poetic reality no19: The Waste Land’s Centenary Part 2 – A Waste Land in Athens? The Afterlife of Ruins in Greek Urban Poetics

poetic reality no19: The Waste Land’s Centenary Part 2 – A Waste Land in Athens? The Afterlife of Ruins in Greek Urban Poetics

poetic reality no19: The Waste Land’s Centenary Part 2 – A Waste Land in Athens? The Afterlife of Ruins in Greek Urban Poetics 3300 5100 Athens in a poem

 Directly Connected to the Abyss: 

The Afterlife of Ruins in Greek Urban Poetics – the Case of Athens

What are we to make of the ruins of Athens? The mind naturally wanders to ancient ruins, monuments, cultural capital. It is true that the city is rife with them, ruins of the past asserting the city’s longevity, its symbolic significance as a true palimpsest. Yet ruins are much more than that. They are a unique vocabulary constantly in the making. This is the story of the afterlife of ruins in Greek urban poetics.

A walk through the archaeological site of Kerameikos, between Ermou, Piraeus, and Asomaton Streets on the northwest edge of the city of Athens offers an ideal starting point. As suggested by its name, Kerameikos (from the Greek word for pottery) was a settlement of potters and vase painters, and the main production centre of the famous Attic vases. Potters were drawn to Kerameikos by the clay deposits of Iridanos, the small river that runs through the Kerameikos archaeological site. Those parts of the Kerameikos that were located near the riverbank suffered continuously from the overflowing river and so the area was converted into a burial ground which gradually developed into the most important cemetery of ancient Athens. As Nathan Arrington writes,

the cemetery was enmeshed in a thick cultural web that emphasized the unity of the polis and the continuity and survival of the living community rather than the loss of its individual dead. […] Visitors to the graves were not confronted by the dead alone. By gathering repeatedly as a community for celebrations in the very space where they buried their dead, the Athenians proved the endurance and continuity of the polis, their gods, and themselves. (2010, 528)

The history of Kerameikos, combining the craftsmanship of ancient potters with a hub forging a collective identity for Athenians, was a fertile space for celebrating creativity in a place where art defied the laws of mortality. 

In his poem ‘The Tombs of Kerameikos’ (1892), Palamas celebrated life: ‘Tombs filled with energy, tombs, filled with life!’ (‘Τάφοι γεμάτοι ενέργεια, τάφοι, ζωή γεμάτοι!’) As Liana Giannakopoulou notes, the sculptures and tomb reliefs of Kerameikos were for Palamas symbolic of art’s triumph over death as well as of the enlivening power of the modern Greek language: ‘Unlike the Parthenon, the Kerameikos was the one archaeological site Palamas was genuinely fond of, free as it was of the national questions that connected the Parthenon to a rhetorical veneration of classical antiquity.’ (2007, 81-83) The city’s association with sculpture, Giannakopoulou adds, makes Athens the symbol of the ideal world of art ‘revealed above all in the relics scattered on its soil’ (2007, 89) A few decades later, in 1920, Lambros Porfyras maintained a similar view of the attic figures on the tomb reliefs of Kerameikos which he portrayed as still living in the present moment in his poem ‘Kerameikos’ (‘Όχι όπως λεν, ότι δε ζουν οι τόσο αγαπημένες / οι αρχαίες οι αττικές μορφές στ’ ανάγλυφα εκεί πέρα / του λιόχαρου Κεραμεικού· νιοί, γέροι, νιές παρθένες, / όλοι τους ζουν και χαίρονται το φως και τον αγέρα.’) 

The strange mysticism of the place persevered. In 1986, Dimitris Papaditsas ascertained the continued allure of a place where one’s shadow stays on even when one is not there, in the same way as one is retained in memory long after they are gone (‘Έλειπα κι έπεφτε η σκιά μου / στην επιτύμβια πλάκα / ΕΠΙΚΤΩ / ΣΩΚΡΑΤΟΥΣ / ΜΙΛΗΣΙΑ / που σ’ έχω δει;’, ‘Kerameikos’), and in 2015 Giorgos Kartakis found in Kerameikos the now dispersed foundations of a long gone city but also the foundations of those elements that make one feel one’s mortality, an experience long sung by poets of the past and the present ( ‘και άκουγα από μακριά τους ποιητές να καταφθάνουν / την κλίνη αυτοί σηκώνοντας / των αφανών – / νερό έτρεχε / μέσα απ’ τα χέρια μου’, ‘Kerameikos’). The ruins of Kerameikos have maintained their signification over the years and have reached the twenty-first century untouched. This may be because of the strong link the place has both with art and human decay making it an ideal space for a celebration of what can be termed as immortal mortality. The focus here is on decay as a link to time gone and time to come, a trait that makes human art impossible to defeat and Athens a more humane city.

For Greek poet Yannis Patilis, Athens is a paradigmatic place for an exploration of the signification of ruins and for measuring oneself against them. Ruins are for him emblematic of a desired look into one’s failures and mistakes. In the volume What’s broken is more resilient: Verse and thoughts about the age of ruins (2016), Patilis suggests that it is only by looking at our failures and mistakes that we may come close to truly understanding the elements that define us individually and collectively. Fragmentation and decay are for him the only constants in our world since the ultimate state of each culture is to be found in ruins (2016, 20, 28):

Crossing for half a century now, since my first university years, the same places around old Athens, the one built on the ruins of the ancient one, and finding amongst the humble post-revolution small houses or next to the now outdated ‘modern’ blocks of flats the same broken columns, seen by numerous others centuries ago (to be seen after me by numerous others as well), I feel nostalgic about no ancient world, no imaginary and irreversible Whole. Knowing all too well that I too am already ancient, I know very well that I have found myself in the correct place. (Athens, March 2016)

In his 1984 collection Ζεστό Μεσημέρι/Warm Afternoon, we find two poems that may further illuminate his standpoint. The first poem presents Athens as a privileged place where one may find a large amount of ruins which the poet considers to be pieces of a whole forming one’s sense of identity:

I can’t see why I should go.
Go where?
Where else will I find so many ruins (‘ερείπια’)
So many pieces of a whole.
Better stay here.
Between the ruins of yesterday
And the ones to come.

The poet’s emphasis on significant pieces of a whole instead of an aspiration to find the whole itself is also there in another poem in which the poet talks of his love of Attica’s blocks of flats for revealing to him ‘the failure of all meaning’ so that he may achieve through this a sense of wholeness which is more than the Parthenon could ever offer. The modern day buildings reveal the failure of meaning as they interrupt the sight of the ruins through which the whole was often imagined when antiquities, as Yannis Hamilakis notes, were perceived as encapsulating a ‘nostalgia for the whole’ (2007, 277). The modern residential buildings, viewed as ruins in the making or modern day relics spread around the urban setting, offer Patilis a similar sense of mortality as the ruins of Kerameikos to his predecessors. For Patilis, no meaningful whole has ever been achieved and this failure is more meaningful than anything else. The city’s apartment blocks, structures seemingly standing on the other side of meaningful ruins yet also ruins in the making themselves, are a starting point for structuring a sense of meaning in the present moment, time and place. Accepting this is happiness as it leads to the only sense of meaning one may wish for; meaning lies in failure and ruins are pieces of such a meaning aiding an understanding of the concepts of fragmentation and decay which define our lives.

O land of Attica
I love your blocks of flats more
than the Parthenon.
Without them I wouldn’t even have seen you
White warm columns of tears.
I am in love
And this
Does not matter at all.
And I am happy
For the failure of all meaning.
And I am unprepared
Deeply unprepared for all.

A brief journey back in time reveals how a vocabulary of ruins is a constant in twentieth and twenty-first century Greek urban poetry with ruins (either ‘ερείπια’ or ‘χαλάσματα’) becoming symbolic both of the futility of any sense of architectural stability and of the fragility of the present moment. For the purposes of this mapping we would need to take into account the fact that in the Greek language, the word ‘ερείπιο’ may be used to refer to both archaeological sites (often also referred to as ‘monuments’, ‘μνημεία’) and urban structures abandoned to decay or bearing the heavy marks of the passing of time and history. Another option for ruins could be ‘χαλάσματα’, a word also referring to ‘rubble’. 

In his 1927 poem ‘The Plain and the Cemetery / Η πεδιάς και το νεκροταφείον’ (from the collection Elegies and Satires), Kostas Karyotakis presented a scenery of ruin – blood and tears, stone crosses, a sky devoid of all stars, a row of ruins and a gallows – to talk about the political situation of his day after the First World War and the Asia Minor Disaster (Papakostas 1993, 59-60): ‘Beautiful, hideous, austere scene! / An oil painting by a great master. / However, it’s missing a row of ruins / and the official gallows of Pángalos.’ (Trans. by William W. Reader and Keith Taylor)

In 1933, Nicolas Calas’ poem ‘Temple of Olympian Zeus’ («Στήλες Ολυμπίου Διός») described the poet walking amongst the cold silent stone columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus in central Athens noticing that not even a single shadow echoed in the ruins (‘καμιά σκιά δεν αντηχεί στα ερείπια’). In the poem, the ruins have been transformed into a collection of dumb fragments lying on the earth (‘βουβαμένα θρύψαλα κείτονται στη γη’) and the coherence of history has vanished, the dark associations the poet makes reflecting perhaps his utter disappointment with Athens at the time (Hoff 2009, 230).

Five years later, Nikos Engonopoulos found consolation in the ‘splendid ruins’ (‘υπέροχα ερείπια’) of the Acropolis amidst ‘the ashen atmosphere’ of his present day (‘Tram and Acropolis, 1938, trans. by Yannis Goumas). For him, ruins signified hope and the prospect of new life ‘exactly like / a red flower / amid green leaves’ echoing in this the lonely flower appearing in a 1892 poem by Kostis Palamas (from his collection Eyes of my Soul), a poet who, Giannakopoulou notes, believed in the rejuvenating power that the modern Greek language could exert over ancient relics and set his work against the advocates of katharevousa who established a direct connection with sculptural monuments of antiquity (2007, 70, 76). In the poem ‘A Flower / Έν άνθος’, the flower is found amongst the ruins of the Pathenon (‘Κι ο Παρθενώνας φεγγοβόλος / που εδώ θωρώ / ερείπιον είναι, ερείπιον όλος / λυπητερό’) reflecting the Romantic theory of art which was virtually inseparable from the doctrine of organic form (McFarland 1981, 36). Its brief yet vibrant life becomes symbolic of the rejuvenating power of modern art and, for Palamas, of demotic language.

Finally, in 1953, Alexandros Baras described the ancient theatre of Herodes Atticus as a refuge in the centre of Athens, a ruin still resonant in the present day despite being centuries old (‘λάλον ερείπιο, γήρας μουσικό!’, ‘Odeon of Herodes Atticus / Ωδείον Ηρώδου του Αττικού’). The timing of the poem is important as the period between the 1930s and the 1950s was a period of intense urbanization in Greece after a series of wars, a subsequent influx of refugees to the country and an increase of internal immigrants coming to the capital, events which were gradually turning Athens into a modern fragmented city (Papageorgiou 2000, 517-519). The modern apartment blocks rising in Athens were seen by Seferis as a force of destruction sweeping the city (‘Nightingales and olive trees / swept by block of flats / the people dispersed by machines’, ‘Hippius Colonus’, May 1970) while in 1954 Nikos-Alexis Aslanoglou also described Athens as a city filled with ‘abandoned windows/ερειπωμένα παράθυρα’ one must flee from (‘Athens’, 1954), an absent city which had become its own ghost in post-war years. This was a time when cement was taking over the city making its inhabitants, the poet suggests, lose their emotional balance and contact with one another. For Aslanoglou, the people were left desolate in a silent city with only the faded paint of the houses and the smell of gas left to deepen one’s feelings of decay. 

There’s an additional group of poems which are about significant remnants of the past without using the term ‘ruin’ as such. These poems explore the city’s unconscious and reveal the expansion of the city’s symbolic capital and its transmutation into a process, the process of dismantling discarded objects and reimagining them as cultural objects of memory to give them life in a new realm. As Rebecca Solnit suggests,

ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, and in this truly brings it to life. With ruins a city springs free of its plans into something as intricate as life, something that can be explored but perhaps not mapped.’(2005, 88-90)

In Yannis Ritsos’ 1974 poem ‘The Door of the Polytechnic’ – ‘On this fallen door we gave the oath again /oath of youth, life, freedom, oath of dream and action’ – the poet focuses on a single object that holds within it the memory of the events of the evening of November 17, 1973 when an AMX30class military tank broke the main gate of the Athens Polytechnic and charged inside to drown the uprising of the students protesting against the military junta. Many people were killed and the uprising ended but the Polytechnic events ushered forth the fall of the dictatorship the following year. The crashed main gate still remains in the grounds of the Polytechnic to the present day as a reminder of these events.

Other poems may become ruins themselves, that is, remnants of events that may be easily forgotten. We find two such poems in 2011 and 2013, respectively, carrying the memory of the events of May 5, 2010 when, during protests against austerity measures, a fire in the building of Marfin bank on 23 Stadiou Str in central Athens caused the death of three people. The poem ’23 Stadiou Str’ by George Prevedourakis envisions a tour guide of the future visiting the place but finding no words to describe how everything was reduced to ash (‘Κάτι πήγε να ψελλίσει η ξεναγός / μα ξέχασε πώς προφέρεται / στα καντονέζικα / η στάχτη’, «Σταδίου 23», στιγμιόγραφο, 2011) while in the poem ‘Marfin blues’ (dated 5-5-2010) Theodoros Rakopoulos revisits the events of May 5th finding one’s own burnt hand handing the baton over to oneself as if urging one to keep on fighting (‘Περάσαμε στην άλλη διάσταση / Κοιτάμε το δικό μας χέρι, πάλι / Δευτερόλεπτα μόλις μπροστά, κουρδισμένο/ Μας δίνει την σκυτάλη / (Ίσα που το αγγίζουμε): Aπανθρακωμένο – / Από άλλη γη αυτή η επανάσταση’, «ΤΕΣΣΕΡΑΠΟΙΗΜΑΤΑΠΥΡΟΜΑΧΙΚΑ», Ορυκτό δάσος, 2013). 

The ‘failure of meaning’ that Patilis highlighted in his 1984 poem ‘O land of Attica’ was a notion also visited by Elias Lagios in his Erēmē Gē, a leftist rendition of a Greek Waste Land, a long poem in which history and the concept of the ruin both acquire metaphysical connotations (Georganta 2015, 21).  In a post-Civil War rendering of Greek history mirroring the format of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and its translation into Greek by George Seferis in 1931, the poem offers death for resurrection and ‘human ruins’ instead of marble-threshing floors: ‘The roots clutch, the branches grow / Out of these human ruins’, «Οι ρίζες απλώνουνται γρυπές, θεριεύουν τα κλωνάρια / Μέσα σ’αυτά τ’ανθρώπινα ερείπια» (ll.19-20). In Eliot’s 1922 The Waste Land Athens was one in a series of ‘Falling Towers […] voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells’ (ll. 373-384). In Lagios’ Erēmē Gē the ruins of the city have been transformed into ‘human ruins’ and this depiction is closely linked to ‘the deforming of man’ foretold in the poem as a tortured ‘repetition’.

This marks the beginning of a new cycle in the poetic life of ruins continued in Andreas Pagoulatos’ Perama (2006), a poem set in the homonymous district of Athens, as the ‘extermination / of the humble / the outcasts / the predetermined’, all ‘victims / sacrificed / by the voracious / vicious money’, as well as in George Prevedourakis’ long poem Kleftiko (2013), a poem also heavily located in Athens, in events that have already happened before they have. As suggested in Three Long Poems in Athens (2018), ‘this return to the inescapability of predetermined lives ever haunting the scene is a common element in all three poems, whether the place is called ‘Erēmē Gē’, ‘Perama’ or Kleftiko’s ‘Fevgada’, an element which in turn transforms Athens into the centre of ‘meta-politics’, which is the realm of literature.’ (Georganta 2018, ix-x) By the time of Kleftiko, ‘human ruins’ have become human ‘shipwrecks’ in a ‘meta-hellenic night’ as ruins are set against deceptive appearances and the façade of prosperity in the 21st century: 

Eliot’s Eugenides has become Mr. Partaloglou, a pawnbroker of gold jewellery (Kleftiko, Part II) in Fevgada, which is not a financial centre like The Waste Land’s London City but resembles Seferis’ country closed in by ‘two black Symblegades’ (Mythistorema, 1935) as can be seen in Prevedourakis’ allusion to Pagoulatos’ Perama, the suburb of Piraeus described as an enclosed sea («περίκλειστη θάλασσα»). In Kleftiko, there is no crowd flowing over London Bridge (The Waste Land, l. 61), but ‘London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down’ has become, together with ‘Three blind mice’, part of the city’s ‘corroded mythology’ («μες την οξειδωμένη της μυθολογία»), a nursery rhyme for Greece’s post-war financial assistance (Kleftiko, Part IV). […] A story is here foretold, as in Eliot’s The Waste Land (‘the event has already happened / before it has’, Kleftiko, Part I) but the one who ‘perceived the scene’ and ‘foretold the rest’ as another Tiresias is now Bloomberg. (Georganta 2018, 144)

Ruins have been versatile throughout the twentieth century. In the 1890s, they were the backdrop against which to measure the power of language (Palamas). In the 1920s, they showed the dire political situation of the country (Karyotakis). In the 1930s, they became both a symptom of a loss of historical coherence (Calas) and symbolic of the need to find a new language to escape the ‘ashen atmosphere’ of the present (Engonopoulos) while from then onwards, as the city was changing, the ruins became signifiers of a decaying city (Aslanoglou, Seferis) or of the failure of all meaning with which art alone can grapple (Patilis). Now, time and poetic imagination have transformed the ruins of Athens. Rather than looking for the missing whole, as in the beginning of the twentieth century, poets celebrate the loss of meaning as if building something new out of the ruins. An imaginative space is thus created where deceptive appearances are destroyed as a counterweight to the cultivation of ‘sanitized collective memories’ and ‘uncritical aesthetic experiences’ (Harvey 2000, 168). This space is the allegory of Athens if allegory, as Benjamin saw it, has its place in art as ‘the antithesis to the beautiful appearance <Schein> in which signifier and signified flow into each other.’ (Benjamin 1999, 325, 374) The allegory of Athens is the failure of all meaning as Patilis pointed out, the antithesis to the appearance of an imagined whole where there is a place for everything. Ruins are embodiments of allegory in the city, history distilled into fragments to assume, as Benjamin suggests, the form of the process of irresistible decay (Benjamin 2009, 178). 

For Charles Baudelaire, whose work is a paradigm in viewing the poet in urban surroundings, beauty in the modern city is to be found in its transitory and fleeting nature with the poet on a mission to ‘distil the eternal from the transitory’ (Mayne 1995, 4). Yet in Athens, the transitory has become the eternal in poetic imagination as it is decay itself which has become the main allegory of the city linking its past to its present time. ‘It is for images like these that I love the city’, Kostas Kostakos wrote in his 2014 poem ‘Beautiful city’ which was accompanied by the photo of an abandoned city kiosk: ‘In the country, abandonment keeps getting embellished by nature. Yet urban ruins (‘χαλάσματα’) are directly connected to the abyss.’  


P.S. This essay presents material explored until 2014 even though the year is now 2022 and more poems relevant to the subject may have been produced. This will be the focus of a later paper.

Read The Waste Land’s Centenary Part 1 here.


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———. 2015. “A Greek Waste Land and the Meta-Writing of History: Elias Lagios’ Erēmē Gē (1984)”. In Comparative Critical Studies 12.1 (February), 7-25.

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Patilis, Yannis. 2016. Το σπασμένο είναι πιο ανθεκτικό: Στίχοι και σκέψεις για την ηλικία των ερειπίων [What’s broken is more resilient: Verse and thoughts about the age of ruins]. Athens: Gutenberg.

Solnit, Rebecca. 2005. A Field Guide to Getting Lost. London: Penguin books.

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