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Ritsos, Yannis 1909–

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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. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Kostas Myrsiades

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["Belfry"] passes through three movements: the first ambiguous and ephemeral, the second moving toward the concrete (a transition movement), and the third highly concrete and palpably immediate. "Belfry" is a work which, like Romiosíni, celebrates those who have fallen in the struggle for freedom; it is both a paean to the oppressed and a call to arms…. [The] poet speaks for the first time in many years in specific terms of the bitterness of his people, of the specters of the CIA, the B-52s and the Hilton beside the hovering headless Winged Victory and the lesson of Ché.

One hopes that "Belfry" can be considered a landmark of Ritsos's recent poetry. In much of his latest work he has launched his reader into a metaphysical realm of apparently solid obstacles occupying a fantasy landscape. His poems have appeared as incomplete statements sometimes without a clear object, the veiled expressions of a man who has learned to forbid himself any other mode. This ideological shadow-boxing is largely missing in "Belfry," much to the advantage of the wholeness and effect of this striking poem. "Belfry" displays a convincing force which others of Ritsos's recently published poems might have achieved, had the poet been able to publish freely without fear of reprisal from the ruling Junta.

Not to be compared with "Belfry," but deserving of note, is Ritsos's "Hymn and Lament for Cyprus." Dedicated to Makários, it is a brief testament to the Cypriots composed and published within a few months after the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. The work is made up of five short poems and is written in a Byzantine-style calligraphy in the poet's own hand (the only other work published in Ritsos's own hand is his Eighteen Songs of a Bitter Country …). The poems are rhymed lyrics written in the popular style of the demotic songs. (p. 826)

Kostas Myrsiades, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 4, Autumn, 1975.

Kostas Myrsiades

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Yannis Ritsos's output since his first published book in 1934 has been almost exclusively poetic. His latest book, "Studies," a selection of six essays written between 1961 and 1963 and originally included as introductions to other works, is his only work of criticism. These essays—four on poets (Mayakovsky, Hikmet, Ehrenburg, Éluard) and two shorter ones on his own works….—comprise the only theoretical writings published by Ritsos on his art. For this reason "Studies" is one of the most important works in Ritsos's oeuvre.

Ritsos finds the importance of the four leftist poets he is studying in the message of their poetry and not in their technique or style. Concerned that a poet may limit himself too strictly to his own times, Ritsos defends the need of his subjects to root among temporal materials for the very backbone of their work and finds in the immediate present and in material reality a springboard for crossing the gap to the realm of the universal….

Reluctant to act as an intermediary between the reader and the poem, the poet refuses to comment at any length on his own work…. He reveals, nevertheless, that the intent of his later body of work, in particular Martiríes, has been to express gratitude toward human life and art, in all its trials, and toward death. He recognizes that his work has, over the years, tended more and more toward … an uplifting or positive poetry which depreciates and exploits the nightmare of death. (p. 217)

Kostas Myrsiades, in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 1, Winter, 1976.

Minas Savvas

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The poems in this exciting little collection [Pétrinos hrónos] are not among the best of Yannis Ritsos's fifty volumes. They are, however, among the most interesting and, in terms of the poet's own sufferings, among the most apocalyptic. They give us a good look at the poet-as-exile on the island of Makronisos, a concentration camp filled with rocks, lizards, thornbushes, barbed wire and sadistic guards. Written in 1949 while Ritsos and hundreds of other leftists endured hunger, humiliation and torture, the poems delineate an inhuman world in which the victims make noble efforts to sustain their ideas and dignity and to be sustained by them…. The promise that one day "we'll construct cities of greatness" allows Ritsos and his comrades to see their horrible ordeal as a Golgotha necessary for the Resurrection.

Then there is that nostalgia for the tranquil life, interwoven in these poems like a silken thread around barbed wire, which helps the mind. The red flags in Communist parades, the friendly dog running to greet its master, a cigarette enjoyed peacefully in a garden, "the voice of a child," "the shadow of a gentle hand," "the cat on the neighbor's roof"—such vignettes of secure consciousness riddle the nightmare, real as it may be, with pleasant memories of how life could be. But it is rocks, corpses and skeletal men at hard labor which emerge as the central symbols in Pétrinos hrónos (Rocky Time). (pp. 699-700)

Pétrinos hrónos indeed is a book worth reading, for, to quote Whitman: "Camerado, this is no book. Who touches this touches a man." (p. 700)

Minas Savvas, in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 3, Summer, 1976.

Rachel Hadas

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The career of Yannis Ritsos has been uncomfortably paradigmatic of the political fortunes of his native Greece. For much of this century Ritsos has been a major poetic spokesman of freedom; and for much of his life he has paid the penalty for his refusal to be silent. (p. 26)

Ritsos' strengths are also weaknesses because he writes so much and publishes so much of what he writes…. Clearly this is a poet for whom writing all the time has been both mode and symbol of survival under mostly adverse circumstances—a confirmation not merely of political steadfastness but of life itself.

The danger, of course, is that so unflagging an utterance will lose in precision, compression, and felicity what it gains in breadth and depth. Ritsos' work lacks the verbal inevitability that makes us memorize a poem without effort. He seldom treats a subject in such a way that we feel the last word has been said. His numerous short poems are the rapid preliminary sketches of an artist whose notice nothing escapes but who never puts his vignettes together in a single commanding composition. Symbols recur with increasingly ominous intensity: keys, sleepers, the moon, naked riders, abandoned houses. The obliquities imposed by the small, often skewed dimensions of the little poems give them an enigmatic menace often missing from the longer, looser pieces; but nowhere is the tension fully resolved…. The Blackened Pot (1949), a turgid rhetorical brew written in prison, is all fraternal solidarity but less musical and moving than Epitaphios (1936), another overtly political poem not included [in The Fourth Dimension: Selected Poems of Yannis Ritsos]. In another style, the many short poems … included show Ritsos' keen, elegiac sense of place tinged with surrealistic uneasiness. A carefully rendered landscape ends

       This land is much loved,
  with patience and pride. Each night, statues come out
  of the dry well cautiously and climb up the trees.
                    ("Our Land")

Also well represented in The Fourth Dimension are the long dramatic monologues that wholly compose Ritsos' Greek volume of the same title. Uniquely Ritsos, these poems are nevertheless stuffed with resonances: Chekhov, Sartre's dramas, Eliot, and of course Greek mythology. The withered speakers in Ismene and Beneath the Shadow of the Mountain hail from the families of Oedipus and Agamemnon, while the protagonists of Moonlight Sonata and The Window are more or less contemporary. But "more or less" is crucial; all these poems deliberately and triumphantly elude location in a particular time. Characteristically the speaker surfaces from a murky pool of personal and dynastic decay and isolation, sinking back to silence or even death at the end. (pp. 27-8)

[Ritsos] is obsessively aware of the flaws and ironies that mar his country's past. The Greece of the long poems is a dead house inhabited by loquacious ghosts.

In Twelve Poems to Cavafy Ritsos again deals with past greatness in complex ways, but the mask donned is different. Sometimes the mode is simple mimesis, as if the speaker were huddled so close to his gigantic predecessor as to be all but invisible. In [the] evocation of twilight [in "Dusk"] the voice is nearly pure Cavafy…. But the relation between the older and younger poet is finally ambiguous, as the last poem of the sequence, "Legacy," spells out…. The Greek legacy can be a dangerous weapon. Mostly, though, Ritsos uses his heritage not to destroy but to probe, scan, above all ceaselessly to record. It is not his fault if the landscape he surveys is strewn with headless statues and dead houses. (pp. 28-9)

The poems in The Fourth Dimension set up haunting reverberations along the bleak dream landscape that Ritsos … [shares] with de Chirico. Whether or not all the poems are to one's taste, the book is a good introduction to an important voice. (p. 29)

Rachel Hadas, "Voice from an Empty House," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © Poetry in Review Foundation), Spring/Summer, 1978, pp. 26-9.

Kostas Myrsiades

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Ritsos views modern man as the sum of the possibilities of his past. If those possibilities are less than evident in the present, then the task of modern man is to touch again in himself that heroic resource in his race to insure an influence over the future. Just as modern man in Ritsos' works must refuse the crushing weight of past myths that humiliate and diminish him, so must he have a say in determining his future fate, not, as in [George Seferis], in merely enduring it. Ritsos rejects Seferis' aristocratic and pessimistic view, a view reflecting a major strain in postwar poetry, which sees the past as a standard of greatness, a measure against which modern man can only be found wanting; he rejects Seferis' implication that there can be no thought of a future because modern man has none.

Yannis Ritsos' abiding interest is in the present and in its meaning for the future; consequently, he views the past as both a means of treating contemporary problems with historical detachment and as a burden which must be overcome. The historical identity of a people, Ritsos affirms, exists in the contemporary mind; modern man must explore his past as if it were the present—synchronous with the present—not as an ominous shadow. The present event is intensified by reference in name or memory to events in the past, infusing them with contemporaneity. Modern man, in this view, must either tune the past to present revelation and discover all time as one, thus liberating himself from the weight of his mythic past, or forever remain a slave to time and other men.

In such works as his classical cycle of eleven dramatic monologues (The Dead House, Under the Mountain's Shadow, Ajax, Philoctetes, Agamemnon, Chrysothemis, Helen, Ismini, Persephone, Orestes, and The Return of Iphigenia), Ritsos begins by stripping the classical myths of their antiquity. In Philoctetes the setting, we are told, is the island of Lemnos, "perhaps."… In The Dead House, recalling the mythic past through associations with events and objects whose place in time is not itself certain, the poet again keeps the reader suspended in time…. Vague references to the bath, to the mistress as a murderess, to the word "slaughtered," to the dead house of the title, evoke the Mycenean past and the myth of the House of Atreus. But the references are not specifically of one period or one myth. The mistress, the children, the bath could refer to Medea as well as Clytemnestra, to present as well as past horrors. Time and space are here dissolved so that the poet may extend through time the psychology and suffering of these figures. Ritsos can see himself in Clytemnestra or Medea because he is Clytemnestra, he is Medea; all Greeks participating in Greek history have experienced their agony. Far from imitating or repeating the splendor of the original (the past), the echo (the present) intensifies it, illuminating and extending the eternal cry of the human condition.

The dramatic monologue Ajax, representative of the attitude of the classical cycle as a whole, reveals that the eternal and essential nature of time has for Ritsos a spare and essential aspect. The poet reduces the characters used in the myth to a minimum. Only a voiceless and nameless figure (Ajax's wife Tecmessa) appears briefly as an audience for Ajax in the prose prologue and epilogue of the poem. The setting, once again, is anywhere in the essence of time…. This atmosphere of imprecision and synchronism in which historical incidents become one under different names establishes the poet's treatment of the past as continuously present history and not as isolated phenomena. At the same time, the past feeds the personal meaning of Ritsos' heroes, for the emotions which condition the inner man are caused by his interaction with other people, people who are basically the same in all ages. Ajax indicates how this process operates. Here action is suspended and the poet focuses on developing and revealing Ajax's emotional state. The poem is an outcry of a wronged and hurt man based on the famous speech in Sophocles' play…. [The] interest of the poem is focused on a man who, having served his country selflessly in his best years, now finds himself rejected by both man and god…. Ajax is but a mirror image of Ritsos himself, who rails at his own comrades for not recognizing his long struggle for the freedom of his country, a struggle which meant for Ritsos seven years of prison and torture and seven more of broken health in sanatoriums. Ajax becomes a cry of anguish against those friends who have now forsaken him in a moment of need…. (pp. 450-54)

Ajax serves, perhaps most importantly, as a mask behind which, protected from prying eyes, the poet is free to confess himself. Distanced from his own emotions, Ritsos can objectify them. He can be lucid, revealing, and yet safe from the government censors who sought him out. (p. 454)

Orestes serves as yet another mask for the poet, as Ritsos suggests in the prologue to the Orestes monologue…. Ritsos begins the monologue with the return of Orestes and Pylades to Argos as in Aeschylus' The Libation Bearers. But the place looks different, smaller, since these two men were last here many years ago. The major landmarks, however, are still in place … but into this supposedly Mycenean world private cars and tourist buses intrude, and we are plunged back into the present. It is Ritsos the modern Orestes who stands before present-day Mycenae, wrestling with questions of love, death, and freedom which once plagued the ancient figure. On the same spot on which Orestes stood stands modern man; time has stopped. The ancients are neither great models nor distant mysteries; they are themselves. (p. 455)

Thus in Ritsos' poetry the focus is on the ingestion of the past, anachronism gives way to synchronism, and all Greek history is understood to exist simultaneously. The ten-year-long Trojan struggle from which Ritsos draws most of his masks becomes the decade of war from 1912 to 1922, in which the Greeks fought the Turks; it becomes as well the decade of Greek resistance and the Greek Civil War between 1940 and 1950. To each era squabbling between comrades and factions is common; in each era the greed, self-interest, and self-aggrandisement of others cause the pain and suffering of an Ajax, of a Ritsos, of any man fighting for his ideals…. Christian myth becomes interchangeable with pagan myth. The two are woven into one uninterrupted thread, for both are part of the modern Greek experience. (p. 456)

The merging of past and present serves Ritsos' need to distance and objectify material too personal, too emotional, too close to the poet's own experience and suffering to be presented in its naked form. The mask of a classical persona and the framing of the present in the past are necessary to alienate events, to displace them elsewhere and to attribute them to someone else. As we see in his description of the rooms in The Dead House, the poet's objectivity allows him to look "at things from above/and at some distance, so as to feel/that we overlook and command our fate."… Only at a distance can he come out of himself, rendered whole enough to look at himself, in himself, to manipulate this experience, to command it, and thus to draw from it the lessons it offers. At dusk, as "all things bend towards the warm earth,"… the poet is shed of his desires and shivering with the sharp, clean, healthy coldness of his objectivity, he is able to see all experience as one. From this distance one can see that things are as they always were, today's experiences the same as yesterday's. Distance, cold objectivity, in the dark void of life gives substance and meaning…. It is this alienation in the void that has led Ritsos in recent years to adopt more and more the third person point of view and to intersperse throughout his poetry phrases such as "he said," "they said," and "they used to say."

But in his distancing of events—his interlacing of present and past—Ritsos is not reversing his refusal to allow that which has already occurred and which can only be perceived through the imagination to take precedence over the sensibly felt immediate present. His displacement, his movement out of the realm of the painfully personal to that of the coldly analytical, is one of bitter immediate necessity. Because the displacement he feels is not that of the diplomat Seferis—a man isolated by choice or circumstance—but a displacement of imprisonment, torture, and suicidal impulses, he must view his world at a distance or risk insanity. The psychology of a prisoner of war or an inmate of a concentration camp applies here; one cannot be himself, suffer one's suffering, but must be removed, refusing to identify with the victim one has become, if one is to survive. For Ritsos that survival lies in finding his Greekness. As in his war poem Romiosini, composed during his partisan years of involvement, the future depends upon the continued existence of the past; Romiosini is the presence of continued Greekness. Necessary to the very being of the modern Greek, "romiosini" is that without which, by definition, "Greek" may not exist. Thus the contemporary sailor "drinks the bitter sea from the winecup of Odysseus" or the guerrillas meet "with Dighenis on those same threshing-floors."… (pp. 456-57)

In Ritsos' poetry, man refuses the past as a place in which he may hide or as a presence which overwhelms. The evocation of the past is achieved not to victimize the present but to define and celebrate it; and that celebration must occur not on universal and international terms, but in terms of the purely local and immediate national situation with an insistence on loci or popular attitudes and needs. Intermingling Christian myths with others, Ritsos is following a tradition established in the Greek folk song, in Byzantine iconography, and in folk art….

Ritsos' preoccupation with the past is one in which his stance is always in the present. He does not intersect past and present to comment on the inadequacy of the present, as does Seferis; neither does he steer the past in the direction modern man would take were he set to live in that past, as does [Nikos Kazantzakis]; nor does he imbed himself in the past, using historical events and personages as ironic commentary on the present, as does [C. P. Cavafy]. Ritsos' personal world is still the everyday world of the peasant Greek in whose face and in whose constant struggle can be seen the sufferings and the dignity of all Greeks in that country's long history. It is that constant three-thousand-year striving for dignity, freedom, and the knowledge of self, which Ritsos sees in the myths of Greece, in its wars, and in its everyday peasant life, that leads him to see all time as present time. Unconcerned with searching for the continuity of past and present in order to transcend the contemporary world or to symbolically mediate between past and present, Ritsos takes on the past not as a gift but as a right, not as a limitation but as a possibility, not as a looming shadow which makes modern man appear puny by comparison, but as a tool, an instrument of liberation. (p. 458)

Kostas Myrsiades, "The Classical Past in Yannis Ritsos' Dramatic Monologues," in Papers on Language and Literature (copyright © 1978 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville), Fall, 1978, pp. 450-58.

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