Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The poetry is not in the pity, it's in the city by Andriette Stathi-Schoorel

Andriette Stathi-Schoorel and Liana Sakelliou-Schultz


The ‘Myth of the City of Athens, as seen by some Greek poets (1932 – 1990)

I have chosen Athens as the pivot of my ‘Myth of the City’ as I have lived here longest: it has become my city. Though I am Dutch I could not tell you anything about a city in the Netherlands through there should be plenty of poetic material about Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and Louis Couperus has written great novels about The Hague. I personally think that metropolis, and in general big cities, engender more exciting mythical material by their very complexity than for example villages, but this may be open to discussion. In Greece Thessalonica and Athens can boast of many myths and poetry woven around them, but then of course there are smaller mythical towns as well, I am thinking, for example, of Ioannina, Our small town wonderfully described by Dimitris Chadtzis.

I would like to start my poetic exploration of Athens in 1933, with a poem by Nikitas Randos or Nikos Kalas as he also called himself, a Greek pioneer of Surrealism, a friend of Andre Breton, a very original thinker. One of his best remarks is: Art is a powerhouse, just look at the Parthenon!


Symphony in round, Omonia Square

Nikitas Randos

Round, round he’s turning

Scarlingly on the roundabout

Round, round they’re turning

Scaringly on the roundabout.

Thousands of kinds of people

Machines in different shapes

Slowly, slowly they’re turning round

The lame, the blind and the aged,

The cart with the half-dead mule

The yellow tram, keepsake of a Belgium firm

Slowly, slowly, she’s turning round

The streetwalking whore

And the eighteen-years old gay

And behind the boy

The discharged lieutenant

Here in two victorious wars

And one-time gorilla in Smyrna

Slowly, slowly it’s turning round

The child that would rather play the truant

And the unemployed who’s waiting for a job from somewhere

And the recorder on the gramophone

Slowly plays an old tango


(Translated by A. Stathi-Schoorel)


Kalas/ Randos gives here a picture of the Omonia square in 1993, a time that Athens is changing fast from a provincial town into a city of nearly half a million inhabitants, aided by the influx of refugee’s from Asia Minor, after the Asia Minor catastrophe. It is not a Surrealist poem, but it handles quite a new concept in the Greek poetry of those years. Randos wants to point out the excitement and intensity of a big city. So far Greek poets had either sung about their beautiful nature or had produced, as the Late Symbolists had done, a corpus of poems about being closed in one’s room, without being able to get out.

A few years later, in 1936, Yorgos Seferis gets annoyed with people who seem to have lost their roots in the big city. At the same time he is probably getting angry with himself as well, because he knows he is also one of the crowd, wandering aimlessly about, or waiting for ships in Piraeus that don’t move, for the captain stands like a stone in white and gold.


What do they want, all those who believe

They’re in Athens or Piraeus?

Someone comes from Salamis and asks someone else whether

He comes “from Omonia square?”

“No, from Syntagma,” replies the other, pleased;

“I met Yianni and he treated me to an ice cream.”

In the meantime Greece is travelling, we don’t know, we’re all

Sailors out of work,

We don’t know how bitter the port becomes when all the ships have gone;

We mock those who know.


(translated by Keeley / Sherrard)


We’re moving in time, Athens is changing and Greece is travelling, as Seferis says. Another poet, a Surrealist, Nikos Engonopoulos gives us a glimpse of Athens on a rainy day, in 1938. He talks about trams and fields in Athens; these are all gone of course, like the beautiful nature of Attica, only the Acropolis remains and Engonopoulos’ little poem.


Tram and Acropolis

Le soleil me brule et me rend lumineux


In the monotonous rain

In the mud

In the ashen grey atmosphere

The trams pass by

And crosswise over the deserted marketplace

- deadened by the rain –

They go to




My thoughts

Full of emotion

Follow them tenderly until

They arrive

There where the fields begin

Where the rain drowns

The termini

What dreariness it would be – my god –

What dreariness

If my heart wasn’t consoled

By the hope of the marbles

And the expectation of a radiant ray

That would give new life

To the splendid ruins


Identical with

A red flower

Amidst green leaves



(translated by A. Stathi-Schoorel)


This poem is not very Surrealist either, though I can assure you that Engenopoulos has written some very Dadaist poems and has suffered from the mockery and spiteful feelings of his fellow citizens as few other Surrealist poets and painters for his art. I chose this poem because it is one of the few poems the Greek Surrealists wrote about Athens and the city in general and also because it evokes such a melancholic atmosphere, typical of those dreary years before the war, while Greece was sighing under one of her many dictatorships, the one of Metaxas.

It is curious that the Greek Surrealists wrote so few poems about cities. One reason could be that urban poetry, poetry about the city, was associated with the poetry of the previous generation of the Late-Symbolists, a mainly melancholy, grey and uninspired kind of poetry they wanted by all means to avoid imitating. Elytis used to call those Late-Symbolist poems “moirologoi” (lamentations of the dead). This aversion to city poetry stands in contradiction to the French Surrealists who’s very poetical ‘topos’, ‘le lieu poetique’, was the city. Think of Louis Aragon’s “Le paysan de Paris” and Breton's “Nadia” and so many poems that deal with the city. Urban poetry is of course much more French or English or German tradition than a Greek one, as there simply were no really big cities in Greece till the middle of this century. For the Greek Surrealists, nature was their lieu poetique, as to the French the city provided the authentic, tense Surrealist atmosphere where they lived their most essential experiences and where life was a fascinating adventure, full of curious discoveries and mysterious encounters.

During the war people had probably no time or the desire to write poems about their city. About the black years that followed after the war and the civil war there exists a sombre poem by Manolis Anagnostakis, from 1955: “I speak of the last trumpet calls”. He doesn’t speak here of a particular city but I suspect that Athens and Thessalonica have contributed some of their nasty aspects during and after the war to the composition of that poem.


I speak of the last trumpet calls of the defeated armies

Of the last rags from our holiday garments

Of our children who sell cigarettes to passers-by.

I speak of flowers those whither on graves, rotted by rain

Of houses that gape windowless like toothless skulls

Of girls who go begging, exposing the wounds on their breasts

Of flaming cities, of corpses piles high in the streets

Of pimping poets who tremble at night on doorsills

I speak of endless nights when the light lessens at dawn

Of loaded trucks and the pacing on wet pavements

Of prison yards, of the tears of the dying



(translated by Kimon Friar)


Then, in the late sixties and early seventies poets start to see the figure of Death in the city of Athens. The first who spotted him was Tasos Genegris in his poem “Death in Kaningos Square” (1966), a busy place which lies somewhere in the centre near Omonia. Death is frequently dressed up like a vendor of lottery tickets, or a doorkeeper, an insignificant figure, but he is there and the alert poet watches him and describes his macabre movements.


In such moments of absurd and unworldly joy

You may distinguish Death from the others

Who pass unsuspectingly down to Kaningos Square

Death is beside them and with them

Disguised as a lottery vendor

He looks insignificant in a beige suit

With the emblem of a wounded veteran on his label

As soon as he realizes

That someone perhaps suspects him

He disguises himself as a doorkeeper.



(translated by Kimon Friar)


Also Miltos Sahtouris, a Neo-Surrealist as he is called, sees Death prowling around his house in Kypseli, an Athenian neighbourhood, dressed as a lottery vendor or a seller of buns:


The Green Afternoon

On that green afternoon

Death had set my front yard as his target

From my dead window

With my velvet eye

I watched him prowling

He wandered about pretending to be a seller of buns

He wandered about pretending to be a lottery vendor

And the children suspected nothing

They played with pistols and shrieked

And he would wander about again and approach

Then retreat again and go away

Afterwards he would come back

Finally he fell into a rage

And began to howl

He painted his eyes and his nails

Swelled out his dugs

Began to speak in a falsetto voice

Acted like a woman…

It was then he went away for good



- I’ve had no luck today

Tomorrow I’ll be back.



Katerina Angelaki-Rooke, as a child, liked to look at the window of the undertaker’s in her street, Messolonghi Street, every day she came home from school and she makes the place a symbol to express the desperate boredom that engulfs her sometimes: death has a strange and morbid attraction. This poem is of a later date.


Messolonghi Street

I lived and went to school

In October the children buzzed like blue and white insects,

Burst out into tears and their snot gleamed in the light.

The letters looked lonely in the beginning

Thin, white, they sat on the blackboard

One by one in freedom until the word trapped them.

I admired them and got bored with them at the same time,

I preferred to look out of the window

To the sky where the gyrations of birds made different phrases.

In the street afterwards from school homewards

I noted the differences from yesterday, at the shoemaker’s

At the flowershop’s, at the haberdasher’s with the copper designs

Angels with round armlets, behind the dusty window-pane.

I always used to stop outside the Undertaker’s

At the leaf of the door a cage with a canary

And Socrates macabre tidy, dusting the coffins

Or resting a bit on the doorstep: two chairs, one for his feet,

Two wrinkles in his neck, the one deeper,

And Yorgos covered in lime coming over for coffee

From the yard next door.

Often, glittering purple cloth filled up the tiny hall

Socrates very occupied and a lady crying.

Then my heart became heavier even

Than my schoolbag, I ran towards the kiosk

To get the “Treasure for children”, to forget all that black.

My home, like a human being, was waiting for me at the corner,

As if waving its hand

And I sometimes felt a sweetness in my stomach because of that security

And sometimes sat down on the staircase for hours

Fed up with repletion, profoundly hating my life

I’ll leave, I said, I’ll be a person unknown,

I’ll start all over again under a different name.




(translated by A. Stathi-Schoorel)


Poets will talk mostly about their own neighbourhood, it has become impossible to enclose the whole city in one poem. Exarhia is another exciting neighbourhood of Athens where much is going on, such as drug-selling, theatre, lots of music, cinema’s, it’s quite fashionable with young people nowadays. But Death is strolling in Exarhia too, Nasos Vayenas describes him sitting at a café table, playing cards and winning.


Death in Exarhia

They told me you had died but I find you again

At the coffee house playing backgammon with the living

Moreover you win, are even wearing a tie

You who have never worn a tie in your life

Who have never sauntered to the town square

Who always shut yourself in your house

And gaze silently at the neighbours and the pedestrians.


They told you had died, whom shall I believe

You vanished suddenly without speaking a single word

Without leaving a single note

Your window shutters closed, your doorbell out of order

Your dog embittered and the lights turned off.


Do you exist or not, whom shall I believe

Howe very much your voice has changed

The others do not speak, they watch you as you play

They watch you smiling as you cast the dice

And you always win, you always win.


But you never used to win, you were always the loser.


(translated by Kimon Friar)


This is a stark poem, one of the best on this subject but now the question is of course why these poets during these years and maybe still now, are seeing Death walking in the streets of their neighbourhood and sitting at a table in their café. Vayenas told me once that he considered Death to be one of the most important and constant elements in life, good and ready to hand material as far as poetry is concerned; one can’t  avoid to write about Death. The poet sees him sitting there in Exarhia Square and wants to give him a shape. “I am a realist and try to describe what I see. Seferis saw the same thing in the Greek landscape, the divine black light, behind the blinding white of Greek light lies blackness, the reverse”. How did Death seep into the city though and slip into poetry these years? Of course there was the Junta, but the poetic / human reason must lie much deeper, within the people themselves. Has life in cities become more inhospitable, have people and cars become more aggressive, do poets and other sensitive people feel threatened and is that why it has become a poetic fashion to see Death in one’s neighbourhood?

I want now to introduce another poem.

In the Philhellenes-street by Andreas Embirikos, a great Greek Surrealist poet who among other things tried to lift Greek poetry out its sometimes too narrow bounds of ‘Greekness’. Embirikos’ poem is about a street in Athens, near Syntagma square, but it could be any street, the name is of course symbolic. It’s a day in July, it’s terribly hot, the asphalt is melting under his feet. Embirikos also notices Death in the very substantial shape of a funeral procession passing by. Everybody is touched, stunned and sorrowful because of the funeral and the real and near presence of death; passers-by look each other in the eye to guess each’s feelings about the event. But then, Embirikos exclaims, life takes over, men and boys in the passing bus squeeze themselves against the robust schoolgirls and young women “with throbbing round breast and profit fully of the jostling in the packed-up bus to have erotic contacts”, “these opportune and ecstatic contacts, touches, squeezes and frictions”. All this in “the very heart of Athens, in the very heart of summer.


Andreas Embirikos: In the Philhellenes' Street (to Conrad Russell)

One day I went down to the Philhellenes’ street, the asphalt was softening

under my feet and in the trees around the square cicades could be heard,

in the very heart of Athens, in the very heart of summer.

In spite of the high temperature, the traffic was lively. Suddenly a procession

passed. Behind it five or six cars followed with people clothed in black and

as gusts of smothered lamentations reached my ears, traffic stopped for a

moment. Then, some of us (unknown to each other amid the crowd) looked

each other with anxiety into the eye, the one wanting to guess the thoughts

of the other. Afterwards, all of a sudden, like a charge of thick waves, traffic

continued. It was July. In the street the buses passed through, in the middle of

sweating crowd – all sorts of men, slender kouroi and heavy males,

moustached, fat housewives or thin boned ones, and many young women and

schoolgirls, whose tight thighs and throbbing breast, many of those jostled

altogether, tried hard, as is natural (all of them open mouths and eyes

dreaming, to perform the, in similar places, usual contacts, these so

momentous and ritual contacts, all pretending that they happened accidentally

because of the jostling, with the spherical charms of the receiving schoolgirls

and young women, these opportune and ecstatic contacts – touches, squeezes

and frictions.

Yes, it was July and not only the Philhellenes’ street, but also Dapia at

Messolonghi and Marathon and the Phalloi at Delos vibrated throbbing in the

light, as in Mexico’s arid expanses the cacti of the desert were throbbing, in

the mysterious silence that surrounds the pyramids of the Aztecs.

The thermometer was continually rising. This was not warmth, but heart –

the heat that the vertical burning of the sun produces. And nevertheless, in

spite of the heat wave and the quick breathing of panting people, in spite of

the funeral having passed by a little while ago, no passer-by felt heavy-

hearted, not me either, even though the street was aflame. Something like

a tettix, a cicade, in my soul made me go on, with a light lively step. All

things around me were clear, tangible and still visible, and yet,

simultaneously, were nearly rendered incorporeal in the heat, all things –

people and buildings – so much you’d say that even the sorrow of those

mourning nearly utterly evaporated in the same light.

Then I, my heart heavily panting, stopped for one moment, immobile in the

crowd, like a man who is conceiving an instantaneous revelation, or as a

someone who sees a miracle happening of front of him, and I cried out,

bathing in sweat: “Oh God! This heat is necessary in order that such light

may exist! The light is necessary in order that such light may come into

being, a glory for all people, the glory of the Greeks who first, I believe,

in this world down here, made oestrum of life out of the fear of death.”




(translated by A. Stathi-Schoorel)


This is Embirikos’ way of presenting life in the city, the optimist approach, the Life Force, that knows Death is there always, but reacts in the only manner we ought to react because we have no other choice.


Walking in Neapolis Neighbourhood

From Solonos street, I dive into Mavromihalis Street. On my right the coffee

House where men play cards and backgammon all day, absorbed in their

game, their salaries becoming smoke.

A little further the Andromeda bookshop.

The best in the Balkan, you can dig there

As in the layers of an ancient town in Phrygia

Byzantium, late Antiquity, Hellenism, Hittite and Roman Empires

And still deeper buried cultures with names and heroes long


My friends the Greenpeace – people, the Birdwatchers, the New Ecologists

Modern priests, divided in sects as ever, live around here

They take care of my world so it will not go to its doom too soon:

Into Thy hands I recommend my world.

Then towards my goal, Paulus’ shop of musical instruments

Flutes, kanonaki’s, santuri’s, lutes hanging on the wall

Slender young men with faces like Byzantine angels, hair in a bun,

Fly in, sit at the marble table, pluck the strings, cigarette

dangling from their lips.



Athens of mine, all these treasures within a few square miles!



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