Thirty Years in the Rain: The Selected Poetry of Nikiforos Vrettakos Βρεττάκος

Of the four most prominent figures of the Greek poetic
renaissance of the 1930s, three are internationally renowned.
Both George Seferis (1900-1971) and Odysseus Elytis (1911-
1979) received the Nobel Prize, while the work of Yannis
Ritsos (1900-1990) has been translated into dozens of languages.
Only Nikiforos Vrettakos (1912-1991), though recognized
in Greece as the peer of his great contemporaries and
widely translated abroad, has remained largely unknown in the
English-speaking world.
Vrettakos was born on January 1, 1912 in the village of
Krokees, near Sparta, to a family of declining gentry fortunes.
He was educated in Krokees and Githion, the southern port of
the Peloponnesus, but much of his childhood was spent on
his family’s isolated farm in Ploumitsa on the slopes of the
Taygetus range, where he developed his taste for mountain
solitude; the sea, a recurrent motif in his last poems, entered
his verse relatively late.
Vrettakos moved to Athens in 1929 to attend the university,
and that year he published his first book of poetry, Under
Shadows and Lights. More than four score volumes followed
over the next six decades, an output rivalled only by
Ritsos. Financial pressures prevented him from completing his
Vrettakos tried his hand unsuccessfully at farming and
worked briefly in a silk factory before entering the Ministry
of Works as a clerk. He fought in the Albanian campaign of
1940-41, and in 1942 joined the Communist-led Greek resistance
movement, EAM. After the war he resumed his civil service
career, but he was purged in 1947 and was compelled to leave
Athens for Piraeus. In 1949 the Party revoked his membership,
an experience reflected in the poem “Expulsion.” The precipitating
issue was an essay that urged reconciliation between
the superpowers, but Vrettakos’ pacifism and temperamental
individualism were fundamentally at odds with Party affiliation.
Like Kenneth Rexroth in America, he went his own way
as an independent man of the left.
Vrettakos served as a municipal councillor in Piraeus and
became chairman of the local Theater and Arts Councils. In
In 1957 he visited the Soviet Union. During this period he
earned a living as a customs official, supplemented by work as
a journalist, translator, and editor. In 1956 he won his second
State Prize in poetry, and in 1960 he published a massive critical
work, Nikos Kazantzakis: His Agony and His Art.
With the gradual thaw in Greek politics, Vrettakos returned
to Athens in 1962 and took a position with the National
Theater. After the military coup of April 1967, however, he
left the country for a seven-year period of self-imposed exile
(“The Rock and the Hawk,” “Journey to Sicily”). He settled
in ,Switzerland at the Pestalozzi International Children’s Village
and later lectured at the University of Palermo, where, in failing
health, he wrote his deeply personal testament, “The Seven
Elegies.” With the restoration of civilian rule in 1974 he returned
home, dividing his time thereafter between Plournitsa
and Athens. He died, much honored, on August 4, 1991. The
last two decades of his life were among his most productive,
including the long dramatic poem Liturgy Under the Acropolis.
Vrettakos’ poetry is essentially dialogic. He is at once the
most solitary and the most engaged of poets, a poet of meditation
and of witness, a Whitmanian recluse whose embrace of
the world is both shy and exalted. As with many other poets
of fundamentally Romantic sensibility, he sees the poem and
the world as an inseparable event, mutually self-constituting,
and the poet himself as heir, pilgrim, and exile. In “Evening
Confessions,” the slopes of Taygetos are “the first poem / I
read as I opened my eyes,” and in “The Horizon and the Stone”
the sky is “this God-engraved tablet / I’ve gradually learned
to decipher.” The poet’s “reading” is simultaneously a rewriting;
as Vrettakos notes in “Remaking,” his task is “To create
a world without any part / missing” and “To pour water and
grass / from my words.” Yet the power of poetic creation remains
rooted in a submission to earth: thus, in “Seminar,” he
urges flowers to “teach me the light.”
What the poet inherits at the moment of his birth is the
whole world, but what begins with the fall into time is his
dispossession. Thus his remaking of the world is not only an
act of celebration but an attempt to stanch the “wound” of
time in his own being (“Ascent”). For Vrettakos this “wound” is
inexorably bound up with family ruin and the ghosts of the
past (“Family Gathering,” “Permanent Residents,” “The Olive
Picker”). At its center is the homestead that can never be
reclaimed; at its verge is the great mountain that is simultaneously
refuge and exile: thus, in “Chaos,” standing on the
silence of the peak, the poet hears nothing but his own heart
“like a clock ticking in an abandoned house.” It is in this
solitude that the world must be mended and made and where,
in the soul’s darkness, the burden of night must be pulled
through “a blind expanse” of snow “that nowhere connects
with the world” (“The Sledge”). Snow is again ths dominant
motif in “An Eagle,” where the quest for existential purchase
in the world culminates in an image of frozen effigy:
Poised like an eagle,
I stand above the world
—one claw in the snow,
the other in the clouds—
immovable, white.
My crested head a stone outcrop.
My eyes two blizzards.

Though the poet wills himself petrified, his foothold rests
on nothing securer than snow and cloud, and the rain of time
continues in the “blizzards” of his eyes.
Vrettakos’ primary encounter is with the given natural
world, endlessly rewoven in the psalm of his praise. Though
the beauty of this world can sometimes be terrible and though
man is forever challenged to find his home in it, it is for
Vrettakos the ever-replenished source of value. As its beauty
is reconstituted in the poet’s act of witness so too it appears
uniquely reflected in the eyes of the beloved, as in “The Green
Garden” where it makes a triad with the sea and the sky, or in
“Infusion,” where God’s “fathomless ineffable light” is received
“inexhaustibly” in the beloved’s glance. But the fellowship of
witness extends to the “neighbor’s” eyes as well! (“All I’ve
Said”), and by extension to the whole of humanity, whose
possible harmony-in-being is denoted by the idea of peace, like
much else in Vrettakos a deceptively simple concept that carries
much freight.
For Vrettakos, then, the full account of the world includes
its human history, the welter of the heart. Though his sympathies
are always with the oppressed, no one is finally innocent,
and if speech could penetrate the depths where “the
human core seethes,” the resultant explosion would “level /
every tree in the standing world” (“Chorale”). It is against
such inner violence and despair that love must assert itself,
and peace win the common respite. Looking back over his tormented
century, Vrettakos fears a new age of darkness. But
hope remains, the “ray of light” that “must (have stayed with
us from the precious morning / dreamt of by saints” (“The
This image, like many others in Vrettakos, bespeaks the
profoundly religious sensibility that informs his work as a
whole. It is a sensibility shorn of dogma or salvific expectation,
one that borrows freely from the Christian and pagan
elements of Greek tradition to articulate a sense of the sacredness
of being, the world of miracle. It is this sense that sustains
the final jubilation of his vision, the embrace of a mortality
that dissolves the travail of consciousness in final value.
Like Lucretius, whose pantheistic materialism finds echo in his
work, he sees himself as compact of primal forces and entities—
“light,” “sea,” “forest,” “moon”—that return to their natural
elements with his death (“Sunrise at Sounion”). Thus he can
say, despite the suffering that pervades his work, that all has
been praise, that the grief for the “trembling •tumulus” of an
earth that “heaves with its victims” is yet “a garland” (“Accomplished”),
and that “no happier being has ever lived” on
it than himself. Thus too he can embrace all of history and
human suffering as the “thrice-thousanded little son” of earth
(“Liturgy Under the Acropolis”), and beg ecstatic immolation
and Phoenix-like rebirth from the sun:
And I said: Sun, Lord,
has your servant pleased you?
If so, cut me a golden shroud
from your glory and dress my body
alive, for I will not die.
The Selected Poetry of Nikiforos Vrettakos

ROBERT ZALLER is Professor of History at Drexel University. His
translations of modern Greek poets have appeared in The American
Poetry Review, Boston University Journal, International Poetry
Review, Invisible City, The Palmetto Review, Spirit, Verse, and other
publications. His honors include a Guggenheim fellowship.
studies, but in 1991 the university belatedly conferred on him
a doctorate in letters. In 1934 he married Calliope Apostolidou,
by whom he had a son and a daughter.