Yannis Ritsos, 81; Prolific Greek Poet

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Yannis Ritsos, an internationally acclaimed poet and staunch communist who twice was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature, has died, his family said Monday. He was 81.

Ritsos died at his home late Sunday, a nephew said. No cause of death was given, but Ritsos, who had spent years in detention under right-wing governments, had suffered from various ailments.

He was one of Greece’s most prolific and popular poets. His 117 books, translated into 21 languages, ranged from long ideological pieces to personal lyricism. Many gained a wide following when set to music by composers such as Mikis Theodorakis.

Ritsos’ family suffered extreme financial hardships when he was a boy. His mother and older brother died of tuberculosis and he was confined himself to a sanatorium for years. Much of the suffering reflected in his work was attributed to his early deprivations.


He was detained or sent into internal exile for many years under right-wing governments and the 1967-74 military dictatorship.

The tall, bearded Ritsos was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1975 and 1986 and was awarded the Soviet Union’s Lenin Prize in 1977. He received 22 international poetry prizes and was elected to several European literary academies.

His first collection of poetry, titled “Tractor,” appeared in 1934 and showed his leftist convictions and concern for the working people.

In 1956 Ritsos won the first Greek state poetry award for a long poem titled “Moonlight Sonata.” Many of his poems were inspired by characters in ancient Greek myths.

When fighting broke out between communists and a British-backed right-wing government in 1944, Ritsos went underground.

With the communist defeat in 1949, Ritsos was arrested and spent four years in prison camps. Freed in 1952, he said: “I have no idea why I was arrested. I was never taken to court.”

He was issued his first passport in 1956 and visited some Communist Bloc countries in Eastern Europe.

The army seized power in 1967 and Ritsos was again jailed. He was banished to the island of Samos off the Turkish coast in 1968, allegedly as a security risk. He lived there until he was permitted to return to Athens in 1971.