A talk presented at a session of Charles Bernstein’s class on “Twentieth Century Poetry (but not in US)“, at The University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Feb. 23, 2005


I’d like to start by a short comment on this situation.

Come to think of it, I’ve never been asked to do exactly this in Finland – to talk about Finnish poetry in general (I’m more likely to be asked to talk about American poetry). Besides, if asked, I might not be willing to do it, at least not without reservations. Why? Because, fundamentally, I don’t believe in coupling poetry and nationality together. In my view, the most fertile periods of “Finnish” poetry go together with the times when it’s been the most open to foreign influences. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t cherish the Finnishness of our poetry. I do. But to me, what, fundamentally, makes this “Finnishness” or “originality”, are not the indigenous features of Finnish language or culture (although interesting as such), but the unique way of borrowing from others – something which, again, is never fully conditioned by internal factors.

In short, so, I intend to give you the reverse of Charles’ title for this class: to talk about Finnish poetry, but not in Finland only – and not, for that matter, for Finland and Finns only.

I will start with the general background, then proceed gradually to a sort of introduction to my own work, in the belief that true international exchanges always take place between people, not between nations.


There are not so many Finnish-speaking persons in the world. The population of Finland proper is about 5 million; there are several thousand Finns living in Sweden (especially since a great wave of movement there in late 60’s); Finnish is still spoken in Russian Carelia, across the eastern border…that’s about it.[1]

One thing about Finland is that you very easily come to define the country in terms of it’s language. Finland is a language-country. Still, it is also multilingual. A 6 percent minority talks Swedish, and the country is officially bilingual, much in the way of Quebec in Canada, I think. Some people in the North still speak saame, and today, English is spoken so widely (especially among the youth, and in larger corporations), that if you ask me, it could easily be established as the third or fourth official language.

Finland is also a large country, about the size of the States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts put together. So we live far from each other – something that might have contributed to the general conception of Finns as people that don’t talk that much. I recently heard about a study to find out, which people in the world are the best to stand out silence. Finns came in second, right after the Japanese; the lowest rankings falling to the Italians, and the Americans. From your reading stuff, you might remember the poem by Paavo Haavikko, with this line: “Finnish is no language, it is a way of sitting at one end of a bench with hair over your ears”. Bertolt Brecht again, who lived in Helsinki during WW2, said Finland to be “a country where the people keep silent in two languages.”

The Finnish language is both archaic and new. It belongs to the Finno-Ugrian family of languages; our ancestors talked it for several thousands years ago somewhere at the Ural Mountains.[2] For some reason, it seems we still speak it much the same way, both in terms of syntax, and vocabulary. My favourite example of this is the Finnish word for “king”, “kuningas”. In school, we were taught the word “derives” from the English form, or from German “König”. Actually it is the opposite. For instance, the Old German word for “king” is “kunigas”, pretty near to what we have now. The other languages have evolved, while we have stuck to the good old form, and it’d be better to say that your word, “king”, derives from our “kuningas”. (But note that the old word is “common”, there’s no telling “who invented” it, or which language “borrowed” it from what in the first place. It’s long been the obsessive ideology of the “official Finnish” that we should not borrow words, but “use the ones of our own instead”. That’s why foreigners often don’t understand a word when listening to Finnish. For instance, instead of “telephone”, we have “puhelin”, a word coined from the verb “puhua”, “to speak”. But we do have “radio” for “radio”, “fax” for fax, and “internet” for “Internet”. And, as indicated, the amount of borrowed words within the ancient vocabulary itself is larger than many Finns like to think.)

As to grammar and syntax, I’d like to give a few examples. Let’s take another borrowed Finnish word, “hotelli”, for “hotel”. The following scheme gives an idea of how the Finnish grammar works:

a / the hotel hotelli
hotels hotellit
at the hotel hotellissa
to the hotel hotelliin
my hotel hotellini
at my hotel hotellissani
at my hotels hotelleissani
also at my hotels hotelleissanikin
not even at my hotels hotelleissanikaan
why, not even at my hotels? hotelleissanikaanko?
etc. etc.

Note the second “e” in the form “hotelleissani”, “at my hotels”. From it, you see that the endings, complicated as such, do not get added to the word itself, but to what is known as the radical – a virtual basic form of the word, never used as such. An educated Finn could easily tell the nominative form for any noun, but it will not be, I think, privileged in any way in linguistic practice – you could say that every word comes ready with fourteen or so “customized” interfaces.

My following example is of a verb:

to write kirjoittaa
I write [minä] kirjoitan
you write [sinä] kirjoitat
he/she writes [hän] kirjoittaa
we write [me] kirjoitamme
you write [te] kirjoitatte
they write [he] kirjoittavat
did I write? kirjoitinko
I didn’t write en kirjoittanut
even when I wrote kirjoittaessanikin
even without me writing kirjoittamattanikin
etc. etc.

As you see, the verbs inflect according to what is known as the grammatical number, and then there are any number of moduses, forms of verbs to indicate different ways of doing or happening.

As one further illustration, I took a random passage from a Finnish book, and translated it into English as if I had no idea of English grammar and syntax. This is from Life of Pentti Saarikoski, the Modernist poet, by Pekka Tarkka, one of the leading literary critics of the country. He here reports on the poets drinking problems in early 60’s:

He told-he passing-having-he university-at two first-year-examinations-the but stopped-having-had examinationfear’s because. Alcohol-the he had-he drunk first time 16 years-when schoolmates-at-when; summer-during 1954 Italy-in he had-he bought two liters-of white-wine-of and drunk it-the dormitory’s room-in.

Let me say in passing that by giving you these examples, I am not implying that there would be some fundamental difference between thinking in these two languages. The idea of language conditioning and determining thought is of course prevalent in what is known as postmodern theory; likewise, you sometimes hear that theory criticized for claiming that, somehow, “everything is language”. Though I’ve been much influenced by this kind of thinking, in both my intellectual and poetic development, I now tend to see the things the other way round. To say that everything is language would imply, fundamentally, that the reality is transparent, explainable, if only with difficulty (and those believing in this, I think, ultimately do think that everything is language.) For me, the centrality of language comes, on the contrary, from the fact that it is not everything, does not come to us naturally, is something to be learned, and for this reason always insufficient and unfinished, never capable of explaining everything. (and I’m tempted to make the equation: what, in philosophy, is known as the real = that which stays outside the language, resisting its power to explain). The job of poetry is sometimes said to be to make reality seem strange (or new.). To me the more urgent job is to reveal the strangeness of language. And here, there is no fundamental difference between the strangeness of my own language, and that of those learned later, and thus less in my command. This is one of the reasons I am more and more interested in writing in English, of which more later.

To conclude this short introduction to Finnish, I’d like to point out certain features of the language that are of special interest for poetic practice.

The sound. One can hear people, Finns and non-Finns alike, alternatively to praise the language for its “beautiful flow of vowels”, or blame it for its “harsh consonants”. For an example of the former, let’s take this adjective, a sort of Finnish equivalent for Christian Böks title, Eunoia:


with seven consecutive vowels that all get pronounced – meaning, roughly, “what you intend to do during your wedding night”. Some examples of the latter (and of some “ugly” vowels too) would be words like “köriläs” (“a big hulk of a man”), “mörökölli” (“a grouch”, “a grumbler”), “ärräpää” (euphemistic for “cursing”), or the most well-known Finnish curse, “perkele”, the devil[3]. Esthetic considerations aside, Finnish abounds with onomatopoetical words and possibilities for “painting” with sounds.

The stress pattern. The spoken Finnish is actually rather monotonous. The primary stress always falls on the first syllable, like in these opening lines of Kalevala:

Vaka vanha Väinämöinen, tietäjä iän ikuinen,

Also, there’s very little intonation in spoken Finnish, in the way of, say, of English or French (and I think you can hear that from my way of speaking English!). I will return to the implications of all this for the development of Finnish poetic diction.

The flexibility. I mentioned the “fourteen faces” of the Finnish noun. In fact, you may form almost any number of new grammatical forms from any Finnish word. The reverse of this is, that the words tend to be rather long. Written Finnish may look awkward, and listening to Finnish prose might be somewhat tedious, but for a poet, the language is an invention to word play: to punning, rhyming, and building up artificial constructions of all sorts, including anagrams and palindromes – as I wish to show you later on.

The orthography. In Finnish, there is an almost total correspondence between the spoken phonemes and the written letters – so unlike in English: think for instance of the letter “y” in words like “you” and “my”. Thus virtually every dialect or slang – and Finnish abounds in them – can have an equal representation in writing. On the other hand, the “official” written Finnish, the “book-language”, as it is known, is – for reasons I will touch upon in a moment – somewhat artificial, preserved for argumentative uses, written exposition, speeches, etc. In reality very few people actually speak it (they tell me I happen to be one of them, though).


As I said, Finnish is also very young. The present Finland was for centuries under Swedish rule – Swedish being also the language of the administration, education, etc., and the Swedes forming the ruling class of the country. The first written Finnish documents date from the 17th century, when Mikael Agricola translated the Bible. Yet the reading skills were still rare among the (mostly Finnish) peasantry when Russia took over the country in early 19th century, changing the ruling language to Russian. The written Finnish as we know it only began to emerge around 1850, as a part of a nationalistic movement known as “the Fennomans”, argumenting for a “Finnish civilization” and for a greater independence for Finland as a Russian Grand Duchy. This movement met with initial understanding from the Russian authorities, and there followed a fertile period of national revival – Finnish-speaking population begun to get education in Finnish, several Finnish newspapers got started, the first Finnish novel, Seitsemän veljestä (The Seven Brothers) by Aleksis Kivi was published, etc. This was also the time for Elias Lönnrot to go around collecting all that oral poetry now known as The Kalevala (heavily edited by Lönnrot, I should add). There being no administrative or other traditions of written Finnish, much of the modern Finnish language was actually coined at that time, on the fly – and at least superficially against what Frederic de Saussure claims to be the “laws of language” in his famous Course, which I am co-translating at the present. I admit envying those guys: – O, you need a word for “state” – well, there’s this old world “valta”, meaning, roughly, shamanistic power, so what about “valtio“. – Sounds good, lets make it current! What about “government”, then? – Hmm, why not derive it from “hallita” (to restrict!), let’s start calling those guys “hallitus“.

Towards the end of the century, the Russian government grew more suspicious of the Finnish progress, a period of repression followed, and the Finns themselves were split in their resistance – some advocating for compromises with the Imperial Russia, others again beginning to speak in terms of national independence. As I am currently working on a new translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, I am constantly struck by how closely the situation of Ireland of the time resembles the Finnish one – same urge for “Home Rule”, same kinds of contradictions between different strategic and tactical responses to the occupier – but with, possibly, this difference: whereas the rebirth of ancient Irish language was mostly an utopian dream, Finnish was already a recognized and established “language of the awakening”. Maybe Finnish could be seen as a rare example of success among so many vain attempts to bring threatened languages back to life…

…which will, finally, bring us to the Finnish poetry (cf. Leino: ” My country of birth, it will listen too – / wake up one day, and rattle its chains.”). The birth of modern Finnish poetry was very much tied to all that social development. Here it is worth noting that many of the Founding Fathers of the Finnish national awakening had Hegelian backgrounds. Thus, it was natural for them to see the effort as one of the country’s “rising to the level of the development of the spirit”, or “becoming part of the civilized world”. In spite of a lot of romanticizing about Kalevala and all that mythical background at that time, the process as a whole is more adequately to be seen as one of cultural import. The catch cry was for “the native fine arts”, for “high Finnish poetical diction”, etc., and to me, the period, say, from1870’s to 1940’s (what we use to call the time of “classical” or “traditional” Finnish poetry) is more than anything else a time of constant experimentation with foreign poetical forms, metrical and rhyme schemes, genres, patterns. And here the peculiarities of language I was outlining earlier become interesting.

Think of the stress always falling on the first syllable. As a sort of reverse example, lets take “Hauen laulu”, by Aaro Hellaakoski, which I translated for you as “The Pike’s Song”. I will begin by reading the two first stanzas in Finnish, so you get some touch of how the language works when abiding to its “natural” flow:

Kosteasta kodostaan
nous hauki puuhun laulamaan

kun puhki pilvien harmajain
jo himersi päivän kajo
ja järvelle heräsi nauravain
lainehitten ajo
nous hauki kuusen latvukseen
punaista käpyä purrakseen

Let’s then try “the same” in my English – and I’ll try to retain as far as possible the original stress pattern:

From his hole so wet and drenching
a pike rose up to tree to sing

when through the greyish net of clouds
first gleam of day was seen
and at the lake the lapping waves
woke up with joyous mean
the pike rose to the spruce’s crone
to take a bite at reddish cone

he may have seen or heard, or smelled
or learned by taste of cone
the dew-wet glory, untold yet
of that morning-hour

opening his
mouth so bony
sidewise moving
the jawbone phoney

intoned a hymn
so wild-and-heavy
that birds fell silent
as if overcome by
the waters’ weight
and lonesomeness’
cold embrace.

Note, by the way, that the poem could be symbolically interpreted as depicting just this “rising” of an archaic language “to the level” of the more civilized ones (which it also seems to be “challenging” in some way). But as to the rhythm of my English version, I guess you could call it “hammering”. I wish I’d have more examples – maybe I will produce them, one day. At least I think there is something in my approach that’s been overlooked by many earlier translators of this poetry, who have been more keen in making the translation sound “natural” in the target language.

Now, I think the same applies vice versa, too. My modest example might just give you a hint of all the difficulties encountered by Finnish poets in trying to put the classical iambic pentameter, or French Alexandrine, to work in their own budding language. Even in metrical English verse, the first unstressed position in a line often falls to a monosyllable – but as you may infer from my earlier examples, the Finnish doesn’t just abound in words with only one syllable. Even the pronouns tend to have two syllables to them, and in this poetry, you will often see what are known as contracted forms: instead of “joka” (“who”, “that”), the poets wrote “jok'”, in stead of “koska” (“because”), “kosk'” – so much so that these forms came to be viewed as necessary ingredients of “elevated” poetic diction – the Finnish equivalents for “yonder” or “methinks” in Wordsworth or Keats. On a more general level, however, I’d say that in almost all the Finnish poetry from that period, there can be seen a persistent strive to a radical foregrounding of the “musical” qualities of language. Many poets of the time (in addition to Leino and somewhat younger Hellaakoski, I should mention Otto Manninen, the skilled versifier and first translator of Homer’s Odyssey, Uuno Kailas, and Kaarlo Sarkia) where prized – and later also criticized – for the “sonorous” qualities of their verse. My general point here is that to achieve this, they had to go against what was considered to be “natural” or “normal” for the language, and this with the help of those foreign, imported models. I am not claiming any intrinsic value for these models (in the meaning of a “natural” universal poetics). I just want to stress the importance of the meeting of different traditions, and the accompanying cross-fertilization effect – the fact that these poets were, necessarily and instinctively, after “a new kind of language”, after expressing something not expressed yet, something, perhaps, not even possible to experience before having been put to words in this new language. In short, I see them as my predecessors in the efforts to “make language strange”, as early (Finnish) Language Poets, if you wish.

Instead of further examples, I want to close this discussion with a few general remarks on the “music” in poetry. Some people have considered my own work to be linguistically musical. I always find that amusing, since in reality, I’m tone deaf if anyone ever was. I couldn’t even sing that piece of sound poetry in my anthology, by Väinö Kirstinä, with musical notation. (Then again, I must admit always having thought that I might have been a composer, if only I had some sense of music.[4]) But on a more general level, I’d say that music in language and poetry doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with the sonorous, harmony, etc. I’d rather think of musicality as a sort of vertical axis in language, in its way to produce meaning. I mentioned de Saussure: for him, language was basically linear, the function of signs being based on their succession, and difference, in time and space. I’m beginning to have more and more doubts regarding this view, and I’d wish one day to be able to present the case of Finnish, and the early Finnish poetry, as an evidence against a certain underlying strait in de saussurean thinking. It has long been my conviction that the terms for some tropes, like metaphor and metonymy, should be relieved from their narrow use as labels for certain poetical practices (not least since they often tend to produce bad poetry.). I tend to see these structures as conditioning all use of language – meaning also that what really differentiates language proper from other systems of signs is, more than the sign’s “arbitrariness”, it’s necessary amgiquity, i.e. it’s ability to always refer to more than one thing simultaneously. In this, the terms like metaphor and metonymy can usefully be equated with what Freud saw as fundamental working principles of dream: condensation (Verdichtung) and displacement (Verschiebung). I wish to return to this analogy.


Against the picture I gave on the earlier Finnish poetry, the period of Finnish Modernism, represented in your reading material by Anhava, Manner, Haavikko, and Saarikoski, is a somewhat mixed bag. From the beginning, it was understood as a movement of protest, as a violent break with the inherited way to see both the poet’s task, and the actual way of writing poetry. In their pronouncements at least, the Modernists reacted against the very idea of a specific poetic diction, stressing, on the contrary, the need to allow poetry to speak the “everyday” or “normal” language, where the dismantling of what was seen as a coercive jacket of traditional metrics was seen as crucial. The Modernist revolution was basically one of “free verse”. It was also a very successful one: in less than ten years, it virtually obsoleted the use of all metrical patterns, establishing free verse as the dominant way to write poetry – and this, I think, more thoroughly than almost anywhere else in the Western literature.

There is no denying the need for this kind of renewment and opening up in Finnish poetry at the time. On the other hand, one cannot ignore the effects of some of the basic assumptions made by the theoreticians of the new movement. What I personally have come to see as most problematic in the ideology of Finnish modernism (and I think it is apt to use this strong word here) is it’s tendency to see language as such as something unproblematic. That is why there is actually very little linguistic experimentation in the Finnish Modernism proper.

The question needs also to be put against some historical and sociological background. The post-war Finland was a different country in many ways compared to that of the years 1918-1945 (often referred to as the First Republic). The wars against Soviet Union had ended with Finland’s defeat, and while the country managed to retain its independency and never was even near to be a Soviet satellite in the way of the so-called People’s Democracies of Eastern Europe, we still had to maintain special relations to the big Eastern neighbor, epitomized in the so-called Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance[5]. As one indicator of the change, the Finnish Communist Party, clandestine during the First Republic, emerged very powerful from the war and even participated in the government in the years 1945-1948. In Finland, this period is generally seen as one of adaptation to new harsh realities, of compromises and skilled tactical maneuvers to maintain the independence. Some saw it – and still see it today – as “years of danger”, not least because of the strong position of the – then staunchly pro-Soviet – Communists.

But the years from 1945 on were also a time of rapid industrialization of the country, in fact of a sweeping structural change unparalleled in many ways in the history of modernizations. The Finland of the First Republic was still predominantly agricultural, and even my own childhood memories, from the 50’s in a small, remote village in the Southern Finland, are of horses and cows and making hay and harvesting the crops in the traditional way… The 50’s and 60’s saw a massive wave of movement from the countryside to the urban centers, and already in early 70’s, the industrial and service sectors were prominent as compared to the agriculture. On the political level, all this meant a gradual shift of power from the traditional right-wing parties to what was known as the Center-Left Coalition, or “the Popular Front”, where the Social-Democratic party emerged as the hegemonic force.

Against this background, there are several things about the Finnish Modernists that are of interest here. Firstly, they were mostly urban, both in their personal backgrounds, and in their subject matter – cf. Haavikko’s parodic use of the traditional rural imagery in “The Prince Speaks”. In this, one could see them as epitomizing the sociological changes I were outlining. Secondly, they were almost programmatically a-political. The catch-cry was both for freedom from traditional metrical and other patterns, and for relieving the poet from the necessity to serve elevated national or civilizational causes – for a non- or anti-ideological poetry. Thirdly, though here the things might get too complicated for this kind of rapid summary, they were anti-international. While some of them had read widely in Pound and Eliot (Anhava later published a brilliant volume of Pound in Finnish translation), and though the movement for a long time was seen as inspired by a 1949 Finnish volume of canonical Eliot, it is difficult to trace a direct line of influence here (and as for other strains in the international Modernist heritage, Anhava explicitly rejected Mallarmé, and Joyce for that matter, as “errors” to be carefully avoided). So, paradoxically, while the Modernist on the surface seemed to reject the earlier nationalistic notions, they in practice tended to strengthen a certain isolationalism, and thus, in the end, exactly the kind of identification of poetry to nation (and language) that I feel to be problematic and detrimental to the development of poetry.

I’d like to conclude this outline of the Modernists with two qualifying observations. The first concerns my claim of their being a-political. In truth, there is no such thing as a-political poetry, and even the Finnish Modernists’ rejection of the ideological function of poetry would better be seen as a political stand as such – as a statement directed against the official liturgy of the time, of “Cooperation” with the Soviet Union etc., which they tended to see as a version of the new- or double-speak of Orwell’s 1984. I am willing to merit them on this to a point, with reservations linked to the fact that I cannot believe in the existence of a non-double-speak anywhere anytime. Rather, I tend to see the Finnish Modernists’ insistence on poetry “stating exactly what it says” (as they were fond of saying) as itself a version of double-speak.

Secondly, what I said about the “naturalness” of the Modernists’ language might be only superficially true. It does not mean that their writing would be easy, and in fact, their initial reception was marked by confusion and bafflement, even absolute non-understanding. Let me risk putting it this way: writing in an environment with an established expectation for poets to provide the readers with something “strange” and “elevated”, even they had to find their ways to do this, and since you couldn’t do it using the devices of traditional diction any more, you had to shift the emphasis over to the subject matter, and your treatment of it. So, on the surface, at least, the Modernist are more “obscure” or “profound” than their immediate predecessors, more tempted to use paradoxes, oxymorons, and so on. At the same time, and in spite of their own declarations, I think it is not true that they neglected the sound qualities of language. To a larger extent than even the Finnish reading public is able to realize yet, the effect of, say, Haavikko’s diction is, in my view, dependent of a certain “strangeness of sound” – something which might also go a long way to explain why it’s charms don’t always seem to come through in translations. Here I will contend myself in borrowing from a recent review I wrote of two new volumes of Finnish palindrome poems (remember I promised to keep the theme of palindromes up). In this review, I suggested in passing that Haavikkos The Winter Palace, one of the hall-marks of Finnish Modernism, from 1959, should be studied for its frequent use of palindromic vowel sequences, as evidenced in the following examples:

itk tätä häpeää “to weep for this shame”
itsni kädestä “myself by hand”
riippuu alassuin “dangle upside down in this aperture”
irti historian kaikki kaksoisnidettä “loose all the twelve double volumes of history

These examples may also serve to illustrate some difficulties encountered in all translation of poetry. Between languages as far from each others as Finnish and English, these kind of problems tend to be even more urgent than elsewhere – but then again, tackling them with an open mind may contribute to the development of the poetry in the target language. I hope we will able to show you a glimpse of these possibilities later on with a translation Charles – possibly as a first translator of Finnish poetry to give serious attention to this side of things – did of one of my own poems.


I have spoken of Modernism “proper”, in fact relying quite strongly on the received domestic wisdom and canon – and thus bypassing many nuances, divisions, and contradictions both within the group and in the work of individual poets. A special case here is that of Pentti Saarikoski who, from the early 60’s on, acted as a spokesman for “engaged” and openly political poetry, in his case left-oriented, as opposed to the mostly rightist and conservative views of Anhava and Haavikko.

To enrichen the picture, I want to give a few examples of what could be called an alternative avant-garde tradition of the 60’s. (And I want to emphasize the timing here: the 60’s, also my own formative years, are now of course widely seen as a fertile period of experimentation, in many ways and in many arts. In Finland, partly because of the nature of the social change I talked of above, the sense of liberation and of a new beginning might have been exceptionally strong.)

To take the most extreme example first, I want to circulate one beautiful book, Nollapiste (Zero Point), by Osmo Jokinen, a journalist and critic. The book was originally published in 1964, and reissued in December 2004 as this excellent Dutch “translation”[6]. It does not contain any words at all, only numbers to mark the sections, and small blue squares to indicate where the individual poems begin and end. It is perhaps the most marvelous example of “unheard music” in poetry I’ve ever seen.

Secondly, I want to read a passage I translated from Kuuskajaskari, from 1964, by Jyrki Pellinen. Pellinen, often also included in the core group of Modernists, is to me one of the real original geniuses of the post-war Finnish poetry, and I wouldn’t hesitate to place him beside Haavikko (as didn’t Anhava, the “Pope” of the Modernists.) When working with the translation, I was struck by how much his writing became to resemble certain works of, say, Gertrude Stein. Here the level of linguistic experimentation is much higher than with the Modernists in general, and Pellinen’s syntactical lapses and weird associations seemed to translate much more smoothly than the diction of Haavikko.

When he watched it normally couldn’t just be watched, he noticed his own smooth blond hair near to which one couldn’t have talked about many cities and about which he thought now when he was where the forest’s eyes were and looked her like from window, the shadows of clothes that reminded about that consequently could be because to note how they are to be used to go with blind eyes to be amazed at everything’s usualness but now this was a girl a certain Irja like a rapid or flashing gauze-like thin wall watching at what one could remember what is a part of reality like a woman, he felt his talking to concern yeasterdayish hills more and more warm soon like rain or rush mats, out-hanged, he said: come nearer and be a strong talking, that’s it, and then he decided that was his friend and they both changed as a friend and many days and going (…)

There were other linguistically oriented poets in the 50’s-60’s generation beside Pellinen, most notably perhaps Maila Pylkkönen. I should also mention Kari Aronpuro and Väinö Kirstinä, who both in their ways provided early examples of what now would be called “conceptual literature”. As an example of early conceptual writing, or music, however, I want to play a snatch from J. O. Mallander’s piece “Extended Play”, which will again give you a chance to listen to some actual Finnish spoken.

This is a reproduction of the session of the presidential delegates in 1962 – the voice of the speaker reciting each individual ballot given to Urho Kekkonen, then elected for his second term. Thus, “Extended Play” represents an almost holy item of national consciousness (everyone in my or older generations would recognize the voice and the scene) framed as a piece of art.[7]

To me, the spirit of these examples is Finland at its best. They show that a relative isolation, combined with a strong feeling for the place, and the fact of being necessarily exposed to many kinds of foreign influences, can produce a climate of innovation and unprejudiced artistic search. It is perhaps an illustration of this circumstance that for me, originally a country boy from a remote Finnish village, the first place outside the country where I felt like being at home again was Manhattan, another village.


I have dwelled on the Modernists and the 60’s climate partly in order to illustrate my own background as a poet. These are my immediate influences – the work of earlier generations is something I’ve come to interest myself seriously only more recently.

Influence in my case comes in somewhat perverse ways. As a poet, I was an early starter – I actually begun writing poetry at 15, at school. I had a very good Finnish teacher who encouraged me to write, and one day he brought me this announcement for a poetry competition organized by the leading literary magazine of the country, Parnasso, edited at that time by Tuomas Anhava. I somehow managed to get my hands on some recent issues of the magazine, and might also have located some contemporary poetry books. This way I gained an impression of what contemporary poetry should look like, and sat down to write more of the same. That was Winter 1967, I was just turning 16. In May, I received a letter from Mr. Anhava, telling I had came in second in the competition, and adding that in his view, the stuff I had sent was good enough to be used as a basis for a book to be published later the same year. In September 1967, my first book of poetry, Muuttunut tuuli (Changed Wind), was published by Otava, perhaps the most prestigious of all the Finnish publishing-houses. To my knowledge, I’m still the youngest debutant in the history of Finnish poetry.[8]

When talking about the actual strangeness of Finnish Modernist writing, I was actually echoing my own sentiments from that time nearly 40 years back. I remember two things being immediately evident to me: first, that this was something at odds with what I knew as normal, everyday, received writing; and secondly, that it was somehow important to be able to write that way. So the strangeness as a quality of poetry is something of a primordial insight for me. Parallel to that was the realization that in writing poetry, things (ideas, expressions, experiences, insights) come to me from the poetry being written, not vice versa. As an early testimony of this attitude, and without trying to be nostalgic about it, I want to read you the very first poem of my first collection. It is a simple note in prose format, and reads in my own recent translation as follows:

In the window a small bird jumps from a tree to a tree. To another. A gentle wind is making gentle patterns in trees, and back. The poems. The words just hang in the air, detached.

It has a touch of teen-age poetry to it, I think, but on another level, it could very well still be my motto for writing poetry. I’ll take another poem, equally detached, I think, from any real urge to say anything emanating from the then writer to the reader of the poem:

the summer gradually beginning to slant towards the autumn, and the
autumn beginning
to slant toward the scenery, and the colors soon slumping to have the
names of the autumn,
all of a sudden there came across a Sunday quite an ordinary pink-
tasting Sunday that is
that a bus departed, the birds settled to sleep the heads
flopped down a gray man carried gloominess to the room in a sack and so
there came an evening slowly darkened into a new day
as the rain begun to raise, as the yellowish vegetables lignified in earth

I will save us all from further embarrassment in examining this early poetry – these two pieces are about all I could get myself to translate, and my other early book, that came out two years later, I’d rather not touch at all. To sum this all up as an introduction to the reading part of the session, I want to say some words about some later developments that on the surface don’t have that much to do with poetry.


As indicated, I see myself very much as the child of the 60’s generation. Beside being a premature poet, I participated in several movements typical of the 60’s. Toward the end of the decade, most of my pals started to show signs of what was known as “politization”, adopting more and more militant leftist views. This of course was a general phenomenon of the time – remember Paris May of 1968, or the Vietnam protest marches in US. In Finland, however, the radicalization took a peculiar form. I mentioned the Center-Left Coalition dominant in the political life of the country at the time; the Communist Party was part of that, and had entered the government again in 1966. This time, the decision was made by the new, Eurocommunist leadership that also hold critical views on the state of democracy in the Soviet Union – but not without strong resistance from a pro-Soviet minority. The curiosity of the Finnish situation is that most of the radical youth gradually moved to the side of this minority. Whereas in other European countries, you had small groups of Maoists and Trotskyites, with us the radical youth allied themselves with hard-line Stalinists who – in view of the country’s close ties with the Soviet Union – hold real political influence.

My own initial instinct was to stay out of all this. After all, I was a poet, and I remember holding naïve anarchist views about the ultimate futility of all political action, and I strongly opposed what the Soviet Union was doing at the time (like invading Czechoslovakia in August 1968). But the pressure to “take a stand” growing, I finally solved the dilemma by joining, in 1970, not the pro-Soviet minority, but the ranks of the Eurocommunist majority of the Communist Party (thus also severing most of the ties to my then pals, the closest enemy always being the worst one.). Since there were not so many young people taking the same decision, some of my skills turned to be in great demand in the party, and I soon ended up as a full-time party apparatchik. From 1973 on, my official position was that of the Political Secretary of the Secretariat of the Politburo of the Central Committee. I was the right hand (and, some people also said, the left cerebral hemisphere) of the then Secretary General of the party; in the years 1973-82, I wrote practically every word the party officially published: communiqués, programmatical statements, etc., not to speak of endless speechwriting..

Now, what has all this to do with poetry? A lot, in my view, but before going into that, let me haste to say that by taking up these memories, I’m in no way advocating any leftist politics. I might have a lot of radicalism left in me, but ideologically, I’m a non-leftist, and what I have to say here about the relation between politics and poetry is to be understood on a methodological level only.

Actually, in those years, I remember thinking of what I did as being poetry – albeit in a practical state, a term I later learned from the French philosopher Louis Altusser, of whom a bit more soon. On a more practical note, remember the party was split, but forcibly held together by the Soviets, who openly supported the minority section. So, every word and sentence the party issued had to be written so as to be acceptable to both sides – needless to say, it was my job to come up with the required ambiguous formulations. I still think this was the real school of writing poetry to me, and in periodizing those years in politics, I still like to think of the 70’s as my High Modernist period, whereas a short-time reform movement inside the party I co-instigated in early 80’s (basically a come-together of younger generations of both fractions, around a more New-Leftist agenda) represents my first plunge into a more experimental, post-avant poetry.

You may think of my then situation as exceptional, but I don’t see it that way. The years in leftist politics taught me some lessons about the nature of all language, about it’s being necessarily double-bound and ambiguous – and that not on the level of formal political statements only. In truth, I see a strong parallel between, say, the situation of Finns and Finnish in late 19th century I was talking earlier, and the dilemma’s of the Communists – and the country as a whole – during the post-war decades. In both of these cases, you have a situation where no one section, group, party, class, or philosophical orientation can alone solve the problems at hand. What is needed is for someone – an individual, a party, a movement – to articulate an agenda that does not exist beforehand, that does not emanate naturally from the known interests and goals of the classes or parties concerned. That of course is a classical theme in Marxist strategic thinking, best developed to my knowledge by the Italian Marxist and intellectual Antonio Gramci, in his famous Prison Notebooks, notably in an essay entitled “The Modern Prince”, his update of certain themes in Niccolo Machiavelli. (A work that, to give one indication of how these themes might not be so far from the world of literature after all, often gets contrasted with the idea of “expressive totality” brought forth by Georg Lukacs, the well-known Hungarian literary theorist and reputedly the model for Professor Naphta in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain). To exaggerate a little, one could say that political activity, properly understood, it is not one of “taking sides”, of ascribing to some pre-existent notions, or joining pre-established groups. On the contrary, what is at stake, is your ability to put these things in movement, to break existing divisions, to bring forth something of which you don’t know beforehand what it is. And I should add that in this, one is, fundamentally, acting no less alone than a poet is. As I wrote in a recurring line in rare poem from this period[9], “My Methodology, The Short Syllabus”: “I have installed myself as a party.”

Without trying to present you with a kind of am all-purpose solution, I want to emphasize that these things do translate. Take the sketchy model I borrowed from Freud to describe the workings of language; in the sphere of political tactics and strategy, one also needs to think in terms of displacements (so as not to take the existing interests etc. on their face value), and to resort to condensation, i.e. in formulating the new agenda, which can never integrate all the interests and aspirations held forth in a given situation. And if you attempt to do this with any seriousness, you are bound to bump into some tough questions of epistemology and theory of history – not least the question of the subject(s) in history – something which, again, easily translates to the question of author(s) of literary texts. Here I content myself to referring to the famous formulation by Althusser (the second great intellectual influence of mine from these years): “History is a process without goal and subject(s)”[10]. This, along with the early poem I quoted earlier, could also still be my motto in writing poetry.

Before moving to the reading section, one final remark to situate these hasty reminiscences in a larger context. I have made references to some major themes of 20th century theory. I deliberately chose to mention Gramci and Althusser, two thinkers you don’t here that much of today – but who, to me, represent the origins (or non-origins, the concept of origins as such being one that gets problematisized in this theory) of this theory or thinking. With this, I also wanted to underline that to me, the meaning and the grist of the 20th century thinking (which I, as should be evident now, see closely tied to the development of 20th century poetry) is not in that it would somehow represent, or epitomize, a historical period – be that postmodernism, post-industrialism, media age, information society, whatever – a view that often leads to pessimistic notions of the type “anything goes”, or “nothing is possible any more”. In my view, this kind of interpretation, illustrated in US perhaps by the work of Frederic Jameson, and unfortunately prevalent in applying 20th century theory to literary studies, represents just the kind of fallacy this theory at its best serves to warn us against. To me, the great theme of process without subject, the questioning the all-powerful role of author in literary production, etc., are rather ones of great liberation, and necessary for any serious and critical activity to take place either in the field of politics or that of poetry. They are not easy, and not easily worked out, or assimilated to ones own work, but understood in the way I’ve tried to outline here, they are a great source of optimism, also providing the necessary ethical grounding to one’s work in poetry.


1 Many Finns also moved to US in early 20th century – mostly, I think, to Michigan and Illinois. Of course most of their decendants don’t speak Finnish any more.

2 In the present world, Finnish is only related to Estonian and, remotedly, to Hungarian.

3 However, in terms of conventional “ugliness”, I think nothing compares to our Hungarian cousins word for “I love you”: “zärätläk”.

4 To shortly indicate one subtext for some of the themes in this talk, let me quote Deleuze&Quattari, in their Kafka (1974), about Kafka’s “Description of a Struggle”. They summarize the concert scene in this work as follows: “The supplicant (1) wants to play the piano because he is feeling happy; (2) doesn’t know how to play; (3) doesn’t play at all (…); and (4) is congratulated for having played so well.” You might say the same of “music” in my work.

5 An agreement effectively stating that in certain cases of serious international tension the two governements were to “enter into consultations” about concerted use of military power – the only time this clause was resorted to by the Soviet side was the Cuban crisis in 1962: this exactly is the reason for “President Kekkonen / [to look] concerned” in Pentti Saarikoski’s poem of that period I included in your reading stuff.

6 Osmo Jokinen: nollapiste nullpunt, runoja gedichten, Mariten Frijns and Vantielt, 2004. With an Afterword by Janna Kantola.

7 There is another version of the same piece, from the 1968 session, with the same content, but now somewhat longer: at that time, Kekkonen’s position had grown stronger. Kekkonen served as the President of the country from 1956 to 1982; in the end, his position was almost omni-powerful, as immortalized by this joke: Children get asked at school to define the function of the Precidency. One of them answers: “The President of Finland is Urho Kekkonen, and he get’s re-elected every sixth year.”

8 The actual meaning and consequences of this early start still puzzle me. Is it to be read as a proof of a certain natural inclination or tendency in me, or should I, on the contrary, ascribe all my later interest in poetry to this more or less accidental early conditioning? What if Mr. Anhava and the other jurors would not have liked my work? Could I have bypassed the world of poetry altogether – I’ll never know…

9 For more than a decade, I wrote practically no poetry. This poem was written toward the end of my political carrier and published in Parnasso in 1982. My involvement in politics ended with the (readily anticipated) defeat of the reform movement I mentioned, known by the somewhat notorious name “The third line”. I should confess that finding my way back to poetry during the 80’s was not easy – I found little inspiration in the climate prevalent in the literature of the time, characterized by waning of the Modernist impulse, and growing isolationism. In retrospect, it is clear to me that during the 80’s, I gradually worked my way to positions similar to those of the early Language Poetry (as evidenced by a 1986 text, “Hän kirjoittaa” (He Writes) I published in a recent volume of poetry, Ampauksia ympäripyörivästä raketista (Shootings From A Round-Going Racket, 2004). Getting into contact with some of the American Language Poets in early 90’s was a great relief and a source of inspiration to me.

10 The other famous Alhusserian formulation is about “Ideology always representing a false consciousness”. In my present view, poetry can and must be seen as a tool for criticising Ideology, though unlike the (early) Althusser, I cannot place even it “outside Ideology”. On this, see my discussion with Frederik Hertzberg in OEI 2003.