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Yannis Ritsos: The Greatest Greek Poet of His Time

Exhibition photo, Yannis Ritsos
Greek Poet Yannis Ritsos.” Credit: Museum of Cycladic Art

Yannis Ritsos was born on May 1st 1909 in Monemvasia, Greece, and he was destined to become one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.

A prominent and prolific Greek poet with international appeal, Ritsos belonged to the so-called 1930s generation. Epitaphios, Romiosini and Moonlight Sonata are three of his best-known works. In 1975 he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

French poet Louis Aragon once said that Ritsos was “the greatest poet of our age.” When Ritsos won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1975, he was quoted as saying that “this prize is more important for me than the Nobel.”

During his life he wrote more than 100 poetry collections, nine novels, and four theatrical plays. He also wrote countless articles and made numerous translations of other works.

Early life of the poet, Yannis Ritsos

Ritsos was born in Monemvasia on May 1, 1909. He was the youngest of the four children of rich landowning parents Eleftherios Ritsos and Eleftheria Vouzounara. The same year that he entered high school in Gytheion in 1921, he lost his mother and brother to tuberculosis. In 1924 he published his first poems in the magazine “Edification of Children” under the pseudonym “Ideal Vision.”

In 1925 he finished high school and left for Athens with his sister Loula. Meanwhile, his father had become impoverished, and the poet was forced to work for a living, first as a typist and then as a copywriter at the National Bank of Greece.

In 1926, he was also infected with tuberculosis and returned to Monemvasia until the fall of the same year, when he was enrolled at the Athens School of Law, without being able to attend. He continued to work as a librarian and as a writing assistant at the Athens Bar Association.

In January 1927 he was hospitalized and spent three years at the Sotiria Sanatorium. While there he met several Marxists and intellectuals of his time and wrote several poems which were published in the literary annex of the Pyrsos Encyclopedia.

In October 1931 Ritsos returned to Athens and assumed the direction of the artistic division of the Labor Club, where he directed and acted in plays. His health improved gradually, and so did his finances. In the following year, his father was admitted to Dafni Psychiatric Hospital, where he died in 1938.

In 1933 Ritsos collaborated with the left-wing journal “Pioneers” and worked as an actor in a theater troupe. In 1934, he began writing articles for Rizospastis, the Greek Communist Party newspaper, and he also became a member of the party, to which he remained loyal until his death. He published his first collection of poems called Tractor under the nickname Sostir (an anagram of his last name, meaning savior).

In 1935 he released his second collection of poetry, entitled “Pyramids,” and was recruited as editor-in-chief of Govostis publications.

The greatest poet of his time

On May 9, 1936, a workers’ strike in Thessaloniki led to bloody riots. The following day, Ritsos saw a photo in Rizospastis showing a mother crying over her dead son, who had been killed by police in the riots.

That episode was the inspiration for one of his most popular poems, Epitaphios, which had a publishing run of 10,000 copies. During the Ioannis Metaxas dictatorship (1936-1940) the last 250 copies were burned by the regime at the Columns of Olympian Zeus in central Athens.

Yannis Ritsos
Exhibition photo, Tribute to the poet of Romiosini, Yannis Ritsos. Credit: Museum of Cycladic Art

In 1937 he was hospitalized again at the Parnitha Sanatorium. At the same time, overwhelmed by the illness of his beloved sister Loula, he wrote “My Sister’s Song,” some of the most beautiful lyrics in modern Greek writing.

In 1938 “Spring Symphony” was published and Ritsos was hired at the National Theater. Two years later, he was hired as a dancer at the National Opera.

During the German Occupation, Ritsos was bedridden most of the time, but he participated in the educational activities of the National Liberation Front (EAM). After the defeat of the leftist Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) in December 1944, he followed the guerrillas to Lamia, where he met their leader, Aris Velouchiotis.

He then went to Kozani where he staged his play “Athens in Arms.” In 1945 he wrote “Romiosini” (“Greekness”), considered to be another of his masterpieces, to which Mikis Theodorakis composed the music for an opera in 1966.

During the Civil War (1946-1949) he was exiled because of his leftist activities, first in Limnos (1948), then Makronisos (1949) and Agios Efstratios (1950-1951). In 1952 he returned to Athens and became a member of the United Democratic Left (EDA). In 1954 he married pediatrician Fillitsa Georgiadou of Samos and they had a daughter, Eri, in 1955.

In 1956 he traveled to the Soviet Union as a member of a delegation of intellectuals and journalists, and in the same year he was honored with the State Prize Award for “Moonlight Sonata.” When French poet and writer Louis Aragon (1897-1982) read it, he said he felt “the violent jolt of a genius” and determined that the creator was “the greatest poet of our time.”

In 1960 Mikis Theodorakis wrote music for “Epitaphios,” marking the beginning of the time when Ritsos’ works became known to the general public. In 1962, Ritsos visited Romania and met with Nazim Hikmet, whose poetry he translated into Greek.

He then went to Czechoslovakia where he completed the “Anthology of Poets of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the German Democratic Republic.” In 1964 he ran as a member of the EDA in the national election.

The last years of the poetic genius Yannis Ritsos

When the coup d’état occurred on April 21, 1967, his friends advised the poet to hide, but he did not leave his home. He was arrested and detained at the Faliro Hippodrome and was later taken to the camp for political prisoners on Gyaros, later being transferred to Leros.

In 1968 he was hospitalized in Agios Savvas in Athens and then sentenced to home arrest at his wife’s home on Samos. In 1970 he returned to Athens, but after his refusal to compromise with the regime he was again exiled to Samos until the end of the year. In 1973 he participated in the Polytechnio uprising.

After the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, he spent most of his time in Athens, where he continued to write at a great pace. In 1975 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Thessaloniki and was honored with the Alfred de Vigny French poetry award. The following year he was awarded the Lenin Prize in Moscow.

In the ensuing years, he gave lectures at various universities, including Birmingham (1978), Karl Marx of Leipzig (1984) and the University of Athens (1987). In 1986, he was awarded the UN Poetry for Peace Prize.

Yannis Ritsos died on November 11, 1990, leaving behind 50 collections of unpublished poetry. He was buried three days later in his hometown of Monemvasia.

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