Monday, November 1, 2021

Epitaphios: A Poem, a Song, a Dirge (Writing for the local community)



The story of the poem “Epitaphios” starts with a newspaper photograph depicting a mother lamenting over the body of her dead son, killed during a peaceful protest by tobacco workers, in May 1936, in Thessaloniki. The victim was one among a total of twelve dead workers in a strike “drowned in blood by the dictatorial government” at the time.

When poet Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) saw this dramatic image, moved he rendered it in poetry. Initially entitled “The Dirge” (Miroloi), it was published the same year in a leftist newspaper. It was later expanded to 324 lines and renamed “Epitaphios.” 

This is the opening two couplets: 

My son, flesh of my flesh, dear heart of my heart, / little bird in the poor courtyard, blossom in my desert, How is it that your eyes are closed and you do not see me cry, / and you do not stir or hear my bitter words? 

The final form of the poem consists of twenty stanzas of eight rhymed couplets (with some exceptions). The fifteen-syllable meter and the rhyming are unfortunately sacrificed in its rendering into English. Bilingual readers will readily recognize the loss in the translation: 

Στη στράτα εδώ καταμεσίς τ’ άσπρα μαλλιά μου λύνω / και σου σκεπάζω της μορφής το μαραμένο κρίνο. 

Here in the middle of the street I let down my white hair / and cover the wilted lily of your form. 

The poem has an interesting music life. Musician Mikis Theodorakis (1925-2021) composed eight songs based on selective verses in 1958, and soon later Manos Hadjidakis (1925-1994), another prominent composer, arranged the same music for recital-hall performance. 

“Epitaphios” is a lamentation, a public expression of intense grief, which is put into music and sung, something which is not unusual in Greek religious and social life. An ancient tradition, lamentations express heightened grief, not only about the loss of human life but also social and political crises. There are folk lamentation-songs, for example, about the fall of Constantinople. Early in the 20th century, the experience of emigration––xenitia––generated folk songs about a family member venturing into an uncertain, dangerous future. There is also a rich tradition––now vanishing––of dramatic performances of ritual laments in rural Greece, particularly the regions of Mani, Epirus, and Crete. Laments are about shared grief and collective participation in its experience. 

Significantly, “Epitaphios” draws from both the religious and folk traditions of lamentations. It draws recurrent motifs and images such as lavish praise for the deceased and incredulity in the case of untimely death. These motifs heighten the emotional involvement of the participants. Greek Orthodox readers will recognize the connection between the title of the poem–– “Epitaphios”––and the ecclesiastical tradition, as it obviously evokes the lament “Epitaphios Thrinos,” the dirge of the Virgin Mary and the mourning women at the tomb of the crucified Christ. The poem draws from several images and themes in Mary’s lamentations. They share, for example, the theme of unjust death. Christ is crucified “as a criminal among criminals” (stasis 1.8), and is “unjustly condemned” (1.56), just as the dead laborer is killed unjustly “for demanding adequate wages for his work”: My son, what wrong did you commit? From unjust men / you sought payment for your own labors. Or, if “with his physical beauty Christ beautifies the natural world” (stasis 1.9), the son’s beauty is lavished by the grief-stricken mother: Eyebrow, smooth as braided silk and drawn with a fine pen, / an arch where my glance would perch and rest 

The poem also builds on folk imagery, such as the metaphor of bird (“pouli”), a term of endearment with which mothers frequently address their male children: “The dead boy is a frail bird who has flown from the cage”; “his hands are folded like the wings of a sick bird.” In the example of “Epitaphios” modern poetry interfaces with ecclesiastical and folk traditions. Secular lamentations may be disappearing in Greece, but they acquire a new “life” in poetry and musical compositions. But this does not happen without controversy. 

“Epitaphios” has been stigmatized “as dangerous and blasphemous,” and was included in a public book-burning event by the dictatorship of John Metaxas (1936-1940). For the Greek left, in contrast, it is a “slogan song.” It was performed, for example, outside a Salonica hospital in 1963 to mournfully protest the assassination of parliamentary deputy and pacifist Grigoris Lambrakis. Poetry and politics are often interwoven in Greece, and “Epitaphios” is not an exception. 

Yiorgos Anagnostou 

Credits for the translation and analysis: Rick M. Newton

Sunday, June 27, 2021

From the Point of View of College Students: What is a subject worth the attention of Greek American studies? [Food, connections with cultural identity, Greek Orthodoxy, and Greece]


"When thinking about important topics to study under the realm of Greek America, one that is significant to me is the study of the Greek food in America, particularly how it is a way for Americanized and later generations of Greek Americans to retain aspects of their culture as well as their religion. As a 3rd generation Greek American, food is the most common way I connect with the culture of my mother and grandparents. My yiayia makes delicious dishes, heavily influenced by the food she ate growing up and the food made by other Greek Americans she is friends with. She attempts to pass on her recipes to her children and grandchildren, but this is sometimes difficult because “a cup of flour” to her is flour filled to the brim of her favorite mug. Nevertheless, eating and enjoying these dishes brings us together and makes us feel Greek without being in Greece. This topic is an important one to study because, just like it is for me, for many it is a way to connect with the culture of their ancestors in a country across the ocean. It would be interesting to study how food connects later-generation Greek Americans to their heritage.

The topic is also relevant because Greek food is heavily influenced by the Orthodox religion that is common in Greece. There are many fasting and feasting days in the liturgical calendar that require certain foods be eaten. For example, many Orthodox Christians avoid eating most meat and animal products during the forty days leading up to Easter. This means there are many meals and cookies that are made specifically during this period of time. Then, on Easter, a popular meal is roast lamb, supposedly representing Jesus as “the lamb of God.” Greek recipes like this not only tie Greek Americans to Greece but also tie them to the Orthodox religion. To study the connection Greek food has to religion in America, I would ask if later generation Greek Americans still hold these connections; do they know that recipes like lentil soup are often made during the Lenten season? Do they feel a connection to the Orthodox Church through these meals?

Lastly, a question I would ask you in particular is what are the best ways that later generation Greek Americans can keep aspects of their Greek culture? Since I am half Greek and a second-generation American, how can my future children stay connected to this culture that will only be a sliver of their heritage?"


[My note: Given the centrality of Greek food in Greek American family, social and public life, it is astonishing––isn't it––that there is no systematic scholarship on food cultures in Greek America]




Saturday, June 26, 2021

From the Point of View of College Students: What is a subject worth the attention of Greek American studies (Redefining Greek American identity among the youth, intergenerational cultural distance)


Something that fascinated me is how the younger Greek Americans are redefining their identity nowadays. I think the older generations are noticing a change or general trend of perhaps different priorities or emphasis on other aspects of Greek culture than what they would like. I have been noticing in the Greek community, in St. Louis (my hometown), that the older generations are expecting a lot more from the younger generation Greek Americans as far as the language and religion aspect of being Greek. However, I don’t think the youth has fully embraced their Greek heritage as their grandparents or older generations would want. I think this tension can cause distance between these generations which I have seen with my peers personally. Thus, it would be important to explore how young Greek Americans are defining being a Greek American in today’s society. I personally think this may help the two points of view understand each other better and may show which direction Greek Americans are headed as far as preserving Hellenism in the future. Some specific questions would be what do the youth want to take away from their Greek American community socially and religiously? How do they plan to (if they want to) maintain their Greek background? I also wonder how Greek Americans connect with other Greek Americans whether this is through the Greek community or in school/college. It would also be interesting to find out what specific Greek traditions they will continue if they had any growing up in their household. I feel like as if right now there may not be a general consensus for these questions, but it's still worth it to explore.

2) Ask these scholars a question of your own choice. Please be creative and insightful, devote some time thinking seriously the questions you will be asking.

My grandparents, parents, and other members of my Parish in St. Louis fear that there will be a loss of Greek culture, at least the aspects that were highlighted by Greek immigrants that came to the United States. I personally can see their point as younger generations are redefining what it means to be a Greek American. I know that there are multiple factors as to why this can happen. I was wondering if scholars believe that a loss of some aspects of Greek culture (if not all) is inevitable based on what we know today. I know it can be challenging to predict this, but it would be interesting if there was any research or statistics that supported one way or another. Going off that question, I am curious to know if scholars believe there is a way to potentially change that outcome, if the data supports that the loss of Greek culture and traditions is inevitable.



Wednesday, June 23, 2021

From the Point of View of College Students: What is a subject worth the attention of Greek American studies? (Immigrants, Greek Americans, and Historical Homeland Politics)


"An important topic I would like the academics to research is Greek Americans’ involvement and stand in politics and other important matters back at home in Greece. This topic is important to me because I have seen other groups of immigrants who although probably lived here so many years still keep updates on what goes on back in their homeland. Some even have protests and other supportive activities here in America to support and raise awareness about what goes on in their country such as Palestine. Every year there are protests that happenings in many different states to show how what happens in Palestine is very unjust and how they need help. Also, these types of activities bring together people of all kinds, not only different generations of immigrants but also people from other parts of the world, because at the end of the day everyone is fighting for human rights. So if the academics did a research on this topic, I would like to see if Greeks also do the same things as other American immigrants I’ve seen do. Some of the questions they should be asking in their research topic is what generation of immigrants are the participants, do they do a daily update on what goes on in Greece, how involved are they, do they send money back home to relatives that still live there, and to other people who might be in need. Does their stand on politics in Greece effect their stand on politics in America?

Questions for scholars: What made you become interested in research? How often do you participate in new research? Do you ever feel like this isn’t what you want to do anymore? Does information you find in your studies often change your perspective in life and the way you live? What is one of your most interesting research topics, and what made you decided to pursuit that research?"



Monday, June 21, 2021

College Students: What is a subject worth the attention of Greek American studies? (Psychology of Immigration)


One of the homework assignments in my Greek American class this semester (Spring 2021) was asking students the following: 

1) What is an important topic of personal significance to you that you would like scholars of Greek America to explore? Why is this topic important (to you, or the country, or Greek America)? What questions should they be asking in their research of this topic? 

 2) Ask these scholars a question of your own choice. Please be creative and insightful, devote some time thinking seriously the questions you will be asking. 

A topic I feel is an important one for research is the emotional toll immigrating to America as a Greek person can have on the mental health of Greek Americans. This topic is important to me because psychology is something I am very interested in, but the state of a person’s mental health also affects their daily life. There is a number of hardships associated with moving to a new country, especially when leaving behind family members is involved, and these hardships can easily take a toll on anyone's mental health. Some questions I feel would be of importance in this area are understanding what sorts of difficulties in the process of immigration have been most upsetting or stressful. Also, how these struggles may be impacting people's day to day lives, and if there is an outreach for help. The personal problems of singular Greek Americans are not talked about as much as the widespread issues, and I feel there should be more attention put towards the mental health of individual citizens. Individual questions could be about issues of current life in America, and how often they think about their problems with adjusting and how much of a stressor these worries are causing. 

One question I have regarding Greek America is how much of the Greek culture remains in Greek American families through second, third, fourth, etc. generations of Greek Americans. How much of the culture remains as families get farther away from the original immigration? We have learned in class that many families have become less and less traditional as time goes on and children are often much less traditional than their Greek parents. Along with this I would like to know how they perceive this straying away from tradition will affect Greek American culture in the United States. Will Greek culture remain a large part of American society, or as Greek Americans become more Americanized will this start to change?

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Covid-19 and Poetry: C.P. Cavafy’s “Things Ended”

Early this January, mentally and physically exhausted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I turned to poetry for solace. This included the work of Constantinos Cavafy (1863-1933), the world-renowned poet of the Greek diaspora (he spent most of his life in Alexandria, Egypt). His poetry beckons me regularly.

What I was hoping to tap into this time was Cavafy’s didacticism; his tendency to offer lessons for life. I knew “Ithaca,” one of his most famous didactic poems, by heart. Was there a lesson somewhere in his oeuvre, no matter how oblique, for living amid a pandemic? I was curious.

It was early in his book of collected poems that I froze. Here it was, “Things Ended” (Τελειωμένα), or in another translation “Finished,” staring at me. Written in 1911, it directly spoke about our condition a century later. I kept reading, and rereading. I was transfixed. 

Engulfed by fear and suspicion, 
mind agitated, eyes alarmed, 
we try desperately to invent ways out, 
plan how to avoid 
the obvious danger that threatens us so terribly. 
Yet we’re mistaken, that’s not the danger ahead: 
the news was wrong 
(or we didn’t hear it, or didn’t get it right). 
Another disaster, one we never imagined, 
suddenly, violently, descends upon us, 
and finding us unprepared—
there’s no time now—
sweeps us away.

Read from the perspective of our experience under Covid-19, “Things Ended” feels dramatically prescient.

Cavafy’s unadorned, prose-like verse communicates this message clearly: it is impossible to accurately predict the danger that will haunt humanity next. We agonize over an anticipated crisis, but this is in vain; the real danger lies elsewhere. “Another disaster, one we never imagined, / suddenly, violently, descends upon us,” the poem warns us in no uncertain terms.

The poem makes this situation applicable to all humanity. The repeated use of the plural pronouns “us” and “we” makes the reader part of a shared predicament. We try to prepare ourselves for what we think threatens us, only to discover how mistaken we are in predicting the disaster that will be descending upon us. “The news was wrong /(or we didn’t hear it, or didn’t get it right). Another disaster, one we never imagined…” The conclusion is sober, we are all in it, there is no place to escape.

It is part of being human to worry over impending disasters. The first two stanzas communicate this state of being dramatically: The short lines are packed with words conveying deep distress––fear and suspicion, agitation and alarm.

This fright is exhausting and requires vast psychic resources, taking a huge mental and physical toll on us.

What are we to make of the main message in the poem? Are we condemned to perpetually miscalculate the nature of a future catastrophe? Are we to live fatalistically or under constant, conscious panic that a destruction impossible to predict is just around the corner? Are we to turn apathetic and let developments slap us to the ground?

There is indeterminacy in life, true. Humans are not omniscient and omnipresent. But it is this condition, after all, that drives human curiosity to know, to understand their world.

The poem, I believe, refrains from an all-consuming pessimism. It opens the space for an instructive lesson: “… that’s not the danger ahead: the news was wrong (or we didn’t hear it, or didn’t get it right).

Perhaps the poem is heeding that we should be more alert, more careful, more imaginative in attending to signs and warnings? Perhaps it implies that we should keep cultivating areas of human endeavor that we currently deem irrelevant in practical terms (say, poetry) but may prove vital for our psychic and physical survival in the future?

But didn’t we, at some level, already know? In the early 2000s, the “World Health Organization developed a global outbreak alert and response network shortly after the SARS outbreak.” This was almost twenty years ago. We knew about the deadly effects of the various strains of coronavirus and the ominous threat of a pandemic because of it.

But we did not hear the warning well, “for that was not the danger ahead, the news was wrong,” we thought?


Yiorgos Anagnostou
(published in the community magazine Greek Ethos, Spring 2021, 12)

Friday, June 18, 2021

College Students: What is a subject worth the attention of Greek American studies? (Growing up and Identity through the life cycle)


One of the homework assignments in my Greek American class this semester (Spring 2021) was the following: 

1) What is an important topic of personal significance to you that you would like scholars of Greek America to explore? Why is this topic important (to you, or the country, or Greek America)? What questions should they be asking in their research of this topic? 

2) Ask these scholars a question of your own choice. Please be creative and insightful, devote some time thinking seriously the questions you will be asking. 

This is an answer that asks researchers,"what makes them decide what to devote time and resources to what they research?" 
For me, the thing I would like to see most from those who study Greek American topics to ensure that they view Greek Americans as human beings, not just as objects to be studied. Many Greek Americans, myself included, are very proud to be Greek, and their Greekness plays a large part in their identity. However, we are more than just Greek, and I think it would do researchers good to keep that in mind. As for a specific topic I would like to see covered, I think the social dynamics in Greek Orthodox church communities in America would be an interesting one. Growing up in the church was one of the main ways I was taught my Greek culture. Especially now in modern times, the dynamic at play here is quite unique. Specifically looking at the youth, the parts of their childhood spent at the church are likely what will define their connection to the culture for the rest of their lives. 

I believe that the best way to understand Greek Americans is to understand how they grew up. I think some interesting questions to try and find answers to is what the youth think of their culture. Are they involved in culture related activities to please their parents, or because they genuinely enjoy them? Would they consider their primary social group to be their Greek friends or their American friends? Do they feel they fit in better at school or at church? These are just a few of the many questions that I think would have valid answers. Of course, it is not easy to interview small children, but i believe it would be possible to ask these questions of teenagers. Something that could be quite interesting is to interview these Greek Americans at a young ages, say 15, and then interview them again every 5 years if possible to see if their views on their culture change as they grow up. This is an important topic to me personally as in my experience I know my views on the culture has changed. When I was a kid, I detested Greek school and complained about it constantly. When my mom made me join Greek dance, I complained about having to spend an extra evening at the church. By the time I was fifteen I had graduated Greek School and found myself missing it, as my very best friends were made there. Greek dance practice was the highlight of my week, and I even found myself taking a leadership role in my troupe. Now, in college I chose to take more Greek language and culture classes, and have found that many of my Greek friends who go to different colleges are jealous that I have the opportunity to do so, despite having hated Greek school as much as I did as a child. This leads me to theorize that this is a common experience in the Greek American community, and yet there is no research to support it, which is why I would propose it as a topic of study for Greek American scholars. My question to these scholars would be what makes them decide what to devote time and resources to what they research?