Kostas Karyotakis: His poetry was not depressing; reality was
Updated: Jul 12, 2022
Having studied English Language and Literature, I had the opportunity to engage in literary translation, a great challenge, as all translation usually is, but with poetry it seems even harder, because in poetry meaning lies mainly between the lines. Fortunately, as I often quote in my upcoming novel, Winter Pale, you don't have to understand the meaning of poetry; you just have to feel it.
And so, when I read poetry, I always go with an open heart, see what the words, the rhythm, the imagery will stir inside me.
Very much like in my WW2 novel, Winter Pale, the grimmest descriptions of war aim at generating a strong anti-war sentiment. One of the most successful anti-war poems I've ever read is Michalios by Kostas Karyotakis, a Greek poet of the early 20th century who has gone down in history for the melancholy in his poems, the
pessimism of his viewpoint in life. But Kostas Karyotakis's poetry was not depressing; he wrote it as he saw it, and it was surely not pretty.
Following is a translation I did long ago, prompted by my studies in literary translation in the course of my bachelor in English literature. This poem always touches me so deeply. I hope you'll enjoy it, too.
Michalios was called to join the army.
Proudly and nicely he set off
Together with Maris and Panagiotis.
He couldn't even learn a simple drill
And all he did was mutter: "Corporal, Sir,
Please, let me go back to my village!"
The next year, in hospital,
Speechless, he'd stare into the sky.
His eye was fixed upon one spot
His gaze wistful and meek
As if it pleaded, as though it implored:
"Please, I want to go back home!"
And Michalios died as a soldier.
Some of his comrades came to his farewell
Along with Maris and Panagiotis.
They laid him in the pit, they covered him with dirt
But something was left out-it was his foot:
He was a bit too long, poor fellow.
(From the collection Elegy and Satires, 1927)
Greek version was retrieved from K. G. Karyotakis The Poems (1913-1928), Editor: G. P. Savvidis, Nefeli, Athens, 1992.
Kostas Karyotakis committed suicide on 21 July 1928 at the age of 31, unable to bear the repulsive mediocrity and futility of life.