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.


From “Chocorua to Its Neighbor” by Wallace Stevens

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

Review: Twelve Poems About Cavafy by Yannis Ritsos

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.

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.