Tsaloumas, perhaps one of the greatest of the Greek-Australian poets after Archbishop Stylianos, has led a life that reads like a veritable Odyssey. Born in 1921 on the island of Leros, which was then under Italian rule, his formal education was in Italian. His later schooling was on Rhodes where he also studied the violin. He came of age during the Italian and German occupation of Greece, and took part in the resistance, acting as a courier. In Greece, before migrating to Australia, he published two collections of poetry, one of which was printed with the help of the tremendous English writer and philhellene Lawrence Durrell, who met Tsaloumas on Rhodes and was impressed with his work.
He left for Australia in 1952 due to political persecution, where he earned a living by teaching. Very soon after he commenced writing again in Greek and had several volumes published. This first triumphant manifestation upon the difficult Australian poetic proscenium took place when a selection of his Greek poems was published in the bilingual edition The Observatory in 1983.
Then in 1988 his first English poems were published in Falcon Drinking. Since then he has published several more volumes of English poetry, gaining a considerable reputation both in Greece and Australia, obtaining, among other accolades, an Emeritus Award from Literature Board of the Australia Council for outstanding and lifelong contribution to Australian literature in 2002.
As a poet who has achieved acceptance within the mainstream, he is particularly lauded within the Greek-Australian cultural and literary millieu, such as that which exists and it is in this context that the Greek-Australian Cultural League of Melbourne organised a public reading of his work by the poet himself – a particularly singular event, since Dimitris Tsaloumas spends most of his time in Leros and is approaching the venerable age of ninety. The event was to be held in the English language, in the belief, as one of the Cultural League’s Committee members confided, that this would make the poet and his works accessible to the latter English speaking generations who may feel isolated by cultural and literary events conducted in the Greek language, largely for the first generation.
As such, a large audience was expected and it was the poet himself who made the following prescient and cynical remark to one of the organisers, a day prior: “How will two thousand people fit in this small area?”
Accordingly, the turn-out was slightly disappointing, the poet receiving an audience no where near commesnurate with his stature. It is a sad reality that while accomplished poets such as Tsaloumas receive accolades and recognition by the literatii, the community at large know hardly anything of them. In a community where cultural and literary pursuits invariably mix with social aspirations, launches of lesser works purporting to be literature can haul in capacity crowds whereas a public reading by a truly accomplished and recognised as such poet, fails to capture the enthusiasm of the first generation.
Furthermore, there was an almost total absence of English speakers of the second generation at the reading, tending to suggest that it is more than just a language barrier that keeps the latter generations away from events organised by the first generation. While the roots of the chasm between the generations are complex and cannot bear examination here, perhaps it is high time that the first generation, while well meaning, should desist from attempting to organise events for the latter generations. Should those latter generations, most of whom have been born and educated in this country and able to move seamlessly within the echelons of its social fabric exhibit the desire to organise similar events for themselves, then they are more than capable of doing so. The fact that they overwhelmingly have not, seems to speak volumes as to their attitude to the first generation’s pursuits and concerns, and their Greek, as opposed to ethnic minority heritage in general.
Conversely, it was heartening and deeply touching to witness a first generation most of whom find English challenging, sit patiently through an exposition of Tsaloumas’ works and then the reading in English of his poems. They sat, allowing the sound bytes to wash over them enthralled, perhaps not comprehending as much as they may have had the whole event been conducted in Greek but nonetheless, spellbound by Tsaloumas’ electric presence.
For indeed Tsaloumas, for all his diminutive size, is charismatic. His wide eyes are the true eyes of the poet- all seeing and possessing an incredible piercing gaze. His voice, when reciting is deep and gravelly, like the recording of an ancient phonograph record, and it rises and falls periodically with all the dramatic intensity of an olde worlde thespian. The Greek burr to his cultivated English lends to it a Welsh effect and one could have been forgiven for thinking that they were listening to Dylan Thomas recitation. When, to the relief of the audience, recitations commenced in Greek, Tsaloumas’ listeners were practically euphoric.
It is not difficult to see why. Tsaloumas’ language may appear at times to be deceptively simple, but the images and themes he weaves with them are profound and there is something to be found for everyone in his work. Furthermore, the audience was manifestly proud of our Grand Old Man’s accomplishments and wanted to bask in their peer’s adulation of him.
In a recent article titled 'Only Pinter remains to question authority', English literary theorist and thinker Terry Eagleton bemoans the decline of politically-engaged writing in English. He criticises, among others, the once radical, now conservative migrant writers like V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie who, after an initial period of producing exciting work, have become 'more interested in adopting than challenging the conventions of their place of refuge'., Ali Alizadeh levels this criticism at Tsaloumas, stating that “after this auspicious entry into the milieu of Australian literature, however, Tsaloumas seems to have settled all too comfortably into his position as the sole non-Anglo-Celtic name in the elite anthologies of contemporary Australian verse. Over the decades his poetry has also lost much of its richness and sophistication, to the point that [it] displays the same chauvinism and 'old age conservatism' that one would find in work by many 'established' Australian poets of the dominant Anglo-Celtic culture.”
This is a little unkind and does not take into account the differences of perspective, introspection and self-examination that come with age. While I would argue that Tsaloumas’ later works stand up to literary criticism well, of particular concern is not so much Tsaloumas’ continued appreciation by the mainstream but rather his appreciation by our community. His bilingual poems should be taught in Greek schools and in particular, at VCE level. And we should all take time out to heed his masterfully woven and prophetic words, as best we can: “All my life long, I’ve hankered after simplicity. When night falls, don’t come to light candles and pour the wine. There’s not enough for two; I cannot share my hunger.”
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 23 April 2011