(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Greece produced at least three world-class poets in the mid-twentieth century: George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis, and Yannis Ritsos. The first two received the Nobel Prize and are bourgeois; Ritsos received the Lenin Prize and was a communist. Yet it would be entirely wrong to call him Greece’s leading leftist poet or even a political poet. His range is so immense, his career so diverse, the traditions from which he draws so eclectic that these or any other labels distort his contribution. Though the leftist element is clearly present in Ritsos’s work, he shares with bourgeois poets an interest in nature, in personal anguish, even in Christianity, and he participates as fully as they do in pan-European movements such as Surrealism and folklorism. In sum, Ritsos speaks not only to one camp but also to all humanity.


On the other hand, it is clear that Ritsos found his first voice only because he had aligned himself with the political Left. It was communism that transformed him, in the decade 1926-1936, from an imitator of others in content and style to a unique singer of revolution. Epitaphios provided the breakthrough. A dirge gasped out by a simple mother over the body of her son, slain by police in a labor dispute, this poem modulates from the dirge itself to the mother’s thirst for revenge and finally to her solidarity with the oppressed working class. Every aspect of the poem—not merely its content—is intended by the author to make it accessible to the common people and not only about them. Thus, it exploits diverse elements from their cultural storehouse, primarily their Greek Orthodox liturgy and their folk songs, melding a call to revolution with the Christian hope for Resurrection, and voicing all this through the tone, metrics, and imagery of the demotic ballads that were produced by anonymous folk poets throughout the centuries of Turkish rule. Ritsos did not do this self-consciously in order to erect a bulwark of tradition that would fortify national identity, but almost naïvely; the liturgy and the demotic ballads were friends with which he had grown up as a child. What he sought to avoid, and conversely to accomplish, is best expressed by his estimation of Hikmet in Meletemata: “His poetry is not just . . . ‘folkloristic’ (that is, extremely . . . ‘aesthetic’ on a so-called popular plane—hence nonpopular) . . . but essentially popular because of participation . . . in popular forces, which it expresses not in their static, standardized forms . . . but . . . in their dynamic motion.”

To tragoudi tes adelphes mou


(The entire section is 1074 words.)