Although Embeirikos’ poems were greeted with ridicule when they first appeared, they did not create as much of an uproar as the surrealist poems and paintings of Nikos Engonopoulos. Born in Athens in 1907, he was to remain faithful to the tenets of surrealism by expressing in his poetry and paintings as much a way of life as an aesthetic.
As Kimon Friar notes, whereas “surrealism in the early Embeirikos was almost clinical, liberating, didactic, in Engonopoulos’ two first books, Do Not Disturb the Driver (1938) and The Clavicembalos of Silence (1939), it was explosive, daring and revolutionary, outrageously yoking together the most disparate objects as in obedience to Lautreamont’s notorious ‘beautiful as the chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine with an umbrella’”. A girl’s hair is likened to cardboard, her mouth to civil war, her neck to red horses, her buttocks to fish glue, her knees to Agamemnon. Opposition to his poetry was intensified by the uncompromising and proud stance of the poet himself against all that had become sterile and stifling in Greek literature. To many, including established poets such as Palamas and Sikelianos, it seemed that Engonopoulos, Embeirikos and other surrealist poets (Nikolas Kalas and the early Elytis) were turning their back on the past and in particular the specifically Greek past. This of course was a misreading of their work but it is true that both Engonopoulos and Embeirikos went on to forge new (and as it turned out durable) links with some of the same constituent elements of the Greek tradition that are also prominent in more ‘orthodox’ writing of the time. One reason for the long-lasting effect of the Surrealist experiment in Greece – which contrasts with its more evanescent reign in France – can be explained by the fact that Engonopoulos and Embeirikos used the theoretical principles of Surrealism to draw upon and emphasize traits already present in the Greek literary tradition, especially in folk poetry and oral tradition.
This development is at its most striking in the long poem that Engonopoulos published in 1944, in the midst of the German Occupation, entitled ‘Bolivar’. Bolivar is not only the well-known South American hero and liberator, but also, as the work carries the subtitle A Greek Poem, all Greek great and lesser heroes of the Greek War of Independence and of the Resistance and, in the final analysis, is Engonopoulos himself, for the poet declares with pride in the poem that he is his son. Basic to this conception is the poet’s belief that the more national a poem the more international its scope. “Bolivar,” the poet exclaims with national pride and universal application, “you are as beautiful as a Greek!” As Roderick Beaton rightly notes, “by drawing on parallels between the South American revolutions of the 19th century and recent Greek history, topical allusions are displaced under a thin disguise”. Indeed apart from ecstatic invocations to its hero, the disguise is thin enough in this poem, which in the name of Bolivar rolls together an incantatory list of names and events in Greek history. The attempt in this long poem to unite the aspirations of a Latin American (turned Greek) hero-saviour with the broader quest of the Surrealists for freedom in a universal sense produced one of the major works in the history of Modern Greek poetry.
Engonopoulos, one should not forget, was not only one of the most significant poets of the generation of the 1930s, the generation that launched modernism in Greece, but also an accomplished painter, the foremost surrealist painter of Greece. He studied painting with Konstantinos Parthenis and engraving and woodcutting with Kefalinos and served for several years as apprentice to the painter of Byzantine murals, Fotis Kondoglou. All three artists exerted profound influence on his development both as a painter and a poet. His poetic oeuvre therefore, cannot be discussed without close reference to his work as a painter.
Also on this site
The poet reflects on his own work in painting and poetry.
Notes on ‘Bolivar’ by the translator, David Connolly
These notes are based on the explanatory notes provided by the poet.
In English and Greek
Contains a selection of his paintings, poems and an extended biography.