentation that Elytis’ 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 was perhaps the first modern great poet who embraced surrealism as a poetic inspiration. He felt that surrealism heralded a return to magical sources which rationalism had calcified; it represented a plunge into the wellsprings of fantasy and dream, a free-flowing clustering of images creating its own shapes. The broad perspective of an open mind and a vital, concrete bond with the archetypal gestures of life, magical surrealism and unbroken Hellenic substance merge in poetry to form painfully illuminating images of Mediterranean existence.
BODY OF SUMMER
[Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard]
Transcendent, mystical, slangy, laconic, rhetorical, Odysseus Elytis is first of all a poet whose unique strength is the celebration of a landscape that is his protean theme, his finest invention. This terrain is both his beloved Greece and the human body, a vision rooted in the past and passionately imagined in a kind of floating, timeless present. “Body of Summer” is a free-verse poem of four stanzas. The poem can be divided in half: The first two stanzas describe a landscape in the voice of a third-person narrator; the last two stanzas address the personified landscape directly in the song of the “little siren.”
Through surreal, Elytis infused spirit into the material world. Through personification he molded the abstract into concrete forms. The animate inanimate is found in fruit which paint their mouths in summer heat and transform into earth’s swelling pores. Summer itself is a boy stretched out on the shore while “Cicadas grow warm in his ears/ Ants are at work on his chest/ Lizards slide in the grass of his armpits/ And over the seaweed of his feet a wave rolls lightly”. Infused with light and idyllic joy, these are images of hope, joy, and sensuality, bathed in the light that has become the trademark of a poetry free of the sentimentality.