OGNW is a newish literary organization based out Seattle, Washington. I highly recommend those of you in the city and the surrounding area to come to one of their readings or attend one of their free writer’s workshops. Why? Because when was the last time you ever received writing advice at that cost?
A few weeks ago, I reviewed Twelve Poems About Cavafy, a short but wonderful collection by the Greek modernist poet Yannis Ritsos. Though he’s somewhat obscure in the English speaking world, there are a number of resources on the web for the curious reader. The Poetry Foundation has a nice biography of Ritsos with compelling details about his personal life and political struggles as well as an overview of his poetic career. The article also has a comprehensive bibliography of his original works, including those available in English translation.
For those who want to jump immediately to the work itself, HINTS: The Poetry of Yannis Ritsos is a wonderful collection of translations by Scott King. He began the project on the occasion of Ritsos’ 100th birthday in 2009. Fitting the blog format, shorter poems predominate here. The language is direct, portraying unpretentious, even mundane subjects, but with subtle undertones of mystery and lyricism. These translations are indispensable to the beginning reader interested in Ritsos but also a testament to his eclectic output over a long and eventful career.
In 1985, the mountaineer Joe Simpson, twenty-one thousand feet up in the Andes, fell off an ice ledge and broke his leg. Dangling uselessly from his ropes, he was left for dead by his climbing partner. Into his head, unbidden, came the Boney M. song “Brown Girl in the Ring.” He had never liked the song and was infuriated at the thought of dying to this particular soundtrack.
In literature, as in life, death is often attended by apparent irrelevance…
From How Fiction Works (2008)
To say more than human things with human voice,
That cannot be; to say human things with more
Than human voice; that, also, cannot be;
To speak humanly from the height or from the depth
Of human things, that is acutest speach
From The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
For the past few months, I have been voraciously reading and rereading Twelve Poems About Cavafy by Yannis Ritsos. This collection, originally translated from Greek to English by Paul Merchant in 1968, has been out of print for years. It is now available again through Tavern Books, a small publisher based in Portland, Oregon, which specializes in reprints and translations of modern poetry. Each work they issue is manually printed and kept in stock in perpetuity– a brave gesture in this era of cultural pessimism.
In Twelve Poems, Ritsos pays homage to the father of modern Greek poetry, C.P. Cavafy, in a series of short lyric poems on his life and work . These are partial in both senses of the word, both affectionate and tightly limited in their scope. But taken as a whole, this collection forms a rich and contradictory portrait of a creative spirty.
Chief among the virtues of the collection is a Whitmanesque embrace of contradiction. Genius and pretension happily coexist. Ritsos never makes any flattening distinction regarding them. Cavafy appears as a sincere charlatan, at once devoted to his art but affecting an odd, often comic public persona. “Hiding Places” describes the strange gestures (tentative yet theatrical) the poet used to impress his students:
But then, unsettled by our eyes on his back,
he turned and poked his face through the curtain
like a man wearing a long white tunic,
a little humorously, a little at odds with our times
Each poem in this collection is a gem of compound images. Ritsos maintains a sense ease and clarity despite some complex turns in syntax and frequent use of extended metaphor. The language never obscures the subject at hand.
Alongside Cavafy the clown, there is Cavafy the loner and insomniac. Not exactly a tragic figure but rather bittersweet, he maintains a connection to the world through acts of poetic imagination. In “His Lamp at Dawn”, this commonplace item forms a metaphorical bridge through which the poet explores his native city of Alexandria.
at dawn its light pales and becomes one
with day’s flowering rose, with first clatter
of shop blinds, handcarts, fruit stands,
it becomes a visible reminder of his insomnia,
and also a glass bridge, leading from his glasses
to the lamp’s chimney, and from there to the glass
window-panes, and beyond them, on and on,
a glass bridge carrying him over the city,
through the city, his Alexandria, connecting
(since that’s his wish now) night with day.
Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) had a long and prolific career. He was poet, translator, communist activist, and resistance fighter against the Germans during World War II. His life was marked by periods of illness and confinement by government authorities. This collection presents an altogether different side to Ritsos than what his biography would suggest. It shows a poet gifted with lyrical fluency and a knack for rich characterization, forming a picture of a remarkable mentor and artist.