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Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990)

Yannis Ritsos, quite literally came into my life like a song. In 1960, at home in Greece, at the age of thirteen, I heard for the first time the musical composition Epitaphios, which combined poetic verses of Ritsos set to music by the internationally celebrated composer, Mikis Theodorakis. Even as a young man, I was moved in an unprecedented way by the songs. Importantly, these songs were a soothing caress over our young and rebellious souls at a time when the Cold War was causing deep divisions between the communist east and capitalist west, and the recent civil war in Greece had seen our country reduced to ruins.

It may be accurately stated that the effects of the civil war would define the continuous dichotomy influencing the lives of Greek citizens until the middle of the nineteen-eighties, and in Yannis Ritsos’ life, became emblematic of this struggle.

Throughout our high school years, Ritsos remained prominent, and we felt him walking next to us with every step we took. The new wave of socialism and resistance against outside interests influenced the political life of Greeks, and became the fertile ground for a voice such as Ritsos’ to reach and establish itself in our psyche. This growing force brought us to the small secluded bars called ‘bouats’ where with a drink of a vermouth at the cost of about 60 cents, we listened to music most Greeks weren’t even aware of, and where we recited verses of contemporary poets.

One such poet was our comrade, Yannis Ritsos, whose work resonated with our intense passion for our motherland and also in our veracity and strong-willed quest to find justice for all Greeks. In the mid nineteen sixties, I identified ever more closely with this poet who was imprisoned, along with thousands of other Greeks branded enemies of the state, to various prison camps in the Greek islands or mainland Greece, like my father, who was imprisoned for one year for no apparent reason; my unfortunate father’s crime was likely that he listened to the music of Mikis Theodorakis and to the news from a German radio station, the famous Dautche Welle, where all Greeks found refuge and a sense of hope that the world was listening to the Greek cries for justice and freedom.

Thus I learned what it meant to live under censorship and what it meant to be under the iron fist of a dictatorship. In those days Ritsos’ poem Romiosini, which was set in music by the same Mikis Theodorakis, and banned by the military, truly became our secret national anthem that we all sang on our walks, at our gatherings and our parties. Although the danger of an unfriendly ear hearing us was always around, in a small gesture of our resistance, we took part in the rebirth of freedom for our country in her darker hours.

Even while in the army, performing my duty in the country I was born to, we used to sing all these forbidden songs, though in a low voice or at safe distance from the ears of the officers who couldn’t reconcile with our fervor for new things, freedom: the officers who couldn’t understand our yearning for change and a new direction toward a democratically elected government, our vision for a new and free Greece. Years later in the nineteen-seventies, when Ritsos lived in a house in Saint Nikolaos, I was also dwelling in Petroupolis, a suburb of Athens just a kilometer away from the poet’s neighborhood where I walked and roamed. Should I have known his address, it’s likely I would have made an effort to go and meet him in person. Since discovering how closely situated we were, I regret this meeting didn’t happen.

The 15 books selected for this edition represent a broad view of the poet’s career from the mid nineteen-thirties to the nineteen-eighties, and most of them appear for the first time ever in a North America translation. While Moonlight Sonata, Romiosini and Helen, have been published in translation a number of times, we believe that the more intimate treatment we give to these books makes them stand apart from other translations, as though unfolding another petal of the same rose, while having more of the original fragrance.

According to several sources, Ritsos wrote all his life, from as early as eight years old to his eighties. Reportedly, it wasn’t uncommon for Ritsos to write 15-20 poems in one sitting, and before his death, he was able to enjoy seeing the majority of his work published. We had at our disposal, a total of 46 books (in Greek) written by Yannis Ritsos from his first published book Tractor, to the 14th edition of Yannis Ritsos – Poems XIV, published by Kedros in 2007. Out of these 46 volumes we selected 15 books for this translation. The books included in this translation are whole instead of selected poems from each and that is because first we had only a certain number of his books available and second it was awkward to separate them to satisfaction. These 15 books range from his earliest publications up to some of his last, since this presents the reader with a broad view as to who this significant poet is and how his poems reflect a contemporary style as much as they did in Greece more than 50 years ago.

In surveying the materials chosen, we witness that a certain transformation occurs from his early days when he was just the unknown defender of a cause, up to the period during his midlife when he finds a variety of admirers from around the world. Here we discover a mature and didactic man reflected in his poems, more laconic and precise, more careful with his words: they have become more and more precious as he uses them with utmost care.

Then we witness the end of Ritsos’ creative life, where the poems reveal his growing cynicism and utter disillusionment with the human condition; the reasons for this lying solely on the way his world collapsed around him a number of times over the years. Even as he is gazing back, we see primordial truths hovering over his thoughts; the human pettiness that drives some people’s lives shadows him with a deep disappointment that he appears to take with him to his grave.

I have tried to remain as close as possible to the original Greek text, to preserve the linguistic charm of Ritsos’ style. For this reason the restructuring of sentences from their original settings are implemented only when it seemed too difficult for the reader to follow the poet’s true meaning and deep thought. The writer has a lot more freedom in Greek as to how to order a sentence as opposed to English, which is more a positional language, and the sequence of words somewhat more strict.

I hope that this translation gives the reader a taste of Ritsos’ poetry from the admirer’s point of view, and with all due reverence and respect to other translations and to the great Yannis Ritsos himself, whose innermost feelings and thoughts we try to convey to the reader as accurately as possible. The reader will notice dates under most poems and according to the notes in Yannis Ritsos – Poems XIV by Ekaterini Makrinicola they are all the poet’s notes and refer to the exact day that he wrote that particular poem. It is important to point out that even if the poet reworked that poem at a future date, and even if the poem was altered in a significant way, the poet insisted in keeping the date of the original composition of each of them. Perhaps this was his way of relating to the reader or to himself, the conditions of that day or days, and the reasons which influenced him to write that as a response to a particular event.

– Manolis

View ‘Romiosini’ by Yannis Ritsos in English

From ‘Foreword’ to  ‘Yannis Ritsos – Poems’ by Manolis
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Comments
  1. […] ‘For the Love of Yannis Ritsos’ by Manolis […]

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  2. vequinox says:

    Reblogged this on Manolis.

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