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Works of Greek Poet Yannis Ritsos Speak to a New Generation

Ritsos
Yannis Ritsos, one of Greece’s greatest modern poets. Credit: Twitter/LinkGreece

A third volume of poems by the iconic modern Greek poet Yannis Ritsos has just been published in English by writer and translator Manolis Aligizakis, one of the most prominent translators of Greek poetry today.

Ritsos, who lived from May 1, 1909 to November 11, 1990 was born into a well-to-do family in Monemvasia. He became a Communist and an active member of the Greek Resistance during World War II. While he disliked being regarded as a political poet, he is considered “the great poet of the Greek left.”

Now, a third volume of his poetry has been published this month by the independent publishing house libroslibertad.

Ritsos suffered great losses as a child which marked him for the rest of his life. The early deaths of his mother and eldest brother from tuberculosis, his father’s struggles with a mental disease, and the economic ruin of his family damaged the young man and greatly affected his poetry.

In 1934, Ritsos joined the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). Ensconced in his new working-class circle of friends, he published the work “Tractor” in 1934. Kostis Palamas, the well known and respected poet, impressed by his talent, praised him publicly at that time.

In 1935, he published “Pyramids”; these two works sought to achieve a fragile balance between faith in the future, founded on the Communist ideal, and personal despair. “Tractors” and “Pyramids” initially were not well-received by leftist critics, however, who found the language “too embellished” and Ritsos overly focused on form.

Ritsos was inspired in the writing of his landmark poem “Epitaphios” by a heartbreaking photo of a dead protester during a massive tobacco workers demonstration in Thessaloniki in May of 1936. Published the same year, it broke with the shape of the Greek traditional popular poetry and expressed in clear and simple language a message of the unity of all people.

Greece’s Political Upheavals Marked Life of Poet

In August 1936, the right-wing dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas came to power in Greece; Ritsos’ work “Epitaphios” was burned publicly at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens. The poet responded to this outrage by taking his work in a different direction.

He began to explore the conquests of surrealism through the domain of dreams, surprising associations, explosions of images and symbols, using lyricism that was illustrative of the anguish of the poet.

During this period Ritsos published “The Song of my Sister,” in 1937 and “Symphony of the Spring,” in 1938.

WWII Occupation, Greek Civil War and the Junta

During the Axis occupation of Greece, from 1941–1945, Ritsos became a member of the EAM (National Liberation Front) and authored several poems for the Greek Resistance. These include a booklet of poems dedicated to the resistance leader Aris Velouchiotis, which was written immediately upon the latter’s death on June 16, 1945.

Ritsos also supported the Left in Greece’s tragic Civil War, from 1946-1949; in 1948 the poet was arrested and he spent the next four years in prison camps. In the 1950s “Epitaphios,” which was set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, became the anthem of the Greek Left.

In 1967 Ritsos was arrested again, this time by authorities under the Papadopoulos dictatorship, and he was sent to a prison camp in Gyaros, transferred later to Samos and finally, the island of Lemnos.

Poet’s Rich Legacy

Today, Ritsos, whose works were banned many times during the years of political upheaval, is considered one of the great Greek poets of the twentieth century, alongside Konstantinos Kavafy, Kostas Kariotakis, Angelos Sikelianos, Giorgos Seferis, and Odysseas Elytis.

The French poet Louis Aragon once said that Ritsos was “the greatest poet of our age.” Pablo Neruda declared him to be more deserving of the Nobel Prize for Literature than himself. Ritsos was unsuccessfully proposed nine times for it. When he won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1975, he declared “this prize is more important for me than the Nobel.”

Other notable works by Ritsos include “Vigil” (1941–1953), “Romiosini” (1954) and 18 Short Songs of the Bitter Motherland (18 λιανοτράγουδα της πικρής πατρίδας/18 Lianotragouda Tis Pikris Patridas), which he wrote in 1973.

Robert Shannan Peckham described him as “perhaps Greece’s greatest contemporary poet.”

Ritsos won the first Greek state poetry award for “Moonlight Sonata:”

“I know that each one of us travels to love alone,
alone to faith and to death.
I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.
Let me come with you.” (Translation by Peter Green and Beverly Bardsley)

Ritsos is also a Golden Wreath Laureate of the Struga Poetry Evenings for 1985.

Bill Wolak, a poet and retired Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing at William Paterson University, states of Ritsos’ writing: “The defiant poetry of Yannis Ritsos serves as a beacon to anyone who values freedom, integrity, and solidarity. Ritsos is a poet who is not testifying from somewhere above his audience, but rather from among them, or even from inside them.

“Ritsos, with his many voices speaks through historical personas using various times and places to communicate about the present. He articulates his authenticity with simple language accessible to everyone.

“Consequently, it is his humanity that is so uplifting, his sympathy that is so moving, his tenacity that is so inspiring, his wisdom that is simply electrifying.

“Here is a man who throughout his vast literary oeuvre never stopped risking everything to express his vision with a lifelong commitment to the proposition that the poet’s role was not merely a solitary whining about heartbreak and fame, but rather a communal act that unequivocally cherishes decency, justice, and love.

“As he so eloquently states: “When you don’t bow / you exist / you, we / you, history.”

Aligizakis’ new volume of Ritsos’ translated poetry can be found at amazon.com.

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