Anselm Hollo
Introduction to his translations of Paavo Haaviko
from Paavo Haaviko and Tomas Tranströmer – Selected Poems



Historically, the development of a modem sensibility in the poetry of twentieth-century Finland has been comparatively slow and discontinuous. Swedish-speaking Finland found its great modern poet in Edith Sodergran (1891-1923) whose work, although influenced by German and Russian Expressionism, can now be seen to equal that of Aleksandr Blok or Georg Trakl, surpassing ' isms' in its originality and strength—enduring even the great retro-active test of Dada. . . . But poets writing in Finnish during the first four decades of the century had to contend with the ideological demands and pressures of an emergent country, to a much greater degree than their Swedish-speaking counterparts. The Republic of Finland only gained its independence in 1918. A kind of Nordic 'negritude' sprang up that was liable to bog poetry down in either of two kinds of neo-Romanticism: the 'cosmic', self-searching, or the folkloristic, 'national' kind. Only a few of the generation of poets born around the tum of the century found themselves able to develop away from the tyranny of militant nationalistic idealism and its so-called poetic style, couched in Germanic metre and syntax: these are incontestably alien to the Finnish language, which is a non-Indo-European tongue. The popular, or forcefully popularized, poets of the national-romantic era developed a somewhat repulsive contortionist skill in twisting their language to fit the German models; this was much admired at the time, but its results can now be seen as so much dead wood. The one great exception is Eino Leino (1878-1926): though he may not have had any clear sense of what a Finnish prosody could be, he tried to cut his verse close, again, to the old oral tradition of the Kalevala and the lyrics and ballads collected in the first half of the nineteenth century. His poems are not unlike W. B. Yeats's first phase of Irish romanticism in their haunting evocations of a world and a song soon to be lost for ever; they are equally difficult, if not impossible to translate—or will be, until the day some kindred genius comes along—without considerable coarsening and loss of energy.

The final break away from 'Finnitude' occurred only after the Second World War, and its first products began. to appear in the 1950s. The so-called 'Modernists', o(the fifties did not form a homogeneous group, they issued no' manifestoes, made few critical or political statements outside of their poetry. Yet their appearance was—rightly—seen as a rebellion: its aim was to be done with tl1e tyranny of nationalistic idealism and to raise the craft of poetry from the degrading level of providing emotional 'uplift' and self-pitying 'solace'. Although the poets were young, their approach was remarkably sure-footed and effective: they were well-read, aware of what. had been done in the major languages of the Western world, and, what's more, they seemed to have understood a· great deal of what they had read, unlike their 'cosmic' -Expressionist predecessors of the twenties who failed in the attempt to infuse their language with doses of Baudelairean despair and Nietzschean exaltation—without realizing it would have been necessary to renew that language first by cleaning away the false rhetoric of' Finnitude'.

Paavo Haavikko; born in 1931, has emerged as the most original of the poets who first published their work in the 1950s. His poems are meditative, cautious, ironical in tone— everything but 'safe', full of sudden switches from one level of discourse and consciousness to an another. At the same· time, they' are not purely introspective: history reflected as 'story' is an important part of them, and references to contemporary existential and economic conditions are woven into the fabric of meditation. The voice is a speaking voice, moving it1 slow, careful cadences, sometimes quietly incantatory, but not striving for cheap hypnotic effect:

                         Now, as I tell you
                         Of the Emperor
                         You see. him
                         The Emperor, in media res

                         As I tell you
                         The Emperor, you see it is winter,
                         The Emperor lonely,
                         The Emperor is an image
                         Becoming clearer
                         As darkness descends

                         The Emperor is an image,
                         Dusk is falling,


                         He is the one
                         Best seen in the dark

                         And the thought, the bird, the owl
                         Your blindfolded thought
                         Yet sees him, even now, in the dark
                         The Emperor.

                         I have misled you.
                         You stand at the foot of a mountain
                         It is winter

                         You try to peer through the branches
                         At an Emperor who is not

                         But again when you close your eyes
                         You see him there in his lodge
                         And his image is clear

                         I have misled you,
                         Open your eyes now
                         Don't listen to me:

                         The Empire lies in your heart,
                         It has power

                         The Empire is built and destroyed
                         By blinking an eye

                         And it dies
                         When the eyes are opened.

That is from the second part of a poem-sequence in five movements called The Bowmen, first published in 1955· The first movement deals with 'statecraft and sagacity', rule and rebellion and counterrevolution, in images that refer the reader back to the Thirty Years' War, the Middle Ages, finally to the timeless 'mountains' where the warlords of all time foregather to keep council and to prepare for the next great upheaval, experienced as 'fate' by common, valley-dwelling humanity. The second part takes off from the Emperor-image, which obviously carries reverberations from the first movement, but then changes into an object of meditation on the nature of poetry—a cinematic teaching-aid: this speech is not simple, no speech is, no word or grouping of words exists on only one given level; when Haavikko says 'I have misled you', the tone is both ironical and friendly, informally didactic. No part of a poem can be nailed down on the page in the way a set of instructions, on, say, what to do in case of fire, can be nailed to the wall: the page is a mirror, and the reader brings his own, thus creating long corridors of thought, association, shifting perspectives of emotion ...

The third movement of The Bowmen is a version of that recently popular song The Universal Soldier (by Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Cree Indian singer)—which may sound irrelevant, but isn't, as Haavikko's poem is based on an older Finnish folk song expressing essentially the same view of soldiering:

                         What use a man if he isn't a soldier
                         No use at all
                         What use a soldier if not a creature in irons and chains

                         What use such a thing
                         No use: board him up dig him down
                         Under the ground to push up more trees

                         And land you were promised land you shall have
                         Open your hand receive your reward
                         A handful of land

                         Open your eyes and you'll get it into your eyes as well
                         I can tell you your land
                         It lies from North to South under a certain firtree

                         And if you can't see any longer
                         What we see so very clearly
                         I'll blend the words with the hymn-tune for you to hear

'And land you were promised land you shall have': a reference, quite explicit by Haavikko's standards in this particular poem, to the phantasmagoria of a 'Greater Finland' created by a number of political and clerical figures in Finnish right-wing circles during the Second World War—a 'homeland' stretching back through Russia, to the original hunting-grounds of the ancestral tribes ..• In the fourth movement, Haavikko deals with a friendlier mythology: 'The bastard son, born with a tooth in his mouth .•• Ruddy his hair like firtrees in winter', etc. That has, no doubt, a distinctly Finnish tang to it— the world of trolls and elves, yet it is as far removed from 'Finnitude' as Tove Jansson's Moomintroll stories are, on their own delightful level.

The Bowmen ends with a short fifth movement, the actual legend of the 'King's bowmen'— a harking back to the first part, with its flickering images of blood and gold, and also to the facts of history relating to the Universal Soldier:

                         We were the King's bowmen
                         We are leaves on the trees

                         The leaves
                         Touch air

                         Not heavy
                         Like the King's treasure

                         We go
                         Into the reddening glow.

Strangely enough, despite · the frequently violent 'and · archaic imagery and the insistence on dream, myth, transformations of the past, the overall impression is one of serenity, even a· kind of classicism: history as stories, legends, sayings has entered the poet's mind without the reservations and qualifications we are taught to .put up .against it! and in the poem's language it receives the. form given to it by that mind, not as linear discourse but as units of sound,, verbal meaning and visual association, moving towards. us and passing us, leaving us . where we are, our place—thus 'cool', and certainly not 'committed' to driving any simple A to B line. The Cantos come' to mind: like Pound, Haavikko is a poet who rejects purely literary knowledge and the realm of pure aesthetics as well as the outworn conceptions of poet-as-troubadour, ·or poet-as-sensitive-sufferer, or poet-as-shaman (in the—sense of 'funny ogre providing us with kicks'). Yet, and apart from considerable ideological, or rather, philosophical differences, all understanding of EP's method in let us say Near Perigord (1916) provides the means of comparatively easy enjoyment of Haavikko's Bowmen and other longer works of his such as Birthplace, even The Winter Palace. The outworn concepts are what both Pound and Haavikko reject: both are, however, aware of the remaining possibilities in trobar and incantation, but in a vastly more complex framework than the nineteenth century could dream of. Some Finnish critics have called Haavikko an 'imagist' ; but that label seems just a label, as Haavikko is too conscious of existing and working in his own time, and in accord with it—taking 'time' to mean both chronology and the structuring of speech and sound. He is post-Imagist, post-Surrealist, post-Dada, in a sense similar to that of the present younger generation of American poets—Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer. His affinities back to Pound and Eliot may be, stronger than those to, say, Apollinaire or the Surrealists: Haavikko is wary of piling metaphor on metaphor, of losing the actual ground under his feet. If d1e imagery in some parts of his work seems 'closed', extremely personal, the overall image-totality has unmistakable organic presence—it has breath, voice; is not silent, though it may be quiet and often obsessed by the possibility of silence:

                         But what if the good days should strike us dumb,
                         How can we endure without falling silent;
                         How can we endure without falling silent when poems are
                               shown to mean nothing,
                         This, for the present generation's praises:

Birthplace, a poem in four movements, deals with the ways Finland has been an integral part of European history—not only in wars, revolutions, manmade upheavals, but also, and perhaps more interestingly and permanently, in terms such as these:

                         The wood of the pine-tree, used with great care,
                         All the way from the Balkan forests to these woodlands, here
.                         With care, the dampers are closed before dusk, to keep the heat
                               in the stove,

                         ... ...

                         It is a great forest, its greatness reaches from the Balkan to this
                                wood ...

Three years after the publication of Birthplace Haavikko surprised some of his less aware, uncritical admirers by a collection titled Leaves, News: to others who had not yet, in 1958, attuned their ears to the 'new poetry', this book proved even more aggravating than the previous three collections. The poems were pointed, satirical and plainly short of the old qualities of lyricism, 'poetic beauty', etc. Haavikko's eroticism, his awareness of the complexities of communication involved in any sexual relationship, found words in a series of short poems of which 'You marry the moon' is fairly typical:

                         You marry the moon
                         and the sea and the moon and the woman: ear less, all. ·
                         You'll listen to their voices, you'll talk to them
                         and they say
                                                it's a game.

That touches on the central theme in The Winter Palace, a long poem in nine parts, which appeared in 1959 and marked the end of Haavikko's first decade of writing poems. It is more openly meditative, personal, than the earlier sequences—more of a 'voice in the mind'; the American poet John Ashbery, another contemporary master of the poetic meditation, has said that it may well be one of the great poems of this century; the German poet-critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger finds in it a 'reflection of history's atmospherical pressure on a whole decade, the 1950s'—which makes it sound grimmer than it is. It is a love poem, a truly modern love poem. It is not an easy poem to follow, to quote from, to discuss: no easier than 'love' ...

                         Two women I have drawn for you here,
                         On the dark field of night,
                         But you are not tempted.
                         I wonder,
                         Is it Helen you want?
                         Odysseus bathed in her eyes ..
                         Who complained, Troy burns
                         And yet it is cold,
                         Who complained, in this house
                         The fire freezes your bones. . .

'Woman', 'world', 'house': the seeming simplicity of these recurring nodes of feeling gives The Winter Palace a strange beauty, clear on the surface like a big crystal, yet containing whorls and flickering flames of hallucination, increasingly evident the longer you look and listen. It is both 'open and closed',, a world unmistakably its own, communicating itself to other worlds—perhaps as many as there are readers—on a level of remarkable purity. It can hardly be paraphrased, yet it is not 'hermetic' : the certainty of that voice appears to have been gained through the realization that only the particular—of which Eliot claimed (complained?) that it 'had no language'—is worth the attempt, is 'productive speech', or as close as any man can get it. It is there, a world, waiting for others to discover as much of it as they can.

Since The Winter Palace, Haavikko has published one further volume of poetry, three plays, three novels and a collection of short stories. The plays, Munchhausen and The Dolls —the latter 16 based on Tommaso Landolfi's story Gogol's Wife —have been tagged as belonging to the Theatre of the Absurd, and influences of Samuel Beckett and the nouveau roman have been 'detected' in the prose. In his prose, Haavikko is a distinctly urban writer, a comparatively new thing to be in Finnish—language literature; but he is not urbane and does not hanker for 'international recognition', wanting to be 'in the mainstream of modern literature', etc.—those ambitions of lesser writers who feel psychologically trapped within their small linguistic and national group. He is not a writer easily picked up by the publicity machinery of bigtime Anglo-American book industry, not being a 'colourful personality', rebel, screamer, etc. nor a polemicist, theoretician, founder of groups or schools: he who knows so well what true 'image' is, has not cared to create a public image of himself Haavikko leads a quiet life, the way the lives of Stephane Mallarme or Wallace Stevens ·were' quiet'; his personal biography does not arouse journalistic curiosity—born 1931 in Helsinki; went to school there; spent part of his military service time in hospital; published his first book of poems at the age of twenty; lives in Helsinki; worked part-time in his brother's real estate business for many years, but has now joined a publishing house; has two children from his marriage to the novelist Marja-Liisa Vartio who died in the early summer of 1966.

October 1966