Yannis Ritsos Ritsos, Yannis (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Kostas Myrsiades

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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),...

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Kostas Myrsiades

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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