Helsingin Poetiikkakonferenssi – The Helsinki Poetics Conference
Helsinki 22.8.2005

Teema / Theme 1: Perinne / Tradition

Being asked as an alien by-stander, as an outsider neither really involved in nor really informed about Finnish poetry, to comment on the tradition of 20th century Finnish poetry, in particular to give some views from the outside on Finnish modernist poetry from the period after the Second World War, one question pops up immediately: Which advantage do I have, what do I gain, as someone speaking another language, Dutch, being familiar with the poetry in that other language (as well as with the poetry in some other neighbouring languages, English, German and French) by reading Finnish modernist poetry. Why should I read Finnish poetry in the swamps of the Rhine delta, or why should I even bring this modernist poetry with me on holiday, to the slopes of the Olympus? Offers this poetry something, which other poetries in other languages don’t have?

Since my time is short, I would like to confine myself here mainly to two contrasting observations, or maybe rather: to two different perspectives. One from two decades ago, when I was still a student in the early 1980s. At this point, I have to rectify something. Although I am neither a fluent reader of Finnish nor a specialist in Finnish literature, I am neither a complete outsider nor completely ignorant. I have studied Finnish language and literature as a subsidiary subject next to my main study in German language and literature in the early 1980s and in the course of this study, I also read quite some Finnish poetry, in translation and in the original, be it mostly elder poetry.

The other perspective is from a few weeks ago, when I was (re-)reading some anthologies of Finnish poetry, mostly modern, modernist (high, pre & post), on the shore of the Aegean, with the Olympus rising on my right and the lights of Thessaloniki on the horizon visible on the left (after two decades of poetry reading, notably avant-garde poetry as my core business). I can add here that in the almost two decades in between, I read only now and then some Finnish literature, when a book was published in Dutch or when I picked up some books when I visited Finland. In the meantime, I (re-)wrote an article on two German translations of Eino Leino, one by Hella Wuolijoki, Margarete Steffin and Bertolt Brecht, another by some conservative or fascist nationalists on the occasion of Finland joining the Third Reich in its Russian campaign. And I worked on the second Dutch-Finnish edition of Osmo Jokinen’s Nollapiste. That was my involvement with Finnish literature in the past decades. And: in a way, Leino and Jokinen can be seen as the coordinates of my reading of Finnish modernism, two decades ago and last month.

1.To start with the first one: When I first read Finnish modernist poetry, my first impression was, to put it mildly, not very positive. I hope not to be offending anyone, but when I first read it, my first impression was: How absolutely boring, nothing new under the sun.

To explain myself after two decades: I had been fascinated by the previous Finnish literary as well as political history, because it differs considerably from the Dutch and the West-European history, literary and politically. There is in Dutch literature no Kalevala, no Eino Leino, no national romanticism (at least not any substantial one and what is more: not one acceptable for someone with his heart on the left side). In past centuries, Holland saw no revolutions, no independence movement, no civil war, all-in-all in my perception in the early 1980s things which made history more lively, instead of the boring mediocrity marking 19th and 20th century Dutch history, apart from the Second World War and some small incidents (like the breakaway of Belgium in 1830-31). Finland offered here some compensation.

Although Finland kept a bit of a special status after 1945, things turned – at least in my eyes then – as grayish, as mediocre and as boring as Holland in the extended 1950s, reaching from the late 40s to the mid-60s. Here now, Finnish literary, poetic modernism fitted quite well into my dislike of the 50s, at least superficially, on first sight. As for the period before, the late 19th and early 20th century, Finland, Finnish history – both political and literary – had something exotic and at the same time something very proximate. There was in the early 1980s still quite some revolt and revolution in the air, at least in the phantasmagorias of the Dutch squatting movement and part of the horizon then were all kind of national liberation movements, notably in Central-America, in South-Africa, the Middle East – Finnish history was certainly different, Finland around 1900 was certainly no sub-arctic Central-America around 1980, but all kind of contemporary elements could be found in the Finnish mirror – at least before the Second World War. Also the poetry, the Kalevala-inspired or -dominated poetry as well as imagery in the visual arts from national romanticism had something exotic in a proximate way, like the mythical start of Pablo Neruda’s Canto General and Eduardo Galeano’s Memoria del fuego. They were marked by some fascinating, intriguing otherness (and I must add: my prime historical interest in those days was also in German history, the previous turn-of-the-century).

In comparison with this elder poetry (and art and history), the modernism of the 1950s made a rather shallow impression, as something very, very colloquial, as something very common – a poetry which didn’t differ on first sight from contemporary, post-1945 modernist poetry in Dutch, English, German or French. The only thing remarkable seemed to me then that the Finnish literary or poetic tradition, which started in a more narrow sense, as written literature in a local literary field (skipping the oral tradition for a moment), only in the 19th century, hence almost half a millennium later then in Western Europe, had already caught up with the rest of (Western) Europe in just half-a-century, Finnish modernism seemed to me then (or maybe the literary histories I read told me so) the point where Finnish poetry joins Western European poetry (with some first connections to the avant-garde in the work of Aaro Hellaakoski and the Tulenkantajat.)

(At this point, I must say, when rereading notably Haavikko’s Talvipalatsi, in itself a fascinating poem, I started to doubt this previously assumed up-to-date-ness, as it reminded me strongly – in particular by content, by it’s images, by it’s many classical elements – of Eliot’s Waste Land, of Pound’s Cantos and of a long poem by the Dutch writer Martinus Nijhoff, Awater – all poetry from the interbellum; hence, in this respect Finnish post-1945 modernism is to some extent still an indication for or expression of a not yet completed overtaking manoeuvre, I would say now).

Since my journey through Finnish literature was not just part of the curriculum, but also intended to find a subject for a final paper, which I found in Hella Wuolijoki and Bertelt Brecht, and since my teachers were completely absorbed by the Kalevala, I could skip the Finnish modernists in the early 1980s. And although I have quite some collections, anthologies of Finnish poetry at home, I found out, after the invitation to come here, that all ended in the 1940s or earlier.

2. In short: My first encounter with Finnish modernist poetry was rather one of disappointment, one of déjà-lu, be it in other languages. Already a few years ago, a paper presented by Janna Kantola at an avant-garde conference in Denmark (avant-garde being – as said – my core business in cultural history), served as an eye-opener, be it more in regard to the more experimental, avant-garde edges of Finnish poetic modernism, which resulted last Christmas in the publication of a Dutch-Finnish second edition of Nollapiste. But – far away from the aesthetic and linguistic nonplus ultra of Nollapiste – also the rest of or at least: several representatives of the more moderate, let’s say: mainstream Finnish modernism turned out to be far more interesting then the sentiment of being bored, which marked my previous reading of Finnish modernist poetry two decades ago, when I started reading this modernist poetry in the last month in some anthologies compiled by Leevi Lehto and Manfred Hein.

As I see it now (like two decades ago), Finnish modernist poetry is indeed – at least formally – often exchangeable with – say – Dutch modernist poetry from the fifties and after. By content, as I noticed already regarding Haavikko’s Talvipalatsi, there is also an obvious congeniality with ’neo-classical’ modernist poetry from the period before the Second World War, although I could imagine that in the specific Finnish context, the strong reference to Roman and Greek antiquity had a slightly different character: maybe to replace the primitivism/medievalism à la Kalevala (not unlike the turn to antiquity in the renaissance or in the era of German classicism?)?

So – no real reason to read Finnish modernists with a frappé and a glas of cold water on the terrace of a Greek kafénion? Indeed, these correspondences constitute a serious marketing problem for Finnish modern(ist) poetry (in comparison with the Kalevala and environs, which can be sold as something strange and idiosyncratic). Indicative in this respect is the rhetoric of the afterword of a translated volume of poems by Sirkka Turkka, just published in Dutch. The author of the afterword, not the translator but the well-known contemporary Dutch poet Tonnus Oosterhoff, encourages the reader of his postface several times not to put the book back on the shelve of the bookshop, even though the (Finnish) author is unknown to the Dutch reader, and even though her poems might not seem very different from the work of Dutch colleagues on first sight. Why still buy the book? – Oosterhoff asks. He answers the question by naming some aspects of Turkka’s poetry, which are – in his view – something missing from and, hence, a valuable complement to existing Dutch poetry. I believe, something similar can be said for the poetry from the previous generation of Finnish modernist poets, at least for some of their poetry.

Some might contend here, that Finnish modernist poetry (like Finnish literature as whole) is marked by ”Finnishness”, that the surplus, the particularity of Finnish poetry is concealed in its expression of some national traits of ”Finnishness”, of a Finnish national character, which is closely related with Finnish nature. For that reason, several participants in a panel discussion at the University of Amsterdam in the early 90s (on the occasion of 75 years of independence and an exhibition with translated literature in the university library), especially those with some Finnish background, suggested that Finnish literature was actually not translatable, not really understandable for the outside world.

As far as the language is concerned, this might be right to some extent: since Finnish language is organised in a way completely different from the Indo-European languages, at least for native speakers of these languages, the different organisation of Finnish (syntactically, but also semantically, as in the case of the non-gendered 3rd person singular, ”hän”), turns the language into a language stranger then most other languages on the European continent. As far as Finnish – as a language – is very different, this doesn’t constitute some unbridgeable canyon, but rather an interesting challenge (in the course of which not least the ’normalities’ of Dutch or most other European languages are de-automated), a challenge even larger in the case poetry, due to the white surrounding the text.

But for the rest, there might be some cultural differences (which I would never define in unholy terms of nationhood not far away from ’Blut und Boden’). Yet, as far as the nature in Finnish (modernist) poetry is concerned, the nature – as far as it is represented – can been seen as a Nordic one, one special to Finland (as some claim), but at the same time: Woods can be found elsewhere, lakes can be found elsewhere, treas, winter, summer, rainy springs and autumns, mosquito’s… you’ll find them all elsewhere too, even in Greece. Finland might be special, but not that special. And look more closely to the nature as depicted in an average poem. This depiction allows seldom the tracing of the exact biotope envisaged by the poet. And just climb the Olympus and you will see that the landscape, vegetation and fauna on sea level are still definitely Mediterranean. On a 1000m they turn into a typical German beech forest, on top the Olympus resembles any European high mountain area – Timmelsjoch, Jotunheimen, Saana, but in between, when you have climbed the Olympus half-way, you’re definitely out of Arcadia, yet in in a landscape almost completely exchangeable with the area of Helvetinjärvi near Ruovesi or the place where Rauta-aika was shot. Except for the missing lakes (which you really miss after some 1500m climbing), the rocks and the trees present a Finnish fata morgana. The landscape is almost completely identical – so even in the Mediterranean Finnish nature imagery functions as reference to the surrounding nature.

The main particularity of Finnish modernist poetry is neither its ”Finnishness” nor its repeated reference to assumedly Finnish nature, it possesses instead a quite universal character. Yet, still with some particularity: its political edge, its awareness and representation of and reflection on the contemporary historical situation. Rather in contrast with Leevi Lehto, who criticizes them in his paper My Finnish Poetries for their ”tendency to see language as such as something unproblematic”, I see it as one of the advantages of the work by Manner, Haavikko, Saarikoski and others in the context of historical European moderate (non-avant-garde) modernism of the middle of the 20th century and thereafter, which can be awfully self-reflective, navel-staring, indulging in all kind of language plays, in contemplation on language and literature, on linguistic representation and literary form, as if poetry is primarily about poetry (and if not so about poetry at best about the writer and his writing), that these Finnish authors don’t confine themselves to this autonomist self-reflectivity.

Reflection on language is certainly very important – no doubt about that, and linguistic experiment no less important (Nollapiste is in this respect really a contribution to world literature), but simultaneously I believe that literature/poetry is also part of society, part of the human world as a whole. If we regard literature/poetry as a certain form of thinking, of reflecting on the existing world and of considering and designing other, different, possible and impossible worlds, literature can have and indeed has also an important political function, the option to reflect on society, on politics (not as an obligation, but as a possibility). At this point, Finnish modernist poetry distinguished and distinguishes itself in a double way:

– on the one side from (then) contemporary modernist literature in Dutch and many other foreign languages, in which politics and society were by and large faded out and non-existent as it were (in accordance with the ”free Western” paradigm of an ”autonomous” art/literature;
– on the other side from party-political ”rhymed editorials” as they were once called by the German socialist critic Franz Mehring or – in current-day or maybe already yesterday’s terms – from indulging in versified political correctness.

In the situation of the 1950s one might say: between the socialist (official) poetry from the east and the autonomist (hegemonic) poetry from the West, Finnish modernist poetry followed – as it seems – a way in-between – in this respect a typical product from Finland as a country in-between in those days. Pentti Saarikoski might have politicized more and more in the 1960s and 70s, in part ending up in political kitsch equaling Jesus with Che Guevara, yet his Mitä tapahtuu todella constitutes to my opinion a great contribution to European modernist poetry through the subtle way, in which politics and social developments are also part of the poetic vision of the world evoked in this volume (as such far better readable than e.g. Neruda’s work). Saarikoski might have been – as far as politics is concerned – something special, the politicized odd-man-out of Finnish post-war modernism, but also in Haavikko and Manner politics and society are still included.

And although, as I understood from Leevi Lehto’s paper, this was neither their poetical nor ideological ambition, exactly here lies the specific surplus of Finnish modernist poetry, at least for me, at least when I read this poetry at the foot of the Olympus – geographically far away from Finland, but poetically as it were in the middle of all the Greek gods and heroes evoked in Finnish modernist poetry, in a country, which appropriated classical antiquity like Finland did once with the world of the Kalevala, a (modern) country with a political and cultural history actually quite compatible to the Finnish one (as border land between west and east), where – even more than in Holland – the political references in many poems were absolutely fitting to the local situation. Finland isn’t that far from the rest of Europe, not even from Greece.

Maybe not incidentally, the heroes park in the ”Holy City of Mesolonghi”, where Byron’s heart is buried, also contains a monument for a Finnish Philhellene, Adolf Sass, who died in the defence of Mesolonghi against the Turks in 1823 (ironically or tragically, or typically Finnish?, not by some Turkish sable or bullet, but stabbed by dagger of a Greek local in some alcoholized quarrel).

Leaving this side-part: being in tune with other contemporary modernist poetry and only to a small degree (the language, some references) typical Finnish, the merit of Finnish modernist poetry from an outside perspective (at least from my perspective at this moment) is concealed in particular in its socio-political awareness, reflection and realism – embedded in a poetry with a liberated form, with an imagery not confined to the shores of the Baltic, but also quite comprehensible on the shores of the North Sea and the Aegean.

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