Other Literary Forms

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Although known almost exclusively as a poet, Yannis Ritsos published prolifically as a journalist and translator, less prolifically as a critic and dramatist. His collected criticism, available in Meletemata (1974; studies), includes, in addition to essays on Vladimir Mayakovsky, Nazim Hikmet, Ilya Ehrenburg, and Paul Éluard, two invaluable commentaries on...

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Although known almost exclusively as a poet, Yannis Ritsos published prolifically as a journalist and translator, less prolifically as a critic and dramatist. His collected criticism, available in Meletemata (1974; studies), includes, in addition to essays on Vladimir Mayakovsky, Nazim Hikmet, Ilya Ehrenburg, and Paul Éluard, two invaluable commentaries on Ritsos’s own work. Among his translations are Aleksandr Blok’s Dvendtsat (1918), anthologies of Romanian, Czech, and Slovak poetry, and selected poems by Mayakovsky, Hikmet, and Ehrenburg.

Achievements

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Ignored or banned for decades by the establishment, Yannis Ritsos gradually became recognized, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times, although, unlike his compatriots George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis, he never received that honor. He received many others, however, including the International Dimitrov Prize (Bulgaria, 1974), an honorary doctorate from the University of Thessaloniki (1975), the Alfred de Vigny Poetry Prize (France, 1975), two of Italy’s International Prizes for Poetry (1976), the Lenin Peace Prize (1977), Italy’s Mondello Prize (1978), and honorary doctorate from Greece’s Salonica University (1975) and the University of Birmingham, England (1978). In addition to his prolific output (nearly one hundred volumes of poetry), Ritsos continues to enjoy a growing reputation as more of his work is translated into English; were he not a poet of modern Greek, a minority language, his work would be as important a part of the comparative literature curriculum in Anglo-American colleges as is that of his more thoroughly translated and celebrated compatriots, such as Seferis, Elytis, Constantine Cavafy, and Nikos Kazantzakis.

Perhaps more important than such recognition is the contribution Ritsos made to his homeland: More thoroughly than any other Greek writer, Ritsos amalgamated the two ideologies that divided his country, the communist and the bourgeois. Though he espoused Marxist Leninism early in his career and remained faithful to the party to the end, he nevertheless borrowed from Western literary movements, especially Surrealism, and struggled frankly with the Western attractions of individualism and subjectivism. All in all, because he presents a communist orientation expressed through techniques that have evolved in ways typical of non-communist authors, he speaks for and to the entire Greek nation.

Ritsos proved himself a virtuoso in technique. His range was enormous: from the tiniest lyric to huge narrative compositions, from impenetrable surrealistic puzzles to occasional verse promulgating blunt political messages, from poetry of almost embarrassing sensuality to rarefied philosophical meditations. He is also greatly esteemed because of his personal integrity, demonstrated over years of persecution, exile, and imprisonment. As he said in 1970 when interrogated by the ruling junta: “A poet is the first citizen of his country and for this very reason it is the duty of the poet to be concerned about the politics of his country.”

In the Internment Camps: 1948-1952

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The exultant tone disappeared from Ritsos’s poetry during the four years (1948-1952) that he spent once more in internment camps. His aim was no longer either epic or transcendental; it was merely to encourage his fellow prisoners with simple verses which they could understand. There is an entire collection of these poems written in 1949 while he was on the infamous island of Makronesos, the “Makronesiotika,” available in Ta epikairika.

Many more were composed on Agios Efstratios (Ai-Strati), the most celebrated being the “Letter to Joliot-Curie” of November, 1950, which was smuggled out of Greece at the time. It begins:

Dear Joliot, I’m writing you from AiStrati.
We’re about three thousand here,
simple people . . .
with an onion, five olives and a stale crust of light in
our sacks
. . . people who have no other crime to their account
except that we, like you, love
freedom and peace.

To his credit, Ritsos later realized that the comrades did have other crimes to their account, but the circumstances of imprisonment made such self-criticism inappropriate for the moment. What is remarkable, as Pandeles Prevelakes remarks, is that Ritsos “not only maintained his intellectual identity, but also prodded his sensibility to adjust to the conditions of exile.”

More important is the tender poem titled “Peace,” written soon after Ritsos’s release. Here, the title word is no longer a political slogan; it expresses the poet’s genuine sense of tranquillity after four years of terror:

Peace is the evening meal’s aroma,
when a car stopping outside in the street isn’t fear,
when a knock on the door means a friend. . . .

The Peaceful Decade: 1956-1966

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The years 1956 to 1966 were Ritsos’s most remarkable decade of artistic productivity and growth. The great outpouring of this period surely derived in part from unaccustomed happiness—this was the first outwardly peaceful decade of his life—but also, paradoxically, from a new, disagreeable condition to which his sensibility (along with that of all communists) had to adjust. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev denounced dictator Joseph Stalin in 1956, whereupon the Greek Communist Party immediately denounced its Stalinist leader, Nikos Zachariades. Later in the same year, the Soviet Union—presumably a lover of freedom and peace—invaded Hungary. Ritsos, who had sung hymns to both Stalin and Zachariades, was forced to step back from his previous commitments and certainties, to view them with doubt or irony. “The first cries of admiration,” he wrote in his introduction to his criticism on Mayakovsky, “have given way to a more silent self-communing. . . . We have learned how difficult it is not to abuse the power entrusted to us in the name of the supreme ideal, liberty. . . .” This new understanding, he continued, has led modern poets to a self-examination which is at the same time self-effacing and hesitant. Elsewhere, he spoke of his growing consciousness of all that is “vague, complicated, incomprehensible, inexplicable and directionless in life.”

The Moonlight Sonata

The first fruit of this new awareness of the complexity of life was The Moonlight Sonata, a nonpolitical poem constituting for Ritsos a breakthrough fully as significant as the one achieved precisely twenty years earlier by the quintessentially political Epitaphios. The 1956 poem, though once again a kind of elegy for a suffering woman, avoids all stridency and authorial assertion by hiding its tragic elements behind a mask of ironic impassivity. At the same time, however, it allows the woman’s anguished emotions to stir the reader’s emotions. Ritsos accomplishes this by making the major voice not his own but the woman’s and then by framing her dramatic monologue inside yet another nonauthorial voice, a narrator’s, which questions and neutralizes the emotions of the first voice. As a result, the reader is never quite sure how to feel about the poem or how to interpret it; instead, both emotionally and mentally, the reader is ushered into all that is “vague, complicated, incomprehensible. . . .”

Philoktetes

Philoktetes carries this process still further. It retains the technique of dramatic monologue inside a narrative frame but adds to it an all-encompassing myth that fulfills the same kind of “painterly” purpose served earlier by El Greco’s Burial of the Conde de Orgaz. At the same time, the myth connects Ritsos’s version of the Philoctetes story and hence the Greek Civil War (which is clearly suggested) not only with Homer’s Achaeans and Trojans but also with the Peloponnesian War, clearly suggested in Sophocles’ version. If one notes as well that the poem employs the surrealistic and expressionistic techniques that Ritsos had been perfecting in short poems dating from the same period (collected as Martyries, A’ seira; testimonies), it becomes clear that a work of such complexity is deliberately meant to make the reader feel uncomfortably suspended above nothing. That, in turn, is a perfect technical equivalent for the thrust of the poem, which dismisses every justification for Philoctetes’ collaboration in the Trojan War yet affirms his need to stand by his comrades even though he knows their perfidy. The poem thus examines Ritsos’s own dilemma as a Stalinist betrayed by Stalin, determined to bring his understanding and indulgence to the cause instead of merely defecting. It is a self-examination which is at the same time self-effacing and hesitant.

Junta Years: 1967-1974

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The poet’s new stance was soon put to the test by imprisonment under the Colonels. Despite this provocation, Ritsos did not revert to the optimistic assurance displayed during earlier privations; the new poems of exile are exasperated, sardonic, even sometimes despairing. Bitten (like Philoctetes) by the snake of wisdom, he could never return to the propagandistic verse produced on Agios Efstratios. On the contrary, he felt the need to reaffirm the predominance of mystery. “The Disjunctive Conjunction ‘Or,’” written in exile on June 18, 1969, says this loud and clear: “O that ‘or,’” cries the poet, that “equivocal smile of an incommunicable . . . wisdom/ which . . . / [knows] full well that precision/ . . . does not exist (which is why the pompous style of certainty is so unforgivable . . .)./ Disjunctive ‘or’ . . ./ with you we manage the troubles of life and dream,/ the numerous shades and interpretations. . . .”

Later Poems

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With the demise of the Colonels’ dictatorship in the mid-1970’s, Ritsos’s poetry understandably began to retreat from the subjects so compelling during his days in prisons and a police state. Still, he continued to grapple with mystery, asking basic questions but realizing that answers do not always follow:

So many dead
without death
so many living corpses.
You sit in a chair
counting your buttons.
Where do you belong?
What are you?
What are you doing?

The sardonic element is still present, but so is a certain spirit of indulgence or clemency—precisely what Philoctetes brought to Troy. Furthermore, a parodistic flavor entered many of Ritsos’s poems, a kind of macabre humor that neutralizes the worst that life can offer. Ritsos thus stood above all that his compatriots had done to him, playing with his experience, turning it round beneath his philosophic gaze—a gaze annealed by hardship into resilience.

He also began to compose domestic, amatory, or occasional lyrics; some of best love poems appear in 1981’s Erotica, for example. The epic, mythic, poems that mined Greece’s past to question its national present receded. It was not until near the end of his life that Ritsos returned to myth, and then the expression was intensely personal. As one of his chief translators, Peter Green, notes:

Ritsos saw ‘the black double-oared boat with its dark boatman drawing near.’ . . . Ritsos paid more, over a long lifetime, than most writers are ever called upon to do, but the legacy that he left is imperishable.

Bibliography

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Friar, Kimon, ed. Modern Greek Poetry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973. Nearly eight hundred pages of modern Greek poetry, compiled by Friar, a major translator. The introduction, essay on translation, and notes provided by Friar offer students an excellent means of becoming familiar with modern Greek poetry and its issues and themes.

Green, Peter. Review of Yannis Ritsos: Repetitions, Testimonies, Parentheses. The New Republic 205, no. 16 (October 14, 1991). This lengthy essay reviews not only Ritsos’s late work but also his entire career. An excellent resource in English. Green is one of Ritsos’s primary translators.

Keeley, Edmund. Inventing Paradise: The Greek Journey, 1937-47. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. The eminent translator of modern Greek literature provides a discussion that casts light on the context for much Greek poetry during the turbulent middle of the twentieth century. Bibliography.

Keeley, Edmund. Modern Greek Poetry: Voice and Myth. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. An essential guide for students of modern Greek poetry, by one of its most important scholars and translators. Bibliography, indexes.

Keeley, Edmund. On Translation: Reflections and Conversations. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 2000. Keeley’s comments in this brief monograph of just over one hundred pages offers non-Greek readers some insights into translations from modern Greek, important to any full understanding of Ritsos’s poetry.

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