Yannis Ritsos was born in Monemvasia, Greece, on May 1, 1909 to a well-heeled family of land owners. He did his early schooling in the region and finished high school in Gythion, Monemvasia and after graduating in 1925, he moved to Athens where he started working in typing and copying legal documents. A year later he returned to his hometown with the first signs of tuberculosis, where he spent his time writing and drawing, (another form of art that he devoted himself to, though second to writing), for the rest of his life.
In 1927 he went back to Athens and spent the following three years in a tuberculosis sanatorium. During these three years he started publishing poetry and he studied Marxism, committing himself to furthering the ideals of communism. He spent some time in two different sanatoriums in Crete and finally his disease was brought under control.
Ritsos spent the following six years between 1931 and 1937 in Athens, where he worked as an actor and dancer in theatrical groups. He published his first poetry book Tractor, referring to the working class in 1934, and his second book Pyramids was released in 1935; a year later his famous Epitaphios was published in an edition of ten thousand copies although some of them were publicly burned by the military government of Yannis Metaxas. He had remained close to the communist party of Greece since 1931 and the ideals of the futurism of Vladamir Maïakovski inspired him to try and reach a balance between his faith in the future and his personal despair.
For six months between 1937 and 1938 he stays in the Parnitha sanatorium and during the German occupation he remained in Athens spending his time writing fervidly. Early in 1945 he joined the EAM (National Liberation Front) forces of Greece and contributed theatrical works to the people’s Theatre of Macedonia. After the Varkiza agreement of disarmament of various forces, he returned to Athens and he worked as an editor for the publisher Govotsis.
In 1948 the poet is arrested and sent to exile on Limnos and then to Makronissos and later on to Saint Eustratios (Ai Strati). He wrote, undeterred by his imprisonment and kept most of his writing in bottles, while his published work was banned in the whole country. In 1952 he was freed and returned to Athens where he worked for the leftist newspaper Avgi (Dawn).
In 1954 he married Filitsa Georgiadis, a doctor on the island of Samos and their daughter Eri was born in 1955. From this point on, his work began appearing in Greece regularly and his Moonlight Sonata won him the National Prize for Poetry.
Three volumes of his poems were released between 1955 and 1967 when he was suddenly arrested by the colonels’ junta and sent to exile on Yiaros and then Leros, and his poetry is again banned. In 1968, he is hospitalized in Athens and then sent into exile to his wife’s home in Samos where he stays for a year and a half before he goes back to Athens for an operation; after the operation he stays in Athens and publishes various pieces of his poetry in the magazine Nea Keimena although his work is at the time, still officially banned.
In 1972 when the strict restrictions are eased a bit, he publishes seven volumes of poetry written during his time in exile and he is awarded the Grand Prize for Poetry at the Knokke-le-Zout Biennale later that same year. After the dictatorship is dismantled, Ritsos is a free man at last, and can devote all his time to his creative work, getting involved in the publication of everything he’d written up to that time. In 1975, he was awarded with an honorary doctorate from University of Thessaloniki and the Alfred de Vigny Poetry Prize in France. He published the fourth volume of Yannis Ritsos – Poems IV in 1976, and he was awarded the International Poetry Prize of Etna Taormina of Sicily; then in 1977 the Lenin Prize for Poetry, and elected a member of the Mallarme Academy. In following years he was endowed with various awards and honorary positions, while he carried on writing fervidly and produced books regularly, up until to November 1990, when he died in his sleep after a long bout with illness. He was 81 years old.
Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis) is a Greek-Canadian poet and author. He was recently awarded a “Masters of the Arts in Literature ” and was appointed an honorary instructor and fellow of the International Arts Academy. He is recognized for his ability to convey images and thoughts in a rich and evocative way that tugs at something deep within the reader.
Born in the village of Kolibari on the island of Crete in 1947, he moved with his family at a young age to Thessaloniki and then to Athens, where he received his Bachelor of Arts in Political Sciences from the Panteion University of Athens. After graduation, he served in the armed forces for two years and emigrated to Vancouver in 1973, where he worked as an iron worker, train labourer, taxi driver, and stock broker, and studied English Literature at Simon Fraser University.
He has written three novels and numerous collections of poetry, which are steadily being released as published works. His articles, poems and short stories in both Greek and English have appeared in various magazines and newspapers in Canada, United States, Australia, Sweden, Hungary and Greece. In 2013 with the co-operation of the International Arts Academy he established the annual World Poetry Competition “Manolis Aligizakis.”
He now lives in White Rock, where he spends his time writing, gardening, traveling, and heading Libros Libertad, an unorthodox and independent publishing company which he founded in 2006 with the mission of publishing literary books.
The poems below from a forthcoming (summer-fall, 2013) poetry book – Yannis Ritsos – Selected Poems – in both Greek and with English translations by Emmanuel Aligizakis on Ekstasis Editions.
Μιά μέρα, ο χρόνος παίρνει τήν εκδίκησή του γιά λογαριασμό τών πικρα-
μιά μέρα τιμωρούνται οι ωραίοι αλαζόνες μέ τά βοστρυχωτά μαλλιά, τά
τά μυώδη σώματα, τά φαρδιά χέρια, τά πέτσινα βραχιόλια στό ζερβή
αυτοί σ’ αμπάρια καραβιών ή σέ πρατήρια βενζίνας μέ μακριούς σωλήνες,
αυτοί, τά Σαββατόβραδα, μέ τό βαρύ ζεμπέϊκικο, μέ τά βαριά ματόκλαδα
καί τό μαχαίρι,
αυτοί μέ τά χρυσά ρολόγια πού ποτέ δέν κοιτάζουν τήν ώρα. Τιμωρούνται.
Ξίγκια κρεμάνα στήν κοιλιά τους. Λίγο λίγο τό τρίχωμα μαδάει
στά μεριά καί στίς κνήμες τους. Φεύγουν τά καράβια. Δέν τούς παίρνουν.
βλέπουν μέ ξέθωρο αλλήθωρο βλέμμα μές στή φωταψία τής κεντρικής λεω-
φόρου νά περνάει
Αυτός πού ακόμη διατηρεί τό ωραίο, αλάνθαστο χαμόγελο τής πιό πικρής
ζωής καί τό τραγούδι
εκείνο πού όλοι τό ξεχάσαν καί πού μόνος αυτός τό σφυρίζει. Τό χειρότερο
είναι πού δέν καταλαβαίνουν τή βαθιά τους τιμωρία, καί γι αυτό
πιό γρήγορα καί πιό άσκημα γερνούν μέσα σέ άπλυτα σπίτια μέ τίς γριές
One day, time takes its revenge on behalf of all
the embittered people;
one day the beautiful braggarts with the curly hair and black
mustaches are punished,
with the muscular bodies, the big hands, the leather bracelets on
their left wrists,
the ones in the ships’ holds or the gas stations with their long pipes
the ones on Saturday nights with the sad zembeikikos dance, with the
heavy eyelids and with the knife,
the ones with the gold watches who never check the time. They get punished.
Lard hangs from their bellies. Bit by bit their hair falls
off their thighs and calves. The ships leave. They don’t take them.
with a washed out crossed-eyed glance in the fully lit central
plaza they see Him passing
He who still retains the beautiful, truthful smile of the most bitter
life and the song
they have all forgotten and which only He whistles. The worst
of all is
they don’t understand their severe punishment and for this
they age faster and more severely in their unwashed houses with
the old spiders.
Πέθαναν κι αυτοί τό ίδιο φυσικά κι απροσδόκητα. Κι είχαν αφήσει
κάτι μικρά σακούλια μέ μπαγιάτικα όσπρια καί κάτι άλλα
μέ μολυβένιους βώλους ή σπόρους φυτών καί λουλουδιών. Κανένας
δέν τ’ άνοιξε έκτοτε. Κανένας δέν έμαθε τί σκέφτονταν
γιά τή διάρκεια γενικώς ή τήν προσωπική τους διάρκεια. Εμένα
—είπε η Μαρία—μού κάνει εντύπωση πού τό κάθε σακούλι
είναι δεμένο μέ σπάγκο σέ άλλο χρώμα,—λεμονί, μενεξεδένιο,
λαδί, ασημί. Κόκκινο δέν υπάρχει. Έτσι είπε η Μαρία
καί μονομιάς κοκκίνησε ανεξήγητα τό πρόσωπό της. Εμείς
γείραμε τό κεφάλι, σάν θλιμμένοι, συμφωνήσαμε. Αργότερα
ξεθώριασαν κι οι σπάγκοι—δέ φαινότανε πιά πού τό κόκκινο λείπει.
They also died naturally and unexpectedly. And they had left
some little bags with stale legumes and some others
with lead balls or with seeds of flowers and vegetables.
No one has opened them since. No one learned what they thought
about the duration in general or their personal duration.
To me – said Maria – it’s impressive that each little bag
is tied with a string of different color – yellow, purple,
olive green, silver. There is no red. Maria said this
and all of a sudden her face quite inexplicably turned red. We
bowed our heads as though being sorrowful; we agreed. Later on
the strings discolored – it wouldn’t show that the red was missing.
Η ακινησία τής σβούρας
Ήμερη αποδοχή τού ανεξήγητου, καθώς βραδιάζει. Μιά γυναίκα
στέκεται στό παράθυρο, κοιτάει τό λασπωμένο δρόμο τού προαστίου,
κοιτάει εκείνα τ’ αυτοδίδακτα φώτα τών λαϊκών εστιατορίων.
Έξω απ’ τ’ ανθοπωλείο είναι ο τυφλός λαχειοπώλης. Στήν αυλή
σκουριάζει τό ποδήλατο τού πεθαμένου παιδιού. Νά θυμάσαι—είπε.
Όποιος θυμάται, γνωρίζει σωστά. Τυλιγμένος ο σπάγκος
τριγύρω στήν ασάλευτη σβούρα,— ξύλινη σβούρα παλιωμένη,
αυτή πού περιέχει τόσους νεκρούς καί αγέννητους στροβίλους. Γι’ αυτό
τίς πιό βαθιές, ανθρώπινες κινήσεις μας τίς επιβάλλει η ακινησία τών
Ανάψαμε τσιγάρο. Κοιτάξαμε τά χέρια μας. Τ’ αγάλματα δέν είμαστε
Motionlessness of the Top
Welcomed acceptance of the inexplicable, as the evening comes. A woman
stands by the window, looks at the muddy street of the suburb;
she stares at those self-taught lights of the low class restaurants.
The blind lotto vendor is outside the florist. The dead
child’s bicycle rusts in the yard. Remember – he said.
Whoever remembers, knows well. The thread is wrapped
around the motionless top – wooden old worn-out top,
the one containing so many dead and unborn whirls. And
our deepest human movements are imposed on us by the
stillness of the statues.
We lighted a cigarette. We looked at our hands. We were not
Έφυγαν, έφυγαν,—έλεγε. Έμειναν—έλεγε σέ λίγο. Έμειναν.
Εύπιστες μέρες, χαμένες. Ήταν καί λίγα δέντρα.
Οι στέγες έγερναν ενδοτικότερα τούς ώμους τους. Ο Γιώργης
πάνω στή σκάλα διόρθωνε τή γύψινη γιρλάντα
νεοκλασικού σπιτιού. Πιό κάτω, στό λιμάνι
πρωτοστατούσανε οι φορτοεκφορτωτές. Κουβαλούσαν
μεγάλα ξύλινα κασόνια δεμένα μέ σκοινιά. Δυό σκύλοι
πήγαιναν άκρη άκρη στό δρόμο. Κείνες τίς μέρες
τό κυριώτερο τό κλείναμε σέ παρενθέσεις. Αυτός
μέ τόν επίδεσμο στό δεξί μάτι χάζευε τίς φτωχές βιτρίνες
μάζευε (πιθανόν καί για λογαριασμό μας) κάτι ελάχιστα αντικείμενα,
σπιρτόκουτα, λέξεις, εικόνες καί κάτι άλλα ανώνυμα καί αόρατα—
αδέξιος πάντα, μέ τά λασπωμένα του παπούτσια, κι ολότελα αθώος.
Τό απόλυτο—είπε—είναι η βαθιά μας αμαρτία. Κι όπως ανάβαν τα
στά πλοία, στά μπάρ, στά ξενοδοχεία, αυτό ακριβώς υπογραμμίζαν.
They left, they left – he said. They stayed – he said in a while. They stayed.
Gullible days, wasted. And there were a few trees.
The roofs leaned their shoulders more impressively. George,
on top of the ladder, was fixing the plaster festoon
of the neoclassical house. Further down in the harbor
the longshoremen were creating a havoc. They carried
large wooden boxes tied with ropes. Two dogs
walked edge to edge in the street. Those days
we enclosed in parentheses the most important things. Him
with the black patch over his right eye, gaping at the shabby
display-windows, he collected (perhaps also on our behalf) a few objects,
match boxes, words, images and some other nameless and
invisible things –
always clumsy, with his muddy shoes and completely innocent.
The absolute – he said – is our grievest sin. And as the lights
were turned on
on the ships, in the bars, in the patisseries, they underscored exactly that.
Translation of Yannis Ritsos’ poetry in this post: © Emmanuel Aligizakis
Published on with the permission of Emmanuel Aligizakis