The Poem

“Miniature” is a free-verse poem of fourteen lines. The title, especially in Greek, denotes a small-scale drawing of the type that Yannis Ritsos is known to have drawn on hundreds of stones and on the backs of Greek cigarette boxes. While the title self-consciously limits the size of the poem, it is deceptive in that it does not indicate its scope.

The poem captures an awkward moment in which two people who are about to have tea are unable to connect. A woman of indeterminate age stands at a table, slicing lemons. The slices, with sections like spokes, are compared to the wheels of a carriage in a fairy tale. A young officer is sitting nearby, “buried” in his armchair. A tangible distance separates them. Instead of looking at her, he lights a cigarette with a trembling hand.

Time stands still, in the “heartbeat” of a clock. The moment passes, and it is “too late” to act upon the unspecified “something” that has been “postponed.” The chance for the two to connect has been lost. Instead of facing each other, they escape into a mundane activity: “Let’s drink our tea.”

The poem concludes with a series of rhetorical questions. At first glance, these seem unrelated to what has happened, or rather to what has not happened, since the focus of the poem is on the absence of action. “Is it possible, then, for death to come in that kind of carriage?” Evidently, there has been a death, as though life not...

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Forms and Devices

Ritsos’s strength is in the simplicity of his language, so his work suffers relatively little in translation. He is a prolific and popular poet—his more than ninety volumes have been widely translated, and many of his poems have been successfully put to music—whose work speaks simply to human experience and emotion.

Relatively unconcerned with complexities of form, syntax, or allusion, Ritsos depends on the emotional impact of ordinary objects lovingly observed. In a 1966 poem called “Insignificant Details,” Ritsos suggests that common objects are the poet’s sacred text: “their secret meaning (beyond gods and myths,/ beyond symbols and concepts) only poets understand.” It is the poet’s job to cast them in such a light that anyone can be made to understand by feeling their significance.

Ritsos’s populist realism is suffused with a magical quality, a result in part of the influence of Surrealism, but his poetry owes its dreamlike effects not to the psychic automatism or the unconscious, but to experiences grounded in the everyday life of the body. In “Miniature,” for example, he appeals to the childlike free play of the imagination, in which semblances instantaneously become similes. The thin slices of lemon are “like yellow wheels for a very small carriage/ made for a child’s fairy tale,” and the clock “holds its heartbeat.”

Ritsos’s poems are more visual (and visceral) than intellectual. Motifs...

(The entire section is 547 words.)