Poetry

Tasos denegris

(Or, Can a Greek Be Beat?)

by GEORGE MOURATIDIS and DIMITRIS TROADITIS

If you stand before a funhouse mirror at midnight and incant ‘the poet’s eye obscenely seeing’ (that undying line from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind)*, then Tasos Denegris will flare up in your brain, pointing a Super 8 at you, his other hand scribbling strophes in the air. This ‘eye’ – at once spectator and spectacle, recording instrument and performance – and belong to anybody, any poet, camera, performer. How then is this poet’s instrument unique? The offbeat attuning of Denegris’ naked (optic) neural streets, telescopic and microscopic, bears a poetic dynamism that synergises visual modes of engaging and interpreting ‘the surface of the round world’**. What we encounter is an artistic sensibility and language singular in Modern Greek poetry in the latter half of the twentieth century.

A stream of objectivist imagism and projective notation chases a visceral oneiric language of vulnerability through Denegris’ stanzas. That Denegris was an actor and filmmaker as well as a poet only bolsters such a sensorial impression. Impossible though it may be to consider Denegris and his work solely in terms of any one of these mediums, it is a truism that his artistry as a performer-cum-auteur informed his poetry, and visa versa. Approaching Denegris in this way, we can situate the poet and his work within a small group of contemporary ‘underground’ Greek visual artists who also write, such as Maria Mitsora and Panos Koutrouboussis, himself also involved in film.

Like Koutrouboussis, Denegris is one of a handful of Greek poets who have often been characterised as ‘Beat’ or seen to share some elements of this literary aesthetic.

The comparison may be due to the impression of an organic, spontaneous poetics and idiomatic oral language in Denegris’ first collection, Θάνατος στην Πλατεία Κάνιγγος/Death in Kaningos Square (1974), a collection with a surrealist backbone, not unlike that of poets Bob Kaufman and Philip Lamantia.

Is it possible to talk about Beat aesthetics or a ‘Beat scene’ of local writers in Greece? Would it contribute anything to a reading of Denegris’ pioneering artistry if we accept the terms by which he is popularly known in Greece: ‘beatnik’, ‘neo-surrealist’, ‘rock poet’? Perhaps not. At least not in terms of a single one of these labels, but probably some amalgam of elements from each. The difficulty in categorising or defining Denegris’ oeuvre speaks to the impossibility of a clear definition of Beat itself.

Despite the persistent association with Beat aesthetics, Denegris was, even by the time of his death in 2009, not comfortable in a black turtleneck, often denying such a characterisation. He even went so far as to insist that Beat poetry is irrelevant to Greece. It is, in his view, an American phenomenon. Curiously, though, it is in his perpetual evasion of the ‘Beat’ label that Denegris inadvertently reveals his unique understanding of it, as he told one interviewer, Makis Freris, in September, 1996:

Εμείς… εγώ, τότε… ήμουν, ήμασταν, ήμουν ο απόηχος, όπως και μερικοί άλλοι νεότεροί μου… Αλλά πάλι δεν μπορούμε να πούμε στην Ελλάδα… Μπήτ. Οι μπήτνικς δεν ήταν καν ένα παν-Αμερικανικό φαινόμενο. Ήταν ένα κίνημα που άρχισε στις ερήμους της Καλιφόρνιας με εκπροσώπους όπως ξέρουμε τον συγχωρεμένο τον Κέρουακ, τον Φερλινγκέτι, τον Γκίνσμπεργκ, τον Κόρσο και λοιπά. Βεβαίως, υπήρχε αυτός ο απόηχος στη δεύτερη ειδικά συλλογή μου [Το Αίμα του Λύκου (1978)], στην οποία και η θεματολογία, εμφανιζόντουσαν πρόσωπα, πράγματα της αμερικανικής ποπ ζωής εκείνης της εποχής… Αλλά, πέραν τούτου, δεν νομίζω ούτε αυτό να με αφορά.***

We… I, then… was, were, was the reverberation, as were some others younger than me… But again we cannot speak in Greece of… Beat. Beatniks were not even a pan-American phenomenon. It was a movement that began in the deserts of California with exponents, as we know, the late Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Corso etcetera. Indeed, there was this reverberation especially in my second collection [The Blood of the Wolf (1978)] where in the subject matter, there also appeared characters, things from American pop life of that era… But, other than that, I don’t think this has anything to do with me either.

To reconsider what makes Denegris Beat is to reevaluate the geographical and cultural parameters of Beat literature. Let us draw some comparisons and find some common ground to further expand Beat’s porous borders. It is crucial to first acknowledge that the United States and Greece entered post-World War Two life at extreme opposite ends of the socio-economic scale. At the same time we can see that, not dissimilar to the Beats of New York and San Francisco, whose poetics and politics were shaped by and against a Cold War climate of conservatism, exclusionary affluence, anxiety, and political intimidation, Denegris’ rebel yawp was forged in the long twisted schizoid shadow of the Greek Civil War (1946-49), Truman’s interventionist Marshall Plan, and a pervasive climate of instability, fear, and persecution of the Left (or anybody remotely progressive). There was no shortage of pricks for a young poet to kick against, perchance to find their voice, solace, a new direction.

To imagine an equivalent post-war generation of ‘beat’ or ‘beatific’ Greek poets to accommodate Denegris is not so far-fetched, especially when we consider some of Beat’s common aesthetic DNA with the three key avant-garde groups that emerged in Greece at the time. These were (in broad terms) the surrealists, the existentialists and mystics, and the poets of romantic nihilism and disillusionment known as η Γενιά της Ήτας/the ‘Generation of Defeat’ (referring to the defeat of the Left in the Civil War) – each one a distinctive response to the prevailing socio-cultural and political climate. While Denegris’ close ties with many writers from each of these groups comes as no surprise, it is with an earlier post-war Greek literary generation that he identified more closely, namely the poets of the ‘Generation of the ‘30s’ (which includes pioneering modernist Nobel laureate George Seferis, as well as surrealists Andreas Embirikos and Nikos Engonopoulos).

This chronology may seem strange given that Denegris’ debut in Greek letters wasn’t until two decades later when, in 1952, at the age of eighteen, he published his first poems in the major literary journal Στροφή/Strophe. This incongruity notwithstanding, Denegris belongs to a clearly discernable genealogy of aesthetic, linguistic, and cultural progressiveness, exploration, and experimentation in Modern Greek poetry, whose tapestry of lines runs through numerous literary and artistic generations. Despite his generational alliance of choice, Denegris has also been popularly identified with the ‘Generation of the ‘70s’: this was a younger group of aesthetically progressive, experimental, fervently anti-establishment poets who came of age during the military Junta in Greece of 1967-74, the Athens Polytechnic uprising, and the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, and whose work was overtly influenced by contemporary global avant-gardes and countercultures. Whatever the category, Denegris always baulked at the thought of belonging wholly to any one movement or moment. This eclecticism, fluidity, and adaptability, is perhaps what is most characteristic of the poet and his work.

A significant factor in this aesthetic openness is Denegris’ multilingualism. In addition to his native Greek, Denegris was fluent in English, Spanish, and Italian, translating works by Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, and John Dos Passos, among others. Not only did this practice inform Denegris’ expansive and eclectic influences, it also helped shape the universalism and orality of his own poetics and language. Denegris was a poet of pure, elemental and essential speech, whose broad literary worldview includes the influence of the Beats. The ambiguity of Denegris’ denial of his mantle as a Greek Beat and his distinctive interpretation of that particular loose-knit network of poets, writers and artists does very little to dissociate him: just when he thought he was out, we’ll pull him back in.

The role of Greece during the 1960s as a popular hub for itinerant writers, poets, artists, and other ne’er-do-well bohemians is well known. Moving away from the psychotropic Mediterranean islands, we find a makeshift yet significant Beat scene in Athens through which many passed. In a recent interview, the publisher and co-owner of City Lights Books, Nancy J. Peters, recalls this nexus of local and international poets at the home of another anointed ‘Greek Beat’, Nanos Valaoritis:

In Greece in the early 1960s, I became friends with Nanos Valaoritis and Marie Wilson who were at the center of an international bohemian/surrealist community. They had a large home which was always full of travelling writers and artists whom they made welcome. The Beat writers were among their guests, and City Lights was frequently talked about as a place everyone would meet up someday.+

Denegris was no stranger to the Valaoritis-Wilson hive. This Greek-Beat juncture explodes brilliantly across the pages of the renegade literary magazine Πάλι/Pali (meaning ‘again’), published from February 1964 to December 1966 (ending shortly before the 1967 coup in April). Denegris was actively involved with Pali as an editor and regular contributor. In addition to regularly featuring Beat writers (for instance, the inaugural issue includes translations of poets Ted Joans and Harold Norse, as well as other luminaries of the nascent counterculture, such as Aldous Huxley), Pali brought together a who’s-who of the mid-century avant-garde in Greek literature as editors and contributors. Some of these poets Denegris has oft cited as his touchstones, specifically the aforementioned surrealists Embirikos and Engonopoulos. To complete his holy trinity, Denegris added the existentialist poet Nikos Karouzos++.

With Pali, Denegris was at the heart of a confluence of the most experimental and progressive local writers the country had ever seen. Along with Valaoritis, the journal’s editorial team comprised other Greek Beats, Dimitris Poulikakos and the aforementioned Koutrouboussis, as well as big names of the post-war literary underground, Manto Aravantinou, Giorgos V. Makris, and Costas Taktsis. It cannot be overstated how deeply Pali shook the foundations of the nation’s literary establishment by publishing the most radical poets, writers, and artists of its day from within and without Greece. Despite its relatively brief life, Greek arts and letters were forever changed in the wake of Pali, leaping headlong into postmodernity. Farewell to Seferis’ disfigured hands fumbling to hold up eyeless marble heads.

While Pali offers an insight into Denegris’ influences, it is in his poetry collections where his Beat-adjacent bell rings loudest. As stunning and successful a debut as Death in Kaningos Square was in 1974, it is Denegris’ 1989 collection Η Κατάσταση Των Πραγμάτων/The State of Things that cemented his status as an exuberant, irreverent, deeply ironic non-conformist poet in Greece and wider Europe. Even though Denegris was active in the arts for over half a century, he published only six collections during his lifetime (a further collection was published posthumously). One reason for this may be that Denegris consciously avoided the fleeting glories of acclaim and publicity.

Rejoicing in our first sweeping brushstrokes and snapshots of Denegris life and art, we find that perhaps it his interviewer Freris who introduced Denegris best with the poet’s own lines from ‘Faust and Indian Cannabis’: «Σπάνια άνθρωπος έχει γράψει στ’ αρχίδια του / μαζεμένες τις αξίες του ευρωπαικού πνεύματος»/‘Rarely has a person completely not given a fuck about / the sum values of the European spirit’+++. Naturally, we have included this poem.

DID YOU KNOW? Tasos Denegris was the location manager for legendary B-director Roger Corman’s Atlas (1961), which was shot in Athens. Who are we to resist a touch of sandalled schlocky goodness in the night?

* Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “3.” A Coney Island of the Mind. New Directions, 1958, p. 13.

** Ibid.

*** Makis Freris. «Μια Συνέντευξη του Τάσου Δενέγρη» (“An Interview with Tasos Denegris”). Municipal Station of Ermoupolis, Sept, 1996. Η Τρύπα: Περιοδικό Περιοπής (He Trypa: Periodiko peri-opes. www.periodikotrypa.wordpress.com. Accessed: 12 Feb, 2022.

+ “A Woman’s History of City Lights: Interview With Nancy J. Peters.” City Lights Booksellers and Publishers, 1 March, 2022. www.citylights.com/a-womens-history-of-city-lights-interview-with-nancy-j-peters/?fbclid=IwAR25ac-aRFcZaaE0SbC_GX4I23QcDuIGwYkylcf7xTop8EPvzJofCTN6Ir4. Accessed: 27 March, 2022.

++ Freris.

+++ Ibid.

ΨΥΧΡΟΣ ΠΟΛΕΜΟΣ

Κλείστε τα φώτα
Σφαλίστε την πόρτα
κλειστά τα παράθυρα
Κι ανοίχτε το ραδιόφωνο που παίζει εμβατήρια.

Φέρτε στους τοίχους και βάλτε κρέπια
Μαζέψτε ψωμιά και κάντε παξιμάδια
Χοντρέμποροι συνάξανε τα λάδια
Εμείς θα φάμε ψάρια με τα λέπια.

Νοέμβρης 1952

Θάνατος στην Πλατεία Κάνιγγος (1974)

COLD WAR

Turn out the lights
Secure the door
The windows, closed
And turn on the radio that plays marches.

Bring and put up crepe rubber on the walls
Gather loaves of bread and make rusks
Wholesalers have gathered up the cans of oil
We will eat fish with their scales.

November 1952

Death in Kaningos Square (1974)

ΤΕΣΣΕΡΑ ΠΟΙΗΜΑΤΑ ΓΙΑ ΤΗΝ ΕΛΕΝΗ

1

Aπ’ όλες τις γυναίκες που ήταν στο νησί
εκείνη που απουσίαζε ήταν και η πιο ωραία.

2

Κι αν σου κρατούσα το κεφάλι μέσα στο νερό
και να προσπαθούσα να σε σβήσω
σε ξένο κρεβάτι και νέες συνήθειες
ήταν γιατί σε αγάπησα πολύ
κι ετρόμαξα πολύ
να μη μου φύγεις.

3

Κι ο πίθηκος σκυφτός πίσω από το πόμολο της πόρτας
σε μια βδομάδα κάτου απ την λάμπα
στο δρόμο του νοσοκομείου
σιωπή, σανίδες και ασετιλίνες εργατών
στα πληγωμένα πεζοδρόμια
σ’ αυτόν το δρόμο με τη λάμπα
ένα ξένο δαιμονικό βλέμμα
στα μάτια σου
κράτησα σφιχτά τη σάρκα της Ελένης
με το ξένο βλέμμα
να με πανικοβάλλει.

4

Άδεια όσο κι η στέπα
απαλλαγμένη από καμπάνες και βλάστηση.

Θάνατος στην Πλατεία Κάνιγγος (1974)

FOUR POEMS FOR ELENI

1

Of all the women who were on the island
the one who was absent was the most beautiful.

2

And if I kept your head under the water
and tried to extinguish you
in a strange bed and new habits
it was because I loved you so much
and I was very frightened
that you would leave me.

3

And the ape crouched behind the door knob
in one week beneath the lamp
on the way to the hospital
silence, planks and workers’ acetylene
on the wounded sidewalks
on this street with the lamp
a foreign demonic stare
in your eyes
I held tight the flesh of Eleni
with the foreign stare
to panic me

4

As empty as the steppe
free of bells and greenery.

Death in Kaningos Square (1974)

ΣΗΜΕΙΑ ΚΑΙ ΤΕΡΑΤΑ

Οι τοίχοι τρέμουν σα νερό πάνω σε τζάμια
Κι αυτές οί δυό μπροστά μου οι πόρτες
Η μία μοιάζει πόρτα ασανσέρ
Που μόλις τώρα έφτασε στο ισόγειο και θ’ ανοίξει
Και γκάγκστερ με κοστούμι ροζ θα βγει.
Η άλλη μοιάζει πόρτα
Διαδρόμου εσωτερικού
Που μένοντας κλειστή συνήθως
Ανοίγει μόνον για να βγάλουν
Στο εποχούμενο φορείο
Τον ναρκωμένο
Εγχειρισθέντα ασθενή.
Η Όφηλία
Με κόκκινο πουλόβερ
Γελάει συνεχώς
Είθε το γέλιο της αυτό
Να έχει μια κάποια μονιμότητα.

16 Μαρτίου 1970

Το Αίμα του Λύκου (1978)

POINTS AND MONSTERS

The walls tremble like water on windows
And these are the two doors before me
One resembles an elevator door
That has just now reached the ground floor and is about to open
And a gangster in a pink suit will come out.
The other resembles a door
Of an interior corridor
Which usually remaining closed
Opens only for them to bring out
On the on-board stretcher
The drugged
Patient just operated upon.
Ophelia
With a red pullover
Is laughing constantly
May this laughter of hers
Have some kind of permanence.

16 March 1970

The Blood of the Wolf (1978)

ΕΞΟΣΤΡΑΚΙΣΜΟΣ

Ποιος τό ’λεγε απ’ τον κήπο
Με τους φοίνικες και τ’ άγρια περιστέρια
Πως θα βρεθείς κατάδικος
Με τη νωπή βουή του όχλου
Που ανέντιμο σε φώναζε
Προδότη κι άλλα τέτοια.
Ούτε κι η φύση σου έμεινε
Παρηγοριά και φως.
Τα δέντρα που τ’ αγάπησες
Σά νά ’τανε παιδιά σου
Στα πήραν απ’ το βλέμμα σου
Τα σίδερα κι οι τοίχοι.
Κανείς δεν είναι σίγουρος
Πόρτες κλειδώνουν βιαστικά
Συγκλητικοί και πόρνες
Πλανιούνται μες στη σκέψη τους.
Ο Νόμος δε γνωρίζει
Προσκόμματα και κλειδαριές
Πόρτες κλειστές περνάει
Σα να ‘ταν ο Ασώματος ή laser ή κάτι
Το απίστευτο, πιο δυνατό κι από τη φαντασία.

Το Αίμα του Λύκου (1978)

OSTRACISM

Who used to say that from the garden
With the palm trees and wild doves
You will find yourself to be a convict?
With the damp roar of the mob
That called you dishonourable
A traitor and other such things.
Not even nature remained for you as
Comfort and light.
The trees you came to love
As though they were your children
Have been taken from your sight by
The bars and the walls.
No one is sure
Doors lock in a hurry
Senators and prostitutes
Wander through their thoughts.
The Law does not recognise
Obstacles and locks
It passes through closed doors
As though it was The Hollow Man or a laser or something
Unbelievable, more powerful even than the imagination.

The Blood of the Wolf (1978)

ΔΕΝ ΞΕΡΩ ΠΙΑ ΤΙ ΝΑ ΠΩ

Θέλω να πω για τα δεσμά
Της ανοίξεως
Το χείμαρρο των αναιρέσεων
Τα φαντάσματα στο στόμιο του ύπνου
Εμάς στο στόμα του λύκου
Τον ποταμό των γυναικών
Τον ποταμό των γενναίων.
Τσακίζει κόκαλα η άνοιξις ετούτη
Τσακίζει
Και οδηγεί στα πρόθυρα της τρέλας
Αυτούς που αποβλέπουν
Στη θάλασσα
Σαν έννοια, σα νερό
Σα φαντασίωση και δόξα.
Θέλω να πω για τα δεσμά
Θα γίνουν πιο αισθητά
Δυσβάσταχτα θα γίνουν
Με τον ερχομό της αττικής ανοίξεως.

22 Νοεμβρίου 1971

Το Αίμα του Λύκου (1978)

I DO NOT KNOW WHAT TO SAY ANYMORE

I want to tell of the bonds
Of spring
The torrent of appeals
The ghosts at sleep’s inlet
Us at the mouth of the wolf
The river of women
The river of the fearless.
This here spring snaps bones
It throttles
And drives to the brink of madness
Those who aspire
To the sea
As a concept, as water
As a fantasy and glory.
I want to tell of the bonds
They will become more tangible
Unbearable they will become
With the arrival of the Attican springtime.

22 November 1971

The Blood of the Wolf (1978)

ΦΑΟΥΣΤ ΚΑΙ ΙΝΔΙΚΗ ΚΑΝΝΑΒΙΣ

Πελτασταί, παγίδες, ασβέστης
Άσπρη σιβηρική γούνα με σαντιγί
Ζεστός λήθαργος
Δεν καταλαβαίνω τίποτα
Δεν υστερώ σε τίποτα
Αντιθέτως υπερτερώ
Σπάνια άνθρωπος έχει γράψει στ’ αρχίδια του
Μαζεμένες τις αξίες του ευρωπαϊκού πνεύματος
Κατανόηση, μνημεία, σκοπιμότης, ανωτερότης,
Κατωτερότης, Μιχαήλ Άγγελος, Μπαρντό,
Συνομιλία, κηδεμονία
Σπάνια
Χωρίς να δώσει αντάλλαγμα
Ένα τετραγωνικό στρέμμα απ’ την ψυχή του.
Σάββατο βράδυ
Ήμουν άγγελος, αρκούδα, ταπεινός, δυνατός
Αδιάφορος
Πανταχού παρών στο χάος
Συγκεντρωμένος σε μια τρύπα σκόρου
Ή σ’ έναν ήχο.

Η Κατάσταση των Πραγμάτων (1989)

FAUST AND INDIAN CANNABIS

Peltasts, traps, lime
A white Siberian fur with whipped cream
Hot lethargy
I do not understand anything
I do not lag behind in anything
On the contrary, I excel
Rarely has a person completely not given a fuck about
The sum values of the European spirit
Understanding, monuments, advisability, superiority,
Inferiority, Μichelangelo, Bardot,
Discourse, guardianship
Rarely
Without having to give in exchange
A square acre from his soul.
Saturday night
I was an angel, a bear, humble, powerful
Ubiquitous in chaos
Concentrating on a moth hole
Or on a sound.

The State of Affairs (1989)

ΤΟ ΠΝΕΥΜΑ ΤΗΣ ΑΜΥΝΑΣ

Pendant que les fonds publics s’ ecoulent en
fetes de fraternite, il sonne une cloche de feu
rose dans les nuages.
A. RIMBAUD

I lluminations
Εκείνο το πετούμενο
Δεν ξαναφάνηκε πια
Κι η φοβερή του ανάμνηση
Βράχο με κάνει
Τον άνεμο ν’ ακούω και να βλέπω δηλαδή
Όρνια και αεροπλάνα
Τις ανοησίες
Να υπομένω
Και τις συμφωνημένες εκ των άνω αναφλέξεις
Ω διχασμένη αρετή
Μοχθηροί εφιάλτες.

1991

Το Πνεύμα της Άμυνας (1999)

THE SPIRIT OF DEFENSE

Pendant que les fonds publics s’ ecoulent en
fetes de fraternite, il sonne une cloche de feu*
rose dans les nuages.*
A. RIMBAUD

Illuminations
Airborne as it is
Did not appear again
And its frightening memory
Makes me into a cliff
The wind to hear and to see, that is
Vultures and airplanes
The nonsenses
To endure
And the agreed upon combustions from above
O divided virtue
Wicked nightmares.

1991

The Spirit of Defense (1999)

* “What public money is being poured out in celebrations of brotherhood, a bell of rose-coloured fire rings.” From the poem “[Phrases]” in Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1886). Translated by Mark Treharne, J. M. Dent, 1998, unpaginated.

Translated by George Mouratidis and Dimitris Troaditis