Greek poet Yannis Ritsos

From British daily The Morning Star:

Ritsos: ‘The greatest poet of our age’

Friday 04 December 2009

Having recently attended a celebration of the life and work of Greek poet Yannis Ritsos in Athens, ANDY CROFT reflects on his legacy.

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.

But he was a major 20th century poet, part of the extraordinary generation of communist poets such as Neruda, Eluard, Brecht, Hikmet and Aragon, who once called him “the greatest poet of our age.”

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.

The moon

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).

6 thoughts on “Greek poet Yannis Ritsos

  1. Dimitrios Ioannidis, who toppled Greek junta, dies

    updated 1 hour 17 minutes ago

    ATHENS, Greece — Dimitrios Ioannidis, the feared security chief who led a countercoup against Greece’s military leaders and provoked Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974, has died. He was 87.

    Ioannidis, who was jailed for life for his part in the 1967-74 dictatorship, died Monday in an Athens hospital, a day after experiencing breathing problems in prison, the justice ministry said.

    As head of the brutal ESA military police, Ioannidis was a key figure in the military dictatorship that seized power on April 21, 1967.

    The dictators imposed martial law and cracked down heavily on political opponents, imprisoning or exiling thousands, many of whom were tortured by ESA.

    The junta was condemned in the West, and the U.S. temporarily banned arms sales to Greece. But a 1971 visit by Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was of Greek descent, was viewed by many as tacit approval of the dictatorship.

    Following a student pro-democracy uprising that the army crushed in November 1973, dictator George Papadopoulos tried to slowly introduce some democratic reforms.

    This angered army hard-liners who, led by Ioannidis, staged a successful countercoup and ruled with increasing harshness and incompetence for the next eight months.

    Although Ioannidis appointed a military president and a civilian prime minister, he was the real head of the regime, under which relations with neighboring Turkey — as well as President Makarios’ government in Cyprus — quickly deteriorated.

    In mid July 1974, the military overthrew Makarios, prompting Turkey to exercise its rights as a guarantor power on the Mediterranean island and invade on July 20. The attack caught Athens unprepared, and the dictatorship ended with a return to civilian government after four shambolic days in which Greece came close to war with Turkey.

    A second Turkish advance in August gave Ankara control of nearly 40 percent of the island, which remains divided along ethnic lines.

    No funeral arrangements for Ioannidis have been announced.

    Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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