Unequal things he takes in his hands – one
a broken brick, two burned down
the rusted nail in the wall opposite him,
the leaf that blew in through the window, the
falling down from the watered flower pots, the straw, those,
that yesterday the wind brought in your hair, – he takes it
and there in his garden he builds about a tree.
In this "about" sits the poetry. See them?
Transcribed by Asteris Kutulas
I did not know about him at first,
That he is the greatest living poet of this our time; I swear that I did not know it. I learned it little by little, from one poem to another, I would say from one secret to another, because each time it was the shock of a revelation that I felt. The revelation of a man and a country, the depths of a man and the depths of a country.
Louis Aragon, foreword in the booklet
What are these poems about?
Among other things, of hunger, but also of spring; also of submission, of the silencing of hope, then again of love; of the dead "lonely in the middle of the sunshine" … These are testimonies not of an individual, but of a people in a landscape that is ancient, but godless.
Max Frisch, preface in the booklet
The poems of Jannis Ritsos have the power of incantations. But they do not need mysterious darkness: they are made of light and sun, of tenderness, sorrow and hope, of bold thoughts; they rise from a Landscape, the hard as silence Is. His language, rich in contexts of meaning and colorful images, illuminates the traces of human creativity, sheds light on the roots of the world.
Publishing house Neues Leben, announcement in Poetry album 194
Silence always remains genuflecting
– The poet Jannis Ritsos: 75 years of Greek history. –
One covered his ears and was torn to shreds.
One stuffed wax in ears, got tied up and fell into madness.
One sang with lyre and percussion with words and sings.
"Siege of Monemvasia (For Jannis Ritsos)."
Monemvasia, which is the ancient Akra Minoa, a small rocky peninsula in the southeastern Peloponnese, where the Lacedonians were at home; alternately owned by the Lacedaemonians and the Athenians, then occupied by the Franks, who came to the country as crusaders, invaded by the Venetians, who turned it into a fortress, taken by the Turks, and finally recaptured by the Greeks, who built their houses on and from the ancient ruins, the ancient walls and ramparts above the sea, and settled down to live in close quarters with the natural elements, but also with themselves and their own history. A place in which what constitutes Greece through the centuries culminates and becomes almost tangible to the senses: the sober austere archaism of land and sea, the crouched houses nestled against the rock, in between the narrow streets, the chapels with their bells, the stone fortress walls with their cannons from Turkish or even Venetian times, weathered and drenched by always the same salt air.
Snapped off vines, stones, thorn bushes and a jar…
Small fisherman’s house next to the road. In the window a curtain of cotton..
Behind the stable shimmers a piece of sea, of deep blue…
Our houses are built on others and they in turn on others…
A place of dreamlike dejà vu, of recognition from a thousand and one verses of the Greek Jannis Ritsos, who was born here, easy to find if you read his poems. A place, by the way, whose topography does not lack a certain symbolism in connection with this poet and his Greece. Whoever goes there, first sees only a steep, bare mountain massif, nothing else, no sign of life or even of a city. To get to Monemvasia, one must first pass through the old fortress gate, over the mountain or around it; only then does lively human activity unfold to the eye in narrow alleyways behind the high ramparts between the mountain and the open sea; in this last decade, however, more and more of a pseudo-Epicurean tourism that drags along and spreads its plastic world, whether in a backpack or a suitcase.
Similarly, Jannis Ritsos, whose name became synonymous with "L’autre Grece" in many ways. One has to struggle through decades of silence and through the pseudo-literary deposits of a professional, philhellenic Aegean tourism, before one comes across – at least in our country – his poetry and his exemplary existence. This, however, is quickly understood as a culmination or condensation of that other Greece. His biography is a piece of Greek history of our century, his poetry would be unimaginable without such a background. My parents’ house on the foundation of the old fortress walls, directly above the former city gate of Monemvasia, now serves for exhibition and modest sale of his work. Here, Jannis Ritsos was born on 1. May 1909 born.
Presumed date of my birth: 903 B.C. C., just as well
903 to J. C. I have studied the history
the past and the future
at the contemporary school of the struggle. My profession:
talk without ending – what else?
They called me "the collector. Fact is,
that I kept many an ostrich feather from the hats of the girl below.
Buttons of military coats, a helmet, two worn sandals,
not counting two boxes of matches and the tobacco tin
of the Illustren blind. On the part of the authorities they decreed me in the last years
my official, highly improbable date of birth: 1909.
I have come to terms with it and stick to it.
Finally, in 3909, I sat down on a bench,
to smoke a cigarette. And again
The flatterers came running to throw themselves at my feet,
to put glittering rings on my fingers. They doubted,
these ignoramuses, not at all that I made them myself
from the shells of those bullets,
which they had shot down in the mountains.
Precisely because of this, because of their monstrous ignorance,
with real gems and double flattery. Moreover
only one certainty: my birthplace, AKRA MINOA.
(Monemvasia, 1978 dtsch. v. Armin Kerker)
It is the time when a drastic social transformation from monarchy to "royal democracy" begins in Greece. Traditional landowner feudalism is being laid to rest; with it, those who do not comprehend the change to "capitalism," such as Ritsos’ family. He experiences in quick succession the total impoverishment, social relegation to the zero level of his family and the resulting death of his brother and mother, which is followed by the increasing mental derangement of his beloved sister Lula. A testimony that decisively shaped him and certainly also helped determine his future poetological position. He wrote his first poems at the age of eight (!) years. "My sister’s song", dedicated to Lula, later establishes first fame as a poet.
In 1921 Ritsos leaves Monemvasia and attends the gymnasium in Gythion on the mainland. A year later, the so-called "Asia Minor catastrophe" occurs in Greece, a mass forced resettlement of about 1.2 million Asia Minor, Anatolian settlers of Greek Orthodox origin from Turkey, which has ultimately not been overcome to this day. They bring with them their own culture, but also their own political ideas. From the derivatives of the first develops today’s tourist-friendly bouzouki music. The second one gives rise to a serious class conflict that will divide Greece into two irreconcilable camps for a long, long time. Both are underestimated by contemporaries. While some sing their "rebetika" for their own kind in the pubs of the port cities, others dance to imported tango sounds, and Hellas stumbles on the road to fascism.
… From the fingers
my right hand draws a thin trail of blood
through the notebook.
I hold my breath.
Far away rattles the tank.
"Before retirement (for Jannis Ritsos)")
The chain sounds of tanks moving away and approaching again have accompanied the life and work of the poet Jannis Ritsos as a constant threat in the background. In 1925, they ride up for the first time and put an abrupt end to the Greek Republic. The dictatorship of General Pangalos is on the agenda. Ritsos goes to Athens. One year later there is another coup d’etat of the republican Venizelos. Ritsos falls ill with tuberculosis and has to go to a lung sanatorium. TB, the disease of the poor and hungry, which also killed his mother and brother, clings to him all his life. The hospital stays to which he is forced have nothing of the well-heeled Magic Mountain-atmosphere of Thomas Mann, but nevertheless evoke a kind of "Settembrini-Naphta syndrome" in him: they bring him to political thinking and literature. Until then, Ritsos had worked as a secretary at the National Bank and the Greek Bar Association. Now he begins to write specifically. The work on the two volumes of poetry Tractor and Pyramids, which appeared in 1934/35, is recorded. Ritsos is a director, actor, reciter and choreographer at the Greek Workers’ Association in Athens.
In 1935, the army forces the reintroduction of the monarchy, which results in the establishment of the fascist dictatorship of General Metaxas in 1936. In the same year, a strike by tobacco workers in Thessaloniki is bloodily shot down. Ritsos condenses the events in his now famous Epitaphios-cycle, which labels him a "dangerous communist" for the Greek state authorities. Ten thousand copies are printed and immediately banned. Two decades later, these verses are world-famous in the setting by Mikis Theodorakis; after a good decade, they are once again banned for Greece by decree of the authorities "as politically subversive. The literary establishment, however, which had just thoroughly disgraced itself in the case of the Alexandrian Kavafis, who died in 1933, takes note of the young poet Ritsos with praise. The leading literary magazine Nea Grammata prints his poems. In 1937 his cycle "The Song of My Sister" is published, which makes him famous in Greece at one stroke. Ritsos himself was again in a lung sanatorium at the time and did not return to Athens until 1938; his father died a short time later. 1940 war with Italy, 1941 Hitler’s army invades Greece.
The quarters of the world
Again a deep, momentous rift runs through two camps in Greece – resistance and collaboration. Ritsos fights on the side of the democratic national resistance, also in the following civil war, which ends after the withdrawal of the defeated German Nazi troops and the changing of the guard of British by American "liberators" with the assumption of power by the other side. A hunt – unprecedented at the time – for "Reds", socialists, democrats, anti-fascist writers, musicians, intellectuals, organized workers, and members of the now banned National Resistance comes into gear. With the help of American money and relevant Greek laws, so-called "re-education camps" are set up on the islands of Makronissos, Jaros, Leros, Limnos and Aji Strati for citizens who are suspected of "anti-national activities. Thirty thousand Greek democrats are interned on these Aegean penal islands.
Jannis Ritsos was one of the first to be arrested in 1948 and deported, first to Limnos and later to Makronissos and Aji Strati, where he remained in prison until 1952. Four years from island to island, from penal camp to penal camp: "the quarters of the world", as he later calls a cycle of poems from this period.
Bitter were our days, very bitter
the shadow of a cypress measured the whole world
Meter by meter
Everyone carried on his shoulders to the deceased
constantly we carried death on our shoulders.
Ritsos survives writing. He does not fall silent and again makes himself suspect and liable to prosecution. Its passing is its poetry, and its poetry is the dream of a more human existence, by no means directed to the hereafter. A very simple, everyday dream of bread and life. Besides the FOURTEEN OF THE WORLD (set to music by Mikis Theodorakis in 1978), he wrote the MACRONISSIOTIKA, STEINZEIT, TAGEBuCHER DER VERBANNUNG and the ROMIOSSINI (‘Greekness’), which only became known worldwide through the Theodorakis setting.
This landscape is hard as silence
presses its glowing stones into the bosom
Presses to the light their orphaned olive trees and vines
clenches his teeth. Water does not exist. Only light
The path is lost in the light and the shadow of the fence is made of iron.
The Aegean Light? The serenity of the white islands? The sun measure of the Mediterranean poetry? In Jannis Ritsos, such ideas are stripped of their folklore and reduced to a substantial harshness, a topography of human suffering not lamenting but accusing, beyond all the magic of the Greek landscape. "Oh yes, we once spoke of an Aegean poetry, yes, yes…" The Romiossini was among the first to be banned by the Athens junta in 1967, as was his entire oeuvre a little later, even the 1957 Greek State Prize Moonlight Sonata, which first brought the Greek poet to Aragon’s attention. In the meantime, Ritsos has written continuously, interrupted only by a few trips to the Soviet Union, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Cuba, the GDR and Czechoslovakia, which he, however, like the regularly required stays in sanatoriums, for example in the Czech clinic Ostrava, also processed in literature.
The Testimonies, 1& 2, one of his major works, and three volumes of collected poems had appeared. Now, after the military coup of 1967, he is again arrested, tortured, imprisoned. How infinitely stupid must be the political powers of all stripes in East and West, North and South, to assume – and indeed they still do – that they can get rid of the dangerous testimonies of their poets (and not only those) by banishment, incarceration, prohibition and expatriation. No poem has ever stopped or overthrown putschists, invaders, besiegers and dictators. But conversely, a Sixth Fleet, a tank unit, an air raid or a harbor mine in support of the cretins of power has never protected them from a poem either. Of course, they also tried it in Greece at that time. Jannis Ritsos is deported first to Jaros, then to Leros, later placed under house arrest on Samos. And of course he reacts with the only weapon at his disposal: poetry, which has still survived all despots and which in this case is so far removed from reality because it is as close as the almost tangible light or the undulation of the sea in front of the barrack windows of the Greek island camps.
We may even get a new relationship with nature
when we look through the barbed wire a piece of sea, the stones, a few herbs
or the clouds at sunset, low-hanging, violet, poignant…
1974, ten years ago, now sixty-five, he comes free. His poetic mortgage has remained the same, exemplified in 1946 in a poem that has since been widely quoted:
The sense of simplicity
I hide behind simple things so you can find me,
if you do not find me, you will find the things.
You will touch what my hand touched,
the imprint of our hands will mix.
The August moon sparkles in the kitchen
like an aluminum cooking pot (because I tell you, it is so),
illuminates the empty house and the house’s knee-slapping silence.
Silence always remains knee-slapping.
Every word is departure
to the meeting, often enough thwarted.
Only then is the word true, if it insists on the encounter.
("Parentheses" (dtsch. v. Armin Kerker))
In 1981 I visited him in Athens, in a simple neighborhood, a few stops from Omonia Square. The apartment is situated almost directly next to the Inner Athens ‘Metro’, downstairs in the corner house the grocer, opposite a milk shop. Somewhere in his poems one thinks to have read this disposition of a neighborhood, of a street, of this very house. That relaxes less than it makes anxious. I shell. He himself opens the door, in his bathing suit; his wife, the doctor Psalitsa Georgiadi, cleans the apartment with the vacuum cleaner. He asks me, just coming from Samos and also in the bathing suit Grandseigneur, inside:
Ah oui, entrez, comment allez vous?… Mais vous parlez grec!… Elate messa, kathisste parakalo…!
We talk in his small study, crammed with first editions, translations, painted and inscribed stones and roots (a joint picture/text volume with Tsarouchis was in preparation) about the dilemma of Greek literature in general and the catastrophe of its mediation in German translations in particular. I mention the excellent essay by Eva Hesse on the ‘laconic’ and the ‘sense of the simple’ in his work, published in the FR in 1979, which refers to the poem of the same name, which, though pleasantly idiosyncratic, is also mistranslated almost from A-Z. There "you" became "you", a falsifying "not" ("so that you don’t find me") got into the first line, "departure" ("exodos") became "entrance" ("isodos"), "thwarted" was suddenly called "postponed", and the like more. He just smiles, then he gets dressed, we go to the top-secret second apartment across the street and he reads to me from the introduction to the Testimonies in front of.
1983 I find in his last published poetry collection Erotica a verse that makes a bow over all this, from Monemvasia to today.
What we did not say
perhaps still preserves
like the doing of third parties
the others were kept waiting…
Armin Kerker, die horen, issue 134, 2. Quarter 1984
Not to forget Yannis Ritsos
Once we spoke to each other,
Symmetry of mustaches and thoughts,
by a single mouth: private property
interpreting shadows, from fate
the shadow overtakes: to disappear.
Once with each other in a city
called Berlin, the oblivion happens,
tearing and halting, we spoke
German and Greek and broken rade,
And our speaking draws
the rotating magnetic tape from our lips,
until lumps of spoken language were formed:
away, I know not where, long ago,
because the Tartaros
is not a Hellenic prerogative.
Once we spoke to each other
what fools always talk about:
the growing power of reason; spoke
under its soles increased a little, rose and,
Invisible to blind interlocutors,
the ankles iron-clasped.
Once we spoke to each other
Anno Domini One thousand nine hundred and sixty-two,
back in that century, outshone
From daily self-glory and everyday fires
of shot-up towns and villages,
reclined in tattered upholstered chairs
On the planet’s filed curvature:
with words upon words.
Once we spoke to each other,
before finally hitting the rocks of Jaros
forged ward, delivered
the eagles, patriotic gallows birds,
certainly nourishing a spark of hope that
Herakles appears this time as well and gets rid of him –
enlightened by a spark of fear that
the versatile strongman this time
working in the service of the ruling Kerberosmeute
Without talking about the fact that art
quickly evaporates where freedom is stifled,
for the one is nothing but the breath
we spoke to each other