[SHAKESPEARE] Top Ten Poets & Authors

This list is nothing if not eclectic; I don't read much literature these days, and what I have been reading in the past eight years has been almost exlcusively poetry, after a surfeit of Asimov (clever, at times, but hardly a stylist) and The Brothers Karamazov, which just bored me. (I did get to read Crime And Punishment before this, though, and thought highly of it.) My list includes four figures of Greek literature, four of English, and two of Esperanto.

As if you couldn't already tell that I am a linguist by (a)vocation, the writers in this list are mostly here because of how they said what they had to say, rather than what they actually said. In Esperanto literature, with its predilection to formalism and being adrift from ethnic-cultural reference points, the emphasis on style makes sense. The emphasis on language makes sense in Greek literature too, which has been caught in the shadow of diglossia for the past two millenia; if anyone manages to both sound like a real human being and still create art in Greek literature, it's worth writing home about, and I believe I've got all four people who've managed this.

Now, how I work my four Anglos into this pattern, I'm not sure; but Hopkins, certainly, is venerated more for his wondrous use of language than his flagellist theology. As for McGonnagall... well, words fail one; they certainly failed him!

Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957)
Kazantzakis is best known, both at home and abroad, for the novels he wrote in the last decade of his life --- including Zorba the Greek ('The Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas', with the inevitable Theodorakis soundtrack); Freedom or Death ('Captain Mikhalis'); Christ Recrucified ('The Greek Passion'); and 'The Last Temptation of Christ' (that cause celébre of recent times, prompting a good film and a good Peter Gabriel soundtrack.) Though Kazantzakis himself might disagree, they were his best work; his Odyssey is boring bombast (I don't think much of Homer's work either), and the iambic octameter is just a road accident. I really really like his Terzinas, though; his Terzinas on Jesus and on Moses, in particular, are deeply moving --- and as formalist as you can get. (About the Asketeke ('Salvatores Dei' --- 'The Saviours of God'), I'm not as sure. I found it really depressing, but my therapist (a fan) thought that said more about me than Kazantzakis...)

Now it is true that Kazantzakis is conceited, misogynistic, an intellectual weather-vane, a touch too caught up in Nietzsche, and forever atoning for his childhood. And its also true that the "Kreta Kreta über alles" attitude we share is not reason enough to admire the man. The reason I do admire him is because he is the most consummate stylist Modern Greek has known. In his hands, Greek is an expressive, flexible, heaven-storming medium, even while still caught up in the national 'Hellenic vs. Romeic' neurosis. Most other writers are left just with the neurosis. A lot of Kazantzakis' charm is caught up with his lexical obscurity --- the Terzinas just cannot be read without a dialect dictionary. Whether despite that or precisely because of it, he is really effective.

Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933)
There isn't much Cavafy and Kazantzakis have in common; language is certainly not one of them! Where Kazantzakis is boisterous, patriotic, ponderous, scrupulously heterosexual, and obsessively vernacularist, Cavafy is wry, an aesthete, homoerotic after the pre-Gay Lib school, urbane, cynical, and uses an eclectic, measured mixture of puristic and colloquial registers. (The fact that I think highly of both authors surely shows how mentally flexible and perceptive I am!) There are two strands to Cavafy's poetry --- erotic, and historical; they often converge. What they both have in common is that they are the poetry of retrospect, of the remembered or reconstructed, of a fleeting ideal rather than any tangible reality. Within that context, his mastery of the vignette is unequalled. These aren't verses to live your life by (the kind of thing Kazantzakis might attempt), but in their taciturn, weighed tones, they have a lasting resonance...
Vincenzo Cornaro (fl. early 17th century)
Cornaro (who may well have been a hellenised Venetian), has sundry and numerous claims to fame. One is that he was the only person of any note born in my home town of Sitia in Crete --- or, indeed, anywhere in eastern Crete. The second is that he wrote Erotokritos (as well as possibly Abraham's Sacrifice), a verse romance that moves in the same world-sphere as Shakespeare and his Italian antecedents, yet is expressed in the same eastern Cretan dialect my grandmother uses to address her goats. The third, which is tantamount to the second, is that Cornaro is the only Greek author since Mark and John the Evangelists to have written purely in the Greek of their time (or, at least, to have given the semblance of it), without taking pains to react either positively or negatively to the spectre of Classical Greek. While the work is too long and too repetitious for modern tastes, there is a freshness and forthrightness to Cornaro's work that had never been captured before in Greek --- and never will again...
Nikos Tsiforos (1909-1970)
Caught up in the great kerfuffle between Demotic and Puristic Greek --- where the literary norm was rural speech, and urban Greek was ignored by Purists and Demoticists alike --- the Literary Establishment has paid little mind to this light-weight humorist, scriptwriter, and populariser of history, with his Greek gods and Crusaders talking a comic stereotype of Athenian underworld cant. What they have missed is that Tsiforos --- with all his mother-in-law jokes and his crude prejudices --- was one of the few Modern Greek writers who wrote like people around him actually spoke; and his prose is some of the most vibrant, and certainly the funniest, I've seen in the language.
Kálmán Kalocsay (1891-1976)
By day, Kalocsay was a head doctor at the Budapest Hospital of Infectious Diseases; by night, he single-handedly introduced seven centuries worth of European culture into Esperanto poetry, and made it worth reading. (He was also a grammarian, translator and literary critic of considerable breadth.) It is fascinating to watch Kalocsay, in ten years, set down an entire classical tradition all by himself, and then to see poets from all over (almost always Eastern) Europe flocking to his 'school'. True, his early poetry has one lyre too many, the rhymes get self-conscious, and there is a surfeit of bird-trills. But by the time of his last significant poetry, in the late '30s and '40s (the Cold War saw a lot of work from him, but very little original poetry), he had developed a splendid, haggard solemnity in his sonnets. He remains to this day the reference point for all Esperanto poetry.
Victor Sadler (1937- )
Sadler has been a long-time functionary in various Esperanto organisations; he was also a consultant to the DLT Machine Translation project (using Esperanto as a bridge-language), which recently went belly-up due to lack of funding. He also published a tiny volume of poems in '67, Memkritiko ('Self-Criticism'), using the time-honoured device (especially in Esperanto literature!) of "I didn't write these, I'm just the editor." Memkritiko has been largely ignored in Esperanto literature --- a bit oversubtle for an audience more used to Auld and De Kock, to say nothing of Boulton and Thorsen. Their loss; Memkritiko is a pinnacle of poetry; adroitly intertextual (Sadler the commentator consistently undermines Sadler the poet --- twenty years before postmodernism made this kind of thing fashionable), vivid in its imagery, and relentlessly attenuating and miniaturising his poetic forms. (Esperantists are big on formalism.) Poem 65, where a Petrarchan sonnet (Esperantists are too fastidious to do Shakespearean sonnets) --- already shrunk down to iambic dimeter and trimeter --- has its rhyme scheme dissolve so that the final tercet meshes into oneness, is the boldest and most skilful such enterprise I've ever seen; much more successful than any half-rhyme sonnet by a contemporary Anglo.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400)
The joy of creation and novelty I saw with Kalocsay's work, where every rhyme was new and every pentametre burst with serendipity, is also what attracted me to his English counterpart, Chaucer. His verse is wide-eyed and intoxicating; and the Middle English is lots of fun. Really should finish off Troilus and Criseyde one of these days...
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Shakespeare --- odd as this may seem to some --- was not God, and may not have even been the greatest literary figure of history. His sonnets aren't always that brilliant --- formally, they're a traffic accident --- and the veneration he's been subjected to is a bit silly. (The apotheosis of this comes in Star Trek VI, which is pure Mickey-Mouse stuff, even if it did motivate my work on translating Hamlet into Klingon.) That notwithstanding, Shakes was a very insightful writer, whose writing is a rare pleasure, and who deserves his place on every Anglo-Saxon bookshelf. (Not to mention a few Klingon ones!)
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
The content, like I mentioned, leaves me cold, and it's been a fair while since I've looked at his stuff attentively; but like his editor MacKenzie said, his coinages and expressions have the knack of exploding into your brain (Goldengrove unleaving was the one which did it for me), despite the tarnishing alliteration has received at the hands of the tabloids, and the hit-and-miss of his philology. Hopkins' English is a heightened, intensified English; it can't and shouldn't be imitated, but it's enough that it has been done, and that we can be enchanted by it. (Milroy, who has done a detailed linguistic analysis of Hopkins, is also a superstar for doing seminal work on language change in the Belfast where Hopkins died...)
William McGonagall (1825?-1902)
McGonagall is brilliantly incompetent; no satire from Spike Milligan or anyone else can hope to improve on the original. He goes out of his way to pick the most prosaic, mind-numbingly inappropriate rhyme available; as for his metre, he displays what one reviewer called "a calypso-like disregard for rhythm." (Providing perhaps the most conclusive evidence for why white people can't clap along to Prince.) We need poetasters like McGonagall, to give us a reference point against which to judge how bad a poet can be; and when it boils down to it, the man is just hilarious! Read some today; it'll do you a world of good. Indeed, sample this gem on Glasgow right now!
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Last revision: 1999-3-29