The Helsinki Poetics Conference: Paavo Haavikko’s Kaksikymmentä ja yksi (One and Twenty) Revisited, August 22, 2006

A quick translation into English by Jere Malkavaara

To begin with – Space or time?

It is commonly known that a part of the living heritage of a poetic movement called modernism is the focusing on the imagery of poetry. By simplifying a little, one could say that the modernistic poetry and its offspring are often characterized by the use of static imagery, a certain momentariness that closes the time continuum as well as the story itself.

A modernistic poem observes space and refuses to answer the question of time by forgetting it and staying silent about it. Space and time are here and now, they do not have a future and they certainly do not have a past. According to Aarne Kinnunen the observer of a poem stops at an object that implies to him that the writing is more than just itself, it is of a symbolic nature.

The idea of a prose text is exactly the opposite as it is seen as a slow paced chattering, as a text of a long duration that always has a beginning a middle part and an ending. A poem is an image of space and a prose text is a story with an aspect of time.

The Finnish modernism of the 50’s is obviously not alone in its time and space related characteristics. Many other forms of writing and reading poetry are restricted by time and imagery or at least concentrate their best assets on these features. In his work that has recently been translated into Finnish as Tilan Poetiikka (The Poetics of Space) Gaston Bachelard ignores almost completely the question of time, continuation, duration and tradition. Bachelard observes the spaciality of our human existence, what one’s being in a place and staying motionless means. He approaches this subject through poetic imagery. For Bachelard being in a space and spaciality are inevitable and adequate conditions for a poetic imagination. Time and duration on the other hand are meaningless.

A malicious critic could argue that similar features can be found in some of the so called postmodern language poetry. This argument is not completely valid, although it is true that in several texts of such language poetry a certain fury is used to observe the breaking of a meaning, the temporariness of human existence, textuality and shatteredness. In some occasions this kind of a method of writing is consciously against the dimensions of story and duration as well as the textualization of time. On the other hand, in its limitless resourcefulness, post modern poetry opens up new and interesting possibilities and at its best surpasses the limitations of modernism and other styles using confined imagery.

The strength of postmodern poetry is that it cannot be traced back to a certain explanation or simplification and this also holds true in the case of meeting the challenge of temporality as Juhani Vähänen writes:

”When talking about an image I am also referring to how an image can mean something which is not permanent or which does not have a foundation to guarantee its existence as an entity. An image is completely in motion and one has to treat it accordingly.”

This is a significant opening and a way of forming the subject. It creates a horizon of anticipation, a thesis waiting to become concrete in a form of a poem.

In other words I am arguing that temporary continuity and the narrative development of a meaning are imperative conditions for the existence of all texts. This either is or is not taken into consideration when writing but it cannot be avoided. There are no timeless images.

One and Twenty – Time and Poetic Fiction

One and Twenty (Kaksikymmentä ja yksi) by Paavo Haavikko shows several ways in which a poem can be a continuum in time, a story that deals with time and has a duration but is still not prose. As Johanna Pentikäinen has stated, the notion that Paavo Haavikko is first and foremost a 50’s modernist holds still true as it does in the case of writers Tuomas Anhava, Antti Hyry and Marja-Liisa Vartio. This generalization is based on the works written in the 50’s and ignores the fact that after those works there has been a radical change in the works of Haavikko. Many central features of modernism such as static describing have disappeared. Motion is created; the human existence in time and the way it can be presented receive attention.

The temporality of One and Twenty is cyclic in its structure. In other words, it does not form an unbroken and a coherent story on how the Sampo got stolen where one could see a beginning a middle part and an ending according to the famous model by Aristotle. It is anything but a consistent and a simple chronological story in which the beginning and the end are connected to each other in a cyclical manner. The poems about a journey to Nile, which follow the Sampo story, move actually backwards in time, as Pentikäinen has commented The journey to Nile is a attempt to go back from the ”real” historical time to the mythical timelessness.

However, in the vast Russia episode of the work time becomes linear. The speaker of the poem has knowledge about the past and the present but not certainty of the future unlike in mythic reality which is based on a cyclic image of time. One of the central themes of the work is this moving from the mythical world to the historical world. It is possible to say that compared to prose, poetry offers more possibilities for telling stories with a time aspect as well as stories about time.

Fast paced episodes can be told using narrative poems as Haavikko has done in One and Twenty. Lyric poems, on the other hand, can be used for observing situations and relations when time is passing slower but still does not go back to being a static image. The variation of these two in One and Twenty creates the overall rhythm and structure of the work.

It can be said that One and Twenty uses the possibilities of tying together time and text on many levels. Single poems, three main parts and the work as a whole all reflect in different ways time and human existence in it. Time is subjective and based on one’s experiences, a human being is in his time rhythmically. Time is collective and shared, it forms stories. It is also related to history as the way how time is experienced varies according to different periods of time. Special attention can be paid to the poem 17 in which Ceow’s Son turns the direction of time by tossing a coin into the Nile and thus brings to life his dead friends, the Käyrä twins. The change in the direction of time does not, however, please the twins and by their request the time is restored to its normal path.

The Story Dimension as a part of Existence

To be able to argue, as I have done, that all texts inevitably, the writer being aware of it or not, form a narrative that goes forward in time, something fundamental about the human existence has to be acknowledged. We have to acknowledge the fact that even human existence is in some extremely profound way story like.

Human existence is storytelling, it is both being in a story and being the story and the way a human being exists sets limitations to everything that this entity that is present is able to do, for example writing or reading poetry. The human existence that martin Heidegger called ”Dasein”, is in a story and it is the story, but also everything that it does and all that it can know happens as a narrative in time.

In the end the writing and reading of any text is creating a plot or ”mise en intrigue” as Paul Ricoeur has called it. Human actions can only be understood when the observer makes it a story with a plot and a temporal aspect, although it is clear that this does not mean clear chronology or any other vulgar conception of time arising from the everyday experience.

It is possible to separate the two concepts, objective and subjective or universal and experience based time, as Ricoeur does. The human experience based time is constructed through narration. We understand the world, others and ourselves as narratives, stories with a time aspect that we tell to ourselves and to others. All texts, objects and happenings in this world can only be understood if they are attached to our subjective experiences, to the story of ourselves and our beings.

As a result the aspects of time and story are not only qualities of prose fiction but temporality is a condition for all texts. The most interesting literary texts, such as One and Twenty, take this necessary starting point into consideration and benefit from it by using all of its possibilities.


Bachelard, Gaston: Tilan poetiikka. Nemo 2003.
Haavikko, Paavo: Kaksikymmentä ja yksi (1974). In the work: Runoelmat. Otava 1975, s. 227-338.
Pentikäinen, Johanna: Myytit ja myyttisyys Paavo Haavikon teoksissa Kaksikymmentä ja yksi, Rauta-aika ja Kullervon tarina. Diss. Helsinki 2002.
Ricoeur, Paul: Temps et récit III. Le temps raconté. Seuil 1985.
Ricoeur, Paul: Soi-même comme un autre. Seuil 1990.
Vähänen, Juhana: ”Varmuudesta ja epävarmuudesta”. Nuori Voima 2-3/2006, s. 57-59.



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