Yannis Ritsos

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Ritsos, Yannis (Vol. 6)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4845

Ritsos, Yannis 1909–

Ritsos, a Greek poet, has worked in many forms: long narrative poems, dramatic monologues, and short lyrics. Because of his devotion to revolutionary socialism, and the expression of that love in poetry, Ritsos spent many years in political prisons. Capitulating to the demands of European intellectuals, the Greek government now allows Ritsos freedom to live in Athens.

[The] radical obsession of the modern Greek imagination is its agonized consciousness of a long catastrophic history, the violence of which has caused cultural breaks that have obscured the spiritual identity of the Greek people. It is no accident, therefore, that the essential thematic and formal concern of the literature of modern Greece, especially its poetry, has been the quest for historical continuity….

In general, the criticism of modern Greek poetry that has addressed itself to the question of cultural fragmentation has done so on the analogy of European modernism….

This highly self-conscious Western approach, which acknowledges modern culture as "a heap of broken images" and thus requires the imposition of a learned myth or myths from the past to "control" and give "shape" to it, i.e., to redeem the anarchic real world by transforming it, as Yeats puts it, into an "artifice of eternity," is applicable in large measure to "Europeanized" poets like Cavafy and … George Seferis. This is because they come to the problem of historical identity with a pan-European point of view, i.e., with a mind in which "the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer" to the present exists as "a simultaneous order." But this deliberate approach or rather, this strategy, I submit, does not apply to Yannis Ritsos—and may be why his often great poetry is still virtually unknown in the West, especially in America. For unlike Cavafy and Seferis, Ritsos does not see the resolution of the problem of historical identity and of poetic voice in the imposition of "the Western tradition," of the learned order of mythology or, more broadly, of art, on fragmentation. He sees it, rather, in the exploration of the contemporary Greek racial memory. This is what his great long poem Romiosini is all about. It is also, as I hope to suggest, what makes Ritsos significantly contemporary….

[It] will be helpful … to briefly and tentatively suggest what Ritsos means by the virtually untranslatable title of his poem. Very loosely speaking, then, modern Greek society falls into two broad cultural groupings: the more or less educated middle class, which wants to obliterate the memory of the four hundred years of brutalizing Turkish rule … in order to identify immediately with the ancient Greeks; and the peasant and working class, whose conscious memory extends back through the long Turkish occupation to Byzantium, the second Rome. The first tend to think of themselves as Hellenes. The second consider themselves unconsciously as (Romoii: Romans)…. [Ritsos] sees himself as a Romios and, as a Greek poet, he confronts the problem of historical identity by embracing the living reality and the living language that expresses it.

What is important to realize about Romiosini , in other words, is that the experience it refers to—the tragic interim period between the German occupation and the Greek Civil War, which, from the poet's point of view, means the betrayal of the Resistance—is seen through the eyes of an idealized Romios and expressed in the language and rhythms of Romaic perception, the language and rhythm, that is, of the still extant oral tradition that goes back through the heroic kleftic ballads of the War of Independence and the Turkocratia through the Byzantine Acritic poems...

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to the Homeric songs. The poet, in other words, is a bard of the people, a singer of tales, as it were, though it is not a story he tells.

It is precisely because he sees himself as Romaic bard that from the outset the poet portrays those he celebrates, both the living and the dead, as, above all, people who love the Greek soil so fiercely that, despite temporary defeat, they are utterly certain that it will not for long brook an alien conqueror—whether from beyond the boundaries of Greece or from within, whether physical or spiritual. (p. 18)

[For] Ritsos Romiosini is not only a matter of space; it is also a matter of time. The Greek landscape, in other words, is only the warp of the rich poetic fabric of the poem. There is also—and simultaneously—his consciousness of the terrible dislocations of Greek history. And here too the love that generates identity between man and landscape discovers the vital continuity in the broken and disparate contours of the Greek past, which is to say, of the Greek memory.

Romiosini is a rather long poem, the subject matter of which is essentially epic in nature and scope. But, significantly, it does not "develop" linearly, according to a narrative or ideological syntax. Its temporal form, that is, is neither sequential, moving horizontally from a beginning through a middle to an end, nor dialectic, moving from a thesis to an antithesis to a synthesis. Rather, the poem focuses so intensely on a concrete contemporary historical situation that it opens up vertically into the farthest reaches of the Greek past. To put it more accurately, Ritsos' "demotic imagination" and the dynamic language that expresses it discover or, to suggest the revelation of what is already there, disclose a mnemonic time in which all the "times" of Greek history are continuously present, a time in which the temporal fragments, the debris of Greek history … emerge from the subconscious racial matrix to achieve identity and continuity with the contemporary image … (the guerrilla mountaineers) of the Resistance. Ritsos' demotic imagination, in other words, metamorphoses a series of dead pasts into a living presence, which, of course, must be perceived synchronically.

Thus, for example, the contemporary "sailor drinks the bitter sea from the wine-cup of Odysseus" (II); the guerillas meet "with Dighenis on those same threshing-floors" on the borders of Byzantium, where he wrestled with Death (II); the old women climb to their lookout posts on the Kastro "when the Minoan fresco of sunset frays in the distance" (III, 17); the poet calls on the revolutionary wind to "ruff the bear-night's collar in the square so that she dances us a tsamiko,/While the tambourine moon thuds till island balconies are thronged/with raw-awakened children and Souliot mothers. (III).

But this recovery of the past, it is of crucial importance to observe, is neither a Wordsworthian recollection in tranquillity nor a Proustian recherche du temps perdu, nor an Eliotic recovery of "the historical sense," in which the poet consciously searches for the continuity of the past with the present in order to transcend in an epiphany the destructive hammers of the disintegrated contemporary world. For Ritsos, unlike the Symbolists, never abandons the present situation and its expectations of a real future. The open present remains in the foreground from the beginning to the end which is still the beginning. The continuity of the Greek past is not as it is in Proust and in Eliot, consciously sought in the mind, is not mediated symbolically. On the contrary, it exists for Ritsos as immediate knowledge in his racial memory or, better, in the rhythm of his Romaic blood, and thus lives in the potential of his radically demotic, one is tempted to say, oral, language. And he insists on it….

[This] temporal simultaneity—this fusion of historical imagery into a presence in the heat of love—is the essential characteristic, the very texture, of Ritsos' demotic language, and the immediate, the existential, knowledge is its essential effect. (p. 19)

Furthermore, there is, I submit, an integral relationship between the imageries in the poem and its rhythm patterns. Ritsos, that is, discovers historical continuity not only in the temporally diverse images but in the temporally diverse rhythms of his Romaic language. And just as the synchronic imagery becomes something like mythic order, so the synchronic rhythms becomes something like a ceremonial or ritual voice. To verify this intuition would require a linguistic knowledge of the history of the Greek language which I do not have. But my point can be made and its validity suggested by the poet himself. For it is no accident, I think, that when (in a tape recording of Romiosini which he made on Samos in 1970) he arrives at the magnificent Dighenis stanza—which precedes the invocation to Mother Greece in Section II …—it is no accident that in this stanza, which enacts supremely the discovery of simultaneity in the historical imagery, the radically contemporary poet breaks or, more exactly, modulates into song under the pressures of its hieratic rhythms. It is not simply any song; it is a song in the heroic demotic mode, which in turn clearly recalls its primary roots in Byzantine liturgical chants. (p. 20)

[The] evocation of historical continuity or, rather, of historical integrity is not achieved at the expense of the present…. [His] subject is always and insistently the contemporary Greek partisans. Thus the references from the Greek past do not exist, as they do for Eliot, Yeats and Joyce (all of whom have had an enormous impact on modern Greek poetry) … for the sake of a transcendent aesthetic or spiritual realm of the imagination, a Byzantium, a Polis of art, which is superior to the sordid and disintegrating present. They exist rather to define and to celebrate the very real contemporary imagination of the Romios….

Perhaps I can sharpen the focus on what I have called Ritsos' Romaic imagination by invoking the name of another modern Greek artist whose work both reveals an obsession with Greek time and expresses, almost paradigmatically, the idea of Romiosini that I am trying to suggest: Theophilos Hajimihail of Mytilene (c. 1873–1934). It was, of course, George Seferis who "discovered" or, at any rate, sanctioned this remarkable—I am tempted to say "great"—folk artist in behalf of the popular Greek tradition…. But it is, in fact, Yannis Ritsos, among modern Greek poets who most resembles this ardent Romios.

In a Theophilos fresco or painting, it will be recalled, the central figure, no matter what the historical moment it memorializes or celebrates—whether the Trojan War, or the quest for the Golden Fleece, or the campaign of Alexander, or the Fall of Constantinople, or the Greek War of Independence—is invariably that figure and simultaneously Achilles, Jason, Alexander, Constantine Paleologos, Kolokotronis and Theophilos himself (i.e., a contemporary Romios). It is, in other words, precisely the synchronicity of historical imagery, the presentness or rather the presence of the past that constitutes the essential formal character of Theophilos' painting and that, as Seferis notes, "gave us [the modern Greek artists] a new eye … cleansed our seeing," by which I take him to mean, recovered the eye's candor or, in Yeats' phrase, its "radical innocence" and thus the ability to perceive the primal, the ceremonial, order of nature. Seferis finds his primary evidence in Theophilos' use of colors in painting the Greek landscape. But, I submit, this spatial aspect of his art (as Seferis himself seems to suggest in his reference to the cultivated soul of the Greek people) is integral, if not ever dependent on the temporal…. (p. 21)

Ritsos' poem presents Greek time, no matter how externally shattered, as an eternal now, to suggest that it is a living presence in the contemporary "people's" consciousness…. It is, I suggest, his passionate acknowledgement of, belief in, and commitment to this presence in the contemporary people's consciousness that distinguishes the Ritsos of Romiosini from Cavafy, Palamos, Sikelianos, Seferis, and other modern Greek poets who have grappled with the problem of their history.

I do not want to suggest in comparing Ritsos with Theophilos that he is ultimately a "primitive" or even an ethnic poet. Clearly his poetry, reveals an astonishingly wide spectrum of formal, stylistic, and thematic modes—modes that suggest influences ranging horizontally from André Breton to T. S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, and Vladimir Mayakovski, and vertically from Palamas to Markriyannis and Solomos, the Acritic materials, the ancient Greek dramatists, and Homer. And these bear witness to a literary sophistication as cultivated, perhaps, as any modern "European" writer. What I do want to point out is that, despite his sophistication, Ritsos is different in this crucial way from the modern Western poets (the Symbolists) and most of the Greek poets they have influenced: whereas they consider themselves as "international" or "transhistorical" poets, Ritsos is a Romios first, a poet who lives and is committed to a particular space and time. (Though there are very significant differences, he is in this respect, close to "postmodern" American poets like William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, and even Robert Bly, who insist against the internationalist impulse of the Symbolists on being local.)… Once this is perceived, we are also prepared to see the essential and distinguishing paradox of Ritsos' poetry: that it is precisely this intensely local or ethnic focus which opens the significance of the poem out to encompass all humanity…. Indeed, what emerges from this ardent act of love, which is the poem, is a unified image of epic proportions of an elemental people who have refused to give up their identity to violence, tyranny, and the assaults of a very long time because of their abiding loyalty to the Greek soil, rock, sea, and sky—and the freedom that alone assures this relationship. As such it also becomes a celebration of the abiding and heroic spirit of all men who refuse to be alienated from the earth.

This is why I prefer to call Romiosini an existential rather than a Marxist or even a socialist poem, even though it was written to commemorate the leftwing partisans who made the Greek Resistance one of the most heroic acts of World War II and to lament their betrayal by the forces of the political right. Rooted as it is in the soil of existence, the poem celebrates people, not a cause. It thus transcends the politics of ideology to become an utterance that addresses man not as a function in a system, but in Jean-Paul Sartre's word, as man-in-the-world. This is also why, as the American poet David Ignatow has said, "Romiosini surely must be one of the great political poems of the century." (pp. 21-2)

William V. Spanos, "Yannis Ritsos' 'Romiosini': Style as Historical Memory" (copyright © 1973 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of William V. Spanos), in The American Poetry Review, September/October, 1973, pp. 18-22.

Yannis Ritsos [is] a Marxist poet at once immensely popular with the masses and immensely sophisticated, a poet who can employ mythical subjects nonchalantly with no fear whatsoever of restricting his audience to highbrows or of deserting contemporary reality for either some fantastical vision of the past or some disinterested quiver of esthetic appreciation. This means that he stands in a relationship to Greek myth that would be difficult for any European poet to duplicate…. [Like] Eliot, Lawrence and the others, [he] employs myth to add meaning to hollowness and to do so in a largely indefinable, meta-rational way consistent with his vision of life's complexity. Yet to accuse him of a failure of nerve because of this, or of a retreat to non-historicity and universalism, would be unthinkable. On the contrary, Ritsos's mythic poems are so firmly moored to his nation's and his own contemporary, specific experience that they do not cut loose from that experience when the winds of ancient legend puff out their sails. Myth leads his work neither to evasion nor diversion, but to revelation. (pp. 16-17)

Since 1962 he has published a series of long poems which meditate either openly or covertly upon various mythic personalities affected by the dreadful events of Mycenaean times, personalities such as Clytemnestra, Electra, Orestes, Helen and Philoctetes. His treatment of the last may be taken as representative.

The myth is simple enough in outline. Briefly, Philoctetes, on his way to Troy with the others, suffers a snake-bite when he accidentally invades a sacred precinct. The resulting wound is so disgusting that the Achaean generals abandon him on the deserted island of Lemnos. Ten years later, however, with Troy still unconquered, they send an emissary to fetch him, because an oracle has informed them that only with Philoctetes's bow and Neoptolemus's prowess will Troy ever fall. Philoctetes goes to Troy and the prophecy is fulfilled.

The extant sources are few, yet we know that this myth fascinated the ancients…. [The] myth as elaborated by Sophocles can mean anything, or perhaps everything. We should also remember the abundance of uncanny motifs which reach far down into universal mythic consciousness: an incurable wound, a compulsive or ritualistic withdrawal, magically effective weapons, strength united to disability. These too are subject to multiple interpretations. In sum, Ritsos chose a theme would could be assimilated easily to his own needs but which at the same time anchored him to some deep (if elusive) truths about Greek national life and life in general.

His version reduces the characters to two, mature Philoctetes and young Neoptolemus. The latter has come with his ship (the crew are off-stage but audible) to transport the recluse to Troy. Philoctetes greets the youth with a long account of his chagrin, but this we do not hear. The entire poem—a dramatic monologue—consists of Neoptolemus's reply. Though the characters and their accouterments are ancient, we cannot be too sure. The setting is Lemnos "… perhaps." Occasionally Ritsos adds temporal incongruities with the arbitrariness of a surrealist. Neoptolemus's home (i.e., Achilles's palace) has colonnades and statues, but also French doors with frosted glass. These devices create an atmosphere of imprecison and synchronism.

The poem exhibits so many themes fused into such a complicated unity that to isolate them all, much less analyze the unifying relationships among them, would require an extended monograph. (pp. 17-18)

Both Philoctetes and Neoptolemus are obsessed with life's pillage, with senseless, gratuitous violence that never achieves its supposed goals and only confirms the futility of human endeavor…. One might classify them as brooding intellectuals—like Ritsos himself. But the world is not populated solely by intellectuals. There are also the common people, and they, when confronted with the threat of extinction, react not with paralysis and withdrawal but rather with sexual vitality or vulgarity—with increased bodily energy in defiance of the worst that life can do to them. It is this group—the common people, here represented by the crew of Neoptolemus's ship—that Ritsos employs as his deus ex machina. Destiny for him (and we must remember his Marxist orientation) is the people; hence the force which makes Philoctetes decide, just as mysteriously as the god Heracles's exhortation made him decide in Sophocles's version, is the affirmative Greek folksong sung off-stage by Neoptolemus's sailors. It is right for intellectuals to understand life's futility, Ritsos is saying, provided they also participate in the world whose contingency they know so well. This participation is their ultimate responsibility (their ultimate mask, as we shall see in a moment). Philoctetes must go to Troy.

Anyone who appreciates the dilemmas faced by Ritsos and other Greek intellectuals during our own era of pillage will realize how revelational, rather than evasive or diverting, Philoctetes's problem and its solution have become in this poem. When a Greek contemplates the three millennia which define his personality,… he sees so much senseless pillage and petty divisiveness, so many betrayals, false goals embraced, true goals neglected, that he is revulsed. Yet all this is also his culture's vitality, its destiny, the whirlpool which tossed certain great figures (such as Sophocles; such as Ritsos) onto the serene ground of wisdom. In addition, this history, however discouraging, shows the best men always hoping that decency will come in the end.

Any thinking Greek is caught between these two equally valid perceptions, the one encouraging contemplative withdrawal, the other self-conscious participation. He may withdraw for a time, and this will be good. But emissaries will come to fetch him sooner or later from his barren Lemnos. (pp. 18-19)

Ritsos solves his dilemma with an affirmation resting on multiple paradoxes. The fiction of postive action to support the goals of one's country, to help Greece achieve its destiny, is our ultimate path to self-realization. But when an undeluded person accepts that fiction knowingly, it ceases to be a mask. Fictive hope becomes a man's, and a nation's, authenticity. (p. 19)

Peter Bien, "Myth in Modern Greek Letters, with Special Attention to Yannis Ritsos's 'Philoctetes'," in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 15-19.

Ritsos's Gkragkánta reflects the bitterness and pessimism of much of his life. It is a ponderously abstract and highly metaphysical five-part work of over six hundred lines whose placidly disposed images are laid down as if dropped mosaic-like into place…. Exposing corruption at the base of existence, Ritsos's initial images in Gkragkánta lead almost imperceptibly to the final section of the poem, a march for bread and freedom—the people carry flags and statues, gunshots are heard, the poet shouts "Gkragkánta!" and all understand and shout back "Gkragkánta!"

In Dhiádhromos ke skála, a collection of lyrics written in 1970 (though not published until 1974), the poet speaks again of the precedence that freedom must take over death; he warns of false heroism and the indifference of man to man. In this collection, Ritsos presents the dark drudgery of his fellow men in vignettes of deadening impact. He depicts mechanical lives of self-deception, offering figures whose lives are neither heroic nor meaningful, people who go through the motions of eating when there is nothing to eat because the pattern of their lives requires them to do so. He treats the poor, the disinherited and the despised, but without illusions. These may be the souls who will join the struggle with what little has been given them; but one must do what one does, the poet reminds us, because one cannot do otherwise.

Ritsos uses in these poems the same figures who appear in Khironomíes, Pétres and Kinglídoma …: fishermen, farmers, black-clad old women. He neither extols nor condemns them; those who live on are as much victims as those who are called upon to suffer. Still, as he moves from image to image creating the moods and tones of painting and music in the worlds of words he builds, Ritsos's pictures act as pricks to the conscience. Those who do not hear the cry for help do not belong to life. (pp. 370-71)

Dealing with concretely visual images, Ritsos moves in both Gkragkánta and Dhiádhromos ke skála from the coldly objective to the highly personal and subjective. His poems begin by distancing the reader, but end by trapping him in terror-filled images that grip and rend; it is a realm in which Ritsos has become a practiced traveller and of which he is a profound expositor….

"The Annihilation of Mylos" and "The Prison Tree and the Women" are dramatic poems which, although they are divided into voices (labelled alphabetically), could more aptly be considered poetic monologues reflecting the view of the poet himself. The first is loosely based on the massacre of the inhabitants of Mylos by their allies, the Athenians, as described in Thucydides's Peloponnesian Wars (Book V).

Like "The Prison Tree and the Women," "The Annihilation of Mylos" tunes the past to the present revelation; because Ritsos sees all time as one, he uses the past as if it were the present. Classical and contemporary Greece are not compared, as in Seferis, to show the weight of the former on the latter, but are irretrievably connected. A present event, intensified by its reference in name or memory to a correlative event in the past, form the logical continuation of its predecessor…. In Ritsos's eyes, any place where man can feel he belongs, where he asserts his identity and makes himself free, is Mylos; until man knows who he is, he will remain a slave to time and to other men. (p. 371)

Himself a man conditioned by years of displacement, loss and imprisonment, Ritsos carries to the two worlds of these poems a heroic imagery unexpected of one so persecuted by misfortune. Yet both works warmly express the richness of life, the "great pregnant barrels/snoring in the cellar," "the corn which smiled with a thousand gold teeth open to the sun." Perhaps it is just this quality that so endears Ritsos to the common Greek—his ability to find beauty in struggle, to uncover greatness in each event, however, harrowing. (pp. 371-72)

Kostas Myrsiades, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 2, Spring, 1975.

Amid the undying Greek landscape of cyclamen, birds fluttering against sun or sea, pastoral sketches of the people in their bitter or joyful occupations, the poet [Ritsos, in Eighteen Short Songs of the Bitter Motherland,] sings of the hardships endured by the fettered and persecuted, of the sacrifices in every family, of the entire world's struggle for freedom compressed in this small span of land and in its deep and hidden strength. Toward the end of the poem he reveals how the very nature of the Greek character and the nature of the landscape are elements in which tyranny cannot cast deep roots or last long, how the very deer gnaw away at the iron fetters of slavery, how the people in their determination and the pallikária in their transfiguration are helped not only by multiplying hands but also by the dead themselves and their long tradition of resistance, until Romiosini itself "goes harpooning the fierce beast with the harpoon of the sun."

Ritsos originally wrote these quatrains for Theodhorakis as songs, and only after they had been sung throughout the world and translated into many languages did he consent to publish them in Greece. It would seem to me imperative for the translator to retain the lilt and meter of the original quatrains composed in the 15-syllable couplets of the demotic songs, something that can easily be accomplished by a trained poet, but unfortunately … [few] translators of modern Greek poetry, regrettably, have the necessary technical knowledge and practice to translate meter into meter. (p. 592)

Kimon Friar, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 3, Summer, 1975.

If to be properly Classical (i.e. Sophoclean Classical) is to occupy oneself with what is rather than with what should be, Yannis Ritsos … might be named classical in a sense we find more acceptable (more familiar, perhaps) than the Dionysian sweep of Elytis or Kazantzakis. Yet it must not be assumed, if you are unfamiliar with Ritsos, that he is detached from passions or that he perceives what is, un-fractured. Difficult to define in order justly to praise him—I think he's one of the great poets of contemporary Europe—he has been, paradoxically, a political revolutionary (spending years in prisons and exiles) who wrote poems incorrigibly personal, frequently apolitical, ranging from an undisguised simplicity of form and matter to those that comprise within a few lines duplicities of meaning which an hour's scrutiny may fail to decipher. Not seldom he writes formal equivalents of Chirico or René Magritte, either juxtaposing unrelated actions within the same frame or focusing with unbearable clarity on a simple immemorial gesture of humankind until it begins to warp, waver, become absurd, and yield a grinding undertone of the hideous. Normally, the annexation of modes appropriate to the plastic arts is not fruitful in poetry. Ritsos is hauntingly successful. His fusion of ancient Greek story with the terrors of yesterday … is done with genius, each image, each poem a luminous hard-edged impression, uncluttered by the grapevines of an Elytis. "Whatever happened now was in another time." Duration and sound freeze in such poems: the man in exile, recalling to his mind's eye pictorial scraps like senseless encounters in a dream, suffocates as he looks on at his own death ("Awaiting his Execution"), or conjures somnambulist fishermen and the objects which have replaced them, dehumanized and silent. "One day, where there were windows and people, only wet stones remain/and a statue, its face in the soil…." To powerful effect, Ritsos adverts directly to an historical or epic passage-at-arms to point up a modern analogy; in so doing he, too, like Bottrall's Cavafy, gives blood to ghosts. "After the Defeat," "And Narrating Them …," "The Decline of the Argo," "Penelope's Despair"—all from 1968—are literally fabulous; at the same time their protagonists are more vital than the frozen figments of his own era.

The nominal world of his Resistance poems … is mindful of Milovan Djilas (the short stories), Zbigniew Herbert, Horst Bienek. Ironically, the political tyranny that provoked their literature was once a political promise to Ritsos. Can we doubt that if Communism had triumphed in Greece his poems would have been no different in kind or substance? (pp. 588-89)

Vernon Young, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1975–76.


Ritsos, Yannis (Vol. 31)