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Yannis Ritsos and the poetry of witness

January 02, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Yannis Ritsos wrote "Diaries of Exile" while a political prisoner in Greece.
Yannis Ritsos wrote "Diaries of Exile" while a political prisoner… (Archipelago Books )

It’s tempting to read the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, who died in 1990 at the age of 81, as an embodiment (of sorts) of Percy Bysshe Shelley's admonition that “[p]oets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” A lifelong communist, he was sent into internal exile in the late 1940s and later held under house arrest after a military dictatorship took over Greece in 1967.

And yet, if much of Ritsos’ work is explicitly political, he can also be among the most personal of poets, tracing in spare and lyrical language the substance of his days.

“The floorboards are moldy from the damp,” he writes in “Diaries of Exile” (Archipelago: 138 pp., $15 paper), “the windows warped the panes broken / dirtied sheets loose boots / the bread has no odor / the people have grown very thin / like saints.” The image is both particular and universal, evoking a sense of longing so specific it could belong to any one of us.

“Diaries of Exile” is a sequence of three poetic journals Ritsos composed between late 1948 and mid-1950 while he was a prisoner at two detention camps. Its power comes from the way it blends the diaristic with the poetic — steeped in the small movements of the everyday, but ramped up by the situation in which Ritsos finds himself.

There is no pity in the book, nor resignation, despite the circumstance. Rather, the poems here are marked by what we might call a weary passion: tired of fighting, struggling for survival, yet engaged nonetheless.

“What use is writing to us now,” Ritsos observes in an entry from Nov. 9, 1948. “Tonight / we learned again some things that the pen can’t grasp. / Tonight we learned that we have to be happy / in order to love one another.” It’s as if, in the detention center, life has been stripped to its most fundamental essence, allowing for an unexpected clarity.

Part of that clarity comes from the bond Ritsos shares with his fellow prisoners, his commitment to something larger than himself. But even more, it has to do with giving witness, with the idea of poetry as testimony. Again and again, he records the smallest moments, as if were he to leave out a single detail of his incarceration, the whole experience might disappear. This is what poetry can do: preserve the moments that would otherwise be forgotten, and in so doing, recreate the world.

For Ritsos, of course, such a world is difficult, often brutal — an unforgiving landscape in which hope and despair often go hand-in-hand. As he writes in an entry from Nov. 6, 1948:

Nothing. Nothing. We were wrong.
The words are narrow, our beds are narrow —
you can’t turn onto your other side.

Until now we said:
if we all work together at carrying these stones
the stones within will melt. Nothing.

I count the fingers of my two hands.
I find them correct.
I don’t know how to count all the rest.
Which means it doesn’t add up.

At the end of this tallying hangs a curse.

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