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Greek Poets Muse Austerity Measures: ‘We’ll Hawk the Parthenon to Buy Our Bread’

December 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
We examine the Greek economic crisis from a different angle -- from the perspective of poets, and through the prism of history, modern and ancient. Jeffrey Brown talks to poet and classicist A.E. Stallings, a resident of Athens for more than a decade, and poet Titos Patrikios, who has seen other dark times in Greek history.
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GWEN IFILL: Another way of looking at the ongoing economic crisis in Greece. 

Jeffrey Brown was in Athens recently and talked to two poets about hard times now and in the nation’s past. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  All right, so, sometimes, you’re out with the kids and a demonstration starts? 

ALICIA STALLINGS, Poet:  Well, we have got a friend who lives in the center, and we have had play dates where we have had to sort of figure out when we think the riot is going to start. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  An American poet in Athens, Alicia Stallings moved here 13 years ago with her Greek husband. 

ALICIA STALLINGS:  I think you have your sock inside out. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  They now have two young children, and have watched the nation go from the euphoria of the entry into the euro and the hosting of the Olympic Games to the despair of an ongoing financial crisis that’s having severe economic and social consequences. 

ALICIA STALLINGS:  You see — every time you walk down the street, there will be shops newly closed or having a sellout sale, or you see more homeless people on the streets.  You see more people begging, and a different class of people begging, not professional beggars, people who had recently been sort of somewhere at the bottom of the middle class. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  Stallings is trained as a classicist reading ancient Greek and Latin. 

She did an acclaimed translation of the Roman philosopher Lucretius’ “The Nature of Things,” and her own poetry has garnered several prizes.  In 2011, she was the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, the so-called genius award.  Her latest collection, titled “Olives,” explores, among other things, ancient and modern lives in her adopted home. 

ALICIA STALLINGS:  There’s weirdly a lot of energy in Athens.  And whether that’s good or bad, there’s a feeling. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  What kind of energy? 

ALICIA STALLINGS:  Maybe there’s a — that there’s nothing left to lose is a kind of freedom as well.  People are going out to plays.  They’re still going out and doing things, but, you know, with less money.  And — but there’s an urgency.  There are — poetry readings are very well attended.  Literary events are packed.  So I think…

JEFFREY BROWN:  Well, what do you think that — why do you think that is? 

ALICIA STALLINGS:  Well, A., I think it’s inexpensive.

 (LAUGHTER)

ALICIA STALLINGS:  Inexpensive entertainment. 

But, B., I think people want to be together.  They want to be talking to people. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  The crisis around her, she says, rarely makes it into her poetry in an explicit way.  But she did have one direct hit for us, a playful work in progress called “Austerity Measures.” 

ALICIA STALLINGS:  I love the term “austerity measures.”

 (LAUGHTER)

ALICIA STALLINGS:  It sounds so poetic. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  Even though it’s so real, nitty-gritty in what’s happening here? 

ALICIA STALLINGS:  Yes, but I love the idea of measures as — you know, as verse. 

It was prompted by a headline that I read somewhere, which was, “Greece Downgraded Deeper Into Junk,” the Greek bonds.  And it scanned nicely, and I just wanted to play with it.  So this is just playing with it. 

“Austerity Measures.”

If you believe the headlines, then we’re sunk.  The dateline oracle, giddy with dread, Greece downgraded deeper into junk.  Stash cash beneath the mattress, pack the trunk.  Will drachmas creep where euros fear to dread?  If you believe the headlines, then we’re sunk.  A crisis that lasts for years.  Call it a funk.  Austerity starves the more its maw is fed, and downgrades all our deepest bonds to junk. 

“Every politician is a punk, the right, the left, the blue, the green, the red, ministers in cahoots with the odd monk.  We have lost our marbles.  Elgin took a chunk.  Caryatid’s gone on strike.  Sit down instead.  Tear gas lingers like a whiff of skunk.  Weep, Pericles, or maybe just get drunk.  We will hawk the Parthenon to buy our bread.  If you believe the headlines, then we’re sunk, Greece downgraded deeper into junk.”

JEFFREY BROWN:  If these are interesting times in Greece, where you can see a man crawling into a recycling bin to cart away newspapers he will sell for a pittance, and, of course, the weekly, sometimes daily, protests by various government workers, well, Titos Patrikios is a man who knows interesting times. 

TITOS PATRIKIOS, Poet:  Interesting and difficult, but perhaps every interesting time is also a very difficult time.  Easy times are not interesting, perhaps. 

 (LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN:  Easy times are not interesting.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN:  A poet and elder statesman of Greek letters, he’s seen many of the hardships and horrors of Greek history in the 20th century, including the German occupation in World War II. 

TITOS PATRIKIOS:  Here is Athens during the occupation, a street in the center quarter of Athens, against the occupation. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  So this was part of your life at that time? 

TITOS PATRIKIOS:  Yes, somewhere, I was there.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Somewhere, you’re back in the crowd?

TITOS PATRIKIOS:  Yes. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  Even more devastating, he says, was the Greek civil war that followed, one that led to his own captivity and torture on an island prison. 

So you have seen much worse? 

TITOS PATRIKIOS:  I give always this example, that during the winter of 1940-’41, every day, I was going to my high school.  In order to get in the courtyard, I had to go over one, two, sometimes three dead people that died during the night there. 

And this is high matters.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Today, he sees his country in a different kind of crisis, one especially difficult for the young, that goes beyond just the economic. 

TITOS PATRIKIOS:  An economic crisis always creates also other crisis.  

JEFFREY BROWN:  What kind of crisis? 

TITOS PATRIKIOS:  Social crisis, personal crisis, psychological crisis, existential crisis.  Every latent crisis finds the possibility to come out. 

 (LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN:  You see that happening now? 

TITOS PATRIKIOS:  Yes, yes. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  A selection from seven decades of Patrikios’ poetry has been translated into English in a volume titled “The Lions’ Gate.”  The title poem ends likes this. 

TITOS PATRIKIOS: Our past is forever full, terrible, just as the story of what happened is terrible, carved as it is now, written on the lintel of the gate we pass through every day. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  Have you decided what the role of a poet is then? 

TITOS PATRIKIOS:  The role of a poet is to observe, not only to feel, to describe through his observations a small aspect that wasn’t seen up to his — to the moment that he writes down. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  Titos Patrikios still writes every day.  A new volume, in Greek, came out just this year.  And above all, it seems, he maintains his sense of humor, as when I asked his age. 

TITOS PATRIKIOS:  Eighty-four.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Eighty-four.

TITOS PATRIKIOS:  Eighty-four, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN:  Yes. 

TITOS PATRIKIOS:  Sometimes, I — I laugh with that. 

JEFFREY BROWN:  Why? 

TITOS PATRIKIOS:  I laugh because I think, incredible.  How did I manage to arrive to that age?  

 (LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN:  These days, Greece can use some of that laughter.  And with its own rich and often troubled history, from ancient times to today, the poet’s sense of purpose and survival. 

GWEN IFILL:  We have more poems from Stallings and Patrikios on our Poetry page, as well as a conversation with Greek novelist Ersi Sotiropoulos.  Find that on Art Beat.