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Kostas Karyotakis, the Brilliantly Evocative Modern Greek Poet

Kostas Karyotakis modern greek poet
The poet and elder sister Nitsa with his nephew and another relative, Preveza 1927. Credit: Public Domain

Kostas Y. Karyotakis, who was born in Tripolis in 1896 and died in Preveza in 1928, is one of the finest modern Greek poets of the 1920s. His poetry has been translated into over thirty languages, and he is revered by Greeks for the potent imagery and musicality of his works. To the Greek ear, his short, often sorrowful poems indeed sound song-like. This year, we mark 125 years from the poet’s birth.

By Eugenia Russell

Karyotakis is one of the most noteworthy poets of Greece and the most representative exponent of modern lyricism. He is said by critics to represent the pain of his generation and to portray the Greek soul with the same power as only two other poets: Kavafis (Cavafy) and Varnalis.

His poetic expression, using a mixture of demotic and katharevousa Greek, created a highly personal idiom free from the affectation and narcissism of much other neo-Romantic poetry.

Karyotakis, born in Tripoli and known as ‘Takis’ to his family, was the second child of George Karyotakis, an engineer from Karya Korinthias, and Aikaterini Skagianni, who was from an illustrious, local family.

Today, the elegant, two-story, neoclassical mansion that was his mother’s home is part of The University of the Peloponnese in Tripoli. His father’s job meant the family moved frequently to different cities in Greece, but the poet always maintained a fondness for his hometown and often visited Tripoli.

Karyotakis inherited a love of learning from his maternal grandfather, who was a head teacher, and he studied law at The National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, graduating in 1917.

Karyotakis initially worked for the Health Department, writing an important white paper, which was unfortunately ignored by the administration of the Pangalos dictatorship of 1925.For most of his life, he worked as a civil servant, but the volatility of Greek politics meant that both he and his father faced problems at work.

Kostas Karyotakis wrote about need for social change

They were opponents to the Venizelos government; unfortunately, this led to his father losing his job in 1917 and Karyotakis being pursued for his Trade Unionist activities. The experiences of the realities of Greek provincial life as a civil servant inspired Karyotakis to write passionately about the need for social change.

His poetry, at times sensitive and at other times sarcastic, is reflective of the hardship, frustration, and corruption of urban life in Greece at the time. He became director and editor of the satirical magazine I Gampa, which turned out to be a short-lived appointment, as societal tensions and the hypocrisy of Greek society led to its suppression and closure by the police.

Similarly, the provocative content of a musical he wrote with his cousin, the composer Theodore Karyotakis, a student of Dimitris Mitropoulos, meant it would never be staged.

Literary critics with government-leaning sympathies, such as Miltiadis Malakassis and Vassilis Rotas, published harsh reviews of his work and his relegation to Preveza, where he ended his life in despair with a single bullet, is believed to have been politically motivated.

His doomed personal relationship with the lyrical poet Maria Polydouri is one of the most famous in Greek literature. She received news of his death while in the hospital where she was to die of tuberculosis just two years later.

Karyotakis was influenced by the French Symbolists and the German Romantics; as well as writing many original poems in French, his translations from those languages (including the French National Anthem) are some of the finest in the Greek language.

Among the authors he translated were the Symbolist Greek poet Jean Moréas (Ioannis A. Papadiamantopoulos) who mostly wrote in French, Paul-Marie Verlaine, Charles Pierre Baudelaire, and the philosopher Voltaire. He also translated work by the German writers Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann and Heinrich Heine.

Modern Greek poet influential to world of Greek letters

In turn, Karyotakis influenced the later generation of Greek poets, including Varnalis, Seferis, and Ritsos, who were inspired by his mournful and erotic writing; the influence on his writing of Baudelaire had a strong impact on Nikos Kavvadias and Kostas Ouranis.

Karyotakis was a personal friend of the lyrical poet Romos Philyras who died in the Dromokaiteion psychiatric clinic, and he dedicated a number of poems to him.

His legacy inspired and led the troubled generation that came after him, often referred to by Greek scholars as “the Generation of the Thirties.”

His turbulent life and tragic death made a deep impression on the national psyche. The great composer Mikis Theodorakis saw in Karyotakis’ life an embodiment of the Greek soul, and he wrote the opera Die Metamorphosen des Dionysos (The Metamorphosis of Dionysus), in which Karyotakis’ life is told as a parable for the life of the Greek nation in his honor.

Other musicians inspired to set his poetry to music include Lena Platonos, Nikos Xydakis, and Giannis Spanos. In 2008, the TV series Kostas Karyotakis, created by the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT), directed by Tassos Psarras, and starring Dimosthenis Papadopoulos as Karyotakis and Maria Kitsou as Maria Polydouri achieved great critical acclaim.

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