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In an age devoid of political radicalism in poetry, a White Rock translator takes a leap of fervour
Unsuccessfully nominated nine times for the Nobel Prize for Literature, Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) is little-known 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 surname 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 man 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, novels and plays, are suffused with communist ideals. When Ritsos received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1975, he declared, "this prize is more important for me than the 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 the economic ruin of his once wealthy family. Ritsos himself was in a sanitorium for tuberculosis from 1927 to 1931.
In 1936, Ritsos' Epitaphios was burned at the foot of the 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 an 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 from 1967 to 1974, he was interned on the Greek islands of Yaros, 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."--Alan Twigg (BC BookWorld)
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)
Yannis Ritsos was born in Monemvassia (Greece), on May 1st, 1909 as cadet of a noble family of landowners. His youth is marked by devastations in his family: economic ruin, precocious death of the mother and the eldest brother, internment of the father suffering of mental unrests. He spends four years (1927-1931) in a sanatorium to take care of his tuberculosis.
These tragic events mark him and obsess his uvre. Readings decide him to become poet and revolutionary. Since 1931, he is close to the K.K.E., the Communist Party of Greece. He adheres to a working circle and publishes Tractor (1934), inspired of the futurism of Maïakovski, and Pyramids (1935), two works that achieve a balance still fragile between faith in the future, founded on the Communist ideal, and personal despair...
The poems of his last book, Late in the night (1987-1989), are filled with sadness and the conscience of losses, but the humbly poetic way by which Ritsos restores life and the world around him, preserves a gleam of hope in an ultimate start of creativeness.
However, the poet lives the reduction of his health and the downfall of his political ideals grievously. Internally broken, he dies in Athens, November 11, 1990.
Manolis was born in the small village Kolibari west of Chania on the Greek island of Crete in 1947. At a young age his family moved first to Thessaloniki and then to Athens where he was educated, achieving a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science at Panteion Supreme School of Athens. He served in the armed forces for two years, and emigrated to Vancouver in 1973, where he worked in several different jobs over the years.
He attended Simon Fraser University for a year, taking English Literature in a non-degree program. He has written three novels, a large number of collections of poetry, which are slowly appearing as published works, various articles and short stories in Greek as well as in English. After working as an iron worker, train labourer, taxi driver, and stock broker, he now lives in White Rock where he spends his time writing, gardening, and traveling.
Towards the end of 2006 he founded Libros Libertad, an unorthodox and independent publishing company in Surrey, BC, with the goal of publishing literary books.