Yannis Ritsos–Review

 

YANNIS, WE HARDLY KNOW YOU

In an age devoid of political radicalism in poetry, a White Rock translator takes a leap of fervor.

Unsuccessfully nominated nine times for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (1909 — 1990) is little-know in North America.

 

Manolis Aligizakis of White Rock hopes to change that. From among Ritsos’ 46 volumes of poetry, Cretan-born Manolis (his pen name excludes the last name Aligizakis) has translated fifteen of the poet’s books for an unusually hefty volume, Yannis Ritsos-Poems (Libros Libertad $ 34), presenting a panorama of Ritsos’ work from the mid 1930s to the 1980s.

Manolis first encountered Ritsos’ inspiring words as a young in Greece, in 1958, when composer Mikis Theodorakis — of Zorba the Greek fame — set to music some of Ritsos’ verses from Epitaphios — a work that had been burned by Greece’s right wing government at the Acropolis in 1936. “I was moved in an unprecedented way by the songs,” says Manolis. “They were like a soothing caress to my young and rebellious soul at a time when the Cold War was causing deep divisions in Greece and the recent civil war had seen our country reduced to ruins.”

Yannis Ritsos was an ardent nationalist who most notably fought with the Greek resistance during the Second World War. His 117 books, poetry, prose, plays and translations, are suffused with communist ideals. When Ritsos received the Star of Lenin Prize in 1975, he declared, “this prize is more important to me than a Nobel.”

The early deaths of Ritsos’ mother and his eldest brother from tuberculosis marked him deeply, as did his father’s commitment to a mental asylum, which led to economic ruin of his once wealthy family. Ritsos himself was in a sanatorium for tuberculosis from 1927 to 1931. In 1936 Ritsos’ Epitaphios was burned at the foot of Acropolis in Athens on orders from the right wing dictatorship of General Ioannis Metaxas. Epitaphios refers to the classic funeral oration for soldiers killed in war that was integral part of the Athenian burial law, and calls for national unity in a time of crisis.

From 1947 to 1952, Ritsos was jailed for his political activities. Under the military junta that ruled Greece between 1967 a d 1974, he was interned on the islands of Yiaros, Leros, and Samos before being moved to Athens

and placed under house arrest. Through it all he kept writing. And writing. It wasn’t uncommon for Ritsos to write 15 or 20 poems in one sitting.

Manolis says he has tried to remain as close as possible to the original Greek text, in order to preserve the linguistic charm of  Ritsos’ style. Sentences are restructured only when it seemed that the reader would

have difficulty grasping the poet’s true meaning.

“In Greek, the writer has a lot more freedom in ordering a sentence than one would in English, where the sequence of words is somewhat more strict.

“The books in the anthology are included whole, not selected poems from each. We had only a certain number of his books available and I felt it would be awkward to separate them satisfactorily.” Most of the poems in Yannis  Ritsos—Poems are appearing in English translation for the first time in North America.

“In choosing the materials, I noticed a transformation from his early days, when he was just the unknown defender of a cause, up to the period during his middle years, when he finds a variety of admirers from around the world.”

Ritsos’ later work, according to Manolis, reveals a mature poet, more laconic and precise, more careful with his words. “Then, near the end of Ritsos’ creative life, the poems reveal his growing cynicism and utter disillusionment with the human condition, after his world had collapsed around him several times… the human pettiness that drives some human lives shadows him with a deep disappointment that he appears to take with

him to his grave.”

The majority of lives don’t have happy endings Ritsos’ re-publication as a poet in Canadian English represents a rebirth of sorts.

The tradition of overtly political poetry has seemingly vanished in Canada. If only we cared enough about poetry in Canada to burn it.

 

~Alan Twigg, BC BookWorld, Sep/2010

Source: www.abcbookworld.com, current issue. page 19.

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GEORGE SEFERIS-Collected Poems//REVIEW

George Seferis’ Collected Poems

Sep 26, 2013

Christopher Doda

George Seferis, Collected Poems
Surrey: Libros Libertad, 2012.

For a poet of his stature, there are remark­ably few Eng­lish trans­la­tions of George Seferis’s work. A giant of Greek poetry and 20th Cen­tury Euro­pean poetry in gen­eral, Seferis (1900–1971) inherited the old­est sur­viv­ing lan­guage of the West and brought its poetry into the mod­ern world. He wrote dur­ing a long career as a diplo­mat with post­ings in Turkey, Alba­nia, around the Mid­dle East, Iraq, and the United King­dom, and picked up numer­ous acco­lades, along with the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 1963. Since his death, his fame has grown to the point where lines from his “Mythi­s­torema” were used in the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. In spite of this, there has been only one (that I know of) selected, pre­pared with the poet’s assis­tance, by Rex Warner in 1960 and then a com­plete poems by Edmund Kee­ley and Philip Sher­rard released in var­i­ous edi­tions between 1967 and 1995. Throw­ing his hat into the ring is British Columbia’s Mano­lis with Col­lected Poems, which includes a crit­i­cal intro­duc­tion, a gen­er­ous amount of the verse, a par­tial bib­li­og­ra­phy, end­notes, and the text of Seferis’s Nobel speech. One of Seferis’s most strik­ing lines is from “In the Man­ner of George Seferis”: “Wherever I travel Greece wounds me,” mean­ing both the nation and its long his­tory. Not sur­pris­ingly, places and fig­ures from ancient Greece pop­u­late his work: Agamem­non, Helen, Astyanax, Androm­eda, and Orestes all make appear­ances, but he also wrote often from the point of view of ordi­nary sol­diers, cit­i­zens and refugees caught in the hor­ror of cir­cum­stance, wit­nesses to his­tory but with­out any con­trol over their des­tiny, those who “knew that the islands were beau­ti­ful / some­where, per­haps around here, where we grope / a bit lower or slightly higher / a very tiny space.” I don’t know the Greek lan­guage and won’t pre­tend that I do but I can say that Manolis’s ren­der­ings are more col­lo­quial and less for­mal com­pared to ear­lier trans­la­tions. Con­sider his ver­sion of this stanza from “The Sen­tence to Obliv­ion”:

And what­ever hap­pened had the seren­ity of what you see before you
they had the same seren­ity because there wasn’t any soul left in us to con­tem­plate
other than the crav­ing to incise some marks on the stones
that have now touched the bot­tom below mem­ory.

And com­pare it with Kee­ley and Sher­rard:

And what then hap­pened had the same tran­quil­lity as what you see before you
the same tran­quil­lity because there wasn’t a soul left for us to con­sider
except the power for carv­ing a few signs on the stones
which now have reached the depths below mem­ory.

Not rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent, but Manolis’s ver­sion is less rhyth­mic and, one might argue, less poetic than the other. Over the years, Kee­ley and Sherrard’s trans­la­tions have emerged as defin­i­tive, par­tially due to lack of com­pe­ti­tion. This vol­ume is unlikely to chal­lenge them for top spot but vari­ety is nec­es­sary for the longevity of the poetry. (As an aside, I rarely men­tion this in reviews but the num­ber of typos, mis­placed punc­tu­a­tion, and con­fu­sion between Cana­dian and US spelling in this book is truly irk­some. And the low-res­o­lu­tion image of a sun­rise over water through ruined ancient columns on the cover would be bet­ter suited to an issue of The Watch­tower.) Hav­ing already released vol­umes of Con­stan­tine Cavafy and Yan­nis Rit­sos, Mano­lis seems to be work­ing his way through the 20th Cen­tury Greek canon. I won­der if there might be an Odysseus Elytis or Angelos Sike­lianos in the near future.
~ Christo­pher Doda is the author of two poetry col­lec­tions, Among Ruins and Aes­thet­ics Lesson. He is cur­rently work­ing on a book of glosas based on heavy metal lyrics.