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Introduction to T. S. Eliot by George Seferis

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 16, Number 1, January 2009
pp. 146-160 | 10.1353/mod.0.0068

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Some years ago, the question of pure poetry began to be debated in our literary discussions. In 1926 or thereabouts, we wanted the poet to be spontaneous and uplifting. Now we sometimes want him to be "pure"—and sometimes we do not. Although I could never clearly understand the problem as it is set forth in Greece, it seems to me that we Greeks have a tendency to call pure poetry not works written prior to Karyotakis but those that came after his Elegies and Satires.1 Furthermore, it seems to me that we assess the quality of these poems not through comparison to other poems, but according to a defined theory of poetry. The danger of this procedure is that it can be misleading: a person may be under the erroneous impression that he is evaluating a poem when in fact he is denigrating or propounding an aesthetic dogma.

I would not have used the term "pure poetry" if it did not cover, according to the way we perceive it, the entire problem of European poetry during the past fifty or sixty years. And it is time to arrive at somewhat clear and verifiable conclusions about this poetry. I fear that, as time passes, it will be increasingly difficult to agree on questions regarding poetry, either of our own time or of any other time, if we do not understand the efforts, the difficulties, and the goals of poets who, no matter how different from each other, have remarkable similarities in their contributions to the total picture of the art as we see it. Whether or not we like that picture is an entirely different matter; and I am not inclined to believe that there does not exist any other path besides the one which these poets followed. On the contrary, for the true artist there is always some other path. But we must try to understand better exactly what it is we are talking about.

Of course, it would not be impossible to give a few broad definitions of contemporary poetry. But I fear lest the definition would irrevocably supplant the very thing it defines. This danger is very real in our country, where not only do we ignore, as a rule, the works which I am attempting to determine, but where it is also difficult for us (I mean, of course, a public that surpasses a hundred readers) to agree regarding the impressions we receive from those works we happen to know. Naturally, I do not expect that all of us agree in the acceptance or rejection of any specific thing that might come to our awareness. I mean only that there does not yet exist in Greece—not even regarding our own concerns—that somewhat deep-rooted, basic agreement without which each dissent degenerates into pointless turmoil. Of course, a tacit agreement on basic principles is implied in every discussion. Without it, we might have many parallel monologues—but we do not have a dialogue. For the moment, we are the nation of parallel monologues.

When I speak of contemporary poetry, I mean that stretch in the development of the poetic art which begins with Charles Baudelaire, reaches a first milestone with French symbolism, and continues up to our "postwar" era. Its underpinning is French. But if we wanted to muse for a little while on the role of intellectual crossbreeding in the life of nations, we could point out strange yet sufficiently illuminating—albeit hotly contested—foreign influences on Greek art. We encounter writers striving to express their unique individuality who feel stronger bonds with creators outside the province of their own language. These creators, in turn, help our writers to find within our own national tradition the most original and least exhausted fonts of inspiration. Remy de Gourmont writes, "Every time you observe a movement in a national literature, search outside the boundaries of that literature to find the force that animates it." Baudelaire, reading Poe, finds entire sentences expressed precisely as he himself had conceived them. Nonetheless, he is the first representative of the romantic movement to refer to the French tradition of the seventeenth century. The elements that molded the great generation...

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