01 May 2020
Two songs and poems
from Greece for May Day
Although the May Bank holiday in Ireland rarely falls on May Day itself – this year it falls on Monday next 4 May 2020 – I could not forget that today is May Day.
In the past, I have found myself, sometimes by accident, in a variety of places on May Day – including Achill, Askeaton, Bucharest, Dublin, London, Madrid, Portmeirion and Rethymnon – and I have written at times on the May protests in Thessaloniki that inspired the inspired the great epic poem Epitaphios by the poet of the Greek left, Yiannis Ritsos.
After I had completed two of my degrees and stepped down from active roles in the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s, I found myself on an unexpected late summer holiday in Rethymnon, and I remember still how I found books by Andreas Papandreou in a wonderful second-hand bookshop in Souliou Street.
This was before Papandreou had fallen from grace, and I was moved by his account of his resistance to the colonels and their junta. Despite, his sad later days, he remained an inspiration, and when he died in 1996 I contributed his obituary in The Irish Times.
To mark May Day this year, I am offering two poems that have been transformed into rousing songs of the Left in Greece, both set to music by the composer Mikis Theodorakis: Ένα Το Χελιδόνι (‘A solitary swallow’), from Axion Esti by Odysseas Elytis, and Μικρά κι ανήλιαγα στενά (‘In gloomy narrow backstreets,’ or ‘Rain falls on the slums’), by Tasos Livaditis.
Ένα Το Χελιδόνι
Ένα το χελιδόνι κι η άνοιξη ακριβή
για να γυρίσει ο ήλιος θέλει δουλειά πολλή
Θέλει νεκροί χιλιάδες να `ναι στους τροχούς
Θέλει κι οι ζωντανοί να δίνουν το αίμα τους.
Θε μου Πρωτομάστορα μ’ έχτισες μέσα στα βουνά
Θε μου Πρωτομάστορα μ’ έκλεισες μες στη θάλασσα!
Πάρθηκεν από μάγους το σώμα του Μαγιού
Το `χουνε θάψει σ’ ένα μνήμα του πέλαγου
σ’ ένα βαθύ πηγάδι το `χουνε κλειστό
μύρισε το σκοτάδι κι όλη η άβυσσος
Θε μου Πρωτομάστορα μέσα στις πασχαλιές και Συ
Θε μου Πρωτομάστορα μύρισες την Ανάσταση
A solitary swallow and a costly spring,
For the sun to turn it takes a job of work,
It takes a thousand dead sweating at the Wheels,
It takes the living also giving up their blood.
God my Master Builder, you built me into the mountains,
God my Master Builder, you enclose me in the sea!
Magicians carried off the body of May,
They buried the body in a tomb of the sea,
They sealed it up in a deep well,
Its scent fills the darkness and all the Abyss.
God my Master Builder, you too among the Easter lilacs,
God my Master Builder, you felt the scent of Resurrection!
Wriggling like sperm in a dark womb,
The terrible insect of memory breaks through the earth
And bites the light like a hungry spider,
Making the shores glow and the sea radiant.
God my Master Builder, you girded me with seashores,
God my Master Builder, you founded me on mountains.
This first song, ‘Ena to Helidoni,’ was composed by Mikis Theodorakis, using lyrics by Odysseus Elytis, one of the two Greek poets to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Odysseus Elytis was born in Iraklion, the capital of Crete, in 1911, and his poems have been translated into a dozen languages, including English-language translations by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis.
The lyrics are part of his longer poem ‘Axion Esti,’ a major work of 20th century literature. The ‘Axion Esti; reflects humanity’s struggle against the powers of darkness as the poet gives to an imaginary Christian liturgy a context that is revolutionary because of its combination of religious, social, aesthetic and philosophical ideas.
Although this poem can be interpreted as a spiritual autobiography that dramatises the national and philosophical hopes of a highly personal sensibility, it is also read as an expression of the revolutionary spirit in Greece. It was made popular by settings of portions of the poem in the 1960s by Mikis Theodorakis. Because of its lyrics and meaning, this song by Theodorakis became a song protest against the colonels’ junta in Greece in 1967-1974.
This portion of the poem, ‘Ena to Helidoni,’ was inspired by events in the Greek Civil War. The swallow is a metaphor for Greece trying to gain its freedom. But this freedom, the turning of the sun in the poem, takes a lot of work and blood.
This recording was made at a concert in 1977, during the transition of Greece to democracy. This concert brough together three major figures in Greek culture: the composer Mikis Theodorakis, the poet Odysseus Elytis and the singer Grigoris Bithikotsis:
My second choice of a poem and song for this May Day is Μικρά κι ανήλιαγα στενά (‘In gloomy narrow backstreets’ or ‘Rain falls on the slums’) by the poet Tasos Leivaditis, set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, and sung here by the Greek singer Giorgos Dalaras:
Μικρά κι ανήλιαγα στενά
Μικρά κι ανήλιαγα στενά
και σπίτια χαμηλά μου
βρέχει στη φτωχογειτονιά
βρέχει και στην καρδιά μου
Αχ ψεύτη κι άδικε ντουνιά
π’ άναψες τον καημό μου
είσαι μικρός και δε χωράς
τον αναστεναγμό μου
Οι συμφορές αμέτρητες,
δεν έχει ο κόσμος άλλες
φεύγουν οι μέρες μου βαριά
σαν της βροχής τις στάλες
In gloomy narrow backstreets
and the houses below me,
it’s raining in these slums,
and it’s raining in my heart, too.
O lying and unfair world,
you’ve set my heart on fire,
you’re small and have no space
for my tormented sigh.
My misfortunes are countless
no more left in this world,
my days pass by heavily,
just like those drops of rain.
The poem was written by Anastasios-Pandeleïmon ‘Tassos’ Leivaditis (1922-1988), who was born in Athens on Easter Saturday, 15 April 1922. His family came from Kontovazaina in the Peloponnese, and he grow up in Metaxourgeio.
When Nazi Germany occupied Greece in 1941, he abandoned his law studies at the University of Athens and joined the Resistance and the National Liberation Front’s youth organisation EPON.
After the liberation of Greece in 1944, he continued to be politically active on the Left and was arrested. He was released in February 1945, and in 1946, he married Maria Stoupa and published his first poem, Tο τραγούδι του Xατζηδημήτρη (‘Hadjidimitris’ Song’) in the Free Letters, a literary magazine. In 1947, he became involved in publishing the literary magazine Themelio (Foundation).
During the Greek Civil War, he was arrested again in 1948 and exiled to the island of Lemnos. He remained in prison after the Civil War, and was held on Makronisos island, in prison on Agios Efstratios and then in the Hadjicostas prison. He first met Theodorakis in exile and in prison, and he continued to write poetry, including ‘Winds at the World’s Crossroads.’
He was released in 1951 and became a literary critic with the newspaper Avgi (Dawn) until 1967. He was arrested again in 1955 and was charged with incitement to rebellion. The Court of Appeals found him not guilty. The poem that landed him in court, ‘Winds at the World’s Crossroads,’ received the First Prize for Poetry at the World Youth Festival in Warsaw that year.
With the colonels’ coup in 1967, Leivaditis was forced out of work. He started writing in 1969 under pen names for popular magazines despite the political risks this posed for editors.
Leivaditis’ poetry remained largely unknown outside Greece until 1983, when his collection The Blind Man with the Lamp was published in Greece and in English.
Critics say his poetry deals with metaphysical subjects in a way that goes beyond materialism. Recently, Fraser Steel of the BBC, writing in Anglican weekly, the Church Times, in 2016, said his poetry was ‘closer to St John of the Cross’s paradoxical profundities,’ and he wrote of the poet’s ‘experience of God with a directness saved from portentousness by a vein of levity.’
Leivaditis and Kostas Kotzias co-wrote the script for the 1961 movie Synoikia To Oneiro (Neighbourhood of Dreams), directed by and starring Alekos Alexandrakis (1961). The film, with its powerful social message, is set in the impoverished Athenian neighbourhood of Asyrmatos, whose people are trying to escape poverty and deprivation.
The censors delayed the premiere because of its ‘suspicious social content,’ and because the soundtrack was composed by Theodorakis. Yet, despite the censors’ many cuts, the film became a milestone in the history of Greek cinema. Theodorakis wrote the music for the film, and the songs were sung by Grigoris Bithikotsis.
Leivaditis and Theodorakis first met as political prisoners and exile in the 1940s, and continued to work together in song-writing, with the composer putting many of the poems to music, and Leivaditis often accompanying Theodorakis in his many tours, reciting poetry as part of the concert. Leivaditis died in Athens on 30 October 1988.
Giorgos Dalaras is married to his manager Anna Roulas, who was a member of George Papandreou’s Pasok government in 2009-2011. This version was sung by Dalaras at a tribute concert for Theodorakis in the Herod Atticus theatre below the Acropolis in 1995. Two Greek bouzouki players were joined by the Dutch Metropole Orchestra conducted by Dick Bakker, and the clip includes the short dance sequence in the 1961 film. The man at the table is the director and leading actor Alekos Alexandrakis.