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 1936, written in the rhymed couplets of the folk mirolói, is a long revolutionary lament of a mother over the death of her son killed in a street riot during the breaking of a strike by army and police. (pp. 89-90)
As though to announce and repeat the orientation of his second period, ushering in a dichotomy that was to follow him throughout his life, all the titles of Rítsos' next four books are firmly musical: The Song of My Sister (1937), Spring Symphony (1938), The Ocean's Musical March (1940), and Old Mazurka to the Rhythm of Rain (1943). In these poems he broke forever from the shackles of meter and rhyme, wrote in free verse of short, staccato lines and, in a riot of color, sound and imagery, turned to themes that express the pain and endeavor of man to overcome his fate, the nostalgia of adolescence, the durability of the Greek landscape. His titles in shorter poems during the same period express now some of the delicacy, nuance and impressionism of a Wallace Stevens or an Odysseus Elýtis: "Rhapsody of Naked Light," "A Glowworm Illuminates the Night," "Small Brother of the Sea Gulls," "Weekend in the Neighborhood of Summer," "Winds in the Western Suburbs." In the last of these books, his free verse took the form of long, undulating lines reminiscent of Walt Whitman's versification, a cadence he has used ever since in the writing of long poems. Although each of these four books consists of one long poem, the various parts are not arranged in a hierarchical or compositional order, for often one section may be interchanged with another without harm to the general structure. They are rather musical movements of various tonalities, speeds or colors in an over-all symphonic arrangement, a rise and fall from one mood to another rather than an arrangement of musical motifs such as may be found, for instance, in Eliot's Four Quartets. Perhaps a more fruitful analogy may be found in the poems of John Gould Fletcher.
At about the same time, however, between 1938 and 1941,...
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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 "Romiosini"], that astonishing sequence set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, which has become the national anthem of the left in Greece. Stripped of its music, in fact, the poems of that sequence are even stronger, more rigorous, more direct and more terrible. If he had written nothing else Ritsos would still be an important and even a great poet. It is a pity it has never been properly translated. [Translator Nikos] Stangos's first selection [Gestures and Other Poems] covered only the years 1968–70, this time he ranges from 1963 to 1972, with the one very strong, long poem of 1959; grateful as we ought to be, Ritsos has a wider range and deserves fuller selection.
This poetry is bound up with Greek history and social history since the war. "Romaiosyni" is a commemoration of the dead in the resistance and the civil war. It is the same kind of frightening history that is so present you could touch it in The Dead House. The poems of 1963 are as disturbed and as disturbing, there is a sense that surrealism has got into the blood-stream of Greece, but they are more about social than about public history, and some of them are unexpectedly moving and lyrical, at least for a few lines at a time…....
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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