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Dale Jacobson

Yannis Ritsos, A Legacy and A Warning


The greatest tribute one writer can make to another is to acknowledge infiuence. Yannis Ritsos was an early influence on my work. I ran across a translation of some of his shorter poems in 1973, which I reviewed for Dacotah Territory, a poetry journal I then helped edit. don't recall which book these translations were from, but I remember observing how the poems were unpredictable and anything could happen in them. They operated as if the rules of the universe were not governed by the laws of physics, but rather by psychological laws capable of startling shifts, revelations we didn't know we knew, like ambushes in a dream. Rit.sos was among other foreign poets, such as Neruda, Seferis, Bias de Otero, Lorca, some of Vallejo, TrakI, St. John Perse, to mention a few, who gave me a solemnity, a dead seriousness that I could not find in American poetry (with some exceptions such as Robert Bly, Don Gordon, or Thomas McGrath). These poets had intensity and reading them was finding a mirror. I do not mean that I found American poets absolutely lacking in seriousness, which would be absurd, but I often felt a suspicion that American poetry suffered from the same limitations of emotional puritanism that the culture at large didand still continues to, so far as I can see. When we do find seriousness in American poetry, it is often individual complaint. In Ritsos, I found collective grief for the tragedies of history, and especially for social, not only individual, injustice. I found a legacy of endurance against injustice, the tragedies of ignored or inflicted suffering, that I could not easily find in most American poetry, despite our country's incredibly tragic history. Perhaps the reason goes back to Whitman's dilation of optimism, perhaps it is our empire mentality, or our middle-class consumerism as Eric Foner might say, but in America, I found, together with a general disapproval of political work, an intolerance toward collective feeling. Certain themes were kept at a dispassionate distance and the same arguments are still being made against politics, and more subtly, against pathos. The problem for me was that I could not figure out how to write


Dale Jacobson

about politics without writing about politics. In Ritsos' work, as in other foreign poets, I found poetry that did not reject the emotional implications of politics, I found a sensibility approaching legacy, myth, the history of us all, America never quite seemed capable of leaving behind its perennial optiniism, somehow believing that history began anew with the nation, whereas someone like Ritsos could look defeat in the face and see a legacy of survival. In reading him, I felt that I was not reading only Greek history, but all of human history. The prevailing esthetic in my own country when I began writing poetry seemed to insist that tragic emotion be counter-balanced or presented under cover of wit, humor, or irony. Currently it seems that tragedy must be reduced to a personal story, and then only indirectly felt, and the virtues of narrative are continuously praised as if narrative is the same as poetry. Narrative is fine, but in itself is not poetry, nor is it equal to poetic intensity, though it can be a convenient method for avoiding it. Despite poets like Robert Bly, grief in America seems to be held at a distance, but I did not find this hesitation in Ritsos, I recall Thomas McGrath, my lifelong friend and teacher, saying that some readers would be "put off' by the seriousness in my second long poem. Shouting At Midnight, which he characterized in a moment of hyperbole as "a big snake [he didn't] want to get too close to," He did not discourage my seriousness, though he did encourage a few "jokes," My problem was, I didn't know which jokes were useful at a funeral, I had the sense in reading Ritsos' Romiossini, The Story of the Greeks, (translated in 1969) that he was trying to raise the dead. There was a mythic quality to his work that felt as though it went back to the beginning to time, McGrath had suggested once that a poet should put on an emotional mask and then see the world through it. The world seemed a serious place to me, and still does. We are literally talking about a crisis from global warming that might equal the threat of annihilation from atomic weapons, Ritsos was among an international community of poets who helped confirm to me that being serious about a world in jeopardy was appropriate. What stmck me in Romiossini, for example, was a sense of endurance of human strtiggle against the harsh onslaughts of history. This endurance was not individual, but a legacy as ancient as the struggle of the human species, which is not really ethnic but of common origin, if we bother to look past our fragmented identities (again, issues of a

Dale Jacobson

culture lacking a communal consciousness, a sense of universal tragedy). This is the same endurance and perseverance I found in Neruda's The Heights of Machu Picchu, another poet capable of capturing the mythic quality of origins. In Ritsos, as in Neruda, we find a profound compassion which often drives his work. One appeal of Ritsos' poetry for me has been its continual search for what might be called the collective human soul. I found a language that felt like cration itself, as if bom out of the silence of stone. The ancient desire to reveal our communal connection to ourselves, and how our history has shattered this connection, is always felt in his sympathies with the working class and the poor. This insistence of our common fate, however much we pretend it doesn't exist, is one of the touchstones, if 1 can invoke Matthew Arnold, that I found in his poetry useful to my own. As he says: "Every hour now belongs to us." In his work one senses that it always has. I'm not convinced that Americans yet understand this class-rooted idea, and its attendant feeling, but it is becoming increasingly necessary to do so. Despite the history of Greece, or perhaps because of it, Ritsos was able to create a poetry that argued we have survived only because, underlying all the wars fought for power and empire, a solidarity remains among those without power, who have recognized loss and taken the next necessary step anyway. This is as good a definition of the human spirit as any, and seems to me the first duty of poetry.


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