Poet of Macedonia
1903 - 1996
George Vafopoulos was born of Greek
parents at Gevgeli. His love of mathematics led him to enrol at the
Physics and Mathematics School, Athens University, but ill-health forced him to abandon
his studies and return to Thessaloniki. Later, he read philosophy and literature at the
Aristotelian University and he gradually made himself part of the CIty’s intellectual
and cultural life as a member and then leader of the City Council, and as founder and,
from 1938 to 1963, Director of the City Library.
Vafopoulos began to write in the
1920’s and went on to produce 12 books of poetry as well as plays and critical studies.
In 1924 he published C.P. Cavafy’s work in the journal ‘Macedonian Letters’. In the
thirties he was co-editor of ‘Macedonian Days’, the journal which became in effect the
manifesto of the ‘School of Salonica’ and thus largely responsible for the
introduction of literary modernism to Greece. He also published five volumes of
autobiography covering the years 1930 to 1964, an essential guide to literary life as it
flourished in that period.
Both he and his wife Anastasia, whom
he married in 1946, were generous benefactors of the arts and between them established the
well-regarded Vafopoulian Arts Centre in Thessaloniki.
During his lifetime, George
Vafopoulos was honoured by the Greek State and made a Commander of the Order of the
Phoenix. He was also the recipient of the Ourani Award of the Academy of Athens and, from
his beloved City of Thessaloniki, he received the Order of Honour.
by Eleni Yannakakis
It is a great honour for me to guide
our prominent Macedonian poet, George Vafopoulos, on this, his last journey to Britain,
particularly in a year devoted to the celebration and review of Greek-British relations.
We all know how much George Vafopoulos loved Britain, which he and his wife visited
several times and to which he devoted pages of enthusiastic descriptions in his Selides
Aftoviografias (Pages of Autobiography). In one such passage describing their visit in
1969, he says:
London is a deep breath. An intense
sense of freedom. An awareness of certainty. It is the city of cities. History and art
worked for several centuries to form her present style. Within this Babel of people and
things, within this recycling of non-stop ferment, the person, any person preserves the
consciousness of his/her own integrity. He/she is a personality not a faceless mass.
He/she moves according to his/her own will, he/she thinks and asks according to his/her
interior voice of consciousness. We experienced this freedom of self-desposition for
twenty whole days.
Vafopoulos began his writing career in the 1920s. He published his first collection of
poems, entitled Ta roda tis Myrtalis (The roses of Myrtali) in 1931 and he kept on working
almost until his death. In total he published 12 collections of poetry, a play, critical
essays and five volumes of autobiography. In spite of his voluminous prose work Vafopoulos
became well-known during his life and is now and will in the future be remembered
pre-eminently as a poet.
Because of his own turbulent
existence since childhood - the family’s uprooting from Gevgeli and their resettlement
in Greece - coupled with the serious health problems which repeatedly threatened his life,
as well as the personal tragedy of the early death of his first wife from tuberculosis,
Vafopoulos’ poetry is imbued by the theme of death. This pre-occupation first appeared
in his debut collection, Ta roda tis Myrtalis; it almost dominated the second, Prosfora
published in 1938, three years after the death of his wife, and in general it haunted his
poetry until the end of his career, coming to the foreground from time to time according
to the circumstances, as for instance in Epithanatia (Death poems) published in 1966.
Therefore, we are entitled to say that the idea of death constitutes the central theme of
this deeply existential poetry.
However, apart from his personal
sufferings and tragedies, G. Vafopoulos was an open-minded, sociable and very active
person, who read and travelled a lot and was very much interested in what was going on
around him and this is clearly reflected in his poetry. Apart from being an existential
poet (in the broader sense of the term), he is also a political poet - again in the
broader sense, that is, not strictly as an observer who records the everyday political
life of his country, viewing it always from a single perspective, but as someone who
occasionally comments upon and satirises the contemporary political and social life of his
own homeland but often that of other countries too.
Ta roda its Myrtalis includes poems
written between 1924 to 1930 athough aesthetically and thematically the collection belongs
more to the generation of the post-symbolist poets in Greece than to the Generation of the
Thirties proper, into which it falls chronologically. It is a set of poems where the
ideology and aesthetics of French Symbolism and particularly of Baudelaire are apparent,
though the influences of Moreas, Palamas and Cavafy are easily detectable, not to mention
Karyotakis, especially in the poem Dikeosi (Vindication).
The intertextual reference, on the
other hand, is overt in the poem Metathanatios Elenhos (Postmortem Inspection), not only
in the typical Baudelairean vocabulary, as for instance, "shivers",
"horror", etc., but indeed in its very theme and subtitle: "In the mode of
Apart from the theme of death, these
poems ara also about love, since in the years they were written, Vafopoulos was deeply in
love with his future wife, the poet Anthoula Stathopoulou. However, this relationship was
far from an easy and happy one, as we find out from his Pages of Autobiography, since
Stathopoulou was devastated by a family tragedy due to the killer of the time,
tuberculosis, from which she, as well as Vafopoulos, himself, suffered.
The majority of the Ta roda tis
Myrtalis poems are rather traditional in form. However, thereafter, Vafopoulos turns
decisively to free verse and generally to a modernist type of writing both thematically
and aesthetically. Throughout his poetic career Vafopoulos always referred back to the
collection Ta roda tis Myrtalis directly or indirectly, reworking the same themes and
In Prosfora, dedicated to the memory
of Anthoula, Vafopoulos tries to cope with the void left by the death of his wife, for in
the seven, mostly long, poems of this collection, death is again the central motif.
However, here, it is the death of the other person and not of the self and in this sense
it is more with the sense of loss as a consequence of death, that the poet/narrator tries
to come to terms, rather than death itself as an absolute idea. The title of one of these
poems, To perasma (The passage) suggests a procedure of return from a state of loss,
isolation and depression, back to the hope of life. Each of these poems handles one
symbol, by means of which the poet will try to approach the deceased person, understand
the meaning of her death and finally come to terms with the sense of loss this death has
As is obvious, the appearance of
Greek surrealism in Athens in the mid-Thirties, as well as the modernistic pre-occupation
of his friends and colleagues in Salonica, left their mark on Vafopoulos’ poetry. Though
he never practised surrealism, as he himself maintained, his poetry, in both the use of
language and form is now much different from that of the first collection. The use of free
verse combined with a style of language borrowed from the New Testament made Prosfora a
work equivalent to that of other prominent modernist poets in Greece.
With Anastasima (Of the
Resurrection) published ten years after Prosfora, it is apparent the poet has already
successfully crossed the narrow passage from death back to life. As the very title of the
collection indicates, it is about the resurrection of Vafopoulos himself and his
celebratory return to life. This time however his return is accompanied by a new partner,
his second wife Anastasia, to whom the collection was dedicated. (We suspect that her name
must have contributed significantly to the choice of the title).
Anastasima celebrates Vafopoulos’
return to life, which means a return to social life as well. He has by now ended his
isolation and has abandoned the "chilly interior space of his room" and the
"garden with the white roses" and has come back not only to everyday joys but
also to poetry after several years of silence. The resurrection was not easy; although
Anastasima is the antithesis of Prosfora thematically, the ghost of death does not seem to
abandon him or his poetry. It is always there to remind him of the delicate nature of his
present balance as well as the difficulties he faced in order to attain it. God is also
present in this process towards resurrection. It is the discovery of God in himself that
facilitated and brought about resurrection as we read in the poem Sy en emi (You within
The collection To Dapedo ke ala
piemata (The floor and other poems) includes verses written in the years 1949-51, exactly
at the end of a very difficult period of Modern Greek history, a period when the wounds of
the Greek Civil War are still open. Though in the majority of the poems there is no overt
reference to these distressing events, we should see the whole work as the immediate and
personal response of Vafopoulos to the socio-political situation of his time.
There are several key-words in this
collection, as for instance the words "mirror", "wall" and especially,
"exist", as has already been noticed by critics who attributed them to the
existential nature of the collection. However, the problem that seems to trouble
Vafopoulos in this book is more the delineation of the relationship with the Other -
whether this other is simply our next-door neighbour or our political enemy rather than
the illumination of the mystery of being in the world and the determination of the
conditions of existence itself.
The first and last poems of the book
are in my view the most important, since they seem to reveal, in more clear and even
referential terms, the ideological axis of the whole collection. The first poem, which
also lends its title to the collection, is about a game the poet - narrator is playing in
which he tries to step only on the white tiles of his floor, avoiding the black. Soon
however he becomes tired, dizzy and confused because of the effort, gradually realising
that this separation is not possible in life. The boundaries between people and ideologies
are rendered useless and futile. Life is not black and white, nor are ideologies. It is
rather black and white, so both colours should be accepted and treated as equals.
In a less allegorical and more
referential manner, the last poem talks eloquently about the current socio-political
situation in its search for the lost brothers. Entitled Elegia ton adelfon (The Elegy of
Brothers) this long poem conveys the prayers of the narrator-poet to God and his wish that
he may withstand the loss of his brothers who have gone away, either in death or in exile
- which does not become clear.
To Dapedo ke ala piemata seems to be
the work that finally marks Vafopoulos’ return to a social life and a more objective
perspective. Vafopoulos’ eyes are now turned towards the lives and troubles of other
people around him, in his own country and elsewhere, and less to his own psychology.
Such a long poetic life - a career
of almost half a century - cannot be adequately reviewed in the space availlable here. I
will therefore end with some observations on his great love for his home-city, Salonica.
Vafopoulos, as we have already said,
lived and wrote in Salonica. The supreme proof of his love for his home-city which
accommodated him from the age of thirteen and where he now rests, is the Vafopoulio Arts
Centre. As would be expected, Thessaloniki marks his poetry too, despite the fact that
Vafopoulos is not a poet of the open air - somebody who praises the beauty of the physical
environment - but a poet of the inner space of man’s psyche. Our two examples come from
both the beginning and the end of his career. The first comes from Ta roda tis Myrtalis,
entitled Thessaloniki! Thessaloniki!, with the subtitle ‘Monologos se stigmes polit
thliveres’ (Monologue at very sad moments). As its secondary title suggests, the poem
was written in very sad circumstances. This, however, does not prevent the poet from
talking about his city in purely lyrical terms. It starts as follows:
|When sometime, you have the view of
your last dawn,
and outside your door, with disappointment and horror,
you hear the noise of your illusions being crushed.
Try with love, with affection to encompass
the superb vision, the great vision of this city,
which you loved so much, which you adored with passion.
The spacious harbour full of boats,
which recklessly cross the Mediterranean currents,
and the quay, bustling with sailors,
let them hover in your thoughts-like a fleeting image
The last poem,. Epi
ton potamon tis Vavilonos (On the rivers of Babylon) comes from his final collection with
the general and symbolic title To Telos (The End) published in 1985. This poem is very
significant for us today in several ways, firstly because it opens up a dialogue with the
poet’s previous references to Salonica, secondly, because the poem was written in
England and thirdly, because the poet-narrator charges the river Thames with the task of
exacting punishment in case he should not keep the promise he proclaims in the poem’s
last verse. The poet-narrator relates his feelings when he sees the earthquake-stricken
body of his beloved Salonica from above, as the aircraft that carries him from Budapest to
Athens passes over the city.
My heartbeat stops.
My eyes close.
My mind is filled with the pain of nostos.
And when my eyelids rise by the glance,
at the reflection of the scared moon,
motionless the body of the city appears,
with its wounds from the earthquake, without
a light to promise some hope.
Is then, Salonica dead?
Has the great grave closed without my body,
preserving inside it only, from my memory
of my far away youth, a jug full of tears,
and thick blood of unhealed wounds?
Adored City? But was not it me in the past,
who had called you hated city,
when, in waves of fear and despair
trapped, I was hurt in your narrow streets?
How did it come about, in my disturbed
conciousness of my twenty years,
that I accepted the great lesson of simple wisdom
that from the pain of youth, imprudence is born?
Now regret, remorse and forgiveness,
weave a hard garland on my white hair.
To the river Thames I entrust my message:
If I should forget you, Salonica.
may my ancestors’ wrath fall on me,
may my tongue be silent, if I don’t remember you.
England, September 1978
I am more than
certain that the great river Thames, which our prominent Salonican poet seems to be
visiting again today for the last time, has seen no cause for retribution. George
Vafopoulos loved Salonica to his very last breath.