From British daily The Morning Star:
Ritsos: ‘The greatest poet of our age’
Friday 04 December 2009
The taxi-driver who drove me across Athens, a big fan of West Ham’s Scott Parker, wanted to buttonhole me about English football.
But he also wanted to talk about poetry, particularly the work of the Greek communist poet Yannis Ritsos.
Not for the first time, I was struck by Ritsos’s extraordinary role in modern Greek life – the government here recently declared 2009 the Year of Yiannis Ritsos.
There were several hundred, mostly young, people gathered at the Greek Communist Party (KKE) headquarters in Peressos for the two-day international conference on Ritsos.
Speakers included teachers, academics, musicians, historians, actors and old comrades imprisoned with Ritsos on the prison island of Macronissos.
KKE general secretary Aleka Papariga spoke, as did Ritsos’s daughter Eri, along with Yannis Tasoulas, general secretary of the construction workers’ union.
Ritsos may not be very well known in Britain and only one selection of his work is currently published here, Anvil Press’s The Fourth Dimension.
A prolific poet, novelist, playwright and translator, Ritsos wrote more than 80 books of poetry and works such as Epitaphios, Romiossini, The Lady of the Vineyards and 18 Little Songs of the Bitter Homeland were notably set to music by Mikis Theodorakis.
He translated Nazim Hikmet and Paul Eluard into Greek, won the Lenin Peace Prize and was nominated on nine separate occasions for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Picasso drew his picture.
But Ritsos’s life was not an easy one. In 1936, soon after the publication of Epitaphios, his first major work, the Metaxas dictatorship burned all copies of the books at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens. He was imprisoned for four years after the civil war and then again by the military junta between 1967 and 1971.
War, fascism, civil war, illegality, prison and exile may seem unlikely ingredients in the creation of great art.
But it was these terrible conditions that helped to make Ritsos a great poet, because the times urgently required a new relationship between the intelligentsia and society, between writers and readers, between poetry and politics.
Ritsos made poetry out of politics and took politics into the worlds of poetry. His writings were shaped first by his involvement in the early modernist movements, and then by a rejection of modernism, articulating more democratic ways of responding to the challenges it posed.
He was able to write about the private and the public, the lyrical and the satirical, the utopian and the historical, combining documentary record, formal experimental and traditional forms.
He insisted on the poetry of ordinary language, demotic, colloquial speech which celebrated the poetry of everyday life, of everyday objects – “the celestial side by side/with the every day”, as Ritsos described it.
Above all, he found ways of synthesising the struggles for personal, political and national liberation as a single narrative.
These ranged from the heroic Romiossin and the great works of his middle years – Moonlight Sonata, The Old Women and the Sea, The Dead House – to his later meditations on Greek history – Orestes, Philoctetes, Persephone, Agamemnon, Ajax, Phaedra – and the poems written shortly before his death in 1990.
In these, the defeat of Soviet communism seemed of a piece with premonitions of mortality:
The old man sits in his doorway. It’s night-time,
He’s alone. In his hand, an apple. The others
Left their lives to the stars’ jurisdiction.
What can he tell them? Night is night.
We don’t even know what comes next.
Amuses itself half-heartedly,
Shimmering on the sea. But in the heart
Of all that brightness, there is no
The black boat with its shadowy
Slowly drawing away from shore.
Apart from The Fourth Dimension (Anvil Press), there are several selections of Ritsos’s work published in the US, notably Selected Poems: 1938-88 (BOA Editions), Repetitions, Testimonies, Parentheses (Princeton University Press) and Late into the Night; the Last Poems of Yannis Ritsos (Oberlin College Press).
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