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This review is taken from PN Review 182, Volume 34 Number 6, July - August 2008.

A HARD SELL ODYSSEUS ELYTIS, Selected Poems 1940-1979, translated by Edmund Keeley, George Savidis, Philip Sherrard, John Stathatos, Nanos Valaoritis
(Anvil) £8.95
ODYSSEUS ELYTIS, The Axion Esti, translated by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis
(Anvil) £8.95

Odysseus Elytis has always been a hard sell in English. In French his reputation since his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1979 has fared somewhat better, but then Elytis was always more closely tied in to the European avant-garde tradition rather than to the Anglo-American modernist tradition - the stomping grounds of his ally but never quite friend George Seferis. Where Seferis flew intellectually to Eliot, Elytis flew early on to the surrealists. While his later work moved away from the internationalist conspiracies of André Breton and friends, Elytis never quite got over the initial impetus that surrealism gave him, remarking as late as 1975 that his work was in fact based in surrealism, and that surrealism itself 'was the only school of poetry... which aimed at spiritual health and reacted against the rationalist currents which had filled most Western minds'. That remark is central to both Elytis's understanding of surrealism and its part in his poetics and it's an important point of divergence from the poetics of his major translator and critic, Edmund Keeley.

The critique of Keeley and Sherrard's work, of course, has been simple: the translations are very literal and often come off as cold in their high-mindedness. While this has worked for the prosaic Cavafy and the Eliot-influenced symbolism of Seferis, in Elytis's case the translations often appear uninspired and even awkward. Take these last three lines from 'Marina of the Rocks', one of Elytis's early poems, written when his work was ...


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