Remembering George Economou by Toby Olson and Robert Hanning

Leaving the Cape at the end of summer can feel like a little death. George spoke of this obliquely in the final poem in his beautiful 1984 collection of Voluntaries. There are many birds in this poem and in others, and he speaks of filling the feeders for the last time before leaving. Now he has left.

Voluntaries: free will, without desire for remuneration. That’s poetry. As are those mostly solitary organ pieces that precede and follow religious services. Within them is George’s music.

George Economou was a scholar, as well as a painter, and though there are scholarly references in these poems, each one is gathered unpretentiously into his abiding art, his poetry. Wellfleet was written from his deck facing his trees, his garden, and his feeders. Geroge was a poet. He was able to negotiate two worlds, the one of scholarship, many books and articles, and the one of translation (Piers Plowman, Cavafy and others) and of course poetry.

He was a small-city boy. Raised in a Greek family in Great Falls Montana where he learned painting, he found his way from undergraduate school at Colgate to a PhD at Columbia University, then onto teaching at Long Island University and the University of Oklahoma, from which he retired. Then he moved to Philadelphia, spending his summers with his wife, the poet/playwright Rochelle Owens, in Wellfleet on Cape Cod.

George was a dear friend of mine for over fifty years. We played basketball and football, awkwardly, searched shallows for mussels and oysters, told jokes, ribbed each other, listened to fine jazz, went swimming in the bay. And sometimes we talked about poetry, casually in our shared understandings. There is no other I can now speak with in that way.

I was with George close to the end. He was thin and pale, and he reminded me of my father and Paul Blackburn on their death beds. Like them, he was cheerful and, but for the pain, unconcerned. He’d had a good, productive life, and he knew it. We talked a little of poetry and friendship. Then he drifted away into sleep.

He was one of my dearest friends, and I loved him. Gentle and kind, a poet of great skill and understanding, George Economou still lives, in his various scholarly works and translations, but mostly in his poetry. I’ll remember him there.

Toby Olson

George Economou was a distinguished scholar who brought to his engagement with literature in several languages the insight and empathy of a fine critical mind working in tandem with a poet’s sensitivity to verbal nuances and an amused, Mediterranean tolerance of human foibles. His excellence as a medievalist owed much to his profound knowledge of both the Classical world (especially its Hellenistic manifestations) and twentieth century European and American literature (especially poetry).

His book, The Goddess Natura in Medieval Literature (Harvard University Press, 1972) is still the standard work on its subject. His translation of the C Text of Langland’s Piers Plowman (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996) brought that notoriously difficult and off-putting poem to pulsing and conversational life; it has a substantial claim to be the best translation of Piers Plowman yet attempted.

George’s amazing masterpiece, Ananios of Kleitor–being the text (mostly in fragments), translation, and exhaustive critical history of a completely fictitious Hellenistic poet—is one of the twin summits of his extraordinarily rich and varied career; it best reveals, I think, all his critical skills, imaginative gifts, satirical brilliance, and deep comprehension of human experience in all its crazy quilt of aspiration, achievement, folly, and ruination. The other peak of his genius was, of course, his translations of Cavafy’s poetry (and completions of incomplete poems) that astonish not only by their discursive virtuosity but also by their empathetic insight into Cavafy’s soul.

Both George’s poetry of the present moment and his translations of Hellenistic poetry chronicle with rare wit and wisdom the joys and sorrows of sexual desire in its quixotic quest for satisfaction. But he was also, like the Provençal poets he loved and frequently taught, a troubadour, a “finder”—in his case, an uncoverer of the serious, even tragic currents that flow beneath the surface of the quotidian incidents and characters that in the first instance provided fodder for his magnificent comic muse. Two of my favorites among his poems illustrate this gift. In “The Amorous Drift of the First Hoplite on the Right Wing,” a hilarious description (based on Thucydides) of the subversion of the general’s military strategy by the soldier’s desire to survive turns out, on second look, to be a great, searing indictment of war itself. And “An Evening in Kingfisher,” the product of a trip to an alumni gathering in rural Oklahoma that George, while head of the University of Oklahoma English Department, made in the entourage of the university’s fabled football coach, records his chance encounter there with a stereotypical middle American “good old boy,” but this amusing, almost vaudevillian dialogue between George and Huck Rice is simultaneously a biting portrait of the nativist racism that still eats at the foundation of American democracy and enables the atrocities of the Trump administration.

For these and many more triumphs of poetic craft and humane inspiration we revere George Economou and mourn his passing.

Robert W. Hanning
Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University