George Vafopoulos

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.

 

 

George Vafopoulos

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 Baudelaire".

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 ideas.

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 imposed.

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 me).

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.

Eleni Yannakakis
May 1998

 

 

Dr Eleni Yannakakis
Born in Greece, Eleni Yannakakis holds degrees from the University of Athens (BA) and of London (MA, PhD). She has taught Modern Greek Literature in the Universities of London (King’s College), Rethymnon (Crete), and Oxford. She has published widely both in Greek and English on topics of 20th century Modern Greek Literature, including the literature of Macedonia. She was co-editor (with Prof. Mackridge) of "Ourselves and Others"; "the Development of a Greek Macedonian Cultural Identity since 1912", published in 1997 by Berg, Oxford.

London 1998

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