• Yannis Ritsos: Fidelity of the Poetic Word

    By Steve Light

     In memory of my father

      “…let the blood be seen as it mounts, swells, throbs,
    and traces out the white scar of an ancient wound.”[1]

    Bergson and Lukacs each in their own way said that every great philosopher possesses but one idea. And each great poet? But isn’t the poetic signature unique among all signatures?

    “At what depth of rock/ is the fig tree upheld by its root?”[2]

    But what depth upholds the poetic word? And what exactly is it that the poetic signature signs?

    It’s a lucid face, silent, entirely alone
    like total solitude, like total victory
    over solitude. This face
    looks at you between two columns of still water.

    And you don’t know which of the two persuades you

    That the poetic word persuades? “But I know that I shall persuade no-one,” said the Italian philosopher and poet, Carlo Michelstaedter, in his one and only philosophical work, La rettorica et la persuasioni [4], completed on the very morning of his suicide in 1910 at the age of 23.

    But for all his precocious brilliance and effervescence Michelstaedter, alas, was wrong, both in conclusion and in suicide.

    Every word is a doorway
    to a meeting, one often cancelled,
    and that’s when a word is true: when it insists on the

    Yet–and the weight of the world, of existence, of life, is beautifully, miraculously, carried in this one word–yet, the word can and does persuade. It is the paradoxical and ontological law of all iteration, of all nomination. Because somewhere between the word and the poetic word–for, surely, the word is and is not one–, somewhere, once again dans l’inacheve, somewhere, as if in-between, somewhere, “along this road, this beautiful, incomparable road…through the mountains”[6], something has happened.

    you’ll touch what my hand has touched.
    our hand-prints will merge.[7]

    And in happy accord with this, the
    poet, Paul Celan writes:

    “I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem.”[8]

    What depth upholds the poetic word? Dig, dig with your hands, for “how can our shoulders carry so much sky,/ how can we bear so much silence about the secrets of the trees?”[9] Dig, dig with your hands, “here where the time of aphasia and the black mirror found/ us”[10], here where “our poem bends over the sadness of mankind”.[11]

    His substance is thought. It is why he spreads it everywhere. It is Valery speaking of the philosopher, Alain [Emile Chartier].. Ritsos too is abundance, if not the poetic abundance of our modernity. Bend over the depth, the abundance, abundantly, abundant witness, and with a gaze as “ecstatic and as/ sad as roots”[12] find “a word that will match the stature of freedom…/…even though you know that you have to weep much more/ before you teach the world to laugh.”[13] Like “The Lady of the Vineyards”, resistance heroine, who filled her grapes “with blood and dynamite/ to blow up into the wind the foundations of death”[14] and who with wax fashioned a candle dedicated to peace so that all could hear “the shells upon the shelf hum the howl of the storm/ that passed”[15], Ritsos from start to finish has sought that “wisp of light” which, weighed in, here in our contemporary, desperate, and terrible imbalance, would balance “the scales of the world” and would hold us “free in the light and in the wind.”[17]

    Abundance? “The universe is an infinite squander.”[18] What was Ritsos’ riposte, his imperative? Do not withhold the poetic word! Parsimony is not value, but too often a virtue made from necessity. The poet is not a “shepherd of being,” and any reader of Shelley’s or Mandelstam’s or Wanda Coleman’s defenses of poetry would surely know this and would know the vain pretensions of obedient philosophers in love with heteronomy.

    Being needs no defense. And poetic fidelity, the poetic imperative–like life(!)–is elsewhere. Sing the imperative, this one, the only one we are given, the one of the “having-been, having-lived, having-loved.”[20] Ritsos’ great gift? Fidelity to the poetic word, this voice which, in finding the vibrato of the “fig tree’s depth”, has known how to become both vibrato itself–gift sustaining itself and, thereby, sustaining all its gifts–and, thereby, the vibrato of our hope, our imperative, our protest, of our No! which, being truly a No!, is at the very same time a Yes!, which is to say, the vibrato of life lived and defended, and, therefore, and as the poet and resistance hero, Jean Cassou, tells us, life loved and lived.

    …mothers, mothers, daughters and granddaughters, rose-
    glowing brides-to-be
    you with your smiles and you with your axes
    you with the wet ship’s rope and you with small moons in
    the hearts of daisies
    I shall bring the golden keys to unlock the gardens of
    Monovasia enclosed with ivy-stars…[21]

    At what depth of rock is the fig tree upheld by its root? Malevolence is stronger than
    Love? Love is stronger than Malevolence? Alas! both.
    And it is why a sage without pretension could tell us that Malevolence will be as weak as
    we are strong.[22]

    The sword cuts the song. The song
    blunts the sword. What can you choose? he said.
    How can you choose between the already chosen?
    The world is a deep closed song.[23]

    The poetic abundance of our modernity. But also the poetic strength. Ritsos’ poetry has extended us a hand, warm and strong, to hold through the storms “so that we could/ remain standing upright,/ you and me”[24] and to hold through our joy at the storms’ abatements and through the joy of our recommencements, to hold us fast, to the fastness of life, to the magnificent No! and to the subsequent and even more magnificent Yes!



    1. Yannis Ritsos, “The Dissonant Chord, “in Scripture of the Blind (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979) trans. Kimon Friar and Kostas Myrsiades.
    1. Yannis Ritsos, “Monovasia, III: Durable Layers,” in Monovasia and The Women of Monemvasia (Minneapolis: Nostos Books, l987) trans. Kimon Friar and Kostas Myrsiades. [Hereafter cited as MWM].
    1. Yannis Ritsos, “A Face,” (from Repetitions, 1968-69) in Repetitions, Testimonies, Parentheses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991) trans. Edmund Keeley. [Hereafter cited as RTP].
    1. Carlo Michelstaedter, La persuasione e la rettorica (Milano: Adelphi, 1999) p. 22.
      [English translation: Persuasion and Rhetoric (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) trans. Russell Scott Valentino, Cinzia Sartini Blum, and David Depew.]. 
    1. Ritsos, “The Meaning of Simplicity,” (from Parentheses, 1946-47) in RTP, p. 125.
    1. Paul Celan, “Conversation in the Mountains,” Collected Prose (Manchester: Carcanet, 1986) trans. Rosemarie Waldrop, p. 17.
    1. Ritsos, “The Meaning of Simplicity,” RTP, p. 125.
    1. Celan, “[Letter to Hans Bender],” Collected Prose, p. 26.
    1. Yannis Ritsos, “[Section III],” The Lady of the Vineyards (New York: Pella, l978) trans. Apostolos N. Athanassakis, p. 19. [Hereafter cited as LV].
    1. Ritsos, “Monovasia, XI: The Wax Hand,” MWM, p. 13.
    1. Yannis Ritsos, “Protection” (from Exercises) in The Fourth Dimension: Selected Poems of Yannis Ritsos (Boston: David Godine, 1977) trans. Rae Dalven, p. 38. [Hereafter cited as FD.]
    1. Ritsos, “Monovasia: XXIII, The Roots,” MWM, p. 25.
    1. Ritsos, “The Blackened Pot,” FD, p. 19.
    1. Ritsos, “[Section XX],” LV, p. 61.
    1. Ritsos, “[Section XXIII],” LV, p. 67.
    1. Ritsos, “[Section XXIV],” LV, p. 69.
    1. Ritsos, “Summer,” (from Parentheses, 1946-47), RTP, p. 128.
    1. Jean Cassou, Trois Poetes (Paris: Plon, 1954), p. 19.
    1. Ritsos, “Monovasia: I, Monovasia,” MWM, p. 3.
    1. Vladimir Jankelevitch, L’Irreversible et la nostalgie (Paris: Flammarion, 1974), p.48.
    1. Ritsos, “The Women of Monemvasia,” MWM, p. 52.
    1. Vladimir Jankelevitch, Traite des vertus I: Le serieux de l’intention (Paris: Flammarion, 1985), p. 268.
    1. Ritsos, “Accented-Unaccented” (from Parentheses, 1950-61), RTP, p. 162.
    1. Ritsos, “Can You?” (from Parentheses, 1946-47), RTP, p. 144


    Lead image: Naoko Haruta, Life #15, acrylic on canvas, 43″ x 67″ [110cm x 170cm]


    Steve Light, a basketball point-guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset–and akin as well to Steve Nash, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, and Earl Boykins–is also a philosopher and poet..