Martin Johnston on Greek folk poetry

from Jacket #11 (April 2000)

Martin Johnston in Greece

Greek Folk Poetry — Songs of the Robbers

The Australian poet Martin Johnston died in 1990. This article by  Johnston had been published in the March 1980 edition of The Athenian, a monthly English-language magazine in Greece. You can read five of Johnston’s translations of these Greek folk songs in Jacket #1, together with poems, photographs, an essay on Borges and other material on and by Johnston.

If modern European fiction “came out of Gogol's overcoat,” modern Greek prose came out of the ample folds of General Makriyannis's kapa. But the prose, in Greece as in Elizabethan England, is a distant second to the poetry and there is nothing in Makriyannis's always moving memoirs more moving than the passage in which he says, after a comrade has been killed: “So I made him a song.”

It's only proper — in Greece more than anywhere — that it should have been a great poet, Seferis, who wrote the definitive assessment of Makriyannis's greatness. Just as it was he and another fine poet, Elytis, who taught us to see the paintings of Theofilos with eyes clearer than those of the louts who threw rotten fruit at him and knocked him off his painting-ladder.

That particular collocation of names is not accidental. The much-belaboured ideal of “organic” or “natural” culture, so torn and trampled and squabbled over in England and America by critics and sociologists and assorted wiseacres, is — or was until very recently — far more than an ideal in Greece; and a poet like Seferis; a soldier-writer like the nineteenth-century Makriyannis; a painter like the early twentieth-century Theofilos; for that matter, a contemporary musician like Markopoulos, are indissolubly linked to one another and to their heritage by a folk-culture which has always expressed itself above all in song - song, the words of which comprise a folk-poetry unequalled outside the Border Ballads and the ancient Chinese Book of Songs.

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