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Scientific Conference of KKE on Yannis Ritsos: Opening speech

“The poem of time is always written in deeds”
Eleni Miliaronikolaki:  

Dear friends and comrades,  

This congress hall hosts a scientific congress on a poet for the first time. Yet, we are fully aware that this initiative is the least we can do to honour the 100th anniversary from the birth of the leading and beloved figure of Yiannis Ritsos. We hope that this congress, conducted thanks to the decisive contribution of our select speakers, is not merely going to be another impulse for continuing to read and love Yiannis Ritsos’ poetry. We aspire it to ignite a deeper and sincere approach to his poetry, an effort of penetration into its quintessence. Through the diverse topics of the congress and the uniform approach to the Word and Deeds of the poet, we will attempt to highlight the elaborately optimistic and current message of the poetry of Yiannis Ritsos. It is especially significant in our times when the conviction and the will to believe in the ancient human ideal of social liberation undergo a hard trial by history’s drawbacks. That is why we are convinced that the reflections which are to be unfold will not only be useful and interesting to a narrow circle of experts, which might be deduced from the characterisation of the congress as scientific, but for everyone who is concerned and reflects upon the collective present and future.

      Besides, this was Yiannis Ritsos’ intention: his poetry to be a guide for the struggle for life, a weapon and a flag in the hands of the people in their struggle for humanity’s bright future. Addressing his colleagues in his poem “Poets’ duty” he wrote: 

«…a poet must respond to the first summon of his time

Otherwise our songs will remain on the staircases of the centuries as embalmed,

beautiful and useless birds…”1 

      The poetic talent of Y. Ritsos is unquestionable. This statement has been endorsed enthusiastically by the most gifted representatives of literature and arts in our country and abroad: from Kostis Palamas who having read “My sister’s song” was so impressed that he said the famous phrase “poet, we stand aside for you to pass”, to Louis Aragon who called him “the greatest poet alive”, to Nazim Hikmet, Pablo Neruda, Picasso and many more. Yet, for Ritsos his only credentials were three words: Makronisos, Yuaros and Leros2, his most beautiful poem were his fingerprints in the archives of the Athens state security3, his most beautiful song was his lifelong struggle for justice and freedom in the ranks of the Communist Party of Greece from the age of 25. Indeed, this is true if one reflects on the fact that there were few who withstood the tempests, adversities and upheavals of the 20th century as firmly as he did, as firmly as the storm-tossed cliff of Monemvasia. It is true since communist Ritsos felt deeply on his flesh the triumph of Man who, clinging to his ideals, manages to overcome pain, disappointment and the fear of death. For this reason only his poetry is the biggest, the widest, the deepest song of faith in Man and social liberation. 

«Comrades’ hands», Stone time, Ta epikairika 

      He wrote in Makronisos in 1950. Such poems - bullets in the incessant struggle against injustice- were dictated by his consciousness and not by the command of the party as some claim. Ritsos never ceased writing them in his poetic journey. And as it seems, they are still disturbing today. A new skilful and sophisticated censorship corresponding to the “comme il faut” crudeness of our time has been applied to them as they are allegedly simplistic, one-dimensional, sloganeering, falsely optimistic and outdated.

      Y. Ritsos having the acute insight of a great creator has answered the above in many of his poems, as in the exquisite “Hercules and us”:

To judge of the practical use of such allegedly “made to order” political poems it is enough to consider that their illegal transfer abroad by the party (as is the case of the “crude” peasant poem, as Ritsos himself puts it, the sensational “Letter to Joliot-Curie” written in Ai Stratis as a solidarity call with the exiled towards all communist intellectuals and artist) caused the outburst of a world outcry against the nightmarish camps, which eventually led to the closure of Makronisos and Ai Stratis camps. As far as their poetic value is concerned, it is recorded in the heartbeat of the people who sang them as a national anthem, as the unprecedented hymn to the working class – Epitaphios. His poetry is recognised through the thrills they still cause to those who can hear in the dark “the steps of the future”.

      However, if one rejects this part of Y. Ritsos’ poetry, where things are called by name “figs figs, and a trough a trough”, if in other words one ignores and passes by the “only modest, silent and complete word4 of the poet - his “deeds”, the fact that he became and remained a communist throughout his life, then, there is no hope to understand neither this nor the rest of Ritsos’ work.

      Since most of the complicated and mature poems of his are nothing but a continuation and a completion of the most immediate [impressions] through a process of generalisation and artistic combination of his theoretical knowledge and experiences in the highest, universal, philosophical level of dialectical materialism. What he writes of Mayakovsky in his Meletimata [Studies] is also true about himself: “His authority is a practical proof of the value of social poetry as well as a silencing argument… of the progressive poets of the world against the distrustful, the wavering, the undecided or the inexorable deniers questioning the possibility of the existence of a purely social, ideological, even more so partisan poetry… How can we separate a work into ideological, social, psychological and empirical values… when the work itself is an integrity of all of these elements…5

      The integral world outlook and biotheoretical position of Ritsos on life concerning its social – historical as well as its existential diachronic expressions, such as the fear of death and decay, love and the lack of absolute freedom is what makes him stand out compared to the other significant poets of his time. Those who hush up or question the integrity of life and poetry of Y. Ritsos presenting him bisected, unstable, abandoned to the unceasing oscillation of the pendulum, praising and approaching him eclectically try consciously or not to diminish his value. Because as he himself wrote: “If the ideological, social and moral substratum of art is not the first word of value, it certainly is the last 6 If he wished to gain medals and be glorified by those in power, to deny materialist dialectic and leap to the sphere of metaphysics, of Hegelian dialectic, religion or be secluded in his lonely dead-end existential world he would not have had to endure so many persecutions and torture until he established himself. As he puts it in his poem “The Gate”. 

      Thus, the stochastic and symbolic work of Ritsos performs with the same consistency what constitutes, according to his own definition, the ultimate destination of a poet: “to brotherly join human forces and organize them against tyranny, injustice and ugliness.7 With a deep sense of poetry’s social mission, he explores the processes in the human consciousness in difficult times, like nowadays, when the way-out towards resistance and participation is narrow and he gets into a creative and uncompromising struggle in order to broaden this way-out. These poems, such as the famous and representative Fourth Dimension, are an ingenious transformation of the laws of life in poetic language.

      It’s “a merging of life and poetry8, an outstanding conception that through the inevitable struggle of opposites, of freedom with necessity, of personal interest with public interest, of inertness with action, of death with life, of the ancient exploitative world with the new socialist-communist one, is revealed in all its depth and extension the dialectical movement of history and its reflection in human mind and soul, the movement of life. The denial of the denial according to the philosophical terminology, that is non-submission, is for the poet the only action to positively overcome these contradictions, the only approach that can justify the existence and the contribution of the individual in the history and give him a kind of immortality through his work. Denial of personal freedom for more social freedom, and consequently personal freedom, denial of physical death with the sacrifice of life that makes life rise, denial of social death, of injustice, exploitation, oppression or of the spirit, such as boredom, isolation, indifference with the participation in social and revolutionary struggle, denial of the charm that still gives off the old decadent world so as to open the way for the new one. These are the conclusions he calls us to adopt with his incredible power of persuasion, as they stem form the compelling realistic poetic expression of painful internal conflicts, oscillations and inhibition of his heroes. For this collection Ritsos deliberately had chosen the first poem to be “The window”, inviting us to look at life through the window, that is from a distance and out of the emotional charge of the specific moment, so that we can see beneath the surface of the internal relations and the general laws that dominate reality, movement within stillness. Only this knowledge will allow us to return to social life, more mature, more conscious and above all strengthened regarding the defeats, the losses and the historical delays, as well as towards fear, loneliness, death and other problems of the so-called “eternal man”. The same subject also appears to the last poem of the collection entitled “When the Stranger comes”. The Stranger that represents the poet-leader and rebel, a symbolism we came across in many of Ritsos’ poems (The lighthouse keeper, Elevator operator, Traffic cop etc), comes to our house which is immersed in grief to give us the redeeming conclusions of the intense reflection of the poems that preceded it.

        “It’ always a birth – the Stranger said –and death an addition, not a subtraction. Nothing is lost 9 and we can sense that, “as long as we break the siege of the moment 10. Suffice to relieve the ravages of personal time and recognize the general human time. And at that moment we will realize how small details are the temporary defeats, how futile is our disappointment and anxiety, and will shine in front of us the whole human course as a large river that empties into light.11 For Ritsos “the whole life, the whole history of humankind” is not a circle, a futile and meaningless repetition of mistakes and failures, but an ascend to a constantly higher level, “a volute, an ascending, rising volute, that goes higher and higher, without having an end…”12. This history of humankind according to Ritsos is written in its great moments and by those people, who finally manage to represent with their deeds the great interests of each time. Thus, the ancient mythological heroes were succeeded by the heroes of 1921, and they, in turn, pass the baton to the contemporary heroes, that from generation to generation inherit the highest ideals of our ancestors’ testament and carry the seed of the still new higher features of the future history. When they are killed, life sweeps up the ascent13, because from their sacrifice we do not only draw the strength of duty to continue and justify their struggle, but also the knowledge of what “must be avoided14 so as to make a more effective attempt to realize their ideal. In a relatively early poem of Y. Ritsos, the “Midday summer dream”, there is the following verse as a precursor of the subsequent creation of the Fourth Dimension collection under the title “The dead house” that symbolizes the old world: 

Don’t you know that even if the house falls down,

there will still be light

to see how to build the new house

with a better plan? 15 

      The knowledge of the universal laws of life inspired this deep and not at all frivolous self-confidence that brought about this verse “if we did not win anything else, at least we came to know that tomorrow we will meet16, that no matter what happened or is going to happen, a moment of universal brotherhood will come and all class, racial, geographic, spiritual separation will be abolished and, as he mentions elsewhere, the ancient human dream for a peaceful and creative classless society, scientifically  proved and ensured17 will be fulfilled. The man will be liberated by his worries only if he manages to listen to and follow the pace of history because: “If death is to come, it always comes second. Freedom always comes first”.18

      Thus it is obvious that the exploration in the outer and inner human world starts with the intention of the poet to make our contribution to the historical reality, the social interests and problems more decisive, essential and overall; as it suits to the universal aspect of our worldview and of the new humanism of the communist ideology. This humanism embraces the whole gigantic range of people’s interests, from the obvious social interests to the most intimate and secret ones. However, as a poetic representative of the working class, the vanguard class in the struggle for social liberation, he expresses the most progressive ideals of our era, the ideals of the humanity.      

For we never sing in order to distinguish ourselves from the world, my brother; we sing in order to unify the world”. 19 

      His words acquire a universal content. Thus death is not merely the physical death but also the social, mental and moral death. Love is not merely this specific human feeling but also the driving force of creativity; it is passion and love for everything beautiful in nature and life and above all for the people as “you have to indulge if you want to win. Speech is the opposite of silence, of the escape from social problems but also the knowledge, because “if don’t say something I do not grasp it20. Freedom is the liberation from all kinds of constraint, social, physical, psychological. Poetry is the human creation that struggles against all kinds of inhibitory power.

      Undoubtedly, Ristos is inspired by the glory and the heroism of the man who, having achieved full historical consciousness of his creative role and task, for the first time throughout the thousands of years of his life discovers the strength to demolish the world of necessity and build the kingdom of freedom. He writes: “only death is our equal21, in other words everything else is inferior to man and for that reason he can besiege and seize even what remains so far unexplained and mysterious in the glorious, endless, upward course “to the sun”. 

    Quoting his thoughts from his essay on Mayakovsky, we could say that his ecstasy for the unrevealed secrets of life “does not constitute any metaphysical escape but a bridge between the present and the future […], a natural impatience for the realization of a universal, realistic ideal in the “faster” filed of fantasy and art”22

    Nevertheless the unique ability of Ritsos to combine the daily with the everlasting, the present with the future, the part with the whole is what ranks him among the great artists that we are used to call classics. Because the speech of Yiannis Ritsos goes beyond the boundaries of our era and demands to be the leader also in the future era when people having abolished the social slavery will struggle unhindered for their wholesale liberation.

      All poetic forms, from one-verse poems to long poems, from the polyphonic chorals to the internal monologues and all aesthetic forms that go beyond conventionalities, from the traditional ones such as 15-syllable metric to the more bold ones such as the symbolic, surrealistic or expressionist transformation of images are summoned up, merged and assimilated in the poetry of Yiannis Ritsos in order to express its vanguard messages and get into the inside and outside and in our eye that sees”. This constitutes a confirmation rather than a rejection of realism; because realism does not mean the adherence to what has been established as realistic standards but the pursuit for the form that each time responds to reality and its development. For that reason, the fleeting sense of vainness about the human existence, as well as the wonderful moments of relaxing, dreaming and admiring the beauty of nature and its creatures - the human body – that prevail in his work should not be regarded as an escape from reality and the social duty. On the contrary, love, simple and modest pleasures of everyday life -the beauty of life in short- do not constitute an excuse for escape but a basis for action so that people can someday enjoy those beauties “because when there is no bread on the table then what does the wealth off the stars mean”?23 However the most significant element is that all these components of Ritsos’ poetry and above all his contradictory feelings and situations in which he finds himself plead for a realism that does not overlook any human issue. They all work together harmonically for one purpose: to deepen our knowledge, to sharpen our sensitivity and provide us a universal sense and criterion that helps us not only to recognise injustice and ugliness but also not to bear submitting to it even if death is the cost. In other words the art of Ritsos manages to mould people capable of understanding the movement and the continuance of life and at the same time incapable of compromising, powerless –as he said- to walk “with the knees of their soul cut”24, thus creating the builders of the new life that will be free from the old misery. And this is nothing else but the true socialist realism.

      That’s why, dear friends, generals, dictators, kings as well as all the guards and the supporters of the degenerated bourgeois world were afraid of Yiannis Ritsos  

Even though he had no gun in his back pocket except from a trembling smile in view of the miracle of the world that the real rebels were setting up.25 

      Vanguard like the working class whose purpose was kept in the bosom of his art; inexhaustible as sea and life; tireless worker of speech and revolution; unwavering as the man who knows the meaning of life; bright like the red which has not borrowed its blood from anyone; steadfast as the necessity he served, human as a hand that clasps another hand; but above all sensible and therefore strong.

      His name echoes the Communist Party of Greece; the mountains of the glory and boldness, the ideals and the vanguard ideas, the sorrows and the anxieties but also the firm faith to a happy future and the strength of the people who will impose it. His name echoes the name of the world Communist Party, the bright future of the universal meeting.

For that reason  

We know that his shadow will last for ever in the fields

On the stone fence of the hovel

On the walls of the big houses that will be built tomorrow… we know that” 26  

He gave us the best he had. He instigated the best he had. Let us give him what he expected from us.


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