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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. 

People like the poet Louis Aragon recognize right away an ally in young Ritsos. Reading the poem "The Moonlight Sonata", the French poet says he felt the "thrill of the bright genius”. “With Ritsos pathos always lies in the simplicity of things...", says Aragon. His writing strongly vacillates between perishability, death, destruction and their overcoming. Imperfection stands up even from the brightest of his poems. Exactly through this accessible writing for the simple people, Ritsos offers his greatest service for Greek modernism, which, nevertheless, perhaps, never accepted him as an equal interlocutor. Because his work is loved and understandable to a broad audience Ritsos clears the way for modernists like Elitis and Seferis – all three poets belong to the so-called generation of the 30s in Greek literature. 

Although a literary icon, Ritsos’ poetry remains not completely discovered in depth even in Greece. With its collapse socialism dragged to forgetfulness even its great names. After his death in 1990 comes a period of silence enveloped his speech. Today, evidence of the revived interest in the creativity of the poet in Greece, was the published the most complete to date Anthology of the poet (Ed. 'Kedros, 2000) by Greek literary critic Chryse Prokopaki, who is a recognized connoisseur of the poet’s work. The lengthy preface of the author is a luminous introduction to the work of Ritsos and thanks that her successful selection the reader has an idea of the many-faced, layered writing of the poet from Monemvasia, through one of his most representative works: poetry "Spring Symphony", "Burial mourning (Epitasis”), "Stones", "Stone Time," "Neighborhoods of the world”, "Greece", "Testimonies", "Gestures”, “Walls", “Monstrous masterpiece" and others. 

Yannis Ritsos’ approach to mythology in the cycle dramatic poems monologues "Fourth Dimension” significantly differs from the traditional interpretation of the myth. The poet gives up any "aesthetics" of the myth, evaluates the set in it values and doubts regular motivation of the usual mythological events, by offering his own interpretation, which in his opinion, is much more consistent with the logic of human behavior. He transfers associative bridges between modernity and mythology, recreates situations, which are internally kindred to the mythological ones, fills myth with contemporary content and motifs, he moves the frameworks of the traditional story by developing it in time and space. 

The greater freedom in this interpretation is expressed in the absence of any sequence of events, in mixing of the myths, in the peculiar use of the mythological "hints", "guides", etc. These are poems which are inspired by mythology, Homer and ancient tragedy writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, only to a certain extent. Their structure and action are much more complex, almost all of them are sketches and variations of a mythological theme, based on three or four major tragic motifs. In the face of the sister, who has lost her mind, who speaks in the "Dead house" (1959), we can recognize Electra. In later poems we can recognize constant references to ancient myths and heroes, and they bear their names: Philoctetes, Orestes, Ajax, Agamemnon, Persephone Chrysothemis, Elena, Izmena, Iphigenia, and Phaedra. Ritsos’ burning interest in ancient mythology and his reference to it, are not random. They are attributed to the wealth of literary tradition, as in modern Greek literature, Greek mythology feels "at home". Proximity to the rich folk traditions gives a hint of why Ritsos, like many other Greek writers - C. Cavafy, G. Seferis, K. Varnalis, N. Kazantzakis, freely handled mythological motifs, without fearing that this would limit the circle of his readers. The confidential confessions of the characters are imbued with subtle lyricism, multidimensional view of the world and epic sweep of the narrative. The philosophical summary in the earliest of them - "Moonlight Sonata", shows the complex relationships of a character with society and history expands and deepens in the later poems. 

The poet draws from personal memory of one different mythological time - from childhood and his family, which was marked by particularly tragic fate. "Dead House" is the wealthy father's house in Ritsos’s native Monemvasia in Peloponnese, tumbled and identified with palaces of Mycenae, seen in their rise and decline. Here, in the poet's childhood can be recognized the fundamental psychological layers of the poems, the key of personal relationships in the family, even Freudian complexes that become alive in such an interesting way in these texts, the birth of the idealized image of mother Clytemnestra and one extremely tyrannical father, etc. Standing out is the heavy emotional load of a child's life, which later is destined to sink in diseases, destruction and mourning. Most often the area in which monologues are read out loud is the closed home, perished by the signs of ruin and decay that is synonymous with the poet's father's home, surrounded by the nature of Laconia, fields near Eurotas, the cut “blue ridges" of Taygetus from his childhood. 

Abstract mythologizing is not inherently for Ritsos. For him the myth it is an important tool for organizing the narrative and a technique for dealing with social and historical material. Also, for Ritsos determining is the Greek space, in which drains the thread of duties. This is the space, which stores the historical memory that in its core contains heritage. The houses and homes in it are a mix of ancient palaces and ruins, as if this is the time of antiquity, but viewed from his historical perspective. Thus, “the statues are not in the museum”, they wedge in life and at the same time are reflections of the tribal memory. 

On the occasion of the centennial of his birth in 1909 in Monemvasia, last year was dedicated to the poet, and under the auspices of the Greek Ministry of Culture held were celebrations, poetry readings, his poems "travelled" in the subway, introducing to the lives of Athenians his non-art and vital as bread words. Supported by the National Book Centre of Greece, the Bulgarian edition of “Writings of the Sighted” (Ed. Stigmati, translation Z. Michailova) appeared - an anthology of works by a hitherto unknown in Bulgaria periods of his works: cycle of philosophical poems "Fourth Dimension”, "Twelve Poems of Cavafy", poetry "Statuettes of Tanagra", "Repeats", "Gestures," “The world is one", "Word of flesh" and others. The publication can be found in all well-stocked bookstores in Bulgaria, certainly in the "Bulgarian Knizhitsi" “under the columns of the former Crystal”. You will recognize him by the cover, illustrated by one of Ritsos’ "painted rocks" - image reminiscent of ancient male profile. Following the fibers of the stone, the tree roots and other natural materials, Ritsos creates many such works during his exile in the Aegean islands, donated by his daughter Erie Ritso to the Benaki Museum. 

Along with the "Fourth Dimension" and "Careful Ariostos...." the edition "Writings of the Sighted" is another attempt to introduce the unknown in Bulgaria Ritsos. Philosophical-poetic impressions of "Ariostos..." surprise those who knew the poet from the early period of his work, from the time of his proletarian revolutionary poetry, translated in Bulgaria mainly until the late eighties for obvious reasons. "Ariostos..." is also an unusual book in its genre. It contains miniatures in which memories of experiences are interwoven with the insights of thought and visions of fantasy. With its flexible language, rich associativity and pictorial emotions these short forms act as elegant impressions and in places their metaphorical depth makes them seem like parables. 

Dimitris Arvanitakis, curator of the archives of the poet in the Benaki Museum said for the artist: "Like Maxim Gorky, Yannis Ritsos could show us his "universities": This is the seething breath of history; this is a journey after the cries of a common man and hope generated by his sacrifice; it is the excavation of language layers and that "landmark”, which shines where public coercion meets rigorous god of Poetry. Yannis Ritsos wished to become one with language and substance of the dreams of his time, a poet who did not hesitate to plunge into reality and to raise high in the solar orb humble things of life."

Tags: Yannis Ritsos poetry Greece
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