Links Roundup: Yannis Ritsos

Photo by wikimedia user badseed

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.

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James Wood on Literary Detail

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)

Reading List #1

2012: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford

2011: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

2010: Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error by Emile Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

2009: From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun

2008: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

2007: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

2006: In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan

2005: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

2004: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

2003: A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe

2002: A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

2001: Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain

2000: Idoru by William Gibson

1999: The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima

1998: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

1997: Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

1996: The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol.  2,  Second Edition

1995: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

1994: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs by David Norman

1993: The Way Things Work by David Macaulay

1992: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

1991: D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire

1990: The Abominable Snowman by Barbara Antonopulos

1989: O, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss

1989: Tassel’s Mission by Susan Thompson-Hoffman

1987: Hot Air Henry by Mary Calhoun

1986: Cross-Country Cat by Mary Calhoun

Flypaper by Robert Musil

Tangle-Foot flypaper is approximately 36 centimeters long by 21 centimeters wide; it is coated with a yellow, poisoned paste and comes from Canada. If a fly alights on the paper –not eagerly, but more out of convention, because so many others are already there– it is glued at first only by the outermost members of its arms. An entirely light and disconcerting sensation, as though while walking in the dark we were to tread on something with our naked soles– nothing more than a soft, warm, unavoidable resistance, and yet something into which a gruesome human essence flows, recognized as a hand somehow just lying there and with five ever more perceptible fingers grabs hold of us.

They hold themselves forcibly erect, like cripples who do not want to be noticed, or like decrepit old soldiers (and a little bowlegged, as when you are standing on a sharp edge). They stand at attention, gathering strength and contemplating their situation. A few seconds later they have decided and begin, as best they can, to buzz and try to lift themselves. They perform this furious operation until exhaustion forces them to a halt. A pause for breath follows, then a new attempt. But the intervals become longer. They stand there and I feel how helpless they are. Bewildering vapors rise up from below. Their tongue gropes about like a tiny little hammer. Their head is brown and hairy, as if it were made from a coconut; manlike as an African idol. They twist forwards and backwards on their firmly fastened little legs, bending at the knees and straining upward, like men trying  their utmost to move too heavy a load: more tragic than the working man, truer as an athletic expression of the greatest exertion of Laocoön. Then comes the extraordinary moment when the need for one second’s rest overcomes the almighty instinct for self-preservation. It is the moment when the climber voluntarily loosens his grip for the pain in his fingers , when the man lost in the snow lays himself down like a child, or when the pursued stops on account of his burning lungs. They no longer hold themselves up with all their might, but sink a little lower and are in that moment completely human. Immediately they are held somewhere else, higher up on the leg, from behind, or at the tip of the wing.

When they have overcome the spiritual exhaustion and resume, for a little while, the fight for survival, they are fixed in an awkward position an all their movements become unnatural. They lay down with outstretched hind legs, propped up on their elbows and try to lift themselves. Or they sit on the ground, reared up, with outstretched arms, like women who try in vain to twist their hands free from a man’s grip. Or they lay on their bellies, head and arms in front, like fallen runners, and only the face held high. But the enemy is simply passive, and wins in these desperate, bewildering moments. A nothing, an it, draws them in. So slowly that one is almost able to follow them, often with an abrupt acceleration at the end, when the last inner breakdown comes over them. They let themselves fall forward, face down, head over heels; or sideways, with their legs distended; often rolled to one side, with legs paddling in the rear. Like fallen airplanes, one wing reaching into the air. Or horses pushing up the daisies. Or with endless gesticulations of despair. Or like sleepers. The next day one may yet wake up, fumble with one leg or flutter a wing. Sometimes this motion spreads itself throughout the entire scene, then the lot of them sink a little deeper into death. And only on the side of the body, in an area near the shoulder socket, do they have some small pulsating organ that still goes on living. It opens and closes –one cannot see it without a magnifying glass—it looks like a miniscule human eye that ceaselessly opens and shuts.

Translation by Matthew Spencer. Based on the German original with consultation of the English version by Peter Wortsman included in Posthumous Papers of a Living Writer published by Eridanos Press (1987).

E.M. Forester on the Prophetic in Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper than their experiences. They convey to us a sensation that is partially physical– the sensation of sinking into a translucent globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on it’s surface, tiny, remote, yet ours.

E.M. Forester from Aspects of the Novel

Modernist nostalgia with Voices and Visions

A large part my interest in books and writing stems from two early influences. The first was the Norton Anthology of English Literature, an aged copy of which was given to me by my paternal grandmother when I was about 13 years old. The second influence was Voices and Visions, a documentary series on American poets produced in the late 1980s by a South Carolina PBS affiliate. VHS copies of each episode always seemed to be on hand at the local branch of the Fort Vancouver Public Library. Something about the about those videos suggested to me, even then, that they would see very little use.

It’s difficult to separate the reasons why Voices and Visions appealed to me as a young teenager and the reasons why I still enjoy the series today. Perhaps I felt something hypnotic and seductive in the way each poem was visualized: a line or a stanza appearing on the screen with a picture of the corresponding image, then followed by some critical eminence like Frank Kermode or Hugh Kenner patiently but confidently explicating thornier issues such as meaning or intention or the history of the art form.

Watching the series now, what strikes me most is how many people were still alive who knew the great modernist poets during their prime. You get the eerie impression that Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore had died just recently. In hindsight, this must have had a strong impact on the writers I would later identify with—and not an altogether positive one. I felt more engaged with people who had died thirty or forty years ago than I did with anyone in contemporary culture.

I leave it to the reader to enumerate reasons why nostalgia for the early 20th century is misguided. But after the all the reckonings and reassessments,  there is something persistently magnetic about the Modernist era, a time when literature and the world at large were, for better and for worse, running on the same course. Voices and Visions captures the spirit wonderfully.

You can watch all thirteen episodes for free on the series’ website here.