Speech by Magda Carneci

Magda Carneci (Bucharest, Romania)

Seferis and the Greek myth of regeneration through poetry

It is strange to notice that many important poets of modern Greece were born
abroad, outside Greek frontiers, sometimes in incredible places: Kavafis in
Alexandria (Egypt), Andoniu in Mozambique, Varnalis in Burgas (Bulgaria),
Melahrinos and Embirikos in Braila (Romania), Uranis and Sarantaris in Istanbul
(and Elytis in Crete). Being born in Smyrne/ Izmir, Seferis confirms this
unusual situation, that fits the topos of Greeks as restless wanderers and
colonists of the known and unknown world, as well as the topos of poets as
‘outsiders’ of a given, established order and visionary foreseers of some
new-born, emerging cosmoses.

But Seferis looks to me, rather, as a sort of strange archeologist, involved
in the unearthing of an old world, an ancient harmonious cosmos, dead long time
ago and nevertheless still alive in the gulfs and islands of Greece, as an
illusion more effective than any strict rationing. An ancient mythical cosmos, I
would say – preserved in a special imaginal realm of the ‘between-the-worlds’
reality – which keeps going on even today, contrary to our modern presumptions.
This realm keeps existing as a state of mind and of soul inducing a strange,
melted, fluid way of being into reality, as a peculiar, genuine life-style, more
persuasive than any materialistic approach. This is, I believe, what all the
great neo-Hellenic poets of the 20th century have strived to transmit in a way
or in another, as a sacred heritage, to our more and more oblivious cultural
mentality – be they Kavafis, Sikelianos, Elytis, Seferis, and many others.

Giorgyos Seferis is for me the haunted archeologist of impalpable, evanescent
traces of a parallel and silent, yet insidious, reality. A reality made out of
beams of light, immemorial shadows, fragments of melodies, beautiful names,
mythological ghosts, painful memories that populate our common perceptions when
attuned to the frequency of the moment, the instant, the present, in its magic
and nostalgic force, its detached yet exalting clearness. His is a vision of
being-in-the-world as a sort of floating, undecided ‘commuting’ between past and
present, between presence and absence, a kind of haze, a phantasmagoric mirage
between fullness and emptiness, silence and sound. All this, on the background
of a melancholic remembrance of a lost unity of the being, a being containing
the dead and the living, and the half-dead and the half-living, and so on. A
‘distant, far-off plenitude’ as the French poet and theorist Yves Bonnefoy would
say. But while in the case of T.S.Eliot, Seferis’ friend, to whom he resembles a
lot, there is a ‘pressure of the past over the present’, in Seferis’ case it is
not so obvious whether the past invades the present, or vice versa, for his
concern is neither the past nor the present, but a detachment from both and from
the hypnosis of reality. His sonorous, evanescent archeology has to do with a
certain mode of existence, a special way of not identifying with palpable forms
and various creatures, while still enjoying them in a delicate way: a modality
of existence between and above the reigns of reality, be they mineral, vegetal,
animal, or human, be they natural, mythological, historic, or artificial

This is the poetic reign, I would say, which has to do with being present to
yourself, to your whole/real Self, within the fiction of this world, in a
special, indefinable way. Seferis has the innate techné of capturing this vague,
blurred and silent state of mind by the strange counter-point-like musicality of
his words, coming out of a discrete inner alchemy. This inner alchemy appears to
be catalyzed by a peculiar emotionality, sad as much as serene, pessimistic as
much as accepting. But this poetic reign does not exist naturally, it has to be
invented and planted, introduced into our present-day mentality as a sort of
graft, capable to provoke a mutation in our habitual, opaque usage of reality
and of ourselves.

In Seferis’ case, ancient mythology and the Greek heritage seem to play an
important, catalytic role in this alchemical process of separating the coarse
from the refined, that is, the immediate, materialistic sensations from finer,
higher perceptions. As a majestic background, a reference memory kept alive by
chance or by cultural destiny, this Greek heritage can provide the necessary,
rare graft on our continually forgetting manner of taking reality for granted.
This graft is possible because it has become since long a way of being, the way
of living the ‘real life’ of a certain place, ancient Greece, Ellada, an
idealized space haunting for centuries the emotional and cultural memory of
Europeans. And it was precisely this splendid heritage that modern Greek poets
have felt compelled to transmit to the rest of the non-Greek, post-mythological,
and even post-Christian, world of present-day Europeans. This sort of cultural
genes, so to say, continuing to nourish in a modern key the profound roots of
our European identity, was at the basis of the eminent position Greek poetry
(and prose, in a certain amount) has since long occupied, and still occupies, in
the European literature.

In the Romanian milieu, for example, there have been during the last four or
five decades, several successive moments of great interest in Kavafis, Seferis,
Ritsos, Elytis, even Kazantsakis, that provoked special issues of the most
important cultural publications, as well as debates and poetic performances
dedicated to their writing. In the 1980s, for example, when Seferis’ poetry
seemed to be overshadowed, it is interesting to notice that not only in the
young Romanian poetry (to which I belonged at that time) but all over
international poetry of the moment, another sort of poetry seemed to arrive on
top. It was a much more narrative poetry, even prose-like, focused on banal
daily life and poor urban environment, on common sense and ordinary existence,
using street jargons and mass-media clichés – a poetry influenced as it were by
the American beat generation (Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Ashberry a.s.o.) and
refusing almost any kind of transcendence, be it religious or mythological. If
Seferis was called a ‘classic modernist’ one – like T.S.Eliot, Pound, Yeats,
etc. -, this new poetry of the 1980s, and 1990s in fact, can be called, and has
been called postmodernist. In the three last decades it has become obvious that
European poetry, like the American one, has furthered away from any sort of
spiritual symbolism, refusing to turn to the old Greek, Jewish, Christian
sources of its imaginary, through which, even if in a tortuous way, its profound
imaginal need was to be satisfied, to be kept alive. At present, at least for a
while, the access to this essential level of our being seems to have been
suspended in favor of a more contiguous, homogenized and neutralized perception
and expression of reality, attuned as it is to the age of planetary integration,
pragmatic mentality, economic globalism, and cosmopolitan multiculturalism.

Now, having the opportunity to ‘revisit’ Seferis’ poems, after almost 20
years of absence, I must confess I was anxious. I had a sort of restlessness in
regards to my expectations. I suddenly remembered the magic of Seferis’ verses
in my adolescence and first youth, the curios archaic and at the same time very
modern musicality they would induce in my ears. I remembered the way the rhythm
of his lines, formed of so simple words, would change, would low down, the
rhythm of my heartbeat and my respiration. I remembered how much I was
fascinated by rare, exotic words such as asphodels, daffodils, lemon trees,
laurels, kihli, black pine trees, how haunted I was by famous names such as
Gorgon, Medusa, Adonis, Mycenae, Argonauts, the ‘lost king of Asini’, how
hypnotized I also was by simple plain words such as green sea, old islands,
beams of day light, drop of blood, desert stones, etc. They would build a
poeticity without metaphors, without even ‘striking images’, but nevertheless so
effective, so mesmerizing. I remembered the line ‘Wherever I go, Greece hurts
me’ that made me envious of not being born a Greek. Actually, after my own
poetic experience, I was afraid of being disappointed, after so many years, by a
‘youth love’ that could prove to have been a mere illusion. After reading again
his Mythistorima, his Stratis the Sailor, his Exercise Notebook, his Kihli, his
Board Journals 1, 2, and 3, I feel confirmed again in my previous taste and much
more comforted with my own past.
For now I understand better – that is,
through my personal experience – what ‘poetic alchemy’ or ‘poetic initiation’
might mean. I understand now why the ‘mythical realm’ surviving as a ‘poetic
realm’ in our cultural memory and ‘emotional body’, so to say, is vital for our
inner survival and spiritual resurrection. Because through its ‘charming’ and
‘magic’ intermediary we can still have a certain indirect experience of what
transcendence might mean – that is, the higher levels of our innate but still
unknown inner reality. This ‘mythical/poetic’ realm fills up properly the
insidious gap between the external and internal worlds, between our individual
and cosmic dimensions, between ‘heaven and earth’. A gap, that two thousand
years of Christianity have not succeeded to bridge satisfactorily hitherto.

Mythological archetypes and poetic images can still help us, in spite of our
blindness and materialistic stupidity, to raise, to ascend up on the long scale
of our still mysterious being, designed as it was to become ‘god-like’,
‘divine’, by its infinite potentialities, yet still creeping in its lower parts,
in its basements.

Thanks to Greek poetry I also feel more optimistic. As if, reading Seferis’
poems, I would revisit some faraway legendary island where a ‘natural
reservation’ has been preserved alive: a genuine realm with archaic vegetation,
pure, intense light, perfumed air, some rare birds and animals, special
invisible creatures, strange musical echoes, floating fragments of memories,
inexplicable majestic images haunting our imagination. Now I know, this island
will continue to exist, in spite of any oblivion, any denial, in our cultural
memory. And whenever I will feel the desire to reenter the poetic reign opening
towards my higher levels of being, this ‘seferic/seraphic’ island will always be

And I assume that it will be there for the whole of Europeans – after this
intermediary period of post-transcendental, post-spiritual, and neo-pragmatic
mentality – as a precious source wherefrom to restart, to ‘reactivate’ a more
complete, more harmonious being-in-the-world, in spite of any economic crises,
any political chaos, any absurd nihilism.

Magda Carneci is a Romanian-born poet and an art writer, based in Paris
and Bucharest. target=_blank>www.magdacarneci.com

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