Yiannis Ritsos (Greek: Γιάννης Ρίτσος; 1 May 1909 – 11 November 1990) was a Greek poet and left-wing activist and an active member of the Greek Resistance during World War II.
Born to a well-to-do landowning family in Monemvasia, Ritsos suffered great losses as a child. The early deaths of his mother and eldest brother from tuberculosis, his father's struggles with a mental disease, and the economic ruin of his family marked Ritsos and affected his poetry. Ritsos himself was confined in a sanatorium for tuberculosis from 1927–1931.
In 1934, Ritsos joined the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). He maintained a working-class circle of friends and published Tractor in 1934. Kostis Palamas, the well known and respected poet, impressed by his talent, praised him publicly.
In 1935, he published Pyramids; these two works sought to achieve a fragile balance between faith in the future, founded on the Communist ideal, and personal despair.
He inspired his landmark poem Epitaphios by a photo of a dead protester during a massive tobacco-workers demonstration in Thessaloniki in May 1936. Published the same year, it broke with the shape of the Greek traditional popular poetry and expressed in clear and simple language a message of the unity of all people.
Political upheaval and the poet
In August 1936, the right-wing dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas came to power and Epitaphios was burned publicly at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens. Ritsos responded by taking his work in a different direction. He began to explore the conquests of surrealism through the domain of dreams, surprising associations, explosions of images and symbols, a lyricism illustrative of the anguish of the poet, and both tender and bitter souvenirs. During this period Ritsos published The Song of my Sister (1937) and Symphony of the Spring (1938).
Axis occupation, Civil War and the Junta
During the Axis occupation of Greece (1941–1945) Ritsos became a member of the EAM (National Liberation Front) and authored several poems for the Greek Resistance. These include a booklet of poems dedicated to the resistance leader Aris Velouchiotis, written immediately upon the latter's death on 16 June 1945. Ritsos also supported the Left in the subsequent Civil War (1946-1949); in 1948 he was arrested and spent four years in prison camps. In the 1950s Epitaphios, set to music by Mikis Theodorakis, became the anthem of the Greek Left.
In 1967 he was arrested by the Papadopoulos dictatorship and sent to a prison camp in Gyaros,later to Samos and finally Lemnos.
Today, Ritsos is considered one of the great Greek poets of the twentieth century, alongside Konstantinos Kavafis, Kostas Kariotakis, Angelos Sikelianos, Giorgos Seferis, and Odysseas Elytis. The French poet Louis Aragon once said that Ritsos was "the greatest poet of our age." He was unsuccessfully proposed nine times for the Nobel Prize for Literature. When he won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1975, he declared "this prize is more important for me than the Nobel."
His poetry was banned at times in Greece due to his left wing beliefs.
Notable works by Ritsos include Tractor (1934), Pyramids (1935), Epitaphios (1936), Vigil (1941–1953), Romiosini (1954) and 18 short songs of the bitter Motherland (18 lianotragouda tis pikris patridas) (1973).
One of his most important poems is the 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.
- —from Moonlight Sonata. Translation by Peter Green and Beverly Bardsley
Ritsos is also a Golden Wreath Laureate of the Struga Poetry Evenings for 1985.
His daughter, Eri, was a candidate for the European Parliament with KKE in the elections of 25 May 2014.
- Chronicle of Exile, tr. M. Savvas (1977) [select poems]
- Eighteen Short Songs of the Bitter Motherland, tr. A. Mims, illus. Y. Ritsos (1974) [Greek and English]
- Exile and Return, tr. E. Keeley (1985; repr. 1987, 1989) [select poems]
- Gestures and other poems, 1968-1970, tr. N. Stangos, illus. by the poet (1971)
- Repetitions, Testimonies, Parentheses, tr. E. Keeley (1990)
- Selected Poems 1938-1988, tr. K. Friar, K. Myrsiades & others (1989)
- Selected Poems, tr. N. Stangos (1974)
- The Fourth Dimension, tr. P. Green, B. Bardsley (1993)
- Late Into the Night: The Last Poems of Yannis Ritsos, trans. Martin McKinsey (Oberlin College Press, 1995). ISBN 0-932440-71-1
- Diaries of Exile, Archipelago Books, ISBN 978-1-935744-58-0, (2012)
- Petrified Time: Poems from Makrónissos, trans. Martin McKinsey and Scott King (Red Dragonfly Press, 2014). ISBN 978-1937693237.