Ritsos, Yannis (Vol. 31)
Yannis Ritsos 1909–
(Also transliterated as Gïannes) Greek poet, novelist, translator, dramatist, and essayist.
Ritsos is one of the outstanding contemporary poets of Greece. A national hero to many in his country, Ritsos writes of cultural and historical concerns important to the Greek populace. Ritsos's reputation was firmly established with the publication of Epitaphios (1936), still considered one of his most important works. Some of his other poems have been collected and translated in Selected Poems (1974), The Fourth Dimension (1977), and Ritsos in Parentheses (1980).
Ritsos demonstrates considerable versatility in his poetic style. His poems range from short, imagistic lyrics to long narratives and dramatic monologues. His themes and subject matter are intensely focused on issues of human rights. An artist with leftist interests, Ritsos was imprisoned and exiled by the various military regimes which governed Greece from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s. Some of Ritsos's poetry which was considered especially subversive was publicly burned. One of his most famous poems, "Romaiosyni," was set to music by the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis and is the national anthem of the political left in Greece.
(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 13 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
Yánnis Rítsos published, in 1934, his first poems of social content in a book belligerently entitled Tractor. Although influenced by Palamás' interest in machines and written in traditional meter, stanza and rhyme, they retain some of the sarcastic pessimism of Kariotákis, are harsh, violent, almost barbaric in tone, with such revealing titles as "To Marx," "To the Soviet Union," "To Christ," and with individual portraits and caricatures such as "The Individualist," "The Intellectual," "The Undecided," "Revolutionaries." (p. 89)
In his early career. Rítsos may be considered to be the heir of Várnalis, whose proletarian books of poems, The Burning Light and Slaves Besieged, it will be recalled, had been published in 1922 and 1927, during and after the Asia Minor Disaster. Like Várnalis, and like Kazantzákis after him, Rítsos also places Christ among the revolutionary heroes of the world…. Haunted by death, driven at times to the edge of madness and suicide, Rítsos throughout his life has been upheld by an obstinate faith in poetry as redemption, and in the revolutionary ideal. Tractor and his next two books comprise his first period during which his humanitarian poems of social concern and those of rhetorical inspiration … were nonetheless written in strict meter and rhyme, most of them in quatrains, couplets, or in the traditional fifteen-syllable line. Epitáphios, published in July of...
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Yannis Ritsos is the old-fashioned kind of great poet. His output has been enormous, his life heroic and eventful, his voice is an embodiment of national courage, his mind is tirelessly active. In a sense he belongs to the modern movement, but he is closer to Neruda, or even to Vallejo, and to Brecht, than he is to Seferis or to Yeats or Laforgue. The modernism of the left in poetry is a special behaviour of language; in it the socialism of poets insists on the details of the real world, nothing is left ignoble or merely disorientated, and modern techniques of poetry cry out with the same passion for detailed realities. Ritsos is one of the greatest poets now living; in French he has been well served by Dominique Grandmont but until recently he has hardly been available at all in England. Nikos Stangos produced the first small selection a few years ago. He has now widened his scope greatly in Selected Poems, and for the first time it will be possible for English readers to have some notion of the breadth and depth of this humane and enigmatic writer….
And yet it is not possible for a collection like this to be truly representative. There are almost none of the longer poems, the long pages of long lines. The exception is The Dead House (1959) which is also by several years the earliest poem we are given…. What most people in England know about Ritsos, if they know anything, is that he wrote "Romaiosyni" [also...
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[The Fourth Dimension] is the most complete gathering of Ritsos's work yet published in English….
Although Ritsos shares with a poet like Francis Ponge a concern with the universal in the minuscule and with Kazantzakis and Rilke a sure sense of the cosmos, his poems have about them the coherence of dreams. As in dreams, his images swim and evolve into their own order, and his capacity to word the "daily nightmare" is as present in his early work as in his most recent. (p. 347)
As a dramatic poet, Ritsos's lyrical talents are subsumed into what Eliot interestingly called the third voice of poetry—the one that speaks not from I to you but for them. This is the voice of the four monologues in The Fourth Dimension. Perhaps the most moving of these monologues is "Ismene." Ritsos expands on the Sophoclean story by portraying Ismene as a figure whose only reward in life is living on. Besides the fulfillment of Antigone's brief life, Ismene comments on her own longevity until we see that her only prize is the loneliness of mere survival. Even her final quest for love is made too late and with too much prudence. The only victor is the ticking clock, the symbol of death in the poem.
For a man whose political sensitivities and convictions are as pronounced and significant as Ritsos's have been and still are, the political dimension figures into only one of the longer poems...
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[In The Fourth Dimension,] Dalven's translations convey the style and verve of the poetry with considerable success….
[But here] it must be said that, in view of the considerable claims often made for it, Ritsos's poetry is disappointing. This is not great poetry. Too much of it is merely episodic, a matter of sensation, of a piling-up of endless accidental details not fused by any overriding imaginative or intellectual vision. Great poetry is written within a tradition shaped by master after master and learned in deliberate study and detachment. Modern Greek poets like Solomos, Sikelianos or Seferis belong to such a tradition. Ritsos does not. Nor, in spite of the fact that Theodorakis has set some of his poems to music is his poetry that of the people, of ballads and songs handed on from generation to generation.
Ritsos's poetry belongs to an in-between world, to a disinherited, materialist world that has broken with the unwritten tradition and has not yet learned the written one. It is the poetry of the commonplace, of sentiment and pathos—a poetry, consequently, that makes but the barest challenge to, or demand upon, the imagination or intellect of the reader. It can be swallowed, more or less effortlessly, in a single draught, and forgotten as easily. In fact, its world is not the world of the imagination at all but that of fantasy and illusion, optical and acoustic. Statues demolish themselves, empty...
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Ritsos himself has written about his urge since early childhood in Laconia to write laconic poems, recognizing that this is no simple play on words but a temperamental necessity. Corridor and Stairs is such a book of short poems—which since 1963 have gone under the general title of Testimonies—and is of particular interest because they were written during the years of the dictatorship and because all of them deal, either specifically or indirectly, with the tragedies and traumas of that period. Basically, all of Ritsos's short poems are testimonies and witnesses to fleeting moments of life to which he may respond with lightning speed by pinning them down under his microscope to examine them minutely and thus magnify them into life's awareness. They are compact and concrete, lacking abstraction, crammed with objects and things. Even persons are seen objectively, unsentimentally, with an almost cruel detachment, as though they were themselves objects and their emotions and reactions little different than the movements of wind or waves. Human beings are seen at a dramatist's distance, almost impersonally, unrhetorically, disinterestedly; yet beneath this seeming detachment the arteries bleed, the heart is lacerated, the mind is torn, the body is bruised.
These "objects" play dual roles. On the one hand, they are simple, tangible, irrational concretions, things in themselves as they really are; but on the other hand, they...
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"The Fourth Dimension" offers a representative cross section of [Ritsos's] work from 1938 to 1974, and contains a liberal selection of short poems, a few long poems … and the superb sequence "Twelve Poems for Cavafy."
In the short poems, most of which are not overtly political, Ritsos is full of surprises. He records, at times celebrates, the enigmatic, the irrational, the mysterious and invisible qualities of experience: Our senses are impressed as much, if not more, by the random and accidental as they are by the deliberate and institutional. If his perceptions, which stress paradox rather than irony, can be disturbing, they also define a major source of his inspiration, for it is the inexplicable and uncertain that Ritsos finds worthy of poetry…. (p. 14)
The first long poem in the book, "The Blackened Pot," written in a concentration camp in 1948–49, represents the period of Ritsos's career that produced his most important political poem, "Romiosini," unfortunately not included in this volume…. There follow four of Ritsos's many dramatic monologues, long poems ranging from 10 to over 20 pages. These poems do not in the least resemble American and English instances of the genre: For one thing, Ritsos frames them with beginning and ending paragraphs in which he describes setting and narrates actions, if only minimally. One of the effects of this technique is to obliterate the conventional distinctions among...
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The title [Ritsos in Parentheses] I have given this selection of translations is not as playful as it may seem. Two of the three groups of poems by Ritsos from which the selection is made actually carry the title "Parentheses," the one written in 1946–47 and first published in volume two of the 1961 collected edition, the other covering poems written from 1950 to 1961 and still to be published in Greek. The third source, a volume called The Distant, written in 1975 and published in March 1977, was chosen by the poet to accompany these versions from the two "Parentheses" groups, presumably because he considers the poems from this recent volume to be in the same general mode as the earlier "parenthetical" works. (p. xiii)
In what sense are these three groups of poems from different periods "in parentheses"? They are not really an interlude between those longer works that were primarily responsible for shaping Ritsos's reputation in Greece—for example, "Epitaphios," "Romiosini," and "Moonlight Sonata"—because shorter poems of the kind found in these three groups have been important from the beginning and have now come to dominate Ritsos's oeuvre. One might call them parenthetical to those poems—early poems, on the whole—that promoted political themes directly and that helped to establish Ritsos as a leading Communist poet; but to regard them as an "aside" in this sense is to give too much weight to the ideological...
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Ritsos' poetry is filled with invisible guests, wilfully invisible to one another at times, if merely inscrutable to the poet. And this partial visibility becomes more tantalizing, to the limits of the grotesque, in poems written under the pressure of dictatorship and resistance in Greece. (Among the ironies that crowd: Communism, the Abominable Snowman of Mandelstam and Milosz, has been for Ritsos the deferred Messiah!) From a landscape which has been perennially a subject for poetry since Homer, Ritsos' copious verses have assembled a landscape of their own which, if it resembles the illogical scenography of surrealist paintings, should not be termed unconditionally surreal…. [The] disjunctures in Ritsos' poems, becoming sharper and less amenable to deft interpretation over the years, were derived first from the intrinsic isolation and perplexity which Ritsos saw (oppugnant, surely, to a belief in Communism!) as man's condition. Later they were intensified by the treasons and concealments of civil war, in which equivocation becomes a principal mode of discourse; the significance of every gesture is a compound riddle.
Among the earlier poems … [those in Ritsos in Parentheses] nonhuman (even impalpable) phenomena are as sentient and transitive as human beings. "The night went by with its mouth full of speechless water…. And / the mountains / grew larger and sharper like the teeth of one who hungered."… Fewer of these...
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The poems of Ritsos in Parentheses were culled from three sources: a volume titled Parentheses, 1946–47; a second collection, Parentheses, 1950–61, still unpublished in Greek; and The Distant (1977), containing verse written in 1975. In the succinct, incisive Introduction, [Edmund] Keeley identifies the themes of Ritsos' poetry—the progression from greater to lesser sharing, from stouter to slenderer hope [see excerpt above]…. (p. 239)
What I find remarkable about Ritsos' poetry is its ability to make extraordinary constructs out of the most unforcedly ordinary ingredients—surreality out of reality. And seem not even to make it, just find it. Footling details are taken out of context and seen either strictly for themselves or in some dizzyingly vast framework. Sensory experiences are detoured through some other than the obvious sense, yet without any showy, programmatic synaesthesia. Colors are expressionistically heightened or nudged in a direction they might have only hoped or feared to take. The actions of dreamers, eccentrics, or creatures impaled on despair are viewed with the alert amorality of a child. (pp. 239-40)
Yet sometimes the images leave reality virtually unchanged and still manage to get at something inscrutable or ineffable…. And sometimes there is no imagery at all, only an insistently resonant situation or incident, as in the three-line poem "Spring": "They...
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Aristotle says in the Poetics that no work of art or nature can be beautiful if it is too big to be seen all at once. Because of the quantity of Ritsos' output, any one selection of his poems risks imbalance or incoherence, not to mention incompleteness. (p. 342)
To some extent, this confusion is inherent in Ritsos' productivity and scope; it should not be blamed on an editor who is faced with the imposing task of choosing representative work. Nevertheless, it ought to be possible to read Ritsos at a less punishing pace. Taking him in one poem at a time allows us to pause and admire details or subtleties if they are there at all, rather than forcing us to crane in order to see the whole monumental mural at a glance. In Ritsos in Parentheses Keeley … has given us a chance to do just that. Probably the longest poem in this collection ("Rainy") is 21 lines long, and most are shorter, many only five or six lines. Almost without exception (though generalizations about Ritsos are fraught with peril), the poems take place on a scale where intimacy and bleakness, loneliness and domesticity, intersect. (pp. 342-43)
The book is composed of selections from two groups of poems both called Parentheses … and from a third source, The Distant…. The notion of distance … seems especially significant in the spatial context suggested by the image of parentheses. "By the time we reach The Distant...
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In all his vast output of verse, Yánnis Rítsos has seldom published any love poetry…. For so verbally sensuous a poet this was odd. Now, unpredictable as ever, Rítsos, nearly half a century later, has brought out a triad of long poems [Erotica]—"Small Suite in Red Major," "Naked Body," and "Carnal Word"—that constitute an exultant hallelujah to physical love. He moves from the objectivism of "he" and "she" in the first poem through the involved, yet still surreal and dislocated "you" of the second, to a full, splendid, sensuous diapason in the third. "The poems I lived on your body in silence / will ask me one day for their voices, when you have gone." They will not be disappointed…. Rítsos has, in addition to his many other achievements, now written some of the finest, most deeply felt, most vividly expressed love poetry of this century—and at an age when poets generally have quite different things on their minds. Yeats, of course, was another exception; and Rítsos will stand comparison with Yeats.
A review of "Erotica," in Choice, Vol. 20, No. 9, May, 1983, p. 1297.
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