Exile and Return

Ritsos’ poems are expressions of national identity. They reflect the landscape and history of Greece as well as speaking of the human condition. The poet’s heritage is a tragic one: Both his mother and brother died of tuberculosis; his father and sister died insane. Because of his left-wing activities, he spent the years from 1948 to 1952 in various Greek detention camps.

While he resolved early in his career to aid the oppressed by means of poetry, Ritsos has never become a narrowly political writer. He is a poet in the widest sense, providing a flood (ninety-five volumes to date) of triumphant lyricism. Mikis Theodorakis, the composer, put Ritsos’ Romiosini song-cycle to music, making the poetry even more available.

A form which Ritsos has increasingly cultivated is the dramatic monologue, in which he often voices contemporary concerns through a persona from Greek myth. The poems represented in EXILE AND RETURN are from eight volumes, written during the 1967-1974 dictatorship in Greece. They are cryptic, short, free-verse poems that are characteristic of Ritsos’ mature work, work that continues to reflect, despite the poet’s nightmarish experiences, faith in the goodness of man and nature.

Ritsos follows such eminent predecessors as Constantine Cavafy and George Seferis. He and Odysseus Elytis, the 1979 Nobel Laureate, are acknowledged as the most important contemporary poets writing in the Greek language, and Ritsos’ work has been widely translated. In Edmund Keeley, he has a first-rate translator whose eloquent grasp of poetry and language frame the poet’s virtuosity. His selection, in this handsome collection, is so good that each poem grows larger in retrospect.