He grew up on Lesbos, the home of the most famous female Greek poet of antiquity Sappho. So that was a good start for him in terms of poetical leanings and he did write about her but it was at the insistence of George Seferis that he published his first poem in the journal New Letters in 1935. Ioannis Valaoritis later assisted in this process due to a shared interest in French surrealism. It was however the fact that he remained rather moderate in his beliefs throughout the course of his life that he became so popular. He wasn’t outspoken, religious or scandalous in terms of sexual content. He didn’t even look back to Ancient Greece or Byzantium. Instead he focused on the here and now.
He went to the University of Athens to study Law being from an industrial family but didn’t graduate and instead became a leader in romantic modernist poetry. He also changed his name so that he wasn’t associated with his family and it was explained in the New York Times that his name was a composite meaning Greece, hope, freedom and Eleni a figure from Greek mythology personifying beauty and sensuality. As a result of his values he exiled later himself to Paris in 1967 during the start of the military junta that lasted until 1974.
During the Second World War he was involved in the army and afterwards in the Greek National Radio Foundation. He was twice the programme director of the National Radio Foundation, a member of the National Theatre’s administrative council, President of the administrative council of radio and television as well as a member of the consultative committee of the national Tourist’s Organization for the Athens festival. As a result for all of his efforts in helping to grow the culture in Athens I’m sure its why he became the second Greek poet in 1979 to win the Nobel prize in Literature. He also received the state literature prize in 1960, the Order of the Phoenix in 1965 and an honorary doctorate from the University of Thessaloniki in 1975. Also no doubt as a result of his popularity, some of his work has been set to the music of Mikis Theodorakis.
He was well travelled during his life visiting the UK, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, the USA as well as time spent in Russia, Bulgaria and Albania during the war. He led a fulfilled if rather uninteresting life compared to many of the other poets I have written about here. I’m not even sure whether he married or had children. For a Greek view on things Odysseus Elytis
Details of the rest of his personal life can be found here Odysseas Elytis.
This is the eighth post in the series of Greek but mainly Lefkádian writers and poets which includes a bonus post from Sententiae Antiquae on Sappho.
Other series include Greek Authors, Musicians, Famous Greeks, Foreigners who have an interest in Greece and Rural Villages in Lefkás. All the links can be found here Series links.