Nikephoros Vrettakos – The Poet of Optimism

Mt. Taygetos

By Matina Psyhogeos

Thursday, December 18, 1986

Of all the titles bestowed upon Nikephoros Vrettakos, the magnificent poet : poet of love; of peace; of brotherhood; of Taygetos; the “poet of optimism” is the one I prefer! The following verses from his poetry, my favorites, illustrate why?

Καθώς κοιτάς τον Τα’ύ’γετο, σημείωσε τα φαράγγια
που πέρασα, και τις κορφές που πάτησα και τ’άστρα
που είδα. Πες τους από μένα ,
πες τους από τα δάκρυά μου
ότι επιμένω ακόμα, πως ο κόσμος
είναο όμορφος!

( As you look at Taygetos, take note of the ravines that I passed. The summits that I trod, and the stars that I saw, Tell them from me, tell them fro my tears, I still insist that ‘the world/(people) is beautiful”)

With this the poet clearly demonstrates his love for nature and expresses his faith, hope and optimism for humanity and his fellow man. This demonstration and optimism is more appreciated when the reader is familiar with the suffering and hardship that this sensitive man had endured.

One of the most gratifying and thrilling moments of my life was my meeting with Nikephoros Vrettakos, in the summer of 1982 in Montreal, Canada. I was longing to meet this person about whom I had read and heard so much since childhood! I was a little apprehensive, however, because many times in the past, had been disappointed when, finally I met someone I had admired and even idolized. But Vrettakos was even more than what I hoped and expected! Simple, sincere, unpretentious, humble, dignified/ At the same time, he carried with him an aura of his importance, an awareness of his destiny. He is the personification of his poetry, the image of his ideas and beliefs.

All the qualities that distinguish his work –love, brotherhood, solidarity, warmth, and integrity – are deeply etched in his personality. In his unique way he makes you feel comfortable, special and very happy you had the chance to get to know him. This encounter will stay with me forever!

The objective of this article is not to critique Vrettakos’ work – I am not qualified to do that; It is simply an attempt to express my gratitude for the satisfaction and joy his work has given me over the years, and to introduce one of the best modern Greek poets to people unfamiliar with his incredible work.

Vrettakos, for me, is the most consistent and most positive poet of his era. His message is always clear, simple, concise and definite. Since his first published poems in 1929, he has been single-minded and in accord with his convictions. The reader knows always what to expect, there are no contradictions and no inconsistencies in Vrettakos’ poetry! Brotherhood, peace, love, humanism, coexistence, are the prominent themes.

From his : “”What the earth needs is a little love, a little soul,” and “Conscience is man’s depth, love is his breadth” to his : “We should attempt to attain the existence of fewer, as possible, people who are enemies.” the reader sees that his expressions are filled with emotion, discipline, clarity, and they follow a concrete course with a definite and structured goal. .His intentions are manifest in everything he writes.

His work – a superb poetic work of modern times – is an inspiration. His entire effort a human voice, tender, sweet, unadulterated that surpasses the Greek boundaries and reaches a universal audience, sending messages of love, hope, and loyalty to all mankind! His love of MAN/ the human being, is a constant conquest that costs him pain and suffering:

( Ανάσκαψα όλη τη γη να σε βρω,
κοσκίκισα μες στην καρδιά μου
την ‘ερμο, ήξερα πως δίχως
τον άνθρωπο, δεν είναι
πλήρες του ήλιου το φως )

( I dug up the universe to find you. I shifted in my heart the desert, I knew without man, sun’s light isn’t

Throughout his work one feels Vrettakos is trying desperately to uplift man, to make him something special with unique qualities. He is laboring to make him realize that of all creatures, he has the greatest ability to shape his own life, his own world, his own destiny!

( Ποιός είναι άραγε μεγαλύτερος, από τους δυό;
ο κόσμος ή ο άνθρωπος; )
( Who, I wonder is greater of the two? The world or man?)

Consistently, he answers his own question by giving man greater power and luster! :

( Το σύμπαν ολόκληρο είναι ένα όστρακο
όπου εκκολαύτηκε το λαμπρό
μαργαριτάρι ο άνθρωπος !)

( The entire universe is an oyster, where the brilliant/pearl, man was hatched !)

In his constant and desperate effort, however, to elevate man and to place him on a pedestal, he loses, somewhat, his objectivity and he does not hesitate to question the sincerity and intentions of others, as the reader often sees in his work, and most especially, in his famous “ Letter to Robert Oppenheimer”.

In his poetry and prose, he loves “man” as much as he loves life. He loves him unconditionally, completely, at the same time with humility and timidness, as if he was embarrassed by that love, that devotion, that loyalty. He seems to accept man, not as he is, but as he sees him. He praises his virtues and ignores or minimizes his vices, he raises him to a pinnacle and refuses to see his shortcomings.  Sometimes, he feels the need to scream, to protest, to chide, and to reprimand man (the human being.)  Instead, he smiles and softly, gently and compassionately, with a poet’s sensitivity , he advises and counsels him.

One of the characteristics of Vrettakos’ poetry is frugality and deliberate zealousness to shun superfluous words and ostentatious idioms and expressions. Perhaps this is why some critics try to minimize his important contribution to literature, by stating that his poetry lacks the nimbleness and agility of others. I often wonder, did they ever consider that perhaps it was intentionally done in order to give his poetry depth, sincerity, his own emblem, his own humanism!  Personally, being familiar with the Laconian/ laconic upbringing, along with his innate talent and compassionate nature, I believe that was his own signature, his own legacy!

Reading one of Vrettakos’ texts, one is immediately aware of the incessant use of the first person, as if his poetry was autobiographical or confessional. Paying closer attention, however, one realizes that Vrettakos’ autobiographical character expands to the point that is no longer the person Vrettakos, but “man”, every man and with him, all men with the broader meaning : the world, mankind, where rocks and stars, plants and animals, have their own harmonic, peaceful, indisputable place and existence!

Another great love of his is Taygetos, his beloved mountain. His relationship with it is his affinity of hope, joy, creativity, expectation and alliance. In his many poems about Taygetos, he expresses his love, worship,gratitude, and his appreciation towards the mountain.

Vrettakos’ greatest passion and concentration, however, is his commitment to Peace and Brotherhood! With clarity in his thought, he searches everywhere for attainment of that precious peace! He invites mankind to strive for harmony. He challenges the world to unite and join in brotherhood and expresses his most ardent wish, that humanity will spurn hatred and will embrace love and compassion!

Recently he was asked by a reporter: “what his message was.” the poet simply replied : “Δώστε τα χέρια/Reach out/ Extend your hands!”

His poem, one of his finest “ Invitation/Προσκλητήριο” – distinctly illustrates the consistent message of this magnificent human being!

Editor’s Note: Matina Psyhogeos
is the Director of Modern Greek at Hellenic
College/Holy Cross. The author of several
books is distantly related to Nikephoros

The above article is a reprint from the original, which was published by The Hellenic Chronicle, in 1986!
Nikephoros Vrettakos passed away August 4, 1991 at the age of 79!