Ritsos, as is well known, from the very beginning explicitly and steadily connected himself and his poetry to the vision of the communist revolution, with the ideal of a socialist society; this surely is the first thing we need to keep in mind when trying to approach his poetry, in fact, the same way as we believe the Greek Revolution is strongly associated with Kalvos’s poetry and Alexandria with Cavafy’s, the communist revolution and the cause of the left is associated with Ritsos’s poetry.
He joined the Communist Party of Greece and remained a member until the end of his life. This conscription resulted in many consequences for him. From 1948, from the time of the civil war in Greece to April 1967 and the dictatorship of the four colonels, the poet of Romiosini was exiled for very long periods of time to various locations: Lemnos, Makronisos, Ai-Strati, Yiaros, Leros, and finally in 1968 he was placed under house arrest in Karlovasi, Samos. He spent all this time in deprivation, under endless interrogations and stress, he was sick, isolated, deprived of basic human rights. Later in life he will write:
Our only writings: three words:
Makronisos, Yiaros and Leros
and if one day our verse seem clumsy
just remember they were written
under the nose of the guards
and with the spear always at our side.
And he was not only exiled by the respective state powers, but he was exiled and scolded by writers and critics of his generation, the so-called generation of the ’30s, and others. He was literally abused mainly by bourgeois critics who in the field of literature represented the then dominant ideology of the State. It is that ideology that looked at his work and evaluated it, according to the pre-eminent director of the literary magazine Nea Grammata, Andreas Karantonis, based on the clearly ideological criteria of the days.
Ritsos’s support for the cause of the left was enough to stir up all the resentment and passion of the critic in question, who literally denied Ritsos as a poet and in essence insulted his work in the harshest of words. In 1947 the mentioned critic wrote: “And even if some people still write and print their verse in Rizospastis, it’s because they have filled their empty souls with bubbles of poetic-political misery like the verse the poor front-man of the Communist Party Yiannis Ritsos writes”.
Karantonis’s pretext for his negative reviews, right from the beginning, were Ritsos’s references to the poet, modernist Kostas Karyotakis, and Ritsos’s verbalism. Karantonis didn’t change his position even when the patriarch of Greek poetry of the first half of the 20th century, Kostis Palamas, published in Nea Grammata his best-known poem dedicated to Ritsos:
Your sad poem is experienced by ether and echo
clear dawn matins welcome the light of day.
The rhythm of nature smiles in tragic horror
and laughs. Oh poet, we stand aside so you can pass.
The fact that Palamas gave his ring, not to Seferis or Elytis who belonged to the circle of his magazine and whom the director of the magazine was interested in promoting but to Ritsos, may have worried Karantonis who resorted to new criticisms. But beyond all that, what bothered Karantonis the most was Ritsos’s stand for the cause of the left. Only later, after the Moonlight Sonata, in 1958, will Karantinis re-evaluate Ritsos’s poetry and speak positively, though not without reservations. Much later, in 1977, Ritsos will write:
But for what the shallow, jealous and ignorant, never forgave me
and those deceitful educated in the west graduates of the Schools
of the Philhellenes
the Harvard, Cambridge and Sorbonne graduates
who were scolding and stoning me
and said that I had no idea of the sour and the one of Heraclitus
those lazy asses who accused me as charlatan and prolific
and were supported by the traitors of the Security people
was that I kept on smiling as I hid my nine thousand doves under my bed
and I kept on pouring clean hot water into the clay basin
and kneeling on the ground
I tenderly kept on washing the feet of the executed
If in the above I spoke exclusively about Karantonis, it is because he maintained a very hostile attitude towards the poet and his criticism constituted a clear accusation. However, there were also people in the poetic circles of Athens who spoke positively of Ritsos’s poetry, such as Paraschos and Dikteos. The strange thing, however, is that Ritsos received blows even from the left, from his comrades, such as Alexandra Alafouzou and Nikos Karvounis, who often accused him of not always aligning himself with the demands of the class struggle in his poems and that he made concessions to urban concepts. Therefore the bourgeois critics accused him of the ideological content of his poetry, while the left, his comrades, criticized him of the opposite, that is, that he did not give the cause of the left such a clear and straightforward support. They criticized his poems, it was said, because their subject matter in many cases was metaphysical. Yannis Ritsos talked about this a lot later:
to that typed decision of the illegal party meeting where
with fraternal care the comrades expressed their grievances
that my new poems are embellished by some metaphysical tendencies
I responded with much more metaphysical and realistic poems
A few more critics siding with the Left took the same position and spoke negatively about Ritsos although for different reasons; surely the official critic of the Left, Markos Avgeris, judging the ideological character of Ritsos’s poems, found them not good enough. Few spoke out in favor of Ritsos and an ambiguity more or less characterized most critics, both bourgeois and leftist. The list of critics on both sides could include a plethora of names, especially if we extended our scope and dealt with the critiques written during the 1960s. In all these years, of course, Ritsos endured exile, hardship, illness, injustice, without regret. He experienced a social exclusion and his only refuge was his art, poetry, which redeemed him and narrated stories to him. He remained a sensitive, brave, lone and proud horse rider.
His work today is in the consciousness of Greek society, but also far beyond that: it has been justified, accepted, recognized in the international stage and it has been revered. The voice of Louis Aragon, Pablo Neruda praised him, the new and younger book critics, especially after the fall of the four colonels and the change to democratic political system in Greece praised him and with the help Mikis Theodrakis who set many of Ritsos’s poems in music, the poet has ascended to the top of the ladder and became one of the greatest poets of Hellenism and of the world. Yannis Ritsos certainly stands on equal height next to the other two great poets of his generation, George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis. One modern critic said that Ritsos was the greatest.
As for what the two sides of the critics were protesting against him, truly Ritsos has always belonged to the cause of the Left and has always been loyal to the party, but alongside his realistically socialist view of life and poetry, there was also his idealistic-metaphysical insight that pushed him to the top of the ladder. These two sides were balanced by his great love for the people and his deep sense of humanism. He never lost his position, his double poetic temperament, always trying to balance his work between these two parameters.
Your first and last word
were said by love and revolution.
Poetry talked of all your silence
He will write in his latest collection: Slowly, Very Slowly in the Night, which I think should be seen through this lens. I could even point out several of his poems in which the very mature and didactic Ritsos confesses that in his life and in his poetry he tried to serve his ideology consistently yet without straying away from the idealistic-metaphysical insight of things, as in the poem The Rebel
People, supposedly selfless, sought to protect him,
protecting themselves behind his name, don’t do
this or don’t do that – they told him, don’t become a target,
don’t untie your laces or your belt in front of them,
don’t fall victim of your honesty so often. He smiled
sympathetically at them and took only two of his fingers
one by one their “don’t” and threw them in the trash
along with his clothes. Then, thus, naked, handsome,
revolutionary, wearing only his full of holes, from
his much mountaineering, shoes
he passed by all the cheers and curses, and
serene, he got lost in the midst of immortality.
The subject of the poem, the revolutionary, who here certainly identifies with the poet endures the curses of his well-known ideological opponents on one hand and on the other hand he faces the burdensome persuasions of people of his faction who tried to manipulate him.
The poem Restitution again shows what was conspiring inside him, his vastness which did not fit in any shape, his unlimited love for life and people, his prolific writing, his lonely path along the dilemmas of his time. I quote excerpts:
He did not like birds, flowers, trees at all
which became symbols of ideas, used equally
from completely opposite factions. He was trying
to restore them to their natural state. Doves, e.g.
not slogans of various conferences, but birds;
nice, erotic birds, with heavy steps, always kissing…
And I said –
no legend, nor hero, nor god, but a simple worker
like you and you and the other – proletarian of art
always in love with trees, birds, animals and humans
worker who writes incessantly for everyone and everything
and his name is short and easy to pronounce: Yannis Ritsos
And because this short review was written to once again honor his memory on the occasion of the 23rd anniversary of his death, I’d like to quote the Epilogue from the same collection, in which, in fact, as an epilogue, he tells us to remember him but also the special reason why it would be worth remembering him.
Remember me – he said. I walked thousands of miles
on stones and thorns, without bread, without water
to bring you bread and water and roses. I never betrayed
beauty. I have shared my whole life fairly.
I never kept any portion. Destitute. I lighted
our darkest nights with a lily from the field.
Remember me and forgive me for this last sorrow:
I’d like once again to harvest the ripened wheat ear
with the thin sickle of the moon. To stand by the doorway,
to gaze while I chew the grain of wheat with my front teeth
admiring the one who climbs up the hill in the crimson dusk.
Look: he has a purple square patch on his left sleeve. This is
not clearly visible. And I wanted to show it to you above all.
And perhaps for this you should remember me the most.
His whole life unfolds: his struggle, his suffering, his deprivation, his just demeanor, his love for the people, his love for life, his grief over death and his self-esteem because of what he mentions in the poem that shows his endless humanism. For all this he asks us to remember him, but at the end of the poem he reveals the most special reason why he would like us to remember him. This purple square patch, on his left sleeve, although it is purple and square, which can mean intense and clear, becomes indistinguishable in the pale lilac of his ascension. But above all he wants to show us and perhaps that is why it would be worth remembering him, that is, for his leftist ideology and definitely his deep humanism.
~Christos Antoniou, PhD in Philology, poet
Read Ritsos in English
‘YANNIS RITSOS: POEMS’ Selected Books Vol II
-Translated by Manolis Aligizakis