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Unconventional reading of Yannis Ritsos 100 years after his birth

20 April 2010 / 08:04:18  GRReporter
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Zdravka Michailova 
Exclusively for GRReporter

Today, when the smoke from last century’s ideological battles has spread and spirits have settled down, we can make a new reading of the work of Yannis Ritsos with a different look, distanced from the separation and rigid views of the past. We have to accept what is implied, that Ritsos’ political commitment is synonymous with the poetic word that his integral alloy is the backbone of his poetry and existence: "Your first and last word uttered love and revolution. Poetry uttered your entire silence". This verse is a maxim of the poet himself. For better or worse Ritsos is a leftist poet, because this is who he could be and who he wanted to be (as Fr. Celin and E. Pound, for example, were sympathizing fascism). Even in his most obscure poems he speaks simply with everyday words “overused” for similar and humble things. 

Ritsos is one of the greatest - not only Greek - artists and intellectuals who have devoted their creative energy to the so-called "committed" art of their time, sunk deep into history, taking significant aesthetic and civic decisions, once right, sometimes wrong. As the artist himself writes: "If poetry is not forgiveness - privately whispered, - then we should not expect mercy from anywhere”. 

Fifteen years after the death of the poet in 1990, the Athens “Benaki” Museum organized an international congress entitled "Yannis Ritsos - poet and a citizen” was compared to the sound of the prophetic voice of the poet with the resonance and its perception by the younger generation. All congress participants shared the belief that Ritsos takes a place among the constellation of the most highlighted Greek poets of the last century with dignity, but his he stays right up there next to high caliber artists from all over the world with universal sound, either left-leaning or not, who have shed light on history of the twentieth century with their truths or delusions. Offered were new approaches and interpretations, so that a wider discussion can be provoked, which will reach the reading public and all who love poetry. 

What Ritsos has been deprived from throughout his lifetime, during the years when he serves poetry like the "first navy poet” (in his own words) is the true recognition of his work, with his antitheses and syntheses, with his contradictions and exaggerations. He discovers poetry early on, deeply marked by the loss of close relatives and mourning in the family. Shaping his soul are the sorrow over the death of his mother and brother, the mental illness of his father and his beloved sister, the financial ruin, which befell his family, and his own illness from tuberculosis and his difficult life in Athens. From his first poetry collection Ritsos bears high the flag of a revolutionary speech and causes confusion and awkwardness in all ideological circles in Greece. The conservative critic Andreas Karandonis even denied him the right to be called a poet and the literary critic of the Left calls for a little more modernism and to comply with the standards of socialist realism. Conscious modernist, influenced by trends in the West, but also by the Soviet avant-garde art, always intertwining references to Greek folklore in his poetry, Ritsos experiences the non-confessed and dramatic separation. 

While the clash between the two dominant ideologies in the twentieth century reached their apogee in the world and in Greece during the period from the end of the 40s to the mid 70s, the only firm integral position of the poet as a citizen is his allegiance to the communist ideal. By conservative governments he was repeatedly sent in exile in remote Aegean islands. He is empathetic to the sufferings and tribulations of the Greek people. He becomes a bard of the Left and part of his poetry serves it. The discussion about his work gradually gained momentum and the poet became an icon and the body of his poetry was indented, so it can be blessed or exiled by different ideological currents and to serve diverse expediencies. 

For a long time Ritsos remained outside the canon of modern Greek poetry, as a minor, "committed", poet, definition, which has found an elegant, however, expression by well-intentioned critics in their assessment of him as a "comprehensive poet”. Definition caused by the fact that Ritsos is the most productive writing modern Greek poet, that his work is unequal, filled with surges and heights, but with mediocre works as well because the volume created by him is enormous: 127 books with poems, plays and prose, to which he turned in his late creative period. 

Ritsos’ poems for which music was composed by artists such as Mikis Theodorakis and other famous Greek composers, are sung around the world. His poetic compositions from the 50s and 60s, the cycle of poetic-philosophical monologues "Fourth Dimension" (Bulgarian edition by "Foundation for Bulgarian Literature, 2002, translated by Z. Michailova) based on ancient Greek myths motifs, mostly the Atreidai cycle, his short poems from his last period, and above all his nine prose works under the general title "Iconostasis of anonymous saints" (one of which - "Careful Ariostos tells moments of his dreams and life" - issued in Bulgarian ed. "Balkans,” 2005, translated by Z. Michailova), "These strange things" (another title from the same works) face the poet heretical and bare to his own desires and to eternity, and will make the criticism of the orthodox Left to refer to him with yet greater suspicion and will make an attempt to downplay and ignore him. 

Tags: Yannis Ritsos poetry Greece
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