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What is paramount is the implication that, through their concise work, poets such as Solomos, Cavafy and Seferis in the end succeeded in demarcating a poetic land, whereas this was not the case with Kazantzakis for example, despite his torment and struggle to depict an entire continent. Or again, to put it in more familiar terms, Kariotakis, elegiac and satirical, perhaps opened a poetic territory, in that he became a local focal point (in a biological and poetic sense) for the specific bleak era that came to be called the Interwar years. As for Sachtouris, who is the subject of this treatise, I believe that he offered himself as a vessel of choice and expression for the post-war absurdity, and suddenly modern Greek surrealism rejected its ornamental opulence. At this point, however, I must move on from aphorisms to numbers.
Nine collections by Sachtouris, comprising 212 poems in toto; these poems cover twenty-six years of low-profile poetic presence in the publishing world, from 1945 to 1971. There were interims of fecund silence from one collection to the next; of two years minimum, these interims averaged four years, whilst the longest interval between two collections lasted seven years, from 1964 to 1971 (between the penultimate and his latest collection). Could we hope that the time is ripe for his next collection, glimpses of which seem to have appeared in literary magazines?
The titles of his collections (The Forgotten One 1945, Fantastic Lays 1948, When I Speak to You 1956, The Spectres or Joy in the Next Street 1958, The Stroll 1960, Stigmata 1962, The Seal or The Eighth Moon 1964, The Receptacle 1971) could be categorised in multiple ways. Five of them are monolexical; four consist of several words; seven of them are nominal clauses; two are verbal. The first two allude to our folk poetry; the fifth and eight collections denote a predilection for surrealism by their very title; the remainder seem to move neutrally between the two margins, albeit with a latent tendency towards a modernistic point of reference.
I believe that one may derive certain impressions based on this numerical and grammatical delineation of Sachtouris’ work: the poet’s poetic production is characterised by a complex frugality with regard to both quantity and content; his poetry forms a system of ultimate equilibrium, which is ensured thanks to the subtle weighing of minute differences. There are no feverish, external antitheses to be found; the fever burns the poem from within, whilst the surface usually remains untroubled, just like snow, or glistens like ice.
The frugal system of his work corresponds to an equally sparse biography. One is tempted to quote the precious pieces of information gleaned by Yannis Dallas in To Dendro literary review (No 1, 1978, pp. 8-9) – which also included verbatim comments by the poet – in an effort to juxtapose them somewhat less linearly.
Hydra, as a birthplace, represents the buried ancestral honour and glory; Nafplion and Argolis stand for the sold property; Athens and Kypseli serve as the poet’s hermitage. In 1939, at twenty years of age, the poet loses his father; in 1955, when he is thirty-six, his mother dies. The death of his father, a judicial officer and legal consultant for the State, releases the son from his law studies and allows him to devote himself exclusively to poetry: he burns his law books and from now on makes himself
and his poetic world “judicially homeless”, to use Dallas’ pithy expression. The death of his mother – extremely sensitive and silent as a ghost – in the words of the poet himself, emancipates Sachtouris to an even more profound and painful level. As he confesses, “when my mother died as well, I began to shed many things from me, both on the inside and the outside; bit by bit, my sight became more perspicacious and my hearing sharper so that I might better see and hear what things have to reveal behind their façade”. Having thus become freer also in this perspective, or to borrow another poignant phrase by Dallas, now also “maternally roofless”, the poet can peruse his inner and outer world, which has become inhumane.
I will say a few more words, though I run the risk of overstepping the boundaries of discretion with regard to a poet who has always kept his personal life out of the limelight. I want to talk about certain complementary contrasts: though of “stout and almost athletic” build, for quite some time his health has been rather fragile. Solitary to the extreme, yet he wastes his time engaging in odd “mundane” ceremonies: he frequents specific coffee houses at specific hours, both in summer and winter. Though his eroticism is unquestionably engraved on his face (sometime even to the point of coquetry), he remains so blatantly childlike and awkward that one might rashly derive the impression that it is mere affectation. Despite being a grand-grandchild of George Sachtouris, a famous naval officer during the 1821 Independence War, the poet kept nothing of his grand-grandfather’s accoutrement apart from “a pipe that is almost as big as he was”, according to Dallas. Even though he was a man in possession of immovable property, he ended up in a cramped, rented flat on 2, Imvrou Str. Raised though he was with the prospect of taking up a rather more prestigious profession, from early on he chose to take a position by the window of poetry, so that might look out at the garden and the pharmacy or coffee house across the road without the encumbrance of a job. No one is in a position to say anything specific about his political beliefs, and yet he remains a profoundly political poet.
Introduction to Miltos Sachtouris poetics
[…] The currents that the poet converses with are symbolism and surrealism at their European starting points, but chiefly at their later established stage. Even so, he interacts with them also in their deeper traditions, as for example in the tradition of the primitives and the pre-romantics. Having said that, what is, elliptically and delusionally, at work here is imagination itself, whilst surrealism suddenly appears as the alter ego of the poetic thought process. In this case, however, it is a very clear language – clear, in the sense that it is cleansed of the forms set by conventional logic but nevertheless not in the least abstract, as it is full of cohesion and constancy with regard to understanding the irrational relationships between the things it describes. This is because, particularly for Sachtouris, symbols are not abstract or invented; they are the things themselves, things outside their boundaries and confines, things that are broken into. As a result, symbolism is meaningfully transformed within the poet and does not merely remain a mood or school of thought; it is a faithful representation of the motion of the world’s real symbols that are known to us all, and it is an inner motion – to the deepest depths of life – a liberated motion – to the point of dissoluteness. The poet can penetrate these symbols and, through their explored relationships and motions, he is able to transmit “actual” information, albeit without fusing with the symbols themselves. “The dog, the beggar woman, the fever, the mission are ‘actual’ symbols”, he admits. Of course, their motions and interrelationships within his poetry, as in the following example
and a beggar woman selling cakes in the sky,
render, in conjunction with his poetic language, their existence absurd. “On the other hand, the cockerel-man, the dog-butterflies, the ghost-car are pure poetic symbols,” he clarifies. Which is to say that none of the latter has ever appeared as an experience in his field of vision. It does not matter whether these symbols, along with all the rest, in the end serve as expressive mortar, functioning as structural articulations and as key concepts in his poetic realities, irrespective of how he has experienced or conceived them.
Just as he shuns symbolic fluxes, he equally avoids abstract symbols, symbols-cum-ideas. After all, both his descriptions and his concepts are extremely concrete. Although one might say that he is a staunch exponent of our contemporary fragmentation – at its most ephemeral version, as a matter of fact – he does not omit to target, at a second phase, the so-called great and ultimate archetypal symbols. With regard to these two targets of Sachtouris, if we judge from the subject matter of a lot of his poems and, occasionally, from their technique, we may assume that apart from the spectacles of the street and the times, which we have already mentioned, he must have also watched numerous motion pictures, such as:
obscure B-movies of the kind dealing with mushy feelings, action and horror,
but also high-standard films that are imbued with the great and archetypal symbols, as we implied.
His own answer seems to repudiate the question. “I haven’t been to the cinema,” he explains, “since my mid-forties, at least not regularly”. And then, almost immediately after: “I like Bergman best”. He likes Bergman even at his most absolute, demonical moments – which are not in the least metaphysical, in Sachtouris’ opinion. What about Bunuel? For Sachtouris, he’s unequal. And the surrealism in his films? He would like it to be different, arising from the depths of things and manifesting like an explosion. “For instance,” and he jumps onto another art category, “just like it happens with Dylan Thomas”. Thomas holds a very high place in Sachtouris’ esteem, of late. In 1971, he wrote in his collection The Receptacle:
Today as I rage and enter the fifty second year of my life
it is with awe and admiration that I greet you
my brotherly spectre Dylan Thomas
who so young knew how
to put fire into words
and set them off
and they, with booms and god alike
exploded into the infinite.
Throughout his poetry, his love for the bards – an inherited penchant from neo-romantic symbolism – meets with his love for the lunatic, the demonised, the saintly; the subtitle of his poem is most eloquent: Dylan Thomas saintly king goes round and round like a lunatic. This love intertwines with his similar penchant for, and transcendence of, surrealism.
“Surrealism,” he confesses, “liberated me from many things. More than anything else, it liberated me from the stern education I received from my father and from the confines of narrow family traditions. And as an artisan it taught me how to discern genuineness in poetry and use all words without fear”.
Similarly, when his mother died, he distanced himself from every biological and social dependence and conventionality – “I began to liberate myself from many things, both from within and outside myself; my sight became more perspicacious and my hearing sharper,” he said, and, as a result, his umbilical chord to any intellectual tradition and conventionality was cut. And then surrealism came his way and shook him up. It did not provide a stylistic roof over Sachtouris’ head, nor did it become a method of linguistic communication. It may have dazzled him in his greener years, but even then a poem written in the surrealist style could have meant all manner of things for him: a bit of Kariotakis, or something of the “damned” of French neo-symbolism; a trace of contradictory reality, or the horror of the impending war and post-war era all around him; and of course the by-products or ultimate symbols from the motion pictures that we have already mentioned. In other words, for Sacthouris, surrealism meant turmoil at the very depths of life but never the alluring surface of passing fads.
Above all else, however, symbolism merged with his innate tendency which we mentioned earlier, enhancing it more permanently. It also enhanced his devotion to all those individuals in whose solitude quietly burns an unquenchable flame. His engrossment in insightful or controversial personalities is characteristic. For instance, he loves, and I am quoting more or less his own words, Hälderlin’s lonely fate, Kirkegaard or Kafka’s wasted existences, Blok and Rilke’s lives, inside and outside the social whirl. “The poet loves outside his lived life,” he repeats emphatically. He loves, and continues life and existence, transferring them from one art to another, as he is wont. And this life and existence bear the seal of a crystalline silence and crust, in the vein of Baudelaire or, possibly, of Cezanne, but surely also of our own Parthenis and definitely of Bouzianis. Another example might be that of painter Diamantis Diamantopoulos, another solitary figure of our times.
Due to Sachtouris’ persistent reference to mostly yesteryear’s recluses and iconoclasts, one gets the impression that his study and focus are, after a certain point in time, fixated, and that his point of view is deliberately isolated.
The rejection of a decorative use of poetic language, and the greatest possible condensing as a permanent method for creating style are two elements that accompany Miltos Sachtouris in most of his collections. Things and their uses are described with relative fidelity, poetic action is enhanced thanks to a quick succession of images-episodes, whilst the descriptive part of the narration (space layout, details about the elements that demarcate it) is minimised to the lowest possible degree.
Given that Sachtouris never interposes psychological descriptions and avoids ideological labelling, the clarity of his images and the vortex of their succession on the screen transform the worn-out idea of a lost paradise into a potent motif, whilst viscerally supporting its misused function. Sachtouris creates idea-generating images that are endowed with substantive value. Far from representing visualised ideas, they offer a material outline within which mental representations may be properly received.
Sachtouris beckons us to touch his traumas and wounds and to ponder on his future. Nevertheless, he forbids us to think of ways to cure him or to ungracefully or extortionately explain his plights, since he believes that this matter does not fall under his competency. Showing us the symptoms ought to be enough – anything beyond that would be sheer prolixity.
What is paramount is the image. Its excellence is unquestionable in the sense of it being not just a structural unit but a prolonged, independent vector of meaning, which directly draws its origins from expressionistic theory and practice.
The use of images ought to go beyond the dry recording of external reality. Images acquire autonomous power, thus they become unfettered from the limiting nature of the mirror; thanks to the symbolic nuances that images are imbued with by the author, they create an inner landscape that, although still reflecting experiences and feelings of every day life, is light years away from the realism of social decadence or from the lyrical style of a personal confession. The odd and excessive elements that we can discern in the expressionistic images stand for the fixed – albeit invisible to the naked eye – characteristics of a world that suffers to its very core.
Sachtouris’ images develop into self-reliant, symbolic units that go beyond isolated episodes and casuistry in general, so as to create a dissonant introverted universe, in which objects, animals, humans and machines are gradually degraded to substitutes of reality, without however shedding their commonly accepted qualities.
What Sachtouris sees in the Occupation, the Civil War and the social and political amoralism during the first couple of decades after the war is the inability of people as a collective body to prioritise certain moral values and solutions as an antidote to the crisis of the times. Nevertheless, although Sachtouris observes the same things that others of his generations also ponder on, he reaches rather different conclusions: the dead of the armed conflict and the civil strife are not unvindicated people fallen for a just cause, but tremulous heroes of an epic in which both victims and persecutors take equal part. History is not transformed into indelible memory but rather into a contemporary tragedy, which is being staged with the very same intensity to our own day. Lastly, disillusionment is not tantamount to the loss of a confused dream but to an awareness of actuality: paradise does not exist, and, more likely than not, it never did.
Face au mur. Trans. Jacques Bouchard. Athenes – Montpellier. Fata Morgana. 1990.
Quando vi parlo. Trans. Paola Maria Minucci. Roma. Fondazione Piazzolla. 1993.
With face to the wall. Trans. Kimon Friar. Washington, D.C. The Charioteer Press. 1968.
Collected poems. Trans. Kimon Friar. Old Chatham, N.Y. Sachem Press. 1982.
Quiclime. Trans. John Stathatos. London. Oasis Books. 1974.
Trans. Michel Volkovitch. Paris. Les Cahiers Du Confluent. 1985.
Het hoofd van de dichter. Trans. Bernadette Wildenburg. Groningen. Styx Publications. 1993.
Strange Sunday. Trans.John Stathatos. Frome. Hunting Raven. 1984.
Gedichte. Trans. Andrea Kapsaski. Koln. Romiosini. 1990.
Poemes I. Trans. Michel Volkovitch. Paris. Cahiers grecs. 1995. 52 óåë.
Poemes II. Trans. Michel Volkovitch. Paris. Cahiers grecs. 1995.