On a day this week, the 11th November, 1990, the Greek poet, communist and political prisoner, Yannis Ritsos died in Athens
On a day this week, the 11th November, 1990, the Greek poet, communist and political prisoner, Yannis Ritsos died in Athens after a lifetime “having survived imprisonment, exile, misunderstanding, isolation and disillusion – as well as adulation, perhaps the greatest trial of all.” (Peter Bien)
In Canto IX of his famous poem and lament Epitaphios (?????????) published in the Athenian (and communist) newspaper Rizospastis (??????????? – “The Radical”) on May 12 1936, (“…almost instantly becoming a piece of the Greek psyche,” Alex Kalamarides) he writes:
Oh, Virgin Mary, if you were a mother like me,
you would have sent your Angel from beyond to help my son.
And, ah, my God, my God, if you were a God and we your children,
you would feel for your wretched creatures, as I do.
And if you were just, justly you would have distributed creation,
for every bird, every child to eat his fill.
My son, you were right when you’d say in your sensible words,
every time you would speak and expound:
“It’s we who feed the dove of life in our hand,
and in our hand we don’t have even a crumb.
“It’s we who hold all the earth in our toughened arms,
and the Gods stand like scarecrows with their lordly faces.”
Ah, my son, there is no joy or faith left in me,
and the last dim light of our votive candle has died.
And now what fire will I have to open my hands over,
to warm my frozen hands a bit?
Born on May Day, 1909, in Monemvasia (Greek: ??????????), a town in Laconia, Greece, located on a small island just off the east coast of the Peloponnese, (the island linked to the mainland by a short causeway 200m in length)…
…on May 9th 1936, just 27 years later, Yannis Ritsos would stare at the dead body of Tassos Toussis, a factory worker who had just been killed by police at a demonstration by striking workers in the northern city of Thessaloniki. This photograph, which appeared on the front page of the newspaper on May 10, 1936, shows a mother, clothed in black, weeping over the dead body of her son, and moved Ritsos to compose the poem that is now known as the Epitaphios (‘?????????’), a lament sung by the mourning mother in the photograph:
“Salonica. May 1936. In the middle of the road a mother sings a dirge over her slain son. Waves of demonstrators—the striking tobacco workers—roar and break around her. She continues her lament:
My son, flesh of my flesh, dear heart of my heart,
little bird in the poor courtyard, blossom in my desert,
how is it that your eyes are closed and you do not see me cry,
and you do not stir or hear my bitter words?
You, my son, who would cure my every grievance
and guess every thought in my mind,
now won’t you console me and utter a sound,
and won’t you imagine the wounds which consume my flesh?
You, my bird, who’d bring me water in the palm of your hand,
how is it that you do not see me beating my breast and trembling like a reed ?
Here in the middle of the street I let down my white hair
and cover the wilted lily of your form.
I kiss your frozen lip, and it is silent,
locked tight, as if it were angry with me.
You do not speak to me, and I, the wretch, open my bodice—look!—
and into the breasts which suckled you, my son, I plunge my nails.”
Nikos Strangos writes:
“The dirge which he produced after two days of intensive creativity, wedding his emotion to technical skill, places this particular tragedy in a larger perspective to give it meaning and provide a mirror in which the common people might discern their true features.”
On May 8th, 1936 a general strike of the tobacco workers and other local unions had been called to protest conditions suffered by the workers of Thessaloniki, a strongold of the communist party at that time (“…the party was banned in 1936 by the dictatorial 4th of August Regime of Metaxas, and brutally persecuted by his security chief, Konstantinos Maniadakis. Many KKE members were imprisoned or exiled on isolated Aegean islands”). On May 9th the strike spread and a new demonstration was called. Confronting the striking workers the police opened fire – killing 12 and leaving many wounded (figures range from the 30s into the hundreds) – turning May 9th, 1936 into “one of the most important days in Greek working class history.”
The army was quickly called in and despite a number of soldiers joining the striking workers and the attempts of the communist party to ‘seize the moment’, the strike was contained. By May 11, the strike was called off after the demands of the workers – “mainly, the establishment of an eight-hour work day and a state system of pensions and medical coverage” – were met.
Shocked both by the image of the mother kneeling over the body of her murdered son, as well as the context in which it occured, Yiannis Ritsos wrote Epitaphios over the following 2 days. Over the course of (finally) 20 cantos the grieving mother moves from grief and confusion to hope and revolutionary committment just as the Christian holiday moves from the Crucifixion to the Resurrection and the promise of eternal life.
The Epitaphios is also a common short form of the Epitáphios Thr?nos, the “Lamentation upon the Grave”, a funeral oration in the Greek Orthodox Church, which is the main part of the service of the Matins of Holy Saturday, performed on Good Friday evening.
My son, what Fate was decreeing for you, what Fate had decreed for me
to ignite such grief, such fire in my breast?
You awoke early in the morning and washed your body and your hair,
before the bell-ringer far away tolled the dawn.
You’d look from the window again and again to see if it had dawned,
and you were hurrying as if you were going to a festival.
You kept your eyes dark, your jaw tight,
and in your boldness you were sweet, both a bull and a nightingale.
And I, poor and neglectful, and I, crazy and mad,
was cooking your sage, and my pale glance would kiss
your charms one by one, my dear, and your gleaming aspect,
and I’d revel and laugh like a tender girl.
Not even for a moment did I imagine the worst, nor did I run from behind
to put my chest in front to catch the bullets.
And I arrived late. Oh, that such an hour had never come!
Oh, it were better that the whole country collapse on my skull!
Rick M. Newton:
“Epitaphios Thrinos, the dirge of the Virgin Mary and the other mourning women at the tomb of the crucified Christ. This traditional lament, dating to the fourteenth century, is sung throughout Greece and all Greek Orthodox communities in the diaspora every spring during the Good Friday evening service. Ritsos reaches the broadest audience possible for a poet writing in Greek, for the Epitaphios Thrinos is known to all speakers of the language: men and women, young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, of all political persuasions.
With the title “Epitaphios” Ritsos evokes the traditional lament and recalls the emotional and spiritual intensity with which it is associated.”
The first edition of this poem appeared on 12 May 1936, in Rizospastis with a dedication to the workers of Thessaloniki. A second edition with a print-run of 10,000 “outsold the works of Kostis Palamas, the father-figure of modern Greek patriotic poetry…” (Patrick Comerford) …leaving only 250 copies remaining for the incoming dictatorship to burn.
The Metaxas dictatorship, which was to seize power several months later, listed Epitaphios among the subversive books that were burned in a bonfire at the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens and publicly destroyed the last remaining 250 copies of this first remarkably successful print run of the poem.
“Epitaphios is overtly political, and as such has had a ‘political career’ of its own. If nothing else, it shows us the inconstant seas now murderous, now buoying – which Ritsos himself has had to travel.” (Peter Bien)
Yannis Ritsos is now considered one of the major Greek poets (he also wrote an estimated 9 novels and 4 plays) of the 20th century: thus began a career that not alone would have him nominated (unsuccessfully) 9 times for the Nobel Prize but would see his work read and welcomed by a wide audience not usually seen for a contemporary poet.
Peter Bien (June 1973):
“Ritsos’s yearning for poetry which would be known not only to intellectuals, but to dockhands, fishermen and taxi-drivers, was fulfilled. In addition, the poem became a kind of unofficial ‘national anthem’ of the Greek Left.”
However his early years, like so much of his life to follow, had been hard. The youngest of 4 children and born privileged to a well to do family, by his late teens his family had imploded as result of Venizelos agrarian reform (1917) which, among other factors, resulted in the family losing most of their land and, linked to his father’s addiction to gambling, resulted in the family’s impoverishment.
When Ritsos was 12 he also experienced the death of his mother and brother in 1921 from tuberculosis (which was then incurable) and soon after his father and one of his sisters went insane. (His father was to die in a psychiatric hospital in 1938). By the time he is 16 (in September 1925) he is in Athens looking for work before he himself would end up in in the Sotiria Sanatorium in Athens (February 1927) for 3 years for tuberculosis, ending his care, due to lack of funds, in a decrepit sanitorium near Hania in Crete.
In 1934, he published Tractor – (…”there are also hymns to Marx, Engels, and Russia, as well as calls for one world in which all men will be brothers…” Peter Bien) – his first major collection of poems and started writing his column Letters to the Frontline for the Rizospastis newspaper. During the same year, he joined the Communist Party of Greece (????????????? ????? ???????, Kommounistikó Kómma Elládas, KKE) with which he remained until his death.
Pyramids, his second collection, was published in 1935 (“An impassioned elegy dedicated to his sister uses the occasion of her deteriorating mental condition to speak of the illness which ravaged the entire family; another elegy directed at his own unhappy boyhood (‘O, I do not remember ever being young; / Like a paralysed old man I would hide indoors reading ancient books…’) concludes with a vision of himself as a common soldier among the ranks of the workers, fighting on their behalf with ‘lyre and knowledge.'” (Peter Bien)
1936: The same year that Epitaphios established his presence as a major poet his sister Loula was institutionalised (for which he also composed To tragoudi tes adelphes mou – The Song of my Sister – “My sister, / I am no longer poet. / I do not deign to be poet. / I am a wounded ant / that lost its way / in the vast night.) Yet, despite all, “Ritsos was finding ways to sustain himself. These were two: poetry and socialist revolution…” (Peter Bien)
Thus from 1936 to his death in 1990, “the remainder of his career has continued to display energetic devotion to the ultimate goals of freedom, justice and brotherhood for all men…” Peter Bien writes in his introduction to the 1974 edition of Ritsos’ Selected Poems; so that by the time of his death, Yannis Ritsos’ work will mark out a trajectory of committment both to the inner voice he was to share with the world while at the same time embracing a period of intense historical and political events both in Greek life as well as for the international proletariat.
The 4th of August Regime, also known as the Metaxas Regime under the leadership of General Ioannis Metaxas, from 1936 to 1941, would just be the beginning of this. “From 1936 until 1952 Ritsos was unable to publish freely, for political reasons.” (Peter Bien)
By the spring of 1941 the Nazis had invaded, Greece was in the clutches of severe famine and Ritsos had become actively involved in the Resistance, “identifying himself clearly with EAM – at first a coalition of various resistance groups, later dominated by the far left – he began to fight with his pen, producing a long series of poems which circulated clandestinely among the resisters and buoyed their spirits.” (Peter Bien)
My son, what wrong did you commit? From unjust men
you sought payment for your own labors.
You asked for a bit of bread and they gave you a knife.
You asked for your sweat and they cut off your hand.
You were no beggar to go with your hand outstretched.
With your strong heart you went walking erect.
And the flock of crows swooped down on you
and drank your blood, my son, and closed your lips.
Now, my one and only lily, your pale palms
are like two sick, mournful birds
whose wings are folded and no longer flutter,
and I hold them in my hands and they do not chirp to me.
Oh, my son, may those who slaughtered you find
their children and parents slaughtered, and may they choke on the blood.
And in their blood let me dye my skirt red
and let me dance. Ah, my son, it is not fitting for me to cry for you.
“Everyone in Greece hoped that resurrection would come as soon as the Germans withdrew. Instead, the sundering of native inhabitants from foreign rulers was replaced by a worse sundering of Greek from Greek. the first Civil War, which followed almost immediately after Liberation, the leftist-dominated Resistance was routed, in December 1944, with the aid of British tanks. This defeat of EAM’s hopes was then exacerbated by repressive measures applied against all radical and liberal elements in the turbulent years which followed, years which only increased the schism between right and left, and devolved into the second Civil War. During the interim period (1945-7), Ritsos joined with other artists in appealing to the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union to recognize what was happening in Greece; more importantly, he set to work on his magnificent tribute to the defeated resistance-fighters and, beyond them, to all previous·and future strugglers for Greece’s freedom. Appropriately called Romiosini (‘Greekness’), this tribute sees the men who fought against the Germans and afterwards in the First Civil War as national heroes easily equated with the free besieged of Missolonghi during the War of Independence…”
” …their hands are glued to their rifles
their rifles are extensions of their hands
their hands extensions of their souls –
they have anger on their lips
and grief deep within their eyes
like a star in a pothole of salt…”
During this period Ritsos was jailed, in 1948 and again in 1951. “In 1948 he was deported to the village of Kontopouli on Lemnos. He was later exiled to Makronisos and finally to Ai-Stratis from where he was released in August 1952. Throughout this period his works were banned, but Ritsos continued his creative activity unabated.” (Chrysa Prokopaki)
On Makronisos he was incarcerated in the notorious Institute for National Re-education “where the guards administered physical and psychological torture in an attempt to transform communists into ‘good Hellenes’.” (Peter Bien) The four years in these various concentration camps did not, however, silence him. (“We would never have believed / that men would be so cruel. / We would never have believed / that our hearts had such fortitude.” The Roots of the World, 1949) On Makronisos he placed his poems in a bottle which he buried in the stony ground; on Agios Efstratios (‘Ai Stratis’) he was able to recite his works to his fellow prisoners – which explains the straightforward style employed during this period (“We were very thirsty, / working the stone all day long. / Beneath our thirst / are the roots of the world.” 1949). Probably the most celebrated individual piece is the ‘Letter to Joliet-Curie’, dated November 1950, a poem which was smuggled out of Greece at the time, unknown to its author. It begins:
“Dear Joliot, I am writing you from Ai Stratis.
About three thousand of us are here,
simple folk, hard workers, men of letters,
with a ragged blanket across our backs,
an onion, five olives and a dry crust of light in our sacks,
folk as simple as trees in sunlight,
with only one crime to our accounts:
only this – that we, like you, love
peace and freedom. “
“As always, Ritsos’ prime witness during these years of national and personal suffering was his continued faith in Song as a bridge to decency, a faith reinforced by what he observed in nature, though not always in human nature.”
On March 30 1952, Nikos Belogiannis, the communist resistance leader, became “one of the greatest martyrs of the Greek left” executed for “espionage” in the military base of Goudi in Athens. Belogiannis had been working underground on re-organising the now-banned KKE in Athens from June to December 1950 when he was arrested as a party member and “traitor”. Despite national and international appeals for clemency, Beloyannis had been taken from the prison of Kallithea early in the morning of that Sunday in 1952, and, along with 3 comrades, was executed in the Goudi camp.
“Upon hearing the news of the execution, imprisoned in the exile camp of Ai Stratis island, Yannis Ritsos…wrote a poem that would be translated across the world, “The Man with the Carnation”:
“Today the camp falls silent.
Today the sun trembles, hooked in silence
like the vest of the executed trembles on barbed wire.
Today the world grieves.
They took down a great bell and placed it on the ground.
In its copper beats the heart of peace. Silence.
Listen to this bell. Silence.
The people lift on their shoulders the great coffin of Belogiannis.”
“His exile fellows copied the poem on cigarette papers and illegally sent it to Romania where it later got published….” we are told.
Ritsos returns to Athens later in 1952, “carrying all his poems and paintings in two suitcases”.
From 1953-1967 (when he was re-arrested by ‘The Colonels’) he continues to write, publishing twenty-eight separate collections of new work, including three large volumes of his Poems 1930-1960 and nine volumes of translations.
In 1956 his Moonlight Sonata – (” I know that each one of us travels to love alone, /
alone to faith and to death. / I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help. / Let me come with you.”) – won the National Prize for poetry.
“Oh, are you going? Goodnight. No, I won’t come. Goodnight.
I’ll be going myself in a little. Thank you. Because, in the end, I must
get out of this broken-down house.
I must see a bit of the city – no, not the moon –
the city with its calloused hands, the city of daily work,
the city that swears by bread and by its fist,
the city that bears all of us on its back
with our pettiness, sins, and hatreds,
our ambitions, our ignorance and our senility.
I need to hear the great footsteps of the city,
and no longer to hear your footsteps
or God’s, or my own. Goodnight.”
In 1956 he also journeyed to the Soviet Union, after that to Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Germany; (in 1966 he was to travel to Cuba).
Epitaphios, the 1936 poem, however, continued to resonate through the life and culture of the people:
You have set, my star. All of creation has set,
and the sun, a pitch-black ball, has taken in its glow.
Crowds pass by and push me. The army also steps on me,
and my eye does not budge and does not leave you.
And look, they are picking me up. I see thousands of sons,
but I am unable to leave your side, my son.
They speak to me the way you used to, and they offer me consolation,
and they have your cap, they are wearing your clothes.
I feel the vapor of your breath on my cheek,
and, ah, a light, a great light sails at the far end of the street.
A bright palm wipes my eyes,
and, ah, your voice, my son, has rushed to my entrails.
And look, I have picked myself up. My foot still supports me.
A serene light, my lad, has raised me from the ground.
Now you are dressed in flags. You, go to sleep, my boy,
and I am going on to your brothers and sisters and taking them your voice.
1958-1960, in the calm between the violence of fascism, civil-war, dictatorship, death and imprisonment, Mikis Theodorakis was to compose eight songs based on verses from eleven of the twenty stanzas of Epitaphios, (“…with his song cycle Epitaphios he started the third period of his composing and contributed to a cultural revolution in his country…” Wikipedia) using folk instruments, such as the bouzouki, and untrained musicians and singers (Grigoris Bithikotsis). Manos Hadzidakis, the Cretan composer, also responded to his colleague’s composition by arranging the same music for recital-hall performance.
Likewise in May 1963, hundreds of students gathered along with Ritsos and Mikis Theodorakis outside a Salonica hospital to mourn the assassination of the left wing parliamentary deputy Grigoris Lambrakis. There the Epitaphios was sung as well as later at demonstrations in Athens after the deputy’s funeral at the same time that the slogan ‘Lambrakis lives’ began to appear on every wall.
In 1966, the poem Romiosini, Ritsos’ tribute to the Greek Resistance, was both published separately from the original collection and set to music by composer Mikis Theodorakis with Grigoris Bithikotsis again as singer.
Shortly afterwards, on the 21st April 1967 a group of right-wing army officers seized power in Greece. They were to rule until July 1974 and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. The works of both Ritsos and Theodorakis were banned. After the military coup, Ritsos was arrested on the very first night and exiled to Gyaros and Leros (“…this and other small islands of the Aegean Sea served as places of exile for important persons in the early Roman empire. The extremity of its desolation was proverbial among Roman authors, such as Tacitus and Juvenal. It was a place of exile for leftist political dissidents in Greece from 1948 until 1974. At least 22,000 people were exiled or imprisoned on the island during that time. Wikipedia). However he continued to work and his writings were circulated clandestinely.
Despite all this, Ritsos’ reputation, both in Greece and abroad, by now was secure. In 1972, he was honoured with the Great International Award for Poetry in Belgium and 3 years later, he received the international award Georgi Dimitrov in Bulgaria and a honourary doctorate from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Later in the same year, he received the Grand Prize for Poetry Alfre De Viny in France and was nominated for the Nobel Prize. In 1976, he received the international award Etna-Taormina in Italy and in 1977 he was honoured with the Lenin Prize for Peace and with the international award Bontelo in 1978. During the same year, he received an honourary doctorate from the University of Birmingham and in 1986, he received the Peace Poetry Award by the United Nations and a medal by the National Mint of France. In March 1987, he received an honourary doctorate by the Kapodistrian University of Athens and the Mayor of Athens honoured him with the city’s Gold Medal of Honour. In 1990, Ritsos received the Joliot-Curie Award, the highest distinction by the World Peace Council. Of all these awards, it is said the Lenin Peace Prize was the one he valued the most.
Although his reputation is now almost exclusively as a poet (and communist), Yannis Ritsos also worked as a journalist and translator, critic and dramatist. “His collected criticism…includes, in addition to essays on Vladimir Mayakovsky, Nazim Hikmet, Ilya Ehrenburg, and Paul Éluard, two invaluable commentaries on Ritsos’s own work. Among his translations are Aleksandr Blok’s Dvendtsat (1918), anthologies of Romanian, Czech, and Slovak poetry, and selected poems by Mayakovsky, Hikmet, and Ehrenburg.”
In July 1984, Nana Mouskouri sang Mera Mayiou (Stanza VI of the Epitaphios) in a concert in the Herod Atticus theater in Athens. (Link below)
A day in May you left me, a day in May I lose you,
springtime, son, when you loved to go up
to the terrace and look out, and with your eyes
you’d milk the light of the universe without ever getting your fill,
and with your pointed finger you’d show me one by one
all that was sweet, all that was good and pale and rosy,
and you’d show me the sea gleaming in the distance like oil,
and the trees and mountains in the azure veil,
and the poor small things—birds, ants, shrubs,
and these diamond stones which the water jug nearby would sweat.
And yet, my son, although you’d show me the stars and the vastness,
I’d see them more clearly in your sea-blue eyes.
And with a voice that was sweet and warm and manly
you’d tell me of more things than the grains of sand on the shore,
and you’d tell me, my son, that all this beauty would be ours,
and now you are dead, and dead are our glow and our flame.
“Despite all his difficulties, Ritsos finally achieved a personal, humanitarian medium devoid of anger and recrimination. In long poems like his celebrated Romiosyni (1947), Moonlight Sonata (1956) and most of his later volumes, Ritsos writes with compassion and hope, celebrating the life, toil, and dignity of the common man in an unadorned and direct language…By the end of his life, and contrary to all odds, Ritsos had published 117 books, including numerous plays and essays.” The tourist site linkgreece.com now tells us…
Yannis Ritsos died on November 11th, 1990, and was buried at his hometown Monemvasia.
There is much to be learnt from the life and work of this poet and social activist: not least the lesson of suffering, whether it will lead to despair or to hope and struggle. We can learn from the life and work of Yannis Ritsos that humanity is built on hope, from hope it survives, we survive our daily enactment of tragedy through hope and our future is nowhere if not in the words and the daily struggle of hope…
The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) (no longer banned since 1974) in its 2009 celebration of the poet says:
” …the ultimate destination of a poet: ‘to brotherly join human forces and organize them against tyranny, injustice and ugliness’. With a deep sense of poetry’s social mission, he explores the processes in the human consciousness in difficult times, like nowadays, when the way-out towards resistance and participation is narrow and he gets into a creative and uncompromising struggle in order to broaden this way-out.”
In this way, and in the context of a culture of liberation, Ritsos’ political vision becomes the human struggle taken to the next level where the personal is linked to the political…and beyond…a challenge any of our current politicians and many of our ‘artists’ might benefit from confronting…
…as in the last canto of Epitaphios:
You have not vanished, my sweet. You are in my veins.
Enter deep into everyone’s veins, my son, and live.
Look! Crowds are passing us by, men on horseback,
all erect and strong and handsome, like you.
Among them, my son, I see you resurrected,
your aspect painted countless times upon theirs.
And poor I, weak I, the old one in the crowd,
take my long nails and cut the earth into clods
And hurl them into the faces of the wolves and the beasts
who shattered the crystal of my sight.
And you, a corpse, follow along too, and the lump in our throat as we sob
ties itself into a knot in the rope for our enemy’s neck.
And as you wished (as you’d tell me in the evenings by the lamp)
I am lifting your bent body and raising my fist.
And instead of rending my innocent breasts, look, I am marching
and behind my tears I behold the sun.
My son, I’m going to your brothers and sisters and adding my rage.
I’ve taken your rifle. You, go to sleep, my bird.
Peter Bien writes:
“We might add, paraphrasing Peter Levi, that perhaps life too, like El Greco’s painting, has its dual levels, and that while prisoners and active resisters under an oppressive regime save a people’s honour, poets such as Ritsos save a people’s soul, because they keep delivering a nation’s idealism, however unformed or inchoate its state, to the judgement of Humanity.”
The KKE in their 2009 oration continue:
“The poetic talent of Y. Ritsos is unquestionable. This statement has been endorsed enthusiastically by the most gifted representatives of literature and arts in our country and abroad: from Kostis Palamas who having read ‘My sister’s song‘ was so impressed that he said the famous phrase “poet, we stand aside for you to pass”, to Louis Aragon who called him “the greatest poet alive”, to Nazim Hikmet, Pablo Neruda, Picasso and many more. Yet, for Ritsos his only credentials were three words: Makronisos, Yuaros and Leros, his most beautiful poem were his fingerprints in the archives of the Athens state security, his most beautiful song was his lifelong struggle for justice and freedom in the ranks of the Communist Party of Greece from the age of 25. Indeed, this is true if one reflects on the fact that there were few who withstood the tempests, adversities and upheavals of the 20th century as firmly as he did, as firmly as the storm-tossed cliff of Monemvasia. It is true since communist Ritsos felt deeply on his flesh the triumph of Man who, clinging to his ideals, manages to overcome pain, disappointment and the fear of death. For this reason only his poetry is the biggest, the widest, the deepest song of faith in Man and social liberation.”
“In an unpublished introduction to Testimonies broadcast in Prague in October 1962, he spoke about his growing consciousness of all that is ‘vague, perplexing, incomprehensible and directionless in life’, about his desire to hide the tragic element of the poems behind a ‘mask of impassivity’, about his love for the words ‘perhaps’ and ‘or’, his fear of rhetoric, his continuing gratitude for everything that life has to offer, and his unshaken belief that the role of art is to transform negation into affrrmation. In another introduction, this time to a volume of his translations of Mayakovsky (1964), he reaffirmed the positions just cited and placed them against a backdrop of chastened experience. ‘We have learned how difficult it is not to abuse the power entrusted to us in the name of the supreme ideal, liberty,’ he stated, ‘how difficult not to lapse into self-approbation in the name of the struggle against individualism…The first cries of enthusiasm and admiration have given way to a more silent self-communing.'”
Yannis Ritsos: Peace
The dreams of a child are peace
The dreams of a mother are peace
The words of love under the trees are peace
The father who returns at dusk with a wide smile in his eyes
With a basket in hands full of fruit
And the drops of sweat on his brow
Are like drops on a jug as it cools its water on the windowsill,
When wounds heal on the world’s face
And in the pits dug by shellfire we have planted trees
And in hearts scorched by conflagration hope sprouts its first buds
And the dead can turn over on their side and sleep without complaining
Knowing their blood was not spilled in vain,
This is peace.
Peace is the odour of food at evening
When an automobile stopping in the street does not mean fear
When a knock on the door means a friend
And the opening of a window every hour means sky
Feasting our eyes with the distant bells of its colours,
This is peace.
Peace is a glass of warm milk and a book before the awakening child
When wheat stalks lean toward one another saying: the light, the light
And the horizon’s wreath overbrims with light,
This is peace.
When death takes up but little room in the heart
And chimneys point with firm fingers at happiness
When the large carnation of sunset
Can be smelled equally by poet and proletariat,
This is peace.
Peace is the clenched fist of men
It is warm bread on the world’s table
It’s a mother’s smile.
Peace is nothing else
And that ploughs that cut deep furrows in all earth
Write one name only:
Peace. Nothing else. Peace.
On the backbone of my verses
The train advancing toward the future
Laden with wheat and roses
All the world with all its dreams
Breathes deeply in peace.
Give us your hands, brothers,
This is peace.
(Translated by Kimon Friar)
REFERENCES & SOURCES (Thanks to)
Photograph Used (“fair use“) (from Rizospastis, 1936)
Photograph 2 (Mother & Son)
By Unknown – Rizospastis.gr, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36601646
Epitaphios: Translated by Rick M. Newton, Kent Stare University in Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, VOL. XIII, Nos. 1 & 2 SPRING-SUMMER 1986
Download the Translation at:
Yannis Ritsos: Selected Poems, Translated by Nikos Stattgos, Penguin Modern European Poets, (1974)
Yannis Ritsos: Selected Poems (1938-1988), Translated by Kimon Friar – BOA Editions, Ltd- Brockport, N.Y. (1989).
Yannis Ritsos: A Selection from the Forties, ranslated from the Greek by Athan Anagnostopoulos, http://www.24grammata.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Ritsos-24grammata.com_.pdf
The Man with the Carnation:
This is a scene of Nikos Beloyannis from the movie “Man with the Carnation”
KKE, Rememebering in 2009: http://interold.kke.gr/News/2009news/news_item.2009-11-23.html
Video of Epitaphious
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Nana Mouskouri – Mera Mayou (Concert Herod Atticus, 1984)
Video of Ritsos
Yannis Ritsos talks about Prudishness in Art
Yannis Ritsos: A Poet’s Journey, Alex Kalamarides
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Ritsos Poetry Evening 2009, Brown HSA – part 1