Songs of the earth (1): Yannis Ritsos
The Meaning of Simplicity
I hide behind simple things so you’ll find me;
if you don’t find me, you’ll find the things,
you’ll touch what my hand has touched
our hand-prints will merge.
The August moon glitters in the kitchen
like a tin-plated pot (it gets that way because of what I’m saying to you),
it lights up the empty house and the house’s kneeling silence–
always the silence remains kneeling.
Every word is a doorway
to a meeting, one often cancelled,
and that’s when a word is true: when it insists on the meeting.
(Translated by Edmund Keeley, published in The Greek Poets: From Homer to the Present, Norton, 2010)
Yannis Ritsos’ output as a poet was enormous. He published more than a hundred collections of poetry, and often wrote with great speed, sometimes producing three collections in a single year. Such protean fluency can interfere with the reception of a poet in his own culture, and it can also inhibit or distort the reception in translation. How do you choose? How much of the work can endure? Can we trust the judgement as well as the achievement of the translators? These are, of course, impossible questions to answer for those not immersed in his work and its Greek contexts. We can only respond to what we see and get a small sense of the greater project, a whiff of what made him such a vital and uncomfortable presence.
He was nominated seven times for the Nobel, though never awarded it, which probably says more about the Nobel than about Ritsos. He was born to a well to do landowning family in Monemvasia in the Peloponnese in 1909. His early life was overshadowed by the loss of both his mother and older brother to tuberculosis. He himself spent several years in sanatoriums. His father was afflicted with mental ill health and the family suffered financial ruin, all of which events profoundly affected Ritsos and his poetry.
His first poems were published in the 1930s to considerable acclaim, but his books were burned under the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas and he was arrested and imprisoned in a series of camps for his communist sympathies – he had joined the Communist Party of Greece in 1931. During the Second World War he fought in the Greek Resistance and on the side of the Communists in the Greek Civil War, after which he was arrested and deported to various prison islands. On Makronisos he wrote poems and buried them in bottles. He was released in 1952 but after fifteen years of freedom he was arrested in 1967 at five o’clock in the morning on the day the junta seized power. He was sent to Yiaros then Leros, then was put under house arrest on Samos without the right to see visitors, and his books were banned. None of this, nor the bad health he suffered, stopped him writing, and some of his best poems were written out of the most constricting conditions.
I need to say straight away that what I’m dealing with here is English translations of Ritsos. Effectively what I’m talking about is poems in English which are the result of the mediations between the translators and the original Ritsos poems. In other words an intricate conversation has already taken place, a series of negotiations and decisions, by the time I as a reader arrive on the scene. And that is what I take the job of translation to be, the creation of worthwhile poems in the target language, and it should be perfectly possible to discuss those poems as poems in their own right. However each may have diverged from the source poem or what solutions and strategies they employ is beyond the competence of these remarks. As well as the interest and skill of translators, the vagaries of fashion and publishing affect how we see a poet in another language. There are no recent authoritative overviews of Yannis Ritsos’ work in English, but there are a number of translations of individual poems, sequences and selections from specific periods. Edmund Keeley’s selection from the poems Ritsos wrote during the dictatorship of the Colonels, Exile and Return, Selected Poems 1967–1974 (Ecco Press, 1985) is a good place to start, as is the selection in The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present (Norton, 2010). Modern Poetry in Translation has also featured translations by David Harsent, Paul Merchant and Robert Hull.
So what kind of poet was he? Copious, prolific, epic, but also a writer of brilliant short poems full of surprising turns and jolts, like ‘The Meaning of Simplicity’ above. He describes his own language as plain, demotic, neutral – Paul Merchant quotes his 1966 advice to translators: ‘If you are translating the poems you will need the most up-to-date lexicon, the most demotic. Translate the words exactly as you see them’. This does not mean that the poems are straightforward or any kind overt commentary. Although he did indeed write directly political and propagandistic work, much of the poetry, and practically all of the poems gathered in Keeley’s selection don’t engage with public life on the level of polemic. On the other hand, as Keeley puts it:
One constantly encounters imagery of dislocation, of intimidation, of lethargic and directionless motion, of exile in strange places and even within the confines of a familiar neighbourhood, as the land were under siege and the people in it dispossessed of their normal habitations, their normal means of sustenance both physical and spiritual, or have become so disorientated by circumstances beyond their control that they have lost their power to function as sentient human beings. In several poems the setting is evidently a guarded camp or barracks or building under surveillance, the people living there threatened by mysterious masked figures, thrust into rooms with the dead or the dying for companionship. But more often the poet depicts a recognisable Greek landscape – stones everywhere, olive trees, vineyards, thorny plots and parched fields, whitewashed country houses and monotonous city apartment buildings – only to reveal that this landscape is now subject to violent distortion and the intrusion of unexpected anomalies. (Keeley, xvi/xvii)
Here, in Edmund Keeley’s translation, is Ritsos’s take on Ulysses and Penelope. The story is remorselessly stripped of any vestige of heroics or justified vengeance. What we have instead is fear, disillusionment, resignation – a bleak ‘final enduring’:
It wasn’t that she didn’t recognise him in the light from the hearth: it wasn’t
the beggar’s rags, the disguise – no. The signs were clear:
the scar on his knee, the pluck, the cunning in his eye. Frightened,
her back against the wall, she searched for an excuse,
a little time, so she wouldn’t have to answer,
give herself away. Was it for him, then, that she’d used up twenty years,
twenty years of waiting and dreaming, for this miserable
blood-soaked, white-bearded man? She collapsed voiceless into a chair,
slowly studied the slaughtered suitors on the floor as though seeing
her own desires dead there. And she said “Welcome,”
hearing her voice sound foreign, distant. In the corner, her loom
covered the ceiling with a trellis of shadows; and all the birds she’d woven
with bright red thread in green foliage, now,
on this night of the return, suddenly turned ashen and black,
flying low on the flat sky of her final enduring.(published in The Greek Poets: From Homer to the Present, Norton, 2010)
The short forms Ritsos often uses favour compression and indirectness. It also favours a poetry rich in images and suggestion, and in the kind of narrative boldness, with its dream-logic directness, of which ‘Return’ is a good example. In poems like this Ritsos creates a self-contained world that compels and convinces. I give it here in two translations, the first by Edmund Keeley, the second by Robert Hull.
The statues left first. A little later
the trees, people, animals. The land
became entirely desert. The wind blew.
Newspapers and thorns circled in the streets.
At dusk the lights went on by themselves.
A man came back alone, looked around him,
took out his key, stuck it in in the ground
as though entrusting it to an underground hand
or as though planting a tree. Then he climbed
the marble stairs and gazed down at the city.
Cautiously, one by one, the statues returned.
November 1967-January 1968
Concentration Camp for Political Detainees
(Translated by Edmund Keeley)
The statues left first. The trees soon after,
the people and the animals. The place
was utterly deserted. A wind came. Newspapers
hurried along the streets, and thorn-twigs.
At night the lights came on of their own accord.
On his own, a man came back; he looked round,
took out a key, and pressed it to the earth
as if passing it to an underground hand
or planting a tree. Afterwards he climbed
the marble steps and looked out over the city.
One by one, cautiously, the statues returned.
(Translated by Robert Hull, in MPT, Third Series, Number Twelve, Freed Speech)
The attraction to the possibilities of short forms is apparent in the sets of monostichs and tristichs. He wrote three hundred and thirty-six ‘monochords’ in a single month, from August to September, 1979 when exiled by the Papadopoulos regime to the island of Samos:
He was dangerous to dictators because his short poems speak simple shared truths, and his longer poems on mythic subjects measure the narrow aims of demagogues against the span of history. His one-line monochords can be read as miniature encapsulations by a master of the art of brevity, or as keys to his whole work, his lexicon of images and ideas.
(Paul Merchant, ‘Twenty Eight of the Monochords’, Modern Poetry in Translation, Third series, number 7, Love and War, edited by David and Helen Constantine, pp 14–17)
Brevity does not equal fragmentariness, or a series of disparate responses. Every line he writes is the equal of every other line. Here is a flavour, in Paul Merchant’s translation:
With your little finger you stir up a world.
Voluptuary moon, don’t take back what you said.
Let the dead sleep at last so we can sleep too.
Later the strip search of the corpses begins.
One mountain, two apples, three soldiers.
I entered the wooden horse with a sword and a mirror.
They stoned him to death. With the rocks I built this monument.
Yet another medal on your chest: yet another wrinkle on
The lantern in the barracks where tired soldiers are asleep.
Shuttered house. Outside, the moon, and a sentry pissing in the colonnade.
Atmosphere, mood, an attitude of perception that unites whatever is recorded. David Harsent’s versions of fifteen tristichs show a similar compression, a similar sense of interconnectedness. Like the monochords, they came quickly. Published in 1987, 3X111 Tristichs consist of 999 lines of haiku-like poems. The poems’ power builds as we read them, as the poems speak to and reinforce each other. Harsent comments: ‘The three-liners have a cumulative effect: tense, bitten-back, and so effectively compressed that an entire narrative seems to reside in each.’ He is surely right to claim them as a major achievement.
Stone angels among broken columns
over the graves of the long-since dead.
* * *
The station at night: silent, dark, deserted.
The station-master lights a cigarette.
He unzips and pisses down onto the tracks.
* * *
Your sleep – a quiet lake.
A deer stoops to drink. I stoop
* * *
The windows shuttered, the house empty apart
from the sleek and naked
absence of your body on the bed.
* * *
Those starlit nights… You could hear the apples
falling into the damp grass.
We let the apples lie, but gathered up the sound
(David Harsent, ‘Fifteen Tristichs’, MPT, Third Series, Number Two, Diaspora
Like many Greek poets, Ritsos turned frequently to the ancient past, but it’s more that past and present leak into each other and inhabit each other. A good example of this is ‘Requiem on Poros’ where the death of Demosthenes might only just have occurred, or as if an unbroken line of continuity conjoins the murky politics of contemporary Greece with the Athens which condemned the orator:
Requiem on Poros
We keep forgetting the gods. And if we happened to remember Poseidon tonight
as we returned to the desolate shores of Calauria,
it’s because over here, in the sacred grove one July evening,
while oars gleamed in the moonlight and one could hear
the guitars of ivy-crowned young men in the rowboats,
here in the pine-covered spot, Demosthenes took poison –
he, a stammerer, who struggled until he became the best orator of the Greeks,
and then, condemned by the Macedonians and the Athenians, learned, in the course of one night
the most difficult, the greatest art of all: to be silent.
Translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley, published in The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, edited by J.D. MclCatchy, Vintage, 1996.