Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

A note on George Seferis.

Soon after its liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944, Greece lurched into civil war. The poet George Seferis, long in service to the government in exile, returned to his homeland and in 1946 found himself revisiting the Greek countryside for the first time in six years. “I am trying,” he said, “to return to the habit of work.” This work proved not impossible, but also not at all as he’d imagined. From his journal:

…you thought it was the war, the difficult circumstances
which would end with some sort of ‘peace.’ Suddenly you discover
that you’ll spend your entire life in disorder. It’s all that you have;
you must learn to live with it.

It was there on the tiny island of Poros, in a rented house named Galini (“serenity”), in a period ripped by political anguish, that his big poem “Thrush” began to emerge. Titled after a small shipwreck he’d come upon while swimming, it is a poem in many ways about houses, and begins “The houses I had they took away from me.” A draft in his journal ends like this:

Contours of mountains, contours of sounds.
Smoke under the nostrils of a god.
The leaf on a tree that is only a leaf is not a leaf.
And you are in a big house with many open windows,
and you run from room to room, knowing not from which to look out first
lest the pines leave…

The day after writing this verse, he notes, “I made out of a walnut and a few acorns a small doll which I named Mrs. Zen. It was impossible to do anything else.”

Many years later, in 1968, he became a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. Asked how he liked being a student again, he replied “The problem which puzzles me is: What is advanced study? Should one try to forget, or to learn more?” By then he’d become known for telling jokes. His delivery was straight, and when one laughed his face at once became fierce: “Why are you laughing!” Then a smile. Once another writer referred to him in a poem as a Middle-Eastern troglodyte. Shown the poem, Seferis responded, “Middle-Eastern troglodyte. Ridiculous and inaccurate. I once called myself a Cappadocian troglodyte, and that is what I plan to remain.” A fierce look. “Why are you laughing!”

From George Seferis, A Poet’s Journal: Days of 1945-1951, translated by Athan Anagnostopoulous; and “The Art of Poetry XIII: Georzris and Edmund Keely,” Paris Review, 50 (Fall 1970)

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