Edmund Keeley’s Poems of Age
—T. S. Eliot
It is rare and wonderful to discover a poet disguised as a man of letters. I had known Edmund Keeley (1928–2022) as a translator of poets, a novelist, critic and editor, a scholar and Princeton professor. Robert Fagles, his friend and fellow translator, had called him “the American voice of modern Greek poetry.” Keeley’s translations and tireless advocacy had contributed to Nobel Prizes for both George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. Some of this work had been done with others, like Philip Sherrard and George Savidis, but Keeley had done much himself, including Ritsos in Parentheses, the book that introduced Yannis Ritsos to a wide readership in English. Now we have these poems written in his final decade, giving us a warm and welcome sense of the man who wrote them.
My own obsession with modern Greek poetry from C. P. Cavafy to the present day began with Keeley’s versions, an indispensable introduction. I read these books and some of Keeley’s novels and most of his scholarship. We corresponded a bit, met for dinner once in Athens with our mutual friend Chip Ammerman, who ran the Fulbright program there. On another occasion I heard him lecture at a venerable Athenian institution, the Gennadius Library, on his friendship with Seferis. A fit man, bearded and genial, Keeley had a way of putting his juniors at ease. He was funny and unstuffy in spite of all he had accomplished in a long career. He enjoyed the pleasures of both body and mind, which some of us associate with living in Greece. He was well-rounded, articulate and engaged in the highest levels of modern Greek studies.
Then, having thought I knew all there was to know about Edmund Keeley, whose friends called him Mike, I was surprised to learn that he was writing poetry. Roughly a decade ago he began sending poems to The Hudson Review, where I am an advisory editor, and we published some of them. He had apparently been hurt into poetry by the death of his wife, Mary, in 2012. The poems I read in typescript were not formal or ornamental in any way. They had nothing to prove but spoke in disarmingly simple terms. They were elegant and genuine. They did not strain for authenticity but achieved it naturally. I was surprised, but I don’t know why I should have been, that after translation, he found a new pathway through poems.
I suppose it’s because one doesn’t typically think of old men writing poetry. The author of these poems was in his eighties. I thought of Robert Frost, who had lived into his eighties but was well past his prime as a poet. Frost wrote that “all poets I have ever heard of struck their note long before forty.” Was that true? Thomas Hardy had written well in his eighties, and so had Goethe. Richard Wilbur wrote into his nineties. Stanley Kunitz as well. Frost had not only been thinking about one’s physical age, but also about one’s spirit, “how young one has to be or stay” to write good poems. He wrote, “Young poetry is the breath of parted lips. For the spirit to survive, the mouth must find how to firm and not to harden.” Somehow Mike Keeley had kept his spirit young even when his body aged and he suffered the inevitable losses of a long life. The poems gathered in this book, some of them written shortly before his death at ninety-four in 2022, reflect that youthful spirit even when their subject is mortality.
Indeed, the life and work of Edmund Keeley demonstrate that we generalize at our peril about the poetic capabilities of the old and the young. If most poetic careers peter out after a few decades, some of them get a late start and endure much longer than we might have thought possible. To take one classical example, Sophocles lived and wrote into his nineties. Another poet, Virginia Hamilton Adair, born in 1913, had fallen into obscurity until she published a new book in her eighties when she was nearly blind. Keeley’s poems are surprisingly good, and they lend themselves to a shapely and beautiful book, a book that has much to offer us concerning age and grief, love and friendship, marriage and devotion. They also record a love affair with Greece, a lifetime of taking in the tragic sense of life and the resilience Greece continues to teach us. Edmund Keeley never stopped exploring. He lived well, and he wrote well, and his legacy has yet to be fully measured. These twenty-five poems of age will be an important part of that legacy.
Perhaps because he was born in Damascus in 1928 and spent much of his life abroad, he never seemed narrowly American. He was a man of the world, the son of a diplomat (a career his brother, Robert, would also follow) and knew something of life in many countries. He also knew how honorable a life of government service could be, which might have given him a special understanding of George Seferis, who spent his career in the Greek diplomatic service.
Keeley wrote of public servants “who were professionally committed to upholding the principles of government, including civil liberties, that their oath pledged them to and who were both sophisticated and relatively independent in their judgement of political events.” He added,
My father had been such a man, perhaps too outspoken against policies that he considered unjust, but not prepared to manipulate others or be manipulated by them against the terms of his oath, even in the name of what others might perceive to be the national interest. And my brother, a career diplomat, was such a man too, as were many colleagues of his that I had met over the years.
These words come from one of Keeley’s most unusual books, The Salonika Bay Murder: Cold War Politics and the Polk Affair (1989), a work that skillfully combines scholarship and journalism to retell the story of the killing of CBS News correspondent George Polk and its aftermath. It reveals the fractures within Greece and in its international relations during and after the Greek Civil War (1944–49). Throughout the book, Keeley reveals himself to be as honorable a servant of the truth as his father and brother. Lacking the evidence that would later be available to writers like Kati Marton, he does not overtly conclude that Polk was shot by right-wing thugs in the employ of a conservative government but leaves the ultimate conclusion an unsolved mystery. At the same time, he thoroughly demolishes the government’s case against Communist guerillas and their sympathizers, accused of murder and accessory to murder.
This is difficult material for Americans to understand. One too-common reaction would be to say that Keeley was a knee-jerk leftist in his sympathies. But in Greece, any sympathy for the left comes with an understanding of geopolitics, the right-wing atrocities that pushed many people leftward, and also the atrocities committed by Communist guerillas that would confirm right-wingers in their own ferocious loyalties. The problem was protracted and complex. Keeley sees clearly the tragedy of modern Greek history, the way individuals and families were torn apart by these conflicts, which arose from resistance to the Nazi occupation during World War II. America chose one side in the Greek Civil War, supporting the right against the left, and in doing so vastly oversimplified the situation on the ground. Ultimately, Keeley’s book is an essential contribution to our understanding of the Cold War as the Greek people suffered it.
Though he takes pains to remain objective in his view, Keeley also reveals, early in The Salonika Bay Murder, the beginnings of his own lifelong relationship with Greece:
I thought of Salonika as one of my home cities in those days. I had
spent three years there before World War II, while my father was the
American consul in Salonika, and for me it still had the aura of a
vividly remembered, if rapidly vanishing, paradise. That was in part
because it was the last place I could remember where I had been
prince of my own domain, with Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Turks, and
a variety of other foreign residents for companions in territory where
all fields were green and where the son of a diplomat—especially an
American diplomat—was not simply an exotic but was normally
treated with such deference by the local caretakers that he could
come to think the fields he played in were his by some unspecified
He returned to Greece in the summer of 1947, finding a country much changed by the German occupation and continuing strife. Nearly all of the Jews of Salonika had been removed and murdered by the Nazis, and now the Civil War was entering a third bloody phase with the American military intervention as well as the economic benefits of the Truman Doctrine. On a return trip to teach at the American Farm School in Salonika in 1949, he learned the story of George Polk, who a year earlier had been shot in the back of the head, his body dumped in the city’s harbor. Keeley would not tell the story for another forty years, during which time he became an expert on the culture and literature of modern Greece. No one was better suited to telling the tale.
This new book of poems begins with elegies for Keeley’s wife, and every poem is infused with his personal relationship to Greece. Mike and Mary had met at Oxford in 1950—they were married in 1951. Mary Stathato-Kyris was from a Greek family living in Alexandria. She had also pursued literary studies and would eventually work with him on translations. His novels often deal with Americans who fall in love with Greek women, an autobiographical motif evoking a romance both personal and international, private and historical. While Keeley understood and wrote eloquently about the intoxication foreigners often feel for Greece—its continuous literary culture, its light and islands and sea, its particular way of celebrating mind and body and the untrammeled spirit—he was also one of our best demystifiers of the country, devoted as much to its tangled reality as to its apparent promise of pleasure.
So it is impossible to write about Keeley’s poems without writing also about his relationship to Greece. He was a successful American academic who began teaching at Princeton in 1954 and never left. He established its creative writing and Hellenic studies programs and indeed was partly responsible for a renaissance in Modern Greek Studies in the United States. He and Mary were sociable people, good at hosting and connecting writers. Mike was also president of PEN America from 1992–94, devoting himself to protecting freedom of speech for writers around the world. But all of this institutional and academic prowess did not prevent him from encouraging autodidacts like me. He found literary value in unlikely places and personalities, and he fostered it. His generosity, I would argue, owes something to his Greek wife and his friendships with Greek writers, scholars and artists. A man who understands the Greek term kefi, for a spirit of well-being that comes over one, often on festive occasions, would also understand tragedy and suffering as the great levelers they are. Contrary to the ministrations of the tourist industry, the light of Greece is not a light of diversion, but a light of reality.
Keeley would eventually translate many modern Greek poets, but the most influential upon his own poetic stance are Constantine P. Cavafy (1863–1933), George Seferis (1900–1971), Yannis Ritsos (1909–1990), and Odysseus Elytis (1911–1996). For the purposes of this essay the virtues of Keeley’s translations I would most like to stress are simplicity, clarity and veracity. Keeley was modest about his role in bringing this complex and wide-ranging work into English. When he gave public lectures, even in Greece, he insisted that he would not insult his audience by lecturing in Greek but would use his native English. No less a Greek speaker than George Seferis had complimented Keeley’s command of the Greek language, saying it was much better than Seferis’ English, and while this might represent modesty on the part of both men, my subject here is Keeley’s devotion.
In 1951, in the first letter he ever wrote to Seferis, who in his diplomatic career used the family name, Seferiades, Keeley set out his background and the course he intended for his career:
Dear Mr. Seferiades:
I am currently doing research and preparing a thesis on Modern Greek poetry, under the supervision of Professor Trypanis and the Department of Byzantine and Modern Greek at Oxford. The thesis will deal with your poetry and that of Kavafis, Sikelianos, and Elytis, and I expect to submit it for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. As an American, I am interested in the influence of English on Modern Greek poetry, though the poetry itself is of course my primary concern. I have spent more than five years in Greece, including three years of my childhood, and it is as much a part of my background as my own country. I am therefore interested in doing what I can to acquaint the English-speaking countries with the active, modern culture of Greece.
Mike was twenty-three years old. Within three years he would be a published translator of poets like Cavafy (as the name is usually spelled in English), Seferis and Nikos Gatsos, often in collaboration with the Englishman Philip Sherrard. His epistolary relations with Seferis, who could be reserved but also quite funny, were at first businesslike and formal. It took Keeley many years to stop calling his correspondent “Mr. Seferis,” while the older poet was soon referring to him as “My dear Keeley” and then “Dear Michalaki,” the diminutive of Mike. In Greece one is given an Orthodox saint’s name, and neither of Keeley’s first two names, Edmund Leroy, would fit the bill, so Michali and Michalaki it would be.
A volume published in 1997, George Seferis and Edmund Keeley: Correspondence, 1951–1971, especially Mike’s long introduction, proves an indispensable guide to this aspect of his literary life. We learn that he first approached Seferis’ poetry through its similarity to Eliot’s, and indeed, one can feel an indebtedness to Eliot in the Keeley-Sherrard translations. Seferis would gently correct this impression in his letters, pointing out that he and Eliot had received the same baptism in French poetry and had learned from many of the same sources. In fact, the aural texture of Seferis’ demotic Greek is far richer than most translations have been able to convey. This is true not just of the early rhyming poems, but also of lines in which the Greek conveys a powerful onomatopoeia that would be difficult to reproduce in another language. Keeley’s response was to avoid rhyme in his translations and to opt for as much graceful veracity as he could achieve in tone and intent. In a letter of 1965, Seferis responded to an unrhymed translation of one of his poems by arguing for another approach:
The answer to this riddle was given to me by Dante. “Let everyone know” he says in the Convivio (1st treatise, chap VII), “that nothing which hath the harmony of musical connection can be transferred from its own tongue into another without shattering all its sweetness and harmony”—One does not sacrifice, in such cases, only the rhyming, but at least half of the poem. . . .
In the end the poet and his translators would compromise. The Keeley-Sherrard versions of Seferis are beautiful yet still leave anyone who can read the originals aware that more of their texture might somehow be conveyed.
I myself have done just enough translation to know the problems he faced, and not only with rhyme. For one thing, an inflected language like Greek does not require punctuation for clarity to the degree that English does. Keeley found himself sitting side by side with the poet, going over versions he had made and arguing for changes that would make them clearer to English readers. In his introduction to the correspondence, he retells a story about one such occasion, when Seferis’ wife, Maro, was listening to the two of them argue:
I suggested that part of the obscurity I was encountering in his poems derived from the absence of punctuation, and I cited a specific passage . . . where the addition of a comma at the end of a line might make all the difference. The poet just stared at me, but from the other end of the room, Maro Seferis’s voice rang out in a deep lament: “Put in a comma for the boy, George, help him, for heaven’s sake” (Vale ena comma yia to pedi, Yiorgo, voithise ton, yia onoma tou theou).
Keeley and Sherrard had more leeway in the case of Cavafy, since that poet was long dead, and they made no effort to reproduce the texture of sound, including rhymes in a few poems. The same would be true of Keeley’s translation (with George Savidis) of Elytis’ most famous book, The Axion Esti. Keeley wrote in his introduction:
To deny Elytis his flourishes and hyperboles would be to translate him dishonestly (as would be true of a Greek translator rendering, say, Dylan Thomas). At the same time, we have to acknowledge that any mode of translating poetry that depends so heavily on the resources of sound, rhythmic change, and localized idiom, is certain to do the original one kind of injustice or another. We have chosen what we take to be the lesser of possible evils by not presuming to offer our own arbitrary and foreign patterns of sound, rhythm, or idiom in a doomed effort to imitate the Greek poet more or less literally.
It could be argued that literalness is more or less what these translations achieve, yet they do so with an unobtrusive fluency. By contrast, I can think of a Greek poet, Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, who translated such sound-driven poets as Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney and managed to convey a surprising aural texture corresponding to the originals.
The relative simplicity of Keeley’s translations has its virtues, of course. It was also why I never thought of him as a poet-translator, and why I was surprised to read the late poems collected here. Perhaps he was more at home with a poet like Yannis Ritsos, who had extolled simplicity in a poem Keeley rendered with scrupulous accuracy, “The Meaning of Simplicity”:
I hide behind simple things so you’ll find me;
if you don’t find me, you’ll find the things,
you’ll touch what my hand has touched,
our hand-prints will merge.
The August moon glitters in the kitchen
like a tin-plated pot (it gets that way because of what I’m saying to you),
it lights up the empty house and the house’s kneeling silence—
always the silence remains kneeling.
Every word is a doorway
to a meeting, one often cancelled,
and that’s when a word is true: when it insists on the meeting.
There is a lot to love in this poem, and a lot to admire in the translation. Keeley himself would surely have puzzled for a long time about that word “doorway” in the final stanza. The Greek éxodos is so much more evocative and resonant, with its implications of exile, but would not work in English. “Every word is an exodus” would hammer the biblical allusion too firmly in place. Mike knew the limitations of his choice, and under the circumstances he made a good one.
I once sent him a version I had made of a little Ritsos poem, and he wrote back gently pointing out that I was overloading the sound, trying too hard to be a poet. Ritsos, he said, was more like a dry white wine. What a lovely, simple and resonant image for this great and prolific poet! Mike was pointing out to me that the translator needn’t always elevate himself and his own aesthetic, that he too might hide behind simple things. I think he accomplishes something of that unaffected manner, supple and sometimes dry, in these poems of age.
The first seven poems in this collection comprise a “Requiem for Mary.” They deal with her death and burial, and also with the physical and metaphysical presence of Greece woven into their marriage of more than sixty years. He writes of “the great gods of nature / in their capricious wisdom” leaving the droppings of a tree on Mary’s grave. And in the next poem, he notes that Seferis was Mary’s favorite poet. Seferis’ images of exile, a fate he suffered in multiple ways, from the loss of his childhood home at Smyrna to his diplomatic postings and his wanderings with the Greek government in exile during the war, corresponded to Mary’s own background of diaspora. Mary’s ancestors had lived on the slopes of Mount Pelion in northern Greece, yet she grew up in Alexandria (where Cavafy had also lived among Egyptian Greeks under the rule of changing empires). “The Asphodel Plain” refers to the flowers said to grow at the entrance to Hades—that powerful Greek way in which a closeness to nature acknowledges death and the underworld. Poems like “Animals,” “Grass” and “The Molar” explore this connection to nature and the “animal that I am.” As the requiem began with Mary’s grave, it ends with the scene of her death, a moment in which her widowed husband finds himself comforting the hospice nurse before returning to his wife “to do what had to be done . . .” His grief is not in the least diminished by the way he faces death, which he has learned, I would argue, by the way death is commonly faced among the Greek people.
A dozen poems follow in “The Problem of Time,” dealing with changes wrought upon Greece by the refugee crisis, changes wrought upon Keeley himself by time and aging. He had long divided each year between a house in Princeton, New Jersey, and a home in Athens, a city he describes as being really a network of villages, some more prosperous than others. His own “village,” Kolonaki, is usually thought of as one of the city’s wealthiest, but Mike observes “current history and its horrors / that now clears the screen / for what the fates have in mind.” His poem is a love song to the city and its history, ending with a provisional hope that the best of it might survive time’s onslaught.
We have more poems evoking streets and characters, all caught up in time and the permutations of fate. Two of the strongest poems in this section deal with poets he loved, Seferis and Cavafy. “The Gift” is dedicated to Seferis and recalls the wisdom of the dead poet’s long-ago advice to the younger writer:
“Remember that all poems
worth your time and mine
have been given you as a gift,
given you to find
the way a stray cat is found,
given by what gods remain,
maybe as you walk the beach
or turn the corner from the market
or maybe sit on a bench
in an unfamiliar garden.
And they’re given you to know,
claim as your own alone,
only so long as you can hold them,
though you may hope that time
will be forgiving enough
to pass them on to others
to be held by them for their day.
But remember that poems are a gift
beyond the possibility of pride
and that should save you from envy
or thinking too much of yourself . . .”
This gift, this poetry, amounts to a kind of faith that sustains Keeley in old age. He offers a little poem after Cavafy, a hymn to the Aegean and to what persists. The love of Greece and Greek poetry has given him ways of seeing beyond the detritus of the present, through to the timeless presences.
He remembers World War II in “Memorial Day,” and he marvels at his own survival, ultimately in a poem “On Turning Ninety,” which describes
the green fields of loving,
the heart’s selfless companions,
the friends who remained faithful,
these gifts the gods brought
when they managed to glance your way,
and much else beyond understanding
since the luck of your arriving
and your staying this long . . .
He did find those green fields of loving again with Anita Miller, the companion of his late years. He’s a man and a poet with nothing to prove, no one to please, and only the truth of his own experience, his own bemusement and interest in life.
The book’s third section, “Interim,” is a preparation for whatever is to come. Again he evokes the green fields of his own life as well as those of Elysium:
And the green fields they let you cross
Without a word about the gods you worshiped
As you learned what loving finally counted,
What passions could teach you about pleasure
Not only for the body’s sustenance
But a nourishing devotion to those things—
The music, the poetry, the dialogue—
That would satisfy your soul this long
And might still do so even beyond
The luck of your ninety-second year.
A short poem for Wallace Stevens contrasts the old “chaos of the sun” in which we live to the barrenness of a paradise without change. A third poem about change, “Cicadas,” begins with how those extraordinary creatures are celebrated in the poetry of Elytis. Approaching his own final days, his own transformation, Keeley seems concerned with integrating all his experiences of both literature and life.
Finally, this beautiful book of late poetry gives us a moving “Trilogy,” taking us from “Pelion” with its mythic and personal associations through to “Daylight” and our time of pandemic. He suggests we might “kill the literary conceit of Narcissus / Or any mythical love of self / That challenged the love the gods had planted / With the lucid waters of that mountainside . . .” And then in a final poem, “The Day Comes,” he questions his own terms, wondering if even the gods can sustain a person facing the great change. In the end he is left with both “pain and gratitude,” a resonant vision I associate with his love of Greece.
Edmund Keeley’s literary life began where he felt he had first come alive as a person—with Greece, its beauties and complex realities, its troubled history and politics, its language and light. The most beautiful of his prose books, to my mind, is Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937–47 (1999), which evokes the friendships of foreigners like Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller with Greek writers like George Katsimbalis and George Seferis. Here, as in the best of his novels, Keeley narrates the terrible events of World War II, the German occupation, the massacres and the civil strife that arose during the Greek resistance. He deepens the vision of his book about the Polk murder and sets the enthusiasm of Miller and other Grecophiles into a context of realistic love. It is a kind of requiem for writers who lost so much and left behind such a moving record of their loyalties and their affections.
Keeley’s generation followed on that of Miller and Durrell and would join with other writers like Kevin Andrews and Patrick Leigh Fermor to extend the literary legacy of Greece with its multiple meanings. It would have been more than enough to accomplish what Keeley did as a translator and exponent of Greece’s great poetry, but he was also a good novelist, a scholar and critic, a teacher and advocate. His brother, Robert, had also loved Greece, ultimately becoming the US Ambassador to that country, and Mike brought a similar practical integrity to his dealings with the academic and literary worlds. All of that would have been enough. Yet he also wrote the poems collected in this book, a late flowering and a gift.
His poem “The Gift,” dedicated to Seferis, suggests that he had shown the older poet his own early attempts at poetry, eliciting the beautiful advice I have quoted here. Whether those early poems were abandoned or not I cannot say. He appears to have surprised even himself with these late poems, and he was delighted by the support they received from journals like The Hudson Review. He asked Paula Deitz if she would gather the poems, which she has done here according to his wishes. The first two sections are given in the sequence he used when he published them as chapbooks in 2015 and 2018. He also told Paula of his gratitude for life and the many gifts he had been given and confirmed that the final three poems were to be published together as a sequence. In them, he said, he was trying to explore something inexplorable but essential, with the hope that younger people would understand. I can imagine that Mike would have been modest about calling himself a poet; he had spent so much of his life as a servant to the poetry of others. Yet this book proves he too was a poet, in addition to everything else, disguised as a man of letters.
 This essay will appear as the introduction to the late Edmund Keeley’s book of poems titled Explorations.
 His mother reported from their various posts as a travel writer, while his other brother, Hugh, also lived internationally as a corporate executive in Africa.
 The same was true for my friend Patrick Leigh Fermor, who was also quite close to Seferis and was called Michali by Greeks. Mike Keeley always spoke of Fermor with high respect.