Born in Monembasia in Asia Minor, the son of a well-to-do landowner ruined on the defeat of the Greek forces by the Turks in 1924 and driven insane by the death of his wife and child from tuberculosis. Moved to Athens in 1925 where he did menial jobs and himself contracted tuberculosis, spending three years, there and in Crete, in sanatoria. Became a committed Marxist and spoke out openly against the Metaxas dictatorship, which prevented him from publishing freely for sixteen years. Fought for the radical cause in the First Civil War and was arrested by the authorities in 1948 during the Second Civil War. Spent four years in concentration camps. Returned to Athens in 1952; married in 1954. Wrote copiously until re-arrested in 1967 for his political beliefs; won the national poetry prize in 1956 and became internationally known, especially in Iron Curtain countries, though he has also won many prizes in Western Europe. Finally released from the detention camps of the Greece of the Colonels on grounds of ill-health and in response to an international public outcry, though kept under house arrest for long periods. Repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize, which he has never won.
Yannis Ritsos has been more widely translated than any other living Greek poet. There are no less than seven selections from his poetry, several of them very extensive, available in English and he has been similarly honoured in all the major, and most of the minor countries of Europe. In 1971, in one of the most prestigious French literary journals, the poet and novelist