The Helsinki Poetics Conference, August 22, 2006. Blueprints for Comments in the introductory section of the Symposium on the book of essays, Runosta runoon

A quick translation by the Author

To the Finnish original

“Then I felt jubilant turning my back to whole that shitty old land [i.e. Finland]; now my head keeps turning back toward it.” (Uuno Kailas to Lauri Viljanen from Paris, 1932). “The only Finn here except for me is Ernesti Hentunen (…) Rejoice ye, then, who are allowed to live in the lovely old Finland!” (Kaarlo Sarkia to Aune Heinonen, from Switzerland, 1937).[1]

Based on their travel letters, these poets, known to us as transmitters of the European tradition, seem not to have had that good a time in Europe. Also, they don’t seem to have interested themselves in the company of the local colleagues there. The strangeness of those “foreigners” (their untidiness, their bad manners), however, is readily noticed. No wonder our poets feel home-sick. And yet, one just has to get out to the Europe, again and again. We are dealing with one of the dilemmas of provincialism.

Runosta runoon[2] is a fine book, and an important new opening. Here, however, I will content myself to search it for this selfsame theme of “Home Finland”. Finding it registered, all right: “Not all machine aesthetics would fascinate Paavolainen, however.” (Kai Mikkonen). “Unlike Elmer Diktonius, Kailas does not belong to the extremist fraction.” (Katriina Kajannes). “Manninen’s poems (…) retain a certain classical unity, unlike those of the more radical French symbolism.” (Pirjo Lyytikäinen).[3] Here we have the other side of provincialism: at home, one knows better on behalf of the others. Influences get taken, but with care, and with a delay. The bellybutton of the world is aside of it, and comes after it.

Provincialism is not about attitudes. Centres and peripheries are facts of real life, that out of necessity carry with them the structure known as cultural imperialism, as Tere Vadén with reason has reminded us[4]. The phenomena of cultural import and export, too, will always be dominated by that structure. Should we see the delay I spoke of above as a kind of import duty, export again would be levied with a tax of the literatures of peripheries almost necessarily being wrapped in a mist of “exotics” – something which will permanently brandish them as strange and subaltern.

Poetry’s position in all this is interesting in that it, in certain respect, represents provincialism par excellence: it will readily tap into the private, the local, the particular, the unique. For the same reason it can – today: and this is the thesis of my presentation – have a special role in solving the dilemmas of provincialism. For this, I want to offer an alternative provincialism where we’d want to make what is local – and the local language in particular – strange to itself.

I will proceed with the help of textual analysis (something missed in the last year’s Conference). My first example concerns the well-known “sentence” of Paavo Haavikko, the characteristically repetitive, self-negating, and with this self-asserting, affirmative, diction of his later poetry in particular: “Eniten pidän asioissa niiden hitaudesta, siitä miten ne toistuvat, nehän eivät.”

Haavikko’s “sentence” is an innovation taking place inside the Finnish language. Yet (or thus) even it doesn’t emerge from a void, but is a combination of many things, a “reworking” of “influences”. What kind of influences? I will content myself to refer to just one, the work of [Finnish novelist, poet, and translator, 1881-1934] Joel Lehtonen:

Niin se ajoi, lupitti. Mökeissä ja taloissa. Istui tarinoimassa. Osteli vähillä penneillään ruokaa, tai lienee saanut ilmaiseksikin, ei edes hävennyt ottaa. Taikka näki nälkää sen viikon. Ajoi, lupitti. Sellainen se on, lupittaja. – Putkinotko, s. 31 Pidän hitaista asioista, ja niissä miten ne toistuvat. Siitä miten vesi alkaa lämmitä ja poreilla. Se vie aikansa. Suuri tasapaino ei ole liikkumatonta, se liikkuu. Pitää horjahtaa hiukan niin se tulee näkyviin vedestä noustessa, vettä valuen.”Lyhyt vuosi” (säejako poistettu).

One should of course also ask what influenced Lehtonen, in his turn. His Putkinotko is, I think, often thought of as being European in its themes, Finnish (if not Savolaxian) in its diction.[5] One could also claim the opposite: seeing it as quite Finnish (Kalevala-influenced) in its themes, while its diction again would be influenced by the source languages of Lehtonen’s many translations, French:[6]

D’ailleurs son mollet charnu, saillant, pronostiquait, autant que son long nez carré, de qualités morales auxquelles paraissait tenir la veuve, et que confirmait la face lunaire et naїvement niaise du bonhomme.Balzac: Le Père Goriot, s. 69 Nyt on piippua pitävä käsi ylhäällä ja näkyy kokonaisuudessaan, olkapäästä alkaen, koska toinen paidanhiha on revennyt halki, ja se näkyy peloittavan paksuna: väkevät ja kiinteät ovat olkavarren lihakset. – Putkinotko, s. 51

I will reformulate my thesis: what is local can be “made” strange to itself just because it is strange to itself – unlike Tere Vadén, I will not believe in the possibility, or even ideal, or influence-free, authentic language.

My second example is from the same moment in our tradition. I’ve always been fascinated by the essays of Tuomas Anhava – still some of the sharpest in the tradition on our Poetics – being full of neologisms, “foreign words”, and archaisms. “Imponderaabelit”, “menestyskalkyyli”, “belamistiikka”, “kulutushanakkuus” ja “kuontuu kuulemastaan” are my quick picks from his “Optimistinen tutkielma” (1963). The main newspaper once asked him about the progress of his translations from Pound. “I have not wanted to hurry up [“forseerata“, from Swedish “forcera”] myself”, the Pope answered, in an obvious svetisism [“unwarranted” loan from Swedish]; in my experience, the syntax of Anhava’s prose, too, is heavily impregnated by Swedish.

I have a personal recollection of Anhava’s Swedish. Back in 1984, I went to meet him – the only time during my adult life – taking with me also a manuscript of my then poetry (happily lost later on). Well, the Farther of All Editors did not find in my poems “a position”, “starting from which they could become a world that their voice would turn to” – admitting, however, in a letter, some merit to a couple of “yksinseisova” (“ensamstående“, “stand alone”) poems[7].

In one of these (which Anhava felt to be “representative” for my work at he time) I had, for some reason, written: “Pelkään että erottuisi tajuttavia lauseita.” [I am afraid that there would be sensible sentences to discern.] Here the Finnish adverb, “tajuttavia“, could be thought of as stemming from a verb like “tajuttaa”, which, I think, could mean both “to bring into senses”, and, somewhat forcibly, “to knock down”. Which of course reminds me of Charles Bernstein’s famous lines (someone called them the best definition of poetry in 20th Century): “Poetry is like swoon – with this difference: it brings you to your senses.”[8]

The question is: to which senses? I will answer by reformulating my thesis once more: to the senses of language – to think. Where Tere Vadén, in his search for an authentic language, will also search for an authentic Finnish thinking, I would say that all thinking is speaking in tongues. At this point, however, while the distance between us seems the longest, our ambitions also strangely converge. I’m thinking of the possibility of what I have said above to apply to the Finnish language in a certain specific way: what if we really are so – well, så ensamstående – that Finnish by this almost becomes a World Language par excellence: one that is paradigmatically dependent on others.[9]

In this, I want to see a possibility for a final goodbye to the idea of a “Home Finland”: my alternative provincialism would be provincialism as avant-garde. I will like to finish this with a number of blunt suggestions: In stead of translating the world poetry into Finnish, let’s start reading it in original. In stead of translating (“letting translate”) Finnish poetry to world languages, let’s start writing in them (all the while staying conscious of Finnish, or in Finnish staying conscious of them)[10]. And specifically – following Anhava’s example (and here my work in editing the upcoming OEI anthology of new Finnish poetry[11] has meant a certain revelation to me) – in Swedish. In fact, I’d claim that the Finnish-speaking Finns are in this respect somewhat priviledged, poetically: we know Swedish, while it at the same time is readily strange for us.

Besides, no matter if we didn’t know it. It is possible (and necessary) to write even in languages you don’t have a clue of – as I do in my recent poem, “Aus dem Wortspiel der Informazion.” Thank you.

1 Quotes from Hilpi Saure ja Liisi Huhtala (eds.): Sinisen junan ikkunasta. Matkakuvia Euroopasta, SKS 1992, featuring travel letters from Europe by Finnish writers from the early part of the 20th century.

2 Sakari Katajamäki ja Johanna Pentikäinen (eds.): Runosta runoon. Suomalaisen runon yhteyksiä länsimaiseen kirjallisuuteen antiikista nykyaikaan. WSOY 2004.

3 Mt. p. 259, 280, 207. I’m quoting these essays without any critical intent; in my view, they just register a tendency I also wish to register here.

4 See, for instance, Arktinen hekkuma. Kalervo Palsa ja suomalaisen ajattelun mahdollisuus. Atena, Jyväskylä 1997; Ajo ja jälki. Filosofisia esseitä kielestä ja ajattelusta. Atena, Jyväskylä 2000; Karhun nimi. Kuusi luentoa luonnosta. 23°45, Tampere 2006.

5 Pekka Tarkka, in his Putkinotkon tausta (Joel Lehtosen henkilöt 1901-1923, Otava 1977) emphasizes Lehtonen’s tendency to associate the “narrative voice” with his characters, analysing this in regard to “forest people”, “animals”, and “children”. But note also Lehtonen’s own comment: “Minä (…) en käsitä tyylillä vielä n.s. rehellistä sanomista ja ‘antaa tulla vaan, vaan sellaista (kuin esim. renessanssin herrat), joka antaa tulla vissillä tyylitellyllä tavalla.” s. 403.

6 This absolutely random example is not meant to “prove” anything – except perhaps the potential for ponting out a myriad of these kind of “influences”.

7 “Tuomas Anhavan kirje” [Tuomas Anhava’s Letter] – “yksinseisova” being a striking svetisism that would still horrify all the good Guarders of Proper Finnish.

8 “The Klupzy Girl”, in Islets/Irritations, Roof Books 1983, s. 47.

9 Kafka. Pour une litterature mineur. Paris: Ed. de Minuit, 1975 (English transl.:. Kafka. Toward a Minor Literature. University of Minnesota Press 1986) by Deleuze and Guattari has been on my “must be translated” list for twenty years now. Here I make adaptive use of its “literature mineur” theme: Finnish poetry can potentially place itself in a node of at least three languages similar to the context Deleuze and Guattari offer for their reading of Kafka.

10 I’m not thinking of any bland cosmopolitanism here, let alone “abandoning” the Finnish – but rather of a critical distance maintained by poetry to all idioms, to the “language of the tribe” (to language as ideology – see my essay “Plurifyig the Language of the Trite“; in Paal Bjelke Andersen’s Norwegian as “>For å mangfoldiggjøre traurighetens språk“, nypoesi 2/06). “Using other languages” would also mean making wrong use of them, and using them to “do wrong” to Finnish, to find its hidden possibilities. I know that this attitude forces me to suppose a certain general capacity for language, independent of place, where the command of any actual language is secondary – and I’m happy to suppose it. Poetry should not be seen as part of a language community, rather, it will always transcend, pierce, through, and traverse these. Reading the essays in Runosta runoon from this point of view, I’m struck by Pirjo Lyytikäinen’s analysis of Otto Manninen where she traces the poets influences from French Symbolism (the latter again expressly banned by Anhava). The Symbolists, with their “poetics of un-naming”, and their ambition to “represent what cannot be represented”, indeed point to the same direction searched for by me here – and it’s interesting to note that these influences, already with Manninen, lead to a rejection of Nationalism: “Suomalaiskansalliset myyttiset maisemat eivät olleet Mannisen alaa.” (Lyytikäinen, s. 211). What if the Emperor that our Modernists so keenly wanted to take the clothes off already was in his underpants – if not altogether naked? – In this view, I find it interesting to note a certain return to Manninen (perhaps especially to him, among the “traditional masters”) in our most recent poetry. Thus, Janne Nummela has explicated his poetry by an idea of a “symbolic sentence”. Teemu Manninen, again, in his newest poems often displaces a fanaticism for form not unlike that of his namesake; the same could be said about the poetry of Cia Rinne (perhaps not that well known yet, see her zaroum, Helsinki 2002) – also to point to a work where the abandoning of one priviledged source language already is reality. One more quote: “(…) erilaisten (…) kontekstissa latautuneiden viitekenttien yhteen punomisen tuottama monimerkityksisyys” – this, again, is not about Google Sculpting, but Lyytikäinen on Otto Manninen’s Poetics, where “sound, words [as such], and the composition” also “come to be foregrounded” (p. 211). – One could trace same kinds of connexions to the present scene in Tuula Hökkä’s essay on Hellaakoski.

11 “En antologi av (mestadels) översättningar från (mestadels) finska (till) mestadels (svenska)”, ed. Leevi Lehto, OEI 29/2006 (SuOmEI), to be published in September, 2006