Yannis Ritsos, Exile and Return: Poems 1967-1974 (Ecco, 1985)
[originally posted 29Jan2001]
The cessation of Antaeus and the dissolution of Ecco Press was one of the great literary crimes of the twentieth century. Ecco was devoted to keeping the world’s best poetry and fiction at the forefront of the American consciousness, and was one of the few non-University-affiliated presses who were able to do it for an extended period of time. W. W. Norton has taken over the Ecco catalog and attempted to keep the flame alive. Whether it has succeeded is for others to judge. [ed. note 2013: still around under the Norton aegis, so I’m thinking yes.]
Yannis Ritsos is a great example of the Ecco imperative. Not as well known in America as other Greek poets, and yet as prolific as any two of them, Ritsos became a part of Greece’s national consciousness during the sixties and seventies. He managed to take the current events of the time (which affected him personally; he was arrested a number of times, held in camps, exiled temporarily, etc.) and mesh them almost seamlessly with traditional Greek myth in a series of “Repetitions,” the title of many books released during that period. Despite, or perhaps because of, the overtly political nature of his work, Ritsos never gained the status internationally of contemporaries such as Nobel winner Odysseus Elytis or oft-quoted-by-Stephen-King George Seferis.
One of the beauties of translation is that much of the baggage that goes with it is lost with the nuances. Anyone not schooled in the events of modern Greek history is going to have a good deal of the political subtext go over his head, and this is never a bad thing; political poetry is often nothing more than polemic dressed up in line breaks. Ritsos has a five-thousand-year tradition of framework to operate in, and he takes full advantage of it, couching his political messages in ancient tales, never (at least, from the perspective of someone less familiar with modern than ancient Greek history) allowing the modern events to overwhelm the stories we’re familiar with.
Edmund Keeley has won a number of awards for his translations of Ritsos, and rightly. Keeley has an ear for rhythm and structure that allows for excellent translation, and while his love of alliteration can lead to some slightly annoying lines (he adores quoting his own translation of “Penelope’s Despair,” in which the line “slowly studied the slaughtered suitors” is just painful to recite), he manages to keep it under control most of the time. Ritsos is the same way with the erotic in that his almost constant references to nudity and sex seem almost innocent most of the time (after all, this is Greece we’re talking about, where it sometimes seems that every city block in every metropolitan area contains at least one unclothed statue), but every once in a while he just plain goes over the top. No matter; unlike many books of recent poetry, you’ll find far more pearls than you will swine in this collection. ****
Ritsos, in an interview, smacking prudes.