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

Translated by David Hackston

1. The travelling of the Poetry

It is often difficult for literature from small languages to come to the attention of a wider readership and to achieve any form of international reputation, as in order to understand poetry – unlike, for instance, music or the visual arts – one must also have a firm grounding in the given language. Translations play an important role in lowering the barriers between language and literature and in allowing different cultures to influence one another. In addition they are an indication of how the trends and tendencies that run through much western literature are in fact very similar. For this reason it is important that poetry is translated in order that it may reach readers in a different time and place.

Paavo Haavikko (born 1931), the Finnish writer, poet, publisher and author of One And Twenty (1974), the work here under discussion, is widely considered one of the most important and influential writers of the last few decades in Finland. His poetry belongs indisputably to what one may refer to as ’world literature’, but only very little of it has been translated to the more widely-spoken western languages – principally English, German and French – and existing translations tend to focus almost exclusively on his earlier work. Edited and translated by Anselm Hollo, the volume Selected Poems (Cape Goliard 1968, Carcanet 1991) is a collection of Haavikko’s poetry dating from the period 1950-1966. Another volume, also entitled Selected Poems (Penguin 1974) presents a selection of poetry by Haavikko and Tomas Tranströmer in translations by Anselm Hollo and Robin Fulton. In addition to this Haavikko’s poetry can be found alongside the work of other Finnish writers in many translated anthologies, including Territorial Songs (London Magazine 1981), edited and translated by Herbert Lomas. Haavikko’s poetry has been well received in the English language world, and he was awarded the Neustadt Prize in 1984.

Translations of individual works or poems from different collections often fail to provide us with a wider understanding of the variety and scope of a writer’s work, and in the case of Paavo Haavikko, they give the reader an overview only of the poet’s early work. Haavikko’s work dating from his ’middle period’ during the 1970s, including One and Twenty, is all but unknown outside Finland. Although his output has spread across five decades and comprises well over a hundred published titles, translations have not appeared with nearly the same frequency. With the exception of fairytales and letters, this body of work encompasses almost every genre, including historical works, company histories, and pamphlets. In addition to this, Haavikko has assumed numerous roles within Finnish society, notably as the director of several publishing houses (Otava and Art House) and as a debater. Although these roles do not shed light on the poetry itself, they nonetheless help us shape a rounder picture of the writer’s work as a whole.

The roots of Paavo Haavikko’s work as a writer are firmly set in what was something of a renaissance in Finnish poetry. Haavikko appeared on the Finnish poetry scene as a fully-fledged modernist in the early 1950s, at a time when a new mode of expression in Finnish literature was only just beginning to establish itself. The Finnish modernists of the 1950s, as Haavikko and his contemporaries were later dubbed, were in no way a united group of writers, but they were joined by a common belief in the inherent value of art. Aesthetic merit was of the utmost importance. Art should not be harnessed to serve social, political or ideological causes, and neither was its function to address the problematic existence of the creative subject. Artists strove to shake off the national romantic rhetoric and familiar subjects, symbols and language of the early 20th century. Until this time, after all, Finnish literature had been seen to serve a partly nationalist function. It was at this point that writers became keen to attach their work more firmly to the prevailing European culture. Much influence was taken from foreign writers in Finnish translation, particularly those from France (e.g. Sartre) and the Anglo-American world (Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Woolf), whereas in the past the influence of German literature had been far stronger. For instance, the Finnish translation of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is widely considered to have been particularly influential at the time of its publication in 1947.

In international terms, therefore, the process of modernisation in Finnish poetry began relatively late in the day, if one considers that, in the context of European literature, the term ’modernism’ had been used since the 1850s to refer to certain literary and artistic trends and currents whose principal aim was to reshape and renew art. The first wave of modernism in Finland came in the 1920s and 1930s, but it was Haavikko and his contemporaries, notably the poets Eeva-Liisa Manner, Lassi Nummi, Mirkka Rekola, and the novelists Antti Hyry, Veijo Meri, and Marja-Liisa Vartio who finally established a new form of expression.

This renaissance in Finnish literature was partly a result of the Second World War (1939-45), an event that shook the whole of Europe, and, more specifically, grew out of a need to find new points of reference and ways of comprehending reality. In the aftermath of the war it was perhaps impossible to continue writing about universal principles and ideals, as the war had in itself proved these very principles to be untenable in Finland and in many other European countries ravaged by conflict. Thus writers across Europe strove to move away from ideological ties of this nature, in particular to distance themselves from the shadow of nationalism. In many different ways the ’modern experience’ reflected not only these immediate post-war sentiments but other, wider social changes, the disintegration of accepted worldviews, development in technology and other fields, and the commercialisation of culture. Foreignness, estrangement, separation, the ambiguity of the identity, the dislocation and randomness of events, and the displacement of the subject were all characteristics upon which the new could construct itself in an ever-changing world.

New experiences of this kind were reflected in the literary language of Finnish modernism in a variety of ways. Accepted, ready-made meanings were abandoned. In place of the obvious, writers searched for something individual and concrete; abstractions were discarded and considered reactionary. The central objective was always high aesthetic quality and the form of expression had to be analytical and precise. In poetry, the hallmarks of ’modern’ literature were a new image-laden use of symbolism, free rhythm, and a spoken quality. In prose, writers spoke of experimental narrative; great emphasis was placed on the significance of form, while openness and multidimensionality were considered virtues in their own right. The lyrical, subjective self was replaced with a desire to relativize, to question, estrange and reflect observations of the surrounding world.

The influence of Paavo Haavikko’s poetry from the 1950s can still be discerned in his work from the 1970s, when, after a succession of prose works, he returned once again to the genres of poetry and drama. Numerous works dealing with Finnish history and prehistory date from this decade. Behind this lies the partial socialisation of art and literature. At the time of One And Twenty, the early 1970s, the Finnish cultural and literary climate was strongly polarised and even politicised, partly due to the influence of Finland’s vast neighbour to the east, the Soviet Union. Once again, art was called upon to participate actively in social events and to take political sides.

Among the left wing, there was a tendency towards very strong shows of opinion, while many writers were automatically – and often against their own will – divided into opposing camps depending on how they viewed the unity of political and cultural life. Any artists and cultural figures deemed conservative were seen as standing in opposition to the cultural revolution. Paavo Haavikko was never counted amongst the left-wing radicals, and in certain circles his work was seen to defend bourgeois values. In retrospect Haavikko appears above all as a poet, a keen analyst and someone who constantly questioned the myths of the nation and the accepted interpretation of history.

I. Reforging the Sampo

One And Twenty (1974) retells the Finnish legend of the forging of the Sampo, the miraculous mill. The use of elements of folk poetry in literature is in fact an exercise in examining various chains of interpretation. During the 1970s, at the time Haavikko wrote One And Twenty, cultural heritage was often discussed in purely political terms in Finland, and thus the subjects of folk poetry, the common cultural inheritance, were also interpreted in accordance with the climate of the day. The left-wing poet Arvo Turtiainen, a contemporary of Haavikko, wrote in his work Leivän kotimaa (1974; ’The land of bread’) of the Sampo as a symbol of the common ideology of a hard-working people. In Twenty and One, however, the Sampo is a minting machine set in a specific historical time and place: the rich and powerful Byzantine of the 11th century.

The portrayal of the Sampo in One Adn Twenty was viewed as materialistic, particularly in view of the spirit of the day. The film script Iron Age (1977), one of Haavikko’s later Kalevala-themed works, continues discussion of the interpretation of the Sampo: here it is portrayed as the fruit of cooperation between Finland and the Soviet Union and ultimately as an instrument of exploitation.

Twenty and One is not the only of Haavikko’s works to deal with folk poetry and history. Clear reinterpretations of the Kalevala (1835/1849) can be seen in Iron Age (first intended as a film script) and the play Kullervo’s Story (1982), based on a single section of the film script. The name Iron Age links the work not only to the final period in Finnish prehistory, but also to the mythical age of death and destruction as depicted by Hesiodos. In Kansakunnan linja (1977; ’The way of the people’) Haavikko rewrites the time of Finland’s struggle for independence, examined the way in which the history of the period had previously been narrated. The written text examines ways of writing history from the perspective of those in power, while the work’s images reveal the fate of those left with nothing in the face of rapid development, stranded in the emptying countryside. Haavikko’s plays and aphorisms also touch upon these subjects.

In Finnish literature – a literature only a few hundred years old, depending on one’s starting point – the subjects of folk poetry have always held a particular significance, even before the arrival of modern literature. From the time of the national romantic movement in the 19th century, literature has been seen as instrumental in building the nation (Finland first gained independence in 1917), and it was initially for this reason that literature often made use of elements of folk poetry. The Kalevala, based almost entirely on folk poetry and collated and reconstructed by Elias Lönnrot, is considered the product of a period national awakening, and was largely created to fulfil the needs of that awakening. A motivating factor in the collection, examination, and reconstruction of Finnish folk poetry was an attempt to uphold this national ideology. Ancient poetry was seen to stem directly from the great early days of the people, the so-called ’Golden Age’. In general, the Kalevala has been interpreted more as a piece of ancient history than as the poetic work of Elias Lönnrot.

By re-examining the myth of the Sampo and other such themes from the Kalevala, Haavikko joins the substantial group of western writers who have employed and reinterpreted their own culture and the myths and legends of their literature. In modern literature myths dealing with the power of language and its interpretation have frequently been retold in such a way that earlier assumptions and models have been cast in a new light. In particular the myths of antiquity and the great western epics have been the subject of numerous new interpretations, principal examples being the myth of Odysseus and variants of several other similar tales rewritten by writers including James Joyce, Christa Wolf and Margaret Atwood, to name but a few.

In modern literature the precise form and structure of epic poetry are, however, relatively rare. The elevated tradition of epic poetry (think, for instance, of Milton’s Paradise Lost) would require a vision, and even a prophecy, equivalent to that epic greatness in any modern realisation. Twenty and One can be compared to Nobel winning Swedish author Harry Martinson’s novel Aniara (1956), a work in which the characters move towards a new age and ultimate destruction in a rapidly changing environment, clutching at random, individual attempts to explain what is happening to them. Haavikko appears to take the idea of writing about change even further: man is seen in relation to his environment, and thus he can control neither the events around him nor the changes occurring within him. Instead of becoming the product of the narration, the hero, he becomes the loser, the focus of events, the object. As in Martinson’s Aniara, the central character in Haavikko’s text is thrown into an age that is changing far quicker than he is able to understand the changes occurring around him.

II. Symbols and metaphors

At the heart of the epic poem One And Twenty is the story, central to the Kalevala, of the forging of the Sampo, its carriage to Pohjola, the plot to recapture it, and finally its loss in the sea. Folk poetry does not provide us with a clear image of what the Sampo, an object bringing good luck and happiness, really is, and it is perhaps for this very reason that forming an interpretation of the Sampo has so challenged artists and researchers.

In the interpretation presented in One And Twenty the Sampo is initially a concrete, material object, or rather a mystical source of money that somehow arrived in prehistoric Finland; the treasure-troves of a rich nation. The money therein had wound up in Finland carried by merchant traders and the Vikings. Correspondingly the mythical Pohjola of much Finnish folk poetry is in fact a real historical place situated to the south of Finland. This is assumed to have been the true historical superpower at the time of the birth of narrative folk poetry. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine of the 11th century was known as the heart of Europe, a vast, wealthy nation, whereas in what is now Finland people still lived an almost prehistoric existence, their livelihoods centering around hunting and fishing.

The poem begins with the voyage to Byzantine to recapture the Sampo. Later, long after the events involving the Sampo, the struggle to obtain money changes and is seen as a yearning for immortality and eternal life. A number of different characteristics and interpretations become associated with the object of the journey and more specifically with the figure of the Sampo itself, which is even portrayed as the female pudenda. Thus the Sampo, once a concrete object, has come to represent a variety of different desirable things.

A similar shift from a concrete, referential story to abstract symbols may also lie behind the eventual shaping of folk poetry as a whole. An article published alongside a review of One Adn Twenty, and written by Paavo Haavikko himself, entitled ’What will happen to poetry in 1000 years?’ outlined the path of this development using the following analogy.

”What if I were to write a few verses in which I claimed that Mrs. Wihuri amassed a lot of money in great freight ships, and what she could not get at sea she gathered by plundering the land using terrible machines with several hundred horse power? Perhaps I will one day. This is what would happen to that poem. When someone reads it in a thousand year’s time they may conclude that the freight ship was a clumsy vessel from the times back when the Finns, surrounded by a number of different enemies, even resorted to using Renault tanks to cross the ice, the sea, in that sense. Then another person would come to the next conclusion: Mrs. Wihuri was a force of nature who gathered, i.e. maintained and kept freight ships in service, blowing as she was, after all, a gust of wind. She may even have been the bride of Wäinämöinen, his wife. Then all you need is a gifted artist the like of Akseli Gallen-Kallela to immortalize it in a painting in which the force of nature Mrs. Wihuri is blowing the sails of a boat resembling a freight ship, while on the shore a plough with several hundred horse power is digging ditches in the swamp.”

The imaginary symbol above develops thus: the real historical person, Mrs. Wihuri, refers to Jenny Wihuri (born 1943), wife of the renowned Finnish shipping magnate Antti Wihuri. In this context Jenny Wihuri represents a moderately influential historical figure, associated with the shipping industry, who over time, in different stories and interpretations, gradually assumes mythical proportions. In addition, the word ’wihuri’ refers in Finnish to ’a gust of wind’. Later this newly born figure is associated with Väinämöinen, the central hero of Finnish folk poetry, and is thought to have been his wife. The symbols of folk poetry, such as the Sampo, were constructed via a chain of interpretations and reinterpretations; over time their forms changed and, at least in part, they lost their original meaning.

This logical chain can be used to help understand the development of symbols in the above manner and, moreover, it offers a way of understanding the history of the numerous explanations and interpretations of these symbols. However, this alone is not enough. Twenty and One is primarily a work of modern poetry for which existing symbols and their ready-made interpretations do not apply. Many elements that would normally oppose and exclude one another exist side by side in this epic poem as ’pure’ metaphors. For instance, the encounter between the crew of twenty-one Finnish-Karelian men and the thousand-fold Byzantine army represents not only the meeting of two peoples, cultures, or two stages of civilisation; ultimately this represents the sheer impossibility of such an encounter. They are too different, too incompatible to adapt to one another. They are the centre and the periphery, irrevocably estranged from one another.

To this end, poetic language has at its disposal a variety of different registers and the possibility to switch and interchange them. They can be combined in different contexts, depending on the given external situation or inner experience. For instance, at the opening of the epic, during the depiction of the planned journey of plunder, the language approaches the archaic poetic meter of the Finnish language, the trochaic meter of the Kalevala. However, at the encounter with the thousand-fold Byzantine army the language changes, displaying methods common to modern poetry. One example is to be found in the fifth stanza of poem two, which depicts the above encounter. Both narrator and perspective change, and familiar symbols are replaced with metaphors and figurative expressions.

The scene can in fact be read as a miniature guide to the art of poetics: does the epic demonstrate how poetry changes in new and surprising situations in which the scope of traditional, familiar poetic language is simply not enough to process these rapidly shifting observations? Ultimately poetry does not require such a defence. Poetry does not recognise such concepts as centre and periphery, conflict, dialogue and culture. It expresses events, breathes them, its breath consisting of the sounds, rhythm and meter, its detailed observations and their infinite combinations. It is the changing of contexts, contrast and comparison, wrong interpretations. Poetic form is built around observation, expression and reinterpretation, again and again.

And so poetry continues according to the theory of the chance: even in these circumstances, despite being so vastly outnumbered, the crew succeeds in bringing home the Sampo. However, by now the perspective has shifted from one between two armies to one between two individuals. Cuckoo’s Son- one of the unexpected heroes from the beginning of the work – meets a girl, learns her language, learns about good manners and God as he speaks, hissing, persecuting and crushing others, and one night scales a wall ”like climbing a woman’s leg”, and with that the Sampo is secured. This is somewhat surprising, yet is just as feasible as everything else. Ultimately, however, this is only one method amongst many, a single event, and even this does not bring about any real change amongst the members of the crew.

III. Gold, immortality, darkness

Tales are told of victors, preserving their memory for future generations, but is the experience of the periphery preserved other than in repeated and even traumatic metaphors? In a purely psychological sense the experience of the crew members is a powerful expression of the idea that ”names drawn on birch bark disappear”. In this respect the crew in One And Twenty can be seen as struggling against paling into insignificance, and striving to achieve gold, eternity, and to establish their place in history. This is also why the chains of events in the 35 poems of One And Twenty follow on logically from one another: after the struggle for the Sampo, there comes a struggle for something else. But although on a temporal, local, and textual level the methods of this struggle are in constant flux, the objective always remains the same: to avoid destruction and, at least symbolically, to stay alive, to continue indefinitely.

Three chains of events are discernible through the course of this epic poem. Poems 2-11 place the events in Byzantine, in which the quest is not only for the Sampo but also, in an allusion to the Byzantine text Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, for power and heroism. In contrast, poems 12-18 recount the story of a journey to Africa in search of the source of the Nile, the inspiration being the story of Homer’s Odyssey and the Actor captured and taken on the journey as a narrator, his symbolic function being to perform requested tales.

Poems 19-31 depict the journey back across the Russian continent. Here, against the backdrop of the civil wars of the 13th and 14th centuries, the crew members are seen in an almost exclusively comical capacity. Different events follow on from one another with the rapid, almost simultaneous logic of war, struggle, and conspiracy. Here events are portrayed in the present, in the here and now, with no intimation of what the future may hold. The historical source of this section is primarily J.L.I. Fennell’s The Emergence of Moscow 1304-1359.

The poems depicting the final homecoming, 32-35, place the aims of the crew in relation to their earlier achievements. The epic begins and ends with the same pair of lines: ”but that is why this world is poor, the sea mighty, / because the Sampo fell into the sea.” We also hear the heroic tale, not of the crew members’ quest, but of Kullervo, the one in ancient folklore who was left alone outside the group. Again the binary of centre and periphery, otherness and alienation, recurs, only this time it manifests itself amongst their own people. In Haavikko’s later works the Kullervo theme develops and grows into an all-encompassing treatise on the destructive relationship between society and the individual.

The poetic language in this epic employs not only different registers but makes extensive use of numerous narrative techniques shifting between descriptive and lyrical sections. Several lyrical poems (14, 15, 24, 26, 29, and 35) are placed in between the largely narrative poems that help move the plot forwards. Additionally, certain poems contain individual lyrical stanzas. While the narrative poems move the plot forwards, one important function of the lyrical sections is to examine situations and experiences. This culminates in what is perhaps the most important of these sections: the almost metaphysical explanation of the root of the people’s fear of the Tatar and their sense of otherness (poem 29).

Images and metaphors relating to darkness, blindness, gold, and the ability to see recur throughout the epic, though their meanings are far from conventional. Rather they are symbols that are constructed little by little through the course of the work. In the case of the theme of gold, one point of comparison is W.B. Yeats’ poems about Byzantine, in which the narrator yearns to leave Ireland, his young homeland, and travel to golden, resplendent Byzantine, the city of stability and eternity. In Haavikko’s epic the idea of acquiring gold is, however, something alien to normal life, and is tainted with images of loss and otherness. Similarly, in H.C. Andersen’s fairytale ”The Emperor’s Nightingale” a golden bird is fashioned that is more wonderful than the living creature, but still its perfection cannot produce the joy and warmth that life brings with it.

For the reader following the symbol of gold, an allegory is introduced, connected in part to the (imaginary) problematic encounter between centre and periphery. The endless quest for gold, power, and happiness will always end somewhere other than expected: in the dark. One searching in this way will fall victim to comparison, irreconcilable conflicts of interest, losses, impulses, and constant change, and will find himself at the mercy of the surrounding reality. In Haavikko’s other works darkness is seen as an inexplicable result of hubris, a melancholy effect of crossing the boundaries of human endeavour.

In contrast to classical epics, Haavikko does not present us with a ready-made, stable worldview. In a modern epic there is no place for a stable hero. Ultimately such heroic alternatives do not exist, and the same applies to a functional model of how to harness the surrounding world. From both a historical and synchronic perspective the world is in constant shift. Latching on to a given explanation, say, myth or history, is virtually impossible. Empirically myths can be true, but from another perspective they can be seen as misleading, while history may be nothing but a fiction created against a set of questionable intentions. Nonetheless one can clearly discern the hallmarks of uncontrollable whims and chance: individual desires and needs, beliefs and changes, boundaries, conflicts, and an endless shifting of different contexts.



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