Helsingin Poetiikkakonferenssi – The Helsinki Poetics Conference
Helsinki 22.8.2005

Teema / Theme 1:  Perinne / Tradition

Comment on the Keynote Address by Hubert van den Berg

Hubert van den Berg’s speech is like the result of a quite extraordinary thought experiment. How do Finnish lyrics of the 1950s and 60s appear for a Dutch devotee of poetry, who reads it on the slopes of Olympus? Now we got the answer, worthy of respect because sincere: mostly boring, familiar and commonplace.

And that might be true. Finnish lyrics of the 1950s and 60s hardly offers nothing but boredom for the one who seeks the bypaths of European poetry, exotic and stimulating otherness, something that pertains Finnish literature and culture alone, ”Finnishness”. Quite the contrary, it was important to search and create international contacts in post-war Finland, and the poets had keen interest to open the doors to Europe again from another corner of the house. They now looked for especially Anglo-Saxon influences. Moreover, Finnish people did not want to get engaged with grand political movements, national romanticism or mythology any more, Europe had had enough of that at that time. Understatement and the avoidance of every ideological system became the bases of contemporary lyrics. Was that not also a political act?  One could imagine that the escape of poetry from all kinds of unifying systems of thought would be the kind of political expression that would attract a literary scholar interested in political history and politics of poetry, like van den Berg?

Van den Berg is attracted to the exceptional political nature of Pentti Saarikoski’s poetry, but it would be interesting to hear more exactly what especially fascinates him in it? Finnish society was still politically on its knees after the Second World War (reparations were paid, big brother kept watch over), and Saarikoski’s momentary commitment to communism might not be regarded as a really brave and original expression of rebellion. And do Saarikoski’s political views have any relevance in today’s world, in the radically changed political environment?

Van den Berg finds interesting also the political qualities of Eeva-Liisa Manner’s and Paavo Haavikko’s poetry. Yet I believe that the poetry of Manner is also intriguing in ways not directly political. For instance, Manner’s poem ”Descartes” from the collection Tämä matka (from 1956) criticises western belief in pure intellect, and seeks to break down the Cartesian body and mind -dualism with powerful images. The beginning of the poem is parodic inversion of Descartes’s most quoted sentence and the cornerstone of his philosophy, and reads as follows: ”Ajattelin, mutta en ollut olemassa. Sanoin että eläimet ovat koneita. Olin menettänyt kaiken muun paitsi järjen”. (I was thinking, but I did not exist. I told that animals are machines. I had lost everything but reason.) The poem passionately suggests the unity of mind, body and nature; it criticises western estrangement from nature which it finds to be the cause of existential loneliness. In the end of the poem sturdy horses gallop over ”dying France” and Descartes’ grave. This poem does not have any ”Finnishness” in it, besides the language it employs; on the contrary, it links up with European literary modernism. Yet it is still topical. The poem is relevant and fascinating today for the same reason as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s ”phenomenology of the body” that originates approximately from the same period as Manner’s poem. Even if Merleau-Ponty’s does not pull down the mind and body -dualism in pantheistic terms like Manner, he similarly claims that subjectivity is not pure consciousness but also corporality. One could therefore ask, is it not interesting too how Finnish poetry of the 1950s interconnects with the European philosophical tradition and what it makes of it?

Van den Berg does not find any particular ”Finnishness” either from the descriptions of nature in the modernist poems. However, our nature can not cease to be Nordic, unless the weather turns much warmer now when even the permafrost of western Siberia has started to melt. Yet why should we approach the descriptions of nature in poetry as purely mimetic?  Certainly a poem should not be like a picture in a postcard, depicting an exotic landscape? Does not even the term exotic have some colonialist undertones? Nature has several different functions in Finnish modernist poems, like in Manner’s Descartes in which the galloping horses are powerful symbols of vitality, the unity of soul and body, and the victory of pantheism over 17th century mechanistic conception of nature.

Thus, despite the plainness of the Finnish poetry of 1950s and 60s, some of the poems seem always to become newly significant in unforeseen reading contexts, like ”Descartes” or Saarikoski’s Mitä tapahtuu todella. Perhaps we should also take heed of the fact that Janna Kantola’s lecture had made van den Berg aware of some absorbing features in Finnish modernist poetry: knowledge seems to generate interest. Therefore it is vital to equip the collections of translated Finnish poetry with highly illustrative prefaces.

Nonetheless, it would be fairer not to give Finnish poetry to be read on the slopes of Olympus. Anything human turns pale among those immortals!



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