Helsingin Poetiikkakonferenssi – The Helsinki Poetics Conference
Helsinki 22.8.2005

Teema / Theme 5:  Tiet etäisyyksiin / Ways To Distance

Translated by Make Copies
Finnish original

[Note that the story about Aki Salmela’s ”death” is fictional]

After I got invited to speak in this conference I came to think of my own mouth. How will it speak about the possible poetics of Finnish poetry – about these ways into distances that refer at the same to an almost too defined canon and to an unclear future. How will the position of my tongue and my expression change, little for little; will my lips writhe in a macabre way? Shall my teeth, or the color of my tongue, be visible? Will my wriggling be predictable? Will my future look good. Shall I speak to the microphone, shall my voice be amplified, or will my mouth have to live on the powers of my personal voice only? How will my mouth perform? Will it be credible? Shall it meet the description of a poet’s mouth? What does a poets mouth look like? Is it one of a seasoned professional, or of a parasite [or winged? – tr.] gift-horse? And what will it say about these things in the name of myself and my late colleague? Shall it be unbearably hot in the room, how much will I sweat, will my sweat drop down to the eyelids, the eyes themselves even, will I be able to see even a meter before me when I speak up my mind about the Finnish poetry’s ways to the distances? At what point will my mouth make the fatal mistake?

This depressing chain of thoughts made me to make sure that my mouth really would have something to say. Of the poetry’s future it would say something ephemeral that would float around between the intuitions of my own, those of my late colleague, and those of someone as yet not known to us. It would speak in a voice that would sound familiar and unfamiliar at the same, a voice that might be amplified, or that again would be left on its own. My mouth would now be a poet’s mouth. It would speak, as long as these few pages lasted, as a poet’s mouth, and more: it would impersonate not just one, but two poets.

Aki Salmela, poet and translator into Finnish, died during the night preceding Thursday, in his home at Eerikinkatu, Helsinki, in enormous classification difficulties. Salmela died at the age of 29. According to the description given by a contemporary, he had been pondering, for over a week, his place and his own future in the history of Finnish literature. In the autopsy, a bloated letter K of the size of 72 points was discovered in his liver, in his stomach, again, A Life of Samuel Beckett, only partially digested. The remnants of a Doric column discovered in Salmela’s pharynx in their present state mostly reminded one of a pest that was actively trying to coke up his mouth. According to those who knew him, he was an obdurate surrealist; however, those who knew him better said that among the historical avant-garde movements it was Dada that he loved more than anything else. According to those who knew best, these two historical movement seemed not to have much difference between themselves – or anything to do with whatever, for that matter, so Salmela very much got what he deserved.

In newspaper articles and in other public statements Salmela’s poetry was compared, among others, to the works of Kari Aronpuro, Leevi Lehto, Väinö Kirstinä, Olli Sinivaara, and yours truly. His translations of the works of the so called New York School poets and especially of the poetry of John Ashbery branded his mouth with an incurable stamp of a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet. In some assessments of Salmela’s work he is, fittingly,  considered to be a rightist and elitist Language Poet.

It was Salmela’s well-known interest in the works of the likes of Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein that finally got him nailed down. Salmela was thought of as a descendant of the historical avant-garde, a relic and a freak who had taken the past’s fun-making by earnest. All the afore-mentioned qualifications and classifications were, however, quite wrong, seeming to badmouth their object. Only the following is true: Aki Salmela, during his short life, had time to publish one collection of poems that got awarded, and another one that was left without public notice, to write for Nuori Voima, Parnasso, and Kerberos, to work in the editorial board of the poetry magazine Tuli&Savu, and to read one of his poems in the Television. Had the poet and translator Aki Salmela be given more time to live, he would have received grants, his mouth would have had discussions, in an exceeding tempo, both with his contemporaries and with the poets and poetry of the historical avant-garde. He would have translated. He would have been translated. He would have received grants and awards, his mouth would have read a couple of more poems in Television, he would have been generally accepted, imitated, betrayed, met with people from abroad. He would have been made into one more example of the poetry professional. The tongue ripped off of his mouth would have been classified, and rejected into the programming of the Theatre of the National Radio, or to the long shelves of the archives of the Society for Finnish Literature. For a short time, the mouth would have impersonated itself. Then it would have experienced a crowded death, and died.

There is almost nothing my mouth can say about the possible late future of the late poet. With the future of poetry, things are completely different. About it, one sure can at least say something. Hopefully, it is not possible to say anything very fitting about it by any mouth. It will always carry along with it the past where it will take its models from, looking at the same time both to the past and to the future, and especially to a certain undefined time and place, to a space that poetry itself, in its being, is building up: to a possible simultaneousness of the poets death and the birth of a poetic language, to a surprise where something gets seen under the surface of poetry, to a kind of an interim space between a failure and possible openings.

Based on various indicators, the Finnish poetry lives an obvious boom. During the 21st century, there have been more books of poetry published than ever before. Trends galore, together with poets speaking, and performing, for them. One should think that poetry is getting read as well, and being a poet might once again be ”something”. This culture, together with its canonizing effect, acts as a support not only to good things – such as the plurality prevailing at the scene of poetry – but also, in a devious way, to the rise of the so called poetry. By the so called poetry I mean poetry that impersonates poetry. Poetry that exists as a kind of an advertisement for its writer, and for poetry. Poetry that’s been written to fit into the mouth of the poet. These mouths are variegated, and they get defined from many different quarters, the only common thing being exactly this belief in the being-a-poet, the poeticality of one’s own stance. There exist powerful thoughts about what poetry is at any given moment. There are those who say: the publishers and the poetry scene are stuck in the history;  the others again will complain that today you can get the status of a poet only by playing experimental games, building conspiracies, and by resorting to a superfluous foreign export. Partly because of this kinds of chains of thoughts the publishers only seldom come to publish anything else than so called poetry, i.e. texts that to a certain extent meet the description for a certain poetry, and book of poetry.

This being so, there are many who think that poetry is again running the risk of changing to be poetry that so much resembles poetry that it will get classified as such. At the present moment, and depending on who’s speaking, this will mean, for instance, a male-female-nature-city-whatever poetry that strains to take its inspiration from the so called central-lyrical tradition, or so called experimental poetry that flirts with the tradition of avant-garde – or, sometimes, so called machine-based poetry. In future, it may mean even more of these descriptions of loneliness boomed from behind the mask of personality, or again: machine-based diaries and language-games, ongoing assurances of one’s ability to control the field, domestic and foreign alike. The different forms the future poetry is going to take are not of much importance. It is only to be hoped that those forms will be many and variegated.

Yet there are many who think that this so called poetry is rather boring. One often hears people say that serious poetry is estranged from its audience. This will always mean something else: serious poetry is always too new, and, in spite of that, too old.  It starts from always-already antiquated conceptions concerning what poetry should be (classification is always delayed). That is why a great part of young poets, while approaching the publisher,  will abandon all kinds of messing about and begin to practice their voices, placing it graciously into the poet’s mouth, abandoning it there, busy building up a certain kind of a story of maturing, for and on oneself, or some other advertisement verging on a writer’s identity. I know this since I myself became to think about the publisher and the reader, the scene of poetry, the state-of-being-a-poet, the curves of my lips, etc., when working to compile my first book of poetry. It was only later that I came to think about the error, and the possibility of a failure – let’s call it courage, in want of a better word – that causes the error.

The other barbered [or worn-out? – tr.] feature of serious poetry is its requirement to surprise its audience. This kind of regeneration is of course always positive, and part of the definition of Modern poetry; yet, for the poet, the most important thing is always to surprise him- or herself, since this is the first requirement the text needs to meet in order for it to work.

In order to live, poetry needs seminars and readings where mouths of all descriptions will speak, but it also needs an attitude that seems less serious, a detachment from the poetry culture, and acting through other channels as well. The poetry should spread itself out from the paper, from the poetry, and especially from the state-of-being-a-poet, to elsewhere. For example to mixtures with the other arts, to digital environments, to casual jobs. This displacement from one art to another has no intrinsic value, but it can still provide a required outside angle to the poetry and to state-of-being-a-poet that it serves. At least it would, hopefully, help the poets not to be too eager in accepting what the (so called) personal voice, or poetry in general, looks or sounds at any given time. I’d be glad to see more stupidity for no eternity in the field of poetry. With stupidity I mean an experimental daring in one’s own writing.

The most important quarrel (perhaps only building up in Finland now) in the field of the conceptions of poetry seems to be the one between the so called natural writing, on one hand, and machine-based writing, on the other. To caricature, according to the representatives of the machine-based writing, poetry is always machine-based in a way or another, bound by meter or some other constraint; limitations, rules, etc. give birth to poetry, act as a muse to the poet. According to the representatives of the so called natural writing, or Modern free-versists, poetry can only start from the poet’s personal voice, the writer’s intentions and experiences, his or her own ways to fathom the word and the language. To which the representatives of the machine-based writing will evidently (to continue the caricature) answer as follows: poetry is always machine-based in a way or another, even a free-versist ends up with varying different styles, having, for instance, a manierized in-build sentence, a mask of the personal voice, that soon will start to resemble the generally-accepted poetical sentence.

I myself cannot say to belong to either one of these caricatured camps, and I doubt if anyone can. Still, the suspicion harbored by the machine-based vis-à-vis the conventional poetical writing pleases me.

The methods of machine-based writing will shed light on the process of writing poems and  question the autonomy of the author, and may work as good voice-openers, but can they ever do more than that? It is easy for the writer to get mesmerized by his or her machine that seems to produce the disjunctions that the poem longs for as if by an assembly-line. The user cannot escape its sphere any more. The same applies for the style of the supporters of a natural, personal voice. The personal voice will develop a method for itself in order to amplify itself, to become more poetical, so that in the end it will find  itself speaking by the mouth of a poet. In both of the cases, the poem is build up – or sculpted – to be a perfect poetical object.

Poetry lives in its own error, in its counter-word, interruption, disjunction, whatever. In the error where the paroles of the mouth will flee, or the machine break up. The error is in the moment where the poem winks a white eye to its writer.

Methods will always be methods, and their devices soon exhausted, after all. Poetry needs error that does not come about by way of misconnection or misreading alone, but instead by way of a certain linguistic-imagistic whimsy, of moment where a connection gets created between word, image, and a world, a feeling etc., a connection that is strange but none the less fitting because of that. A connection that seems fascinating in spite of being mindless, one that makes the poet work on it. A kind of a text-producing motor that is at the same time critical toward this text by with it surrounds itself. A motor that questions the methods of its writer and in the end questions even itself, hopefully, however, not without having produced, before that, along all the questioning, at least something half-ready, perhaps a poem. I believe this to possible only based on a very wide approach benefiting the methods of both the machine-based and traditional intentional writing.

On the side of the discussion moving back and forth inside the poetry, contemporary poets would do wisely to study music, traditional visual arts, and – perhaps especially – the cinema. While talking about the contemporary Finnish poetry, it has been quite common,  since the so called 90s poets,  to speak about ”quick cuts”, displacements and moves inside a poem from an image to another, from a language, speaker, or a voice to another. Nowadays, the definition, ”quick cuts”, seems to recur in reviews with an almost disturbing frequency. Quick cuts have become something one should deliberately search for in a poem. Also, the ”feeling of a silent movie” is a frequent formulation. What do these references to cinema communicate? Poems evidently seem to have something to do with film, and this quality might deserve closer scrutiny Where does it come from? Is it just a question of the general dominance of the visual, of the overflow of image, and of the powerful position of the cinema in our culture? Do all arts get compared to the cinema nowadays, or does it have something specific to do with poetry? My bet is it has, and then more than what is included in Sergei Eisenstein’s famous ideas of montage, the poetic language of cinema.

So, what else has the cinema to give to the poetry beside the ”quick cuts”? Of course the actors, the range of different voices, but, possibly, also the idea of a setting: the collaboration between image and language that at the same time takes itself as a setting, and dismantles itself, producing a world in a process of breaking apart and building up, a language and an image that breath, and are  both completely conscious and completely unconscious of themselves at the same time. A poetry that dreams itself and of itself, still not remaining a mere presentation of possible worlds, but in stead aiming, besides estranging, to achieve what always is and always will be demanded of poetry: to touch the reader when she or he has lost all hope for that kind of touching. This touch can be, for exampale, a return of the runaway voice. A real work of acting, of presenting that ends or changes its form at the right moment.

A poet, then, it seems, should write poems, not only poetry books or advertisements for him or herself or his or her poetics. Poetry is not, or should not be, the work of professionals, the manufacture of verses, an activity with a specific target, since a perfectly targeted sentence can only miss the mark. If the poet knows what his or her mouth is doing, this rarely produces anything good. If he or she has a method, the predicament is even worse. If she believes to belong to a certain generation, this generation is lost already. If he trusts his professionalism, her style, his method, her sentence, his insurgency, her photo, his trigger, she, or he, is lost.

What is it, then, that my mouth, and the afore-mentioned body, long for? Greater risks, more magnificent failures. A readiness for an even more unknown future. Mouths that challenge their bearers to think. Writing that aims at making it difficult to its writer. No method or school or tendency of writing should be taken deadly seriously. If one looks into the mirror, saying to the mouth there: ”look, a mouth of a Surrealist making use of Post-Modern methods”, one’s predicament is worse than one knows even. Thus, one has to start for un-guarded regions, to publish also writing that does not resemble the expected personal parole, or is not a monument sculpted to be a safe high-poetry-art-object. One has to let the personal voice flee, and then run after it.

Thus, we call for a writing that is experimental in the most sincere of senses. May the definition of experimentalism contain the most powerful possibility for failure, even a predictability of failure that the poet needs to start to challenge anything. The definition of experimentalism will include a mouth that is given liberties, that does not constantly know itself to be a poet’s mouth, or even a mouth that is given liberties.

By this experimentalism, I am not necessarily implying a conjuring up of any old avant-garde tradition. Let them rest in peace, if ever they can. By experimentalism, I mean mobilizing, and simultaneous questioning, of all the possible means and methods, subjects and demeanors. In poetry, nothing should be self-evident. The poet should be allowed to play with all the registers, including the lower ones, the childish, the clichéd, and the so called bad writing. The only thing that matters is what the poet does with his or her tools. The poet needs to be so experimental that he has the courage to question her own so called experimentalism as well.

The poetry will constantly need to murder its author, make distinctions between the speaker and the text, question it even in banal ways, but also to move on from the negations, to some directions, to give rebirth to itself. The murdering of the author or the personal voice runs the risk of becoming an initiation rite, a poetical trick, a required gesture, instead of a poetical act.

So, how do the Finnish poetry’s ”ways to the distances” look out? Better than ever. There’s no shortage of dangers. The body of poem is still warm, the tongue moving. There are more alternative ways than ever, and there’s no brightness, no unanimous mouth, no exit looming in the other ends. Hopefully not for a long time yet.



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