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Yannis Ritsos 1909–
(Also transliterated as Gïannes) Greek poet, novelist, translator, dramatist, and essayist.
Ritsos is one of the outstanding contemporary poets of Greece. A national hero to many in his country, Ritsos writes of cultural and historical concerns important to the Greek populace. Ritsos's reputation was firmly established with...
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- Critical Essays
Yannis Ritsos 1909–
(Also transliterated as Gïannes) Greek poet, novelist, translator, dramatist, and essayist.
Ritsos is one of the outstanding contemporary poets of Greece. A national hero to many in his country, Ritsos writes of cultural and historical concerns important to the Greek populace. Ritsos's reputation was firmly established with the publication of Epitaphios (1936), still considered one of his most important works. Some of his other poems have been collected and translated in Selected Poems (1974), The Fourth Dimension (1977), and Ritsos in Parentheses (1980).
Ritsos demonstrates considerable versatility in his poetic style. His poems range from short, imagistic lyrics to long narratives and dramatic monologues. His themes and subject matter are intensely focused on issues of human rights. An artist with leftist interests, Ritsos was imprisoned and exiled by the various military regimes which governed Greece from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s. Some of Ritsos's poetry which was considered especially subversive was publicly burned. One of his most famous poems, "Romaiosyni," was set to music by the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis and is the national anthem of the political left in Greece.
(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 13 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)
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Yánnis Rítsos published, in 1934, his first poems of social content in a book belligerently entitled Tractor. Although influenced by Palamás' interest in machines and written in traditional meter, stanza and rhyme, they retain some of the sarcastic pessimism of Kariotákis, are harsh, violent, almost barbaric in tone, with such revealing titles as "To Marx," "To the Soviet Union," "To Christ," and with individual portraits and caricatures such as "The Individualist," "The Intellectual," "The Undecided," "Revolutionaries." (p. 89)
In his early career. Rítsos may be considered to be the heir of Várnalis, whose proletarian books of poems, The Burning Light and Slaves Besieged, it will be recalled, had been published in 1922 and 1927, during and after the Asia Minor Disaster. Like Várnalis, and like Kazantzákis after him, Rítsos also places Christ among the revolutionary heroes of the world…. Haunted by death, driven at times to the edge of madness and suicide, Rítsos throughout his life has been upheld by an obstinate faith in poetry as redemption, and in the revolutionary ideal. Tractor and his next two books comprise his first period during which his humanitarian poems of social concern and those of rhetorical inspiration … were nonetheless written in strict meter and rhyme, most of them in quatrains, couplets, or in the traditional fifteen-syllable line. Epitáphios, published in July of 1936, written in the rhymed couplets of the folk mirolói, is a long revolutionary lament of a mother over the death of her son killed in a street riot during the breaking of a strike by army and police. (pp. 89-90)
As though to announce and repeat the orientation of his second period, ushering in a dichotomy that was to follow him throughout his life, all the titles of Rítsos' next four books are firmly musical: The Song of My Sister (1937), Spring Symphony (1938), The Ocean's Musical March (1940), and Old Mazurka to the Rhythm of Rain (1943). In these poems he broke forever from the shackles of meter and rhyme, wrote in free verse of short, staccato lines and, in a riot of color, sound and imagery, turned to themes that express the pain and endeavor of man to overcome his fate, the nostalgia of adolescence, the durability of the Greek landscape. His titles in shorter poems during the same period express now some of the delicacy, nuance and impressionism of a Wallace Stevens or an Odysseus Elýtis: "Rhapsody of Naked Light," "A Glowworm Illuminates the Night," "Small Brother of the Sea Gulls," "Weekend in the Neighborhood of Summer," "Winds in the Western Suburbs." In the last of these books, his free verse took the form of long, undulating lines reminiscent of Walt Whitman's versification, a cadence he has used ever since in the writing of long poems. Although each of these four books consists of one long poem, the various parts are not arranged in a hierarchical or compositional order, for often one section may be interchanged with another without harm to the general structure. They are rather musical movements of various tonalities, speeds or colors in an over-all symphonic arrangement, a rise and fall from one mood to another rather than an arrangement of musical motifs such as may be found, for instance, in Eliot's Four Quartets. Perhaps a more fruitful analogy may be found in the poems of John Gould Fletcher.
At about the same time, however, between 1938 and 1941, Rítsos was also writing extremely short free-verse poems which are terse, hard, concrete, objective, imagistic and symbolistic, with laconic titles such as "Duty," "Punishment," "Myth" and "The Hill." All his subsequent poetry was to hover between the two extremes of long and brief poems; in the general total of his many works the poems of average length are few. To fulfill these dual aspects of his nature, Rítsos needs, on the one hand, the long discursive poem in which he can ramble almost to loquacious length, to ruminate, to amplify, to digress, to indulge in mood and musical movement; and, on the other hand, he needs equally the brief, almost epigrammatic poem that is sharp, cryptic and symbolistic, almost surrealistic…. In the long poems, he orchestrates primarily with strings and woodwinds; in the short poems he raps out his Morse code with percussions. Trumpets and bugles are sparse or muted, for his general tone is low-keyed, tender in lamentation, lyrical in exultation, smoldering in anger.
The Second World War and the Occupation plunged Rítsos into his third period, wherein the lyrical element deepened into hardness to express the tragedy of those years, the civil war, the heroism of the Resistance…. His involvement in personal and communal suffering turned his proletarian poetry away from theoretical themes to those of a more concrete nature, to more humanitarian and less doctrinaire concerns. Like most poets of this nature, Rítsos is an idealist and romanticist, a man who identifies himself in empathy with the suffering of his fellow men, who espouses whatever movement promises best to alleviate mankind's slavery and injustice. (pp. 90-1)
With the publication of Moonlight Sonata in 1956, Rítsos entered into his fourth period. His long poems become more structural in composition, the esoteric and thematic movements are better planned, the diction is stripped to more naked expression, the idioms are more colloquial, the themes shift from purely humanitarian concerns to existentialist problems of wider range expressed with clarity and precision as though the dark abysses of an inner world have been cleansed in the light of an ultimate certainty. Loneliness, death and decay are now among his basic themes, the dynasty of chance, the tyranny of necessity, the acceptance of the totality of life in all its incomprehensibility. The problem of loneliness, as in Moonlight Sonata, is seen in the larger context of decaying civilization, symbolized by the house in which the woman in black unravels her "terrible strength for resignation." This poem bears curious analogies to another Rítsos has never read, Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady," for both express the agonized loneliness, the sense of withering, the confession of an older woman to a younger man against a musical background, that of Chopin in the one and that of Beethoven in the other. Rítsos no longer draws conclusions from a priori standards, philosophical, political, or aesthetic. Although to reach heights of personal inner consciousness, or to lose oneself in larger humanitarian struggles may in some ways alleviate loneliness, these in themselves become a new, though more expansive, solitude. (p. 92)
In his later, longer poems, Rítsos perfected the technique of the dramatic monologue, somewhat as in Browning. The poems open with descriptive stage settings; usually two or three persons are involved, but there is no dialogue between them, only the dramatic projection of one mind restlessly exploring an obsession, monologues that strive in vain to become dialogues. These poems are small scenes of introspection from untheatrical plays that have no ending. In all these poems Rítsos hides behind the third person singular, not so much in an attempt to divert personal confession or preoccupation as to penetrate into the heart and mind of others, of existential problems seen from the outside, an endeavor to derive universal spiritual truth from some person, object or scene. This also holds true of his shorter poems, "Testimonies," as he now calls them, with their deep problematical and symbolic character, their esoteric theatricality, their reliance on objects, their sharp depiction of slices of life, their almost surrealistic overtones. Like the couple in "Honest Confrontation," the poet has now confronted the dual aspects of his nature, has stripped and offered himself—but always behind the veil of the third person singular—without proofs, justifications or guarantees, indulging in "the cruel pride of action." And yet, for Rítsos, no amount of white-wash—that healthy, new, classical simplicity of the modern Greeks—can wash away or dare cover up the black widow weeds of a peasant mother in her lamentation.
In his last period Rítsos has returned to classical myth, in such long poems as "Orestes" and "Philoctetes," in which ancient situations are seen to be problematically modern—the struggle of man with his fate, the clash of personal freedom with necessity, the themes of ancient tragedians given an existential projection into modern times. The Greek echo in Rítsos, as in "Ancient Amphitheater," does not imitate or repeat, but continues, to an immeasurable height, "the eternal cry of the dithyramb." (pp. 92-3)
Kimon Friar, "Introduction: The Social Poets," in Modern Greek Poetry, edited and translated by Kimon Friar, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1973, pp. 88-97.∗
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Yannis Ritsos is the old-fashioned kind of great poet. His output has been enormous, his life heroic and eventful, his voice is an embodiment of national courage, his mind is tirelessly active. In a sense he belongs to the modern movement, but he is closer to Neruda, or even to Vallejo, and to Brecht, than he is to Seferis or to Yeats or Laforgue. The modernism of the left in poetry is a special behaviour of language; in it the socialism of poets insists on the details of the real world, nothing is left ignoble or merely disorientated, and modern techniques of poetry cry out with the same passion for detailed realities. Ritsos is one of the greatest poets now living; in French he has been well served by Dominique Grandmont but until recently he has hardly been available at all in England. Nikos Stangos produced the first small selection a few years ago. He has now widened his scope greatly in Selected Poems, and for the first time it will be possible for English readers to have some notion of the breadth and depth of this humane and enigmatic writer….
And yet it is not possible for a collection like this to be truly representative. There are almost none of the longer poems, the long pages of long lines. The exception is The Dead House (1959) which is also by several years the earliest poem we are given…. What most people in England know about Ritsos, if they know anything, is that he wrote "Romaiosyni" [also "Romiosini"], that astonishing sequence set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, which has become the national anthem of the left in Greece. Stripped of its music, in fact, the poems of that sequence are even stronger, more rigorous, more direct and more terrible. If he had written nothing else Ritsos would still be an important and even a great poet. It is a pity it has never been properly translated. [Translator Nikos] Stangos's first selection [Gestures and Other Poems] covered only the years 1968–70, this time he ranges from 1963 to 1972, with the one very strong, long poem of 1959; grateful as we ought to be, Ritsos has a wider range and deserves fuller selection.
This poetry is bound up with Greek history and social history since the war. "Romaiosyni" is a commemoration of the dead in the resistance and the civil war. It is the same kind of frightening history that is so present you could touch it in The Dead House. The poems of 1963 are as disturbed and as disturbing, there is a sense that surrealism has got into the blood-stream of Greece, but they are more about social than about public history, and some of them are unexpectedly moving and lyrical, at least for a few lines at a time…. In 1967 democracy was abolished in Greece; from that time onwards Ritsos wrote the poetry of imprisonment, exile and suffering. There is a bitterness nothing can or should sweeten; what was positive in his poetry at that time was a sort of despairing courage….
One of the most brilliant gifts of this poet is the sheer abundance, the striking force and consequential rhetoric of his imagination. It is difficult for a foreigner to make the finest judgments about language, nor is it reasonable to attempt this for Greekless readers. But it can be said in general that his Greek is warm, lively, demotic and his rhythms are like those of a subtly controlled dialogue. It seldom occurs to you to try to scan a line by Ritsos, there are no two ways of pronouncing it, it imposes itself as poetry, and its rhythmic unit is rather the whole short poem than the single lines. Each line modifies the rhythms of the others. Even in the depressing sadness and, one ought to admit, the claustrophobic frustration of poems written under the last years of the colonels, the mature technical strength of these rhythms goes on increasing. Even the old, imaginative abundance never quite dries up. As a monument of human persistence and of intellectual survival, the poetry of Ritsos has been a remarkable achievement….
Last year there was some talk of a Nobel Prize for Ritsos. He is not the same kind of writer as Seferis or as Pasternak, nor is it ever possible to compete with the dead. But Ritsos is a fine poet and he repays study. His poetry is more substantial perhaps than it seems in this collection; these poems are some of the cleverest, but he has a broader strength that these shorter poems are not always long enough to reveal. They read so well in English one is tempted to think they were chosen because this kind of poem translated so well, but I have been looking at the originals and that is not true, or not the whole truth. They have a subtlety and a power which once it is apprehended one can hardly exorcize. They occupy and haunt the mind with no excess of violence, in the same way as Cavafy, almost to the same degree. They seem to be casual jottings, and yet there are no rhythms that beat the air, no wasted words, no loose colours. There is an imagism about them sometimes that seems to preclude any development, but the images are ominously powerful, deeply rooted in life and experience, weighed down with a simple meaning and with resonance. They are supple, they are not "aesthetic". How can such a freshness and vividness not have withered? At times the presence of the poet seems to be that of a boy of twenty-one.
The Dead House has a special importance because it does allow of development and a cumulative, epic or tragic blackness. As social history this is an intensely truthful poem. It has some of the qualities of a novel or one of those films which used to change our lives in the 1950s. The themes it touches have been important to Ritsos and they occur elsewhere in his work; one builds on another. Line by line, it has the swift sharpness that he isolates in shorter poems….
There is something Chekhovian about the Greek provinces, and Ritsos can catch it, though other parts of the same poem have the atmosphere of Isaac Babel. Still, in the end there is a calmness about Ritsos which belongs only to those poets who are at home with realities, who love them and will not be satisfied with anything else.
Peter Levi, "At Home with Realities," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3827, July 18, 1975, p. 809.
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[The Fourth Dimension] is the most complete gathering of Ritsos's work yet published in English….
Although Ritsos shares with a poet like Francis Ponge a concern with the universal in the minuscule and with Kazantzakis and Rilke a sure sense of the cosmos, his poems have about them the coherence of dreams. As in dreams, his images swim and evolve into their own order, and his capacity to word the "daily nightmare" is as present in his early work as in his most recent. (p. 347)
As a dramatic poet, Ritsos's lyrical talents are subsumed into what Eliot interestingly called the third voice of poetry—the one that speaks not from I to you but for them. This is the voice of the four monologues in The Fourth Dimension. Perhaps the most moving of these monologues is "Ismene." Ritsos expands on the Sophoclean story by portraying Ismene as a figure whose only reward in life is living on. Besides the fulfillment of Antigone's brief life, Ismene comments on her own longevity until we see that her only prize is the loneliness of mere survival. Even her final quest for love is made too late and with too much prudence. The only victor is the ticking clock, the symbol of death in the poem.
For a man whose political sensitivities and convictions are as pronounced and significant as Ritsos's have been and still are, the political dimension figures into only one of the longer poems in this book, "The Blackened Pot."… Ritsos is not a propagandistic poet of the Left. Nor is he a versifying ideologue. When wedded with the music of Mikis Theodorakis, Ritsos's words have the force of anthems, expressing the deepest aspirations of the Greek people. This is especially evident in his most popular poem, "Romiosini," which is referred to and quoted from but not included in this book. It should have been included since its conclusion is one of the most memorable crescendos in all modern Greek poetry: "The hour has come, every hour is our hour. Be prepared. / This earth is theirs and ours / no one can take it from us." This kind of poetry (most poets in England and the United States are simply incapable of it) is the poetry of the blood in the spiritual and not the genetic sense. You can find it in the poetry of Alberti, Pasternak and Paz. Ritsos is correct in calling it more than "virtuosity and inventiveness," and the work of legions of poets in America and elsewhere who have reduced poetry to prosody or the mere penning of erudite valentines to one another seems not only anemic in comparison but, quite frankly, insignificant.
If good poetry is derivative of how well a poem works in itself and if great poetry depends on what universalities are at work in the poem, Ritsos's poems qualify on both counts. It is not surprising that he has been twice nominated for the Nobel Prize nor that he has been regarded as a major poet of this century by Neruda, Aragon, Sartre and Ehrenburg. Ritsos needs no further apologists on this score.
All he needs is to have his poems more widely known, particularly in the United States, and Rae Dalven's translations have now made that possible. The poems will do the rest. (pp. 347-48)
Samuel Hazo, "Wording the Daily Nightmare," in The Nation, Vol. 224, No. 11, March 19, 1977, pp. 347-48.
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[In The Fourth Dimension,] Dalven's translations convey the style and verve of the poetry with considerable success….
[But here] it must be said that, in view of the considerable claims often made for it, Ritsos's poetry is disappointing. This is not great poetry. Too much of it is merely episodic, a matter of sensation, of a piling-up of endless accidental details not fused by any overriding imaginative or intellectual vision. Great poetry is written within a tradition shaped by master after master and learned in deliberate study and detachment. Modern Greek poets like Solomos, Sikelianos or Seferis belong to such a tradition. Ritsos does not. Nor, in spite of the fact that Theodorakis has set some of his poems to music is his poetry that of the people, of ballads and songs handed on from generation to generation.
Ritsos's poetry belongs to an in-between world, to a disinherited, materialist world that has broken with the unwritten tradition and has not yet learned the written one. It is the poetry of the commonplace, of sentiment and pathos—a poetry, consequently, that makes but the barest challenge to, or demand upon, the imagination or intellect of the reader. It can be swallowed, more or less effortlessly, in a single draught, and forgotten as easily. In fact, its world is not the world of the imagination at all but that of fantasy and illusion, optical and acoustic. Statues demolish themselves, empty coats close doors, statements with an air of gravity turn out to be merely banal: "Sometimes I ask myself whether we aren't born solely / to acknowledge simply that we die … Nobody can take away from us any longer what does not exist." Even from a short poem one can extract impressionistic images, or juggle with them, without the poem gaining or losing. The long monologues (which are simply not dramatic) lack internal sequence, are but a kind of anecdotal pastiche in which no section is either related to, or more—or less—significant than, any other. One can see why, in an age that esteems so highly what it calls realism or what a mirror moving down a city's street can capture, this poetry is so popular.
All this is not to say that Ritsos's poetry has no value. Certain poems, and individual lines within poems, in their directness and with their sense of anguish, are moving, and testify to the courage of at least one human soul in conditions which few of us have faced or would have triumphed over had we faced them. That alone is rare enough. But, whether one likes it or not, sincerity, suffering and courage, and even an eye and ear for striking images, do not in themselves make great poetry. When we are told that it is these things, or things like them, that make Ritsos's poetry great, then we need to recall the criteria which any art must satisfy before it can merit that exalted title.
Philip Sherrard, "Poet of the People," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 8, 1977, p. E17.
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Ritsos himself has written about his urge since early childhood in Laconia to write laconic poems, recognizing that this is no simple play on words but a temperamental necessity. Corridor and Stairs is such a book of short poems—which since 1963 have gone under the general title of Testimonies—and is of particular interest because they were written during the years of the dictatorship and because all of them deal, either specifically or indirectly, with the tragedies and traumas of that period. Basically, all of Ritsos's short poems are testimonies and witnesses to fleeting moments of life to which he may respond with lightning speed by pinning them down under his microscope to examine them minutely and thus magnify them into life's awareness. They are compact and concrete, lacking abstraction, crammed with objects and things. Even persons are seen objectively, unsentimentally, with an almost cruel detachment, as though they were themselves objects and their emotions and reactions little different than the movements of wind or waves. Human beings are seen at a dramatist's distance, almost impersonally, unrhetorically, disinterestedly; yet beneath this seeming detachment the arteries bleed, the heart is lacerated, the mind is torn, the body is bruised.
These "objects" play dual roles. On the one hand, they are simple, tangible, irrational concretions, things in themselves as they really are; but on the other hand, they are the small and innocent accumulators of human emotion and thought which lave them daily and make them the unwilling though innocent pawns in a drama which really does not concern them…. Within them resides the indefinite, the inexplicable, the irresponsible elements of life. They remain incomprehensible; they contain the enchantment of ambiguity; they raise questions to which there may be no answers. These common, everyday, humble objects are steeped in the storehouse of subconscious memory…. Ultimately they accumulate a myth of their own, shifting, changing and evoking within us unfathomable accretions.
Presented in simple sentence structures, wherein each object is given an undivided attention of utmost clarity, they are nonetheless not related to one another by any surface logic of continuity or plot but are juxtaposed one against the other so abruptly, so unexpectedly, so surprisingly that the reader is forced to wonder in what way they are related to one another and what the drama is which they are playing. They possess both the precision and yet the blurred and symbolical suggestivity of objects seen in dream. They seem to be surrealist in origin but are only so in impact. Beneath their seemingly illogical disconnections the reader-interpreter senses that a logic of the imagination is at play, that beneath the absurdity of their irrational existence and their deeds lies the luminous rationale of their creator—luminous because Ritsos, like Kazantzakis, has accepted the ultimate absurdity of life but has pushed far beyond it in gratitude for life's teeming multiplicity in order to embrace all phenomena in a fierce, almost savage love and affirmation. (pp. 483-84)
Kimon Friar, in a review of "Corridor and Stairs," in World Literature Today, Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 483-84.
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"The Fourth Dimension" offers a representative cross section of [Ritsos's] work from 1938 to 1974, and contains a liberal selection of short poems, a few long poems … and the superb sequence "Twelve Poems for Cavafy."
In the short poems, most of which are not overtly political, Ritsos is full of surprises. He records, at times celebrates, the enigmatic, the irrational, the mysterious and invisible qualities of experience: Our senses are impressed as much, if not more, by the random and accidental as they are by the deliberate and institutional. If his perceptions, which stress paradox rather than irony, can be disturbing, they also define a major source of his inspiration, for it is the inexplicable and uncertain that Ritsos finds worthy of poetry…. (p. 14)
The first long poem in the book, "The Blackened Pot," written in a concentration camp in 1948–49, represents the period of Ritsos's career that produced his most important political poem, "Romiosini," unfortunately not included in this volume…. There follow four of Ritsos's many dramatic monologues, long poems ranging from 10 to over 20 pages. These poems do not in the least resemble American and English instances of the genre: For one thing, Ritsos frames them with beginning and ending paragraphs in which he describes setting and narrates actions, if only minimally. One of the effects of this technique is to obliterate the conventional distinctions among story, poem and play. In the poems based on ancient myths, he innovates with a spare yet precise use of anachronistic detail not just in order to make their settings and characters contemporary but also to imply universality.
"Twelve Poems for Cavafy" … "bring the poet back to life," says the translator [Rae Dalven] in her introduction, "with an intensity that suggests he had known him personally for years." It is likely Ritsos's intentions, like Cavafy's, are a little more complex. As the third person narrator of these poems says, in number 8, "Surely he is out to involve us in his own complication." As the last poem in the series reveals, the Cavafy poems articulate and demonstrate the legacy of the Alexandrian poet to Greece and the contemporary world in general and to poet Yannis Ritsos in particular…. (pp. 14, 37)
George Economou, "Deliberately Random," in The New York Times Book Review, July 10, 1977, pp. 14, 37.
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The title [Ritsos in Parentheses] I have given this selection of translations is not as playful as it may seem. Two of the three groups of poems by Ritsos from which the selection is made actually carry the title "Parentheses," the one written in 1946–47 and first published in volume two of the 1961 collected edition, the other covering poems written from 1950 to 1961 and still to be published in Greek. The third source, a volume called The Distant, written in 1975 and published in March 1977, was chosen by the poet to accompany these versions from the two "Parentheses" groups, presumably because he considers the poems from this recent volume to be in the same general mode as the earlier "parenthetical" works. (p. xiii)
In what sense are these three groups of poems from different periods "in parentheses"? They are not really an interlude between those longer works that were primarily responsible for shaping Ritsos's reputation in Greece—for example, "Epitaphios," "Romiosini," and "Moonlight Sonata"—because shorter poems of the kind found in these three groups have been important from the beginning and have now come to dominate Ritsos's oeuvre. One might call them parenthetical to those poems—early poems, on the whole—that promoted political themes directly and that helped to establish Ritsos as a leading Communist poet; but to regard them as an "aside" in this sense is to give too much weight to the ideological aspect of Ritsos's work and too much credit to his more blatantly political, rhetorical, and sometimes loquacious exercises. In my opinion, each of the three groups considered here reveals subtleties that are not found in more famous works, and though each group is uneven, the three combine to make a statement at least as important as that of any of the longer poems which served most to create Ritsos's reputation in his home country, in particular those that were assisted by the musical settings of Mikis Theodorakis.
My use of "parentheses" has more to do with metaphor than with judgment in any case. I am not sure what Ritsos himself has in mind when he offers the term, but certain metaphoric possibilities suggest themselves if "parentheses" are seen in the context of mathematics and symbolic logic, that is, as a way of designating separate groupings of symbols that form a unit or collective entity. The analogy underlines one aspect of these three groups of poems: a unity of symbolic vision or sensibility, both within the individual groups and progressively linking the three. Each shapes its own parenthesis, enclosing a particular way of viewing reality at a particular moment in the poet's career. At the same time, the three groupings, the three parentheses, are part of a developing vision that distinguishes these poems in terms of stance, mode, and perspective from other works—especially the longer ones—that make up Ritsos's vast oeuvre. The developing vision can be seen as an expansion of the space within the parenthesis representing each of the separate groups. In the case of each, the two signs of the parenthesis are like cupped hands facing each other across a distance, hands that are straining to come together, to achieve a meeting that would serve to reaffirm human contact between isolated presences; but though there are obvious gestures toward closing the gap between the hands, the gestures seem inevitably to fail, and the meeting never quite occurs. In terms of the poet's development, the distance within the parenthesis is shorter in each of the two earlier volumes. By the time we reach The Distant (the title especially significant in this context), the space between the cupped hands has become almost infinite, seemingly too vast for any ordinary human gesture that might try to bridge the parenthetical gap. (pp. xiii-xiv)
The poet's thirty-year journey from Parentheses, 1946–47 to The Distant has been one of bitter catharsis, a progress from his focus on so-called simple things and more or less abortive gestures to a focus on bare—not to say barren—essentials and primitive rituals performed by those whose deity appears to be an infinitely distant, absolutely white, unapproachable and silent ambiguity. The starkness of this late vision, with its desiccated landscape and haunting presence of death, is paralleled by an aesthetic absoluteness that replaces the earlier grammatical complexity with an uncomplicated syntax consisting largely of declarative sentences and a purified style that leaves no room for figures of speech, no coloring other than basic adjectives, no images that have not been drained of overt sentiment. It has been a movement from masked simplicity to an attempt at the real thing. The earlier mode produced poems of subtlety and warmth, and it also produced poems marred by sentimentality; the later mode precludes sentimentality, but it does not always preclude an excess of stylistic dryness and a degree of obscurity. Yet the effect of the long catharsis in those late poems that work well is to provide a sense of reality that transcends the merely representational, a sense of the deeper psychic meanings—the hidden threats and nightmare memories—that lie below the surface of things. The poet's development has served to promote symbolic richness at the expense of decorative coloring and tragic vision at the expense of ideological rhetoric.
The development starts much earlier than has been generally acknowledged in Greek literary circles—… at least as early as the best of Parentheses, 1946–47. Beginning with that volume, Ritsos appears to have moved in much the same direction as that chosen by his strongest predecessors in this century, Cavafy, Sikelianos, and Seferis. Each abandoned rhetorical self-indulgence or subjective lyricism at some point in his career in favor of the dramatic and symbolic expression of a tragic sense of life that came to each with a mature vision of the human predicament and that discovered its profoundest form in the kind of simplicity which emerges from catharsis, personal and stylistic. These three groups of poems "in parentheses" can be taken as testimony of both the pain and the wisdom of Ritsos's progress toward a like discovery. (pp. xv-xvi)
Edmund Keeley, in an introduction to Ritsos in Parentheses by Yannis Ritsos, edited and translated by Edmund Keeley, Princeton University Press, 1979, pp. xiii-xvi.
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Ritsos' poetry is filled with invisible guests, wilfully invisible to one another at times, if merely inscrutable to the poet. And this partial visibility becomes more tantalizing, to the limits of the grotesque, in poems written under the pressure of dictatorship and resistance in Greece. (Among the ironies that crowd: Communism, the Abominable Snowman of Mandelstam and Milosz, has been for Ritsos the deferred Messiah!) From a landscape which has been perennially a subject for poetry since Homer, Ritsos' copious verses have assembled a landscape of their own which, if it resembles the illogical scenography of surrealist paintings, should not be termed unconditionally surreal…. [The] disjunctures in Ritsos' poems, becoming sharper and less amenable to deft interpretation over the years, were derived first from the intrinsic isolation and perplexity which Ritsos saw (oppugnant, surely, to a belief in Communism!) as man's condition. Later they were intensified by the treasons and concealments of civil war, in which equivocation becomes a principal mode of discourse; the significance of every gesture is a compound riddle.
Among the earlier poems … [those in Ritsos in Parentheses] nonhuman (even impalpable) phenomena are as sentient and transitive as human beings. "The night went by with its mouth full of speechless water…. And / the mountains / grew larger and sharper like the teeth of one who hungered."… Fewer of these pathetic fallacies appear in the later poems but long before the poet's arrest by the Papadopalos regime in 1967, which spurred some of his most vitriolic output, the dominating ambience of the Ritsos poem—this would return in another, more oppressed context—was that remarkable gift he has for suggesting the sound and color of silence, the impending instant, the transfixed hush. (pp. 624-25)
[Translator Edmund Keeley] interprets the poet's thirty-year journey from Parentheses, 1946–1947 to The Distant, 1975, as "a progress from his focus on so-called simple things and more or less abortive gestures to a focus on bare … essentials and primitive rituals performed by those whose deity appears to be an infinitely distant, absolutely white, unapproachable and silent ambiguity" [see excerpt above]. After 1972 this description is drastically modified by many of the poems translated by Kimon Friar as Scripture of the Blind. Friar places a welcome emphasis, in his exhaustive introduction, on the extent to which Ritsos' sardonic vision, acrid and contemporary, is yet imbued with the ancient Greek sensibility and reminds us, apropos the title, that "All Greek literature, from ancient to modern times, is haunted by the shades of its three great Blind Men: Homer, Tiresias, and Oedipus…. All but one of these poems," he tells us further, were written "… at white heat, sometimes two or three in a day, in a concentrated two-month period … at the height of the junta years, when it seemed that tyranny, oppression, torture and degradation were to be the fate of Greece for many more years to come." While there are among these poems the always characteristic ones arising from "that deep inaction where music reigns," the majority are people with monstrous characters, deformed relationships, armless statues and headless dolls, the dead in refrigerators, "guards, prisons, flashlights, and old women, old women, old women"—all the horror, the betrayals, the fatigue, and the corruption that accompany a war against tyranny which has gone on too long and bred its own maggots. (pp. 625-26)
Vernon Young, "No One Said It Would Be Easy," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Winter, 1979–80, pp. 621-34.∗
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The poems of Ritsos in Parentheses were culled from three sources: a volume titled Parentheses, 1946–47; a second collection, Parentheses, 1950–61, still unpublished in Greek; and The Distant (1977), containing verse written in 1975. In the succinct, incisive Introduction, [Edmund] Keeley identifies the themes of Ritsos' poetry—the progression from greater to lesser sharing, from stouter to slenderer hope [see excerpt above]…. (p. 239)
What I find remarkable about Ritsos' poetry is its ability to make extraordinary constructs out of the most unforcedly ordinary ingredients—surreality out of reality. And seem not even to make it, just find it. Footling details are taken out of context and seen either strictly for themselves or in some dizzyingly vast framework. Sensory experiences are detoured through some other than the obvious sense, yet without any showy, programmatic synaesthesia. Colors are expressionistically heightened or nudged in a direction they might have only hoped or feared to take. The actions of dreamers, eccentrics, or creatures impaled on despair are viewed with the alert amorality of a child. (pp. 239-40)
Yet sometimes the images leave reality virtually unchanged and still manage to get at something inscrutable or ineffable…. And sometimes there is no imagery at all, only an insistently resonant situation or incident, as in the three-line poem "Spring": "They sat down in the field facing each other, / took their shoes off, and bare like that, their soles / touched in the tall grass. And they stayed." Are these two creatures lovers turning into friends or friends changing into lovers? Or are they either or both communing with something bigger? (p. 240)
Ritsos, on the evidence of these poems, is also a great bard of loneliness, but of loneliness ennobled and overcome. Poem after poem, image upon image, suffuses aloneness with a gallows humor that begins to mitigate its ravages and makes the person in the poem a Pyrrhic winner. (p. 242)
John Simon, "'Traduttore, Traditore' or the Tradition of Traducing, II," in Poetry, Vol. CXXXVII, No. 4, January, 1981, pp. 220-42.∗
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Aristotle says in the Poetics that no work of art or nature can be beautiful if it is too big to be seen all at once. Because of the quantity of Ritsos' output, any one selection of his poems risks imbalance or incoherence, not to mention incompleteness. (p. 342)
To some extent, this confusion is inherent in Ritsos' productivity and scope; it should not be blamed on an editor who is faced with the imposing task of choosing representative work. Nevertheless, it ought to be possible to read Ritsos at a less punishing pace. Taking him in one poem at a time allows us to pause and admire details or subtleties if they are there at all, rather than forcing us to crane in order to see the whole monumental mural at a glance. In Ritsos in Parentheses Keeley … has given us a chance to do just that. Probably the longest poem in this collection ("Rainy") is 21 lines long, and most are shorter, many only five or six lines. Almost without exception (though generalizations about Ritsos are fraught with peril), the poems take place on a scale where intimacy and bleakness, loneliness and domesticity, intersect. (pp. 342-43)
The book is composed of selections from two groups of poems both called Parentheses … and from a third source, The Distant…. The notion of distance … seems especially significant in the spatial context suggested by the image of parentheses. "By the time we reach The Distant … the space between the cupped hands has become almost infinite, seemingly too vast for any ordinary human gesture that might try to bridge the parenthetical gap."
However we choose to read Ritsos in Parentheses, remote distance is rarely separated from smallness and constriction. Sometimes the poems depict tiny-seeming scenes in their entirety, as through the wrong end of a telescope. It is not just a matter of static visual imagery; there are often sounds and movement also, but over the whole frequently hangs a sense of nightmarish removal which serves to enhance the sense of enclosure…. Several details, either unremarkable or quietly incongruous …, are [often] combined in a flat, unemphatic language that gradually acquires tension. Sometimes Ritsos uses a succession of short sentences whose causal relation to one another is puzzling …; elsewhere, as if to abjure causality, there may be a string of nouns and participles but almost no main verb…. (pp. 343-44)
Trimming rhetorical excesses and narrative borders off the scenes he depicts in his poems, Ritsos always manages to leave room for two kinds of activity, object, or image: the humdrum and the sinister. Think of the paintings celebrated by Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" in which the Old Masters, never wrong about suffering, concentrated on the torturer's horse scratching its innocent behind on a tree, or on the farmer who sturdily keeps ploughing while Icarus falls out of the sky. Shrunken versions of this device, Ritsos' poems focus on an alarm clock, a suitcase, a teacup, while off to one side (or in the all-important last line) we hear of an explosion, a tank, a scaffold. The fact that throughout this volume Ritsos' imagery hews to the humble and everyday only serves to emphasize the sordid horror which so often rescues (or is supposed to rescue) the slicing of bread or the gathering of greens from banality.
This combination of awfulness and ordinariness is probably the single most striking device in Ritsos in Parentheses, and it surely provides one reading of the book's title. Are the everyday things of life sandwiched into the allotted spaces of a brief interlude while the tanks rumble on outside? Or is it—one hopes—horror that fits into the parentheses while life continues, as in the wonderful line of the Iliad which tells us that when Niobe was tired of tears she thought of eating? One could easily imagine Niobe frying herself an egg and listening to the radio in one of these poems. Ritsos is deft, in the best Modern Greek tradition, at interweaving myth and contemporary reality, or rather juxtaposing them in such a way as to show us they never differed much anyway.
"Eurydice," he called. He ran down the stairs.
There was no light in the entrance hall. He searched the mirror with his hands.
At the far end the woman with the yellow umbrella was leaving.
The second woman in the basement called out to him: "She's dead."
The three airmen emerged from the elevator with a huge suitcase—
inside it were her two severed hands and my manuscripts.
This brief, hard-hitting poem bears out my point about the horrible and the quotidian, the reality and the myth. The last line could easily have been lifted from a gruesome 1979 New York Times article … about the wholesale kidnapping, murdering, and mutilation of "dissidents" by the secret police in Argentina. One woman persisted in demanding proof that her daughter, who had vanished months before, was indeed dead. She was eventually shown (or sent? I forget which) her daughter's chopped-off hands.
Of course Ritsos is hardly alone in deliberately juxtaposing the homely and the hideous. Although Ritsos is not a particularly literary poet in the sense of overt references to other writers, a few of the names that come to mind when I consider his work are Sartre, Beckett, Simenon, Donald Barthelme, and deChirico, as well as Ritsos' notable Modern Greek predecessors, Cavafy and especially Seferis…. The flat unemphatic surface, the colloquial diction, the omnipresent, almost automatic irony, the sense of looming menace, and the mythological and historical dimension reduced to a domestic scale that one finds among these writers all mark the poems in Ritsos in Parentheses. deChirico's half-Fascist, half-classical nightmare landscapes and Barthelme's neat straddling of the line between writing and draughtsmanship recall some of Ritsos' visual vividness. Indeed, many of the smaller poems in this book are as bare and suggestive as cartoons. Is it relevant, in this connection, that John Ashbery's self-consciously reflexive style has been compared to that of the artist (and cartoonist) Saul Steinberg? Ritsos' is a less self-regarding art than Ashbery's, but many of his poems, far more easily than the American's, could be translated into line drawings without losing their quiddity…. (pp. 347-49)
Despite their modest dimensions many are packed with detail and provide the pleasures of recognition that some paintings do. Their potential range is as flexible as the imaginative sympathy of the reader…. (p. 349)
It is surely no coincidence that the first and last poems in Ritsos in Parentheses both seem to touch on the nature of Ritsos' poetic. In "The Meaning of Simplicity," Ritsos makes rare and possibly disingenuous use of the first person singular:
I hide behind simple things so you'll find me;
if you don't find me, you'll find the things,
you'll touch what my hand has touched,
our hand-prints will merge….
Every word is a doorway
to a meeting, one often cancelled,
and that's when a word is true: when it insists on the meeting.
Placed at the beginning of the volume, this looks directive, programmatic. In a more oblique way the last poem in this selection, "The Distant," has the air of summing up what has been, and what can never be, said. With its long singing lines and unabashed use of apostrophe, the poem is as lofty and melodic as Ritsos cares to be in his parentheses…. The impulse to invoke peaceful negation [in "The Distant"] closes the volume on a grateful note of stillness. Inaction seems to be finally more desirable than all the busy sights and sounds that have come before, no matter how unapproachable and ungrantable such peace, or the wish for it, may be. If the sentiment looks nihilistic or defeatist, the music of this poem … does something to soften the effect of negation.
Since "The Distant" closes out the volume, I feel entitled to see in the old jester in the middle of the poem an image of the tired author, composing himself to the sincerity of stillness once the audience has gone home. One can see Ritsos both in the painted mountebank and in the unadorned weeper: the former because of his inexhaustibly prolific energy and variety, the latter because of the stubborn core of painful truths around which his poetry has developed. A great deal of Ritsos' variegated output, after all, results from the impulse to protest, lament, or at least bear witness to enormities.
Scripture of the Blind serves up a concentrated dose of enormities. Unlike either Ritsos in Parentheses or The Fourth Dimension, this is a translation of a single volume of Ritsos' work. Although the poems in Scripture of the Blind have never before been published in either Greek or English …, they were written in 1972—to be precise, between September 28 and November 28, 1972, and to be very precise, often at the rate of three or four poems a day during those two months. As the blurb reminds us, 1972 was "the height of the junta years, when it seemed that tyranny, oppression, torture, and degradation were to characterize Greek political life for many years to come."
Predictably, the grotesquerie and bleakness in this volume are nearly unremitting; the collection has less stylistic and thematic range than Keeley's or Dalven's selections. But Scripture of the Blind is a valuable book. It is one thing to be told that Ritsos is prolific, to be assured that any given selection of poems can hardly represent his eighty-odd volumes of work. It is quite another thing to see, as this book permits one to do, that on September 28, 1972, Ritsos wrote two poems, on the 29th one, on the 30th three, on October 2nd three, and so on…. The place-names and dates at the bottom of each poem compose, if read in sequence, a poignant poem, at once urgent and monotonous, mosaic and monolithic, all by themselves. (pp. 349-51)
According to the dates of composition provided, only one poem in Scripture of the Blind took more than a day to write. Not that November 19, 1972, was an idle day; Ritsos seems to have been en route from Kálamos to Athens and had apparently already completed two shorter poems before starting "The Statue in the Café." The long lines and leisurely pace of this poem, especially in the context of this book, make the discovery that it is only the length of a sonnet a startling one. It is not only the size of "The Statue in the Café" that distinguishes this poem; one could also cite its clear title, firmly articulated beginning, middle, and end, its relaxed pace, and its consistent imagery. Because of these features, the poem is somewhat out of harmony with the urgency, bordering on incoherence, that is the predominant note in Scripture of the Blind. But uneasy as it my seem in this volume, "The Statue in the Café" presents renewed evidence of the variety and subtlety of Ritsos' gifts—and of the kind of thing he can accomplish, perhaps, when he gives himself two whole days. (p. 353)
As a figure Ritsos is heroic…. But a critic has to try to distinguish between the life and the work even as she acknowledges and salutes heroism. Despite the power and scope of Ritsos' oeuvre as shown in these two books, I find it hard to forget a couple of facts which, be they niggling or damning, are negative. First, Ritsos' is not an extremely original voice. Second, it is not a voice which loses a great deal in translation…. But Ritsos is just not one of those poets who causes translators to tear their hair in desperation at the task of rendering into another language a distinctive cadence, a verbal witticism, the inimitable blend of music and meaning that has always been one measure of poetic excellence.
Ritsos writes in the poetic lingua franca of the twentieth century. True, the poems have Mediterranean details, but there are times when I could easily imagine them to be Spanish or Portuguese, Argentine or El Salvadorian poems competently rendered into English. For if Ritsos lacks the untranslatable melody and manner of a Pushkin, Valéry, or Yeats, neither does he usually seem to have the devotion to his own tongue and tradition that is so crucial in the work of Cavafy, Sikelianos, or Seferis—a devotion that gets lost in translation but that in Greek unmistakably stamps the voices of these Greek poets. Ritsos' language is an international vernacular which he deploys with skill and, within its limits, variety; but there is no use denying that the effect can become as monotonous and unmemorable as the kind of architecture that now covers most of Attica.
But if Ritsos does not challenge a translator's highest powers, his output is awesome enough to terrify any anthologist or editor. Ritsos in Parentheses and Scripture of the Blind both succeed wonderfully well in their complementary aims. We can choose to see Ritsos steadily over a period of two months, day by day, poem by poem; or, within reasonable limits, we can see at least a part of him whole. No one who is seriously interested in this remarkable writer can afford to ignore either view. (pp. 354-55)
Rachel Hadas, "Two Worlds According to Ritsos," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1981, pp. 342-55.
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In all his vast output of verse, Yánnis Rítsos has seldom published any love poetry…. For so verbally sensuous a poet this was odd. Now, unpredictable as ever, Rítsos, nearly half a century later, has brought out a triad of long poems [Erotica]—"Small Suite in Red Major," "Naked Body," and "Carnal Word"—that constitute an exultant hallelujah to physical love. He moves from the objectivism of "he" and "she" in the first poem through the involved, yet still surreal and dislocated "you" of the second, to a full, splendid, sensuous diapason in the third. "The poems I lived on your body in silence / will ask me one day for their voices, when you have gone." They will not be disappointed…. Rítsos has, in addition to his many other achievements, now written some of the finest, most deeply felt, most vividly expressed love poetry of this century—and at an age when poets generally have quite different things on their minds. Yeats, of course, was another exception; and Rítsos will stand comparison with Yeats.
A review of "Erotica," in Choice, Vol. 20, No. 9, May, 1983, p. 1297.