Yannis Ritsos

1909–1990

"Yannis Ritsos," wrote Peter Levi in the Times Literary Supplement of the late Greek poet, "is the old-fashioned kind of great poet. His output has been enormous, his life heroic and eventful, his voice is an embodiment of national courage, his mind is tirelessly active." At their best, Ritsos' poems, "in their directness and with their sense of anguish, are moving, and testify to the courage of at least one human soul in conditions which few of us have faced or would have triumphed over had we faced them," as Philip Sherrard noted in the Washington Post Book World. Twice nominated for the Nobel Prize, Ritsos won the Lenin Peace Prize, the former Soviet Union's highest literary honor, as well as numerous literary prizes from across Eastern Europe prior to his death in 1990.

The hardship and misfortune of Ritsos' early life played a large role in all of his later writings. His wealthy family suffered financial ruin during his childhood, and soon afterward his father and sister went insane. Tuberculosis claimed his mother and an older brother and later confined Ritsos himself to a sanatorium in Athens for several years. Poetry and the Greek communist movement became the sustaining forces in his life.

Because his writing was frequently political in nature, Ritsos endured periods of persecution from his political foes. One of his most celebrated works, the "Epitaphios," a lament inspired by the assassination of a worker in a large general strike in Salonica, was burned by the Metaxas dictatorship, along with other books, in a ceremony enacted in front of the Temple of Zeus in 1936. After World War II and the annihilation of Greece's National Resistance Movement—a Communist guerrilla organization that attempted to take over the country in a five-year civil war—Ritsos was exiled for four years to the islands of Lemnos, Makronisos, and Ayios Efstratios. His books were banned until 1954. In 1967, when army colonels staged a coup and took over Greece, Ritsos was again deported, then held under house arrest until 1970. His works were again banned.

Ritsos' poetry ranges from the overtly political to the deeply personal, and it often utilizes characters from ancient Greek myths. One of his longer works and the subject of several translations, The Fourth Dimension, is comprised of seventeen monologues that most frequently involve the ancient King Agamemnon and the tragic House of Atreus. Narrated by such classical figures as Persephone, Orestes, Ajax, Phaedra, and Helen of Troy, The Fourth Dimension is a "beautifully written book . . . describing what happens when love and hate and sibling rivalry run amok," commented Stand reviewer Mary Fujimaki, who also praised the work's "colour, the excitement, the shifting back and forth from past to present that naturally makes the stories seem more familiar to modern readers." Shorter in length are the verses from 1991's Repetitions, Testimonies, Parentheses, a collection of eighty relatively brief poems that incorporate Greek myths and history. "Here . . . is the Ritsos of 'simple things,'" commented Minas Savvas in a review for World Literature Today. "The desire to draw out a moment or an object and magically expand it for its mystifying, arcane significance is wonderfully evident in these laconic, almost epigrammatic poems."

Many critics rank Ritsos' less political poems as his best work. George Economou, writing in the New York Times Book Review, stated that "in the short poems, most of which are not overtly political, Ritsos is full of surprises. He records, at times celebrates, the enigmatic, the irrational, the mysterious and invisible qualities of experience." Vernon Young in Hudson Review cited Ritsos' "remarkable gift . . . for suggesting the sound and color of silence, the impending instant, the transfixed hush." Similarly, John Simon pointed to the surreality of Ritsos' work. In a review of Ritsos in Parenthesis for Poetry, Simon wrote: "What I find remarkable about Ritsos' poetry is its ability to make extraordinary constructs out of the most unforcedly ordinary ingredients—surreality out of reality. And seem not even to make it, just find it." Simon also found a loneliness in Ritsos' poems. He explained: "Ritsos . . . is also a great bard of loneliness, but of loneliness ennobled and overcome. Poem after poem, image upon image, suffuses aloneness with a gallows humor that begins to mitigate its ravages and makes the person in the poem a Pyrrhic winner." Ritsos' final volume of verse, Argha, poli argha mesa sti nihta, was completed just prior to his death and published in its original Greek in 1991. "The imagistic dynamism, lyric intensity, and astonishing quasi-surrealistic expressions" that characterized the poet's work for his seventy-year career are, in the opinion of World Literature Today reviewer M. Byron Raizis, "manifest again, as refreshing and effective as any time during . . . his creative activity."

Career

Poet. Angelopoulos (law firm), Athens, Greece, law clerk, 1925; Mitzopoulos-Oeconomopoulos (notaries for National Bank of Greece), Athens, clerk, 1925-26; Lawyer's Association, Athens, assistant librarian, 1926; confined to a sanatorium because of tuberculosis, 1927-31; employed by a music theater during the 1930s; joined Communist Party, 1934; National Theatre of Greece, Athens, member of Chorus of Ancient Tragedies, 1938-45; member of National Resistance Movement (Communist guerrilla movement), 1944-49; Govostis (publisher), Athens, editor and proofreader, 1945-48, 1952-56; full-time writer, 1956-90. Actor and dancer for Lyriki Skini (Athens Opera House).

Bibliography

POETRY; IN ENGLISH TRANSLATION

  • Romiosyne, Kedros, 1966, translation by O. Laos published as Romiossyni, Dustbooks, 1969.
  • Poems of Yannis Ritsos, translated by Alan Page, Oxonian Press, 1969.
  • Romiossini and Other Poems, translated by Dan Georgakas and Eleni Paidoussi, Quixote Press, 1969.
  • Gestures and Other Poems, 1968-1970, translated by Nikos Stangos, Cape Golliard, 1971.
  • Contradictions, translated by John Stathatos, Sceptre Press, 1973.
  • Dekaochto lianotragouda tes pikres patridas, Kedros, 1973, translation by Amy Mims published as Eighteen Short Songs of the Bitter Motherland, North Central Publishing, 1974.
  • Diadromos kai skala, Kedros, 1973, translation by Nicos Germanacos published as Corridor and Stairs, Goldsmith Press (Ireland), 1976.
  • Yannis Ritsos: Selected Poems, translated by Stangos, Penguin, 1974.
  • The Fourth Dimension: Selected Poems of Yannis Ritsos, translated and introduced by Rae Dalven, David R. Godine, 1977.
  • Chronicle of Exile, translated and introduced by Minas Savvas, Wire Press, 1977.
  • Ritsos in Parenthesis, translated by Kimon Friar, Princeton University Press, 1979.
  • Grafe tyflou, Kedros, 1979, translated by Friar and Kostas Myrsiades as Scripture of the Blind, Ohio State University Press, 1979.
  • Subterranean Horses, translated by Savvas, Ohio State University Press, 1980.
  • Erotica: Small Suite in Red Major, Naked Body, Carnal Word, translated by Friar, Sachem Press, 1982.
  • Selected Poems, translated by Edmund Keely, Ecco Press, 1983.
  • Exile and Return, translated by Keely, Ecco Press, 1985.
  • Monovasia and the Women of Monemvasia, translated by Friar and Myrsiades, Nostos Books, 1988.
  • Repetitions, Testimonies, Parentheses (anthology), translated by Edmund Keeley, Princeton University Press, 1991.
  • The Fourth Dimension, translated by Peter Green, Princeton University Press, 1993.
  • Late into the Night: The Last Poems of Yannis Ritsos, translated by Martin McKinsey, Oberlin College Press, 1995.
  • Prison Poems: The Moonlight Sonata: The Prison Trees and the Women: Farewell, translated by Marjorie Chambers, Goldsmith Press (Newbridge, CO), 2001.
  • Yannis Ritsos: A Voice of Reilience and Hope in a World of Turmoil and Suffering: Selected Poems (1938-1989), Hellenic College Press (Brookline, MA), 2001.

POETRY; IN GREEK

  • Trakter (title means "Tractors"), Govostis, 1934.
  • Pyramides (title means "Pyramids"), Govostis, 1935.
  • Epitaphios, Rizospastis, 1936.
  • To tragoudi tes adelphes mou (title means "The Song of My Sister"), Govostis, 1937.
  • Earini Symphonia (title means "Spring Symphony"), Govostis, 1938.
  • To emvatirio tou okeanou (title means "The March of the Ocean"), Govostis, 1940.
  • Palia Mazurka se rythmo vrohis (title means "An Old Mazurka in the Rhythm of the Rain"), Govostis, 1942.
  • Dokimasia (title means "Trial"), Govostis, 1943.
  • O syntrofos mas (title means "Our Comrade"), Govostis, 1945.
  • O anthropos me to gary fallo (title means "The Man with the Carnation"), Politikes Ke Logotechnikes Ekdoseis, 1952.
  • Agrypnia (title means "Vigil"), Pyxida, 1954.
  • Proino astro (title means "Morning Star"), [Athens], 1955.
  • He sonata tou selenophotos (title means "Moonlight Sonata"), Kedros, 1956.
  • Croniko (title means "Chronicle"), Kedros, 1957.
  • Apochairetisnos (title means "Farewell"), Kedros, 1957.
  • Hydria (title means "The Urn"), Kedros, 1957.
  • Cheimerinediaugeia (title means "Winter Limpidity"), Kedros, 1957.
  • Petrinos Chronos (title means "Stony Time"), P.L.E., 1957.
  • He Geitonies tou Kosmou (title means "The Neighborhood of the World"), P.L.E., 1957.
  • Otan erchetai ho xenos (title means "When the Stranger Comes"), Kedros, 1958.
  • Any potachti Politeia (title means "Unsubjugated City"), P.L.E., 1958.
  • He architectoniki ton dentron (title means "The Architecture of the Trees"), P.L.E., 1958.
  • Hoi gerontisses k'he thalassa (title means "The Old Woman and the Sea"), Kedros, 1959.
  • To parathyro (title means "The Window"), Kedros, 1960.
  • He gephyra (title means "The Bridge"), Kedros, 1960.
  • Ho mavros Hagios (title means "The Black Saint"), Kedros, 1961.
  • 1961-64 Pieimata Tomos (collected poems), three volumes, Kedros.
  • To nekro spiti (title means "The Dead House"), Kedros, 1962.
  • Kato ap' ton iskio tou vounou (title means "Beneath the Shadow of the Mountain"), Kedros, 1962.
  • To dentro tis phylakis Kai he gynaikes (title means "The Prison Tree and the Women"), Kedros, 1963.
  • Martyries (title means "Testimonies"), Kedros, 1963.
  • Dodeka pieimata gia ton Kavaphe (title means "12 Poems for Cavafy"), Kedros, 1963.
  • Paichnidia t'ouranou kai tou nerou (title means "Playful Games of the Sky and the Water"), Kedros, 1964.
  • Philoktetes, Kedros, 1964.
  • Orestes, Kedros, 1966.
  • Martyries (title means "Testimonies II"), Kedros, 1966.
  • Ostrava, Kedros, 1967.
  • Petres, Epanalepseis, Kinklidoma (title means "Stones, Repetitions, Railings"), Kedros, 1972.
  • He epistrophe tes Iphigeneias (title means "The Return of Iphigenia"), Kedros, 1972.
  • He Helene (title means "Helen"), Kedros, 1972.
  • Cheironomies (title means "Gestures"), Kedros, 1972.
  • Tetarte distase (title means "Fourth Dimension"), Kedros, 1972.
  • Chrysothemis, Kedros, 1972.
  • Ismene, Kedros, 1972.
  • Graganda, Kedros, 1973.
  • Ho aphanismos tis Milos (title means "The Annihilation of Milos"), Kedros, 1974.
  • Hymnos kai threnos gia tin Kypro (title means "Hymn and Lament for Cyprus"), Kedros, 1974.
  • To Kapnismeno tsoukali (title means "The Soot-Black Pot"), Kedros, 1974.
  • To kodonostasio (title means "Belfry"), Kedros, 1974.
  • Ho tichos mesa ston Kathrephti (title means "The Wall in the Mirror"), Kedros, 1974.
  • Chartina (title means "Papermade"), Kedros, 1974.
  • He Kyra ton Ambelion (title means "The Lady of the Vineyards"), Kedros, 1975.
  • He teleftaia pro Anthropou ekatontaeteia (title means "The Last Century before Humanity"), Kedros, 1975.
  • Epikairika (title means "Circumstantial Verse"), Kedros, 1975.
  • Ho hysterographo tis doxas (title means "The Postscript of Glory"), Kedros, 1975.
  • Hemerologia exorias (title means "Diaries in Exile"), Kedros, 1975.
  • Mantatofores, Kedros, 1975.
  • Pieimata Tomos IV (collected poems), Kedros, 1976.
  • To makrino (title means "Remote"), Kedros, 1977.
  • Gignesthai (title means "Becoming"), Kedros, 1977.
  • Epitome, Kedros, 1977.
  • Loipon?, Kedros, 1978.
  • Volidoskopos, Kedros, 1978.
  • Toichokollettes, Kedros, 1978.
  • To soma kai to haima, Kedros, 1978.
  • Trochonomos, Kedros, 1978.
  • He pyle, Kedros, 1978.
  • Monemvassiotisses, Kedros, 1978.
  • To teratodes aristioorghima, Kedros, 1978.
  • Phaedra, Kedros, 1978.
  • To roptro, Kedros, 1978.
  • Mia pygolampida fotizei ti nychta, Kedros, 1978.
  • Oneiro kalokerinou messimeriou, Kedros, 1980.
  • Diafaneia, Kedros, 1980.
  • Parodos, Kedros, 1980.
  • Monochorda, Kedros, 1980.
  • Ta erotica, Kedros, 1981.
  • Syntrofica tragoudia, Synchroni Epochi, 1981.
  • Hypokofa, Kedros, 1982.
  • Italiko triptycho, Kedros, 1982.
  • Moyovassia, Kedros, 1982.
  • To choriko ton sfougarhadon, Kedros, 1983.
  • Teiresias, Kedros, 1983.
  • Aristos Ho Prosechtikos Aphegeitai Stigmes Tou Viou Tou Kai Tou Hypnou Tou, Kedros (Athens, Greece), 1982.
  • Ti Paraxena Pramata: Mythistorema, Kedros (Athens, Greece), 1983.
  • Epinikia, Kedros (Athens, Greece), 1984.
  • Ho Gerontas Me Tous Chartaitous: Mythistorema, Kedros (Athens, Greece), 1985.
  • Ho Aristos Arneitai Na Ginei Hagios: Mythistorema, Kedros (Athens, Greece), 1982.
  • Ligosteuoun Hoi EroteseisL Mythistorema, Kedros (Athens, Greece), 1986.
  • Sphragismena M' Hena Chamogelo: Muthistorema, Kedros (Athens, Greece), 1986.
  • Ta Theatrika, K. Nitsos (Athens, Greece), 1990.
  • Glykeia Mou Loula, Ekdot. Organismos Livane "Nea Synora" (Athens, Greece), 1997.

OTHER

  • Pera ap'ton iskio ton Kyparission (title means "Beyond the Shadow of the Cypress Trees"; three-act play; produced in Bucharest at the National Theatre, 1959), P.L.E., 1958.
  • Mia gynaika plai sti thalassa (title means "A Woman by the Sea"; three-act play; produced in Bucharest, 1959), P.L.E., 1959.
  • Meletimata (title means "Essays"), Kedros, 1974.
  • Ariostos ho prosechtikos afhighite stigmes tou viou tou ke tou hypnou tou, Kedros, 1982.
  • Ti paraxena pragmata, Kedros, 1983.

Ritsos' books have been translated into twenty-one languages.

Further Reading

BOOKS

  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 13, 1980, Volume 31, 1985.
  • Friar, Kimon, editor, Modern Greek Poetry, Simon & Schuster, 1973.
  • Papandreou, Chrysa, Ritsos: Etude, choix de texte, et bibliographie, Seghers (Paris), 1968.

PERIODICALS

  • American Poetry Review, September-October, 1973.
  • Choice, May, 1983; February, 1992, p. 903.
  • Hudson Review, winter, 1979-80.
  • Nation, March 19, 1977.
  • New York Times Book Review, July 10, 1977.
  • Parnassus: Poetry in Review, spring-summer, 1981.
  • Poetry, January, 1981.
  • Publishers Weekly, July 12, 1993, p. 75.
  • Stand, autumn, 1994, p. 88.
  • Times Literary Supplement, July 18, 1975; August 7, 1992, p. 9; June 12, 1994, p. 28.
  • Washington Post Book World, May 8, 1977.
  • World Literature Today, summer, 1977; summer, 1992, p. 557; winter, 1992, p. 179; winter, 1994, p. 180.

OBITUARIES:PERIODICALS

  • Chicago Tribune, November 18, 1990.
  • Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1990.
  • New York Times, November 14, 1990.
  • Times (London), November 13, 1990.*

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Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION Greece

LIFE SPAN 1909–1990

Biography

"Yannis Ritsos," wrote Peter Levi in the Times Literary Supplement of the late Greek poet, "is the old-fashioned kind of great poet. His output has been enormous, his life heroic and eventful, his voice is an embodiment of national courage, his mind is tirelessly active." At their best, Ritsos' poems, "in their directness and with their sense of anguish, are moving, and testify to the courage of at least one human soul in . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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