Anselm Hollo


Pentti Saarikoski and His Trilogy


The twenty-fourth of August 1998 marked the fifteenth anniversary of Pentti Saarikoski's departure from this planet, a week before his forty-sixth birthday. He left us twenty-two books of poems, six volumes of essayistic and autobiographical prose, three plays written for radio, a posthumous volume of diaries, and seventy booklength translations into Finnish from classical Greek, Latin, Italian, German, English, and Swedish, including Homer's Odyssey and James Joyce's Ulysses, the fragments of Heraclitus, Sappho's poems, Aristotle's Poetics, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Francis Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, works by Henry Miller, and J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. . .

A body of work of such dimensions, accomplished in such a relatively short lifetime, suggests a prodigy, a workaholic, probably an insomniac recluse hooked up to life-support systems in a guaranteed disturbance-free environment. Saarikoski certainly was both prodigious and prolific, but he recorded his dreams as important events in his life—so he must have slept—and in his twenties and thirties, far from being a recluse, was a highly visible actor in Finland's cultural political arena.

From the late nineteen-fifties through the early seventies, Saarikoski was a spokesman for what European historians now refer to as the Generation of '68. He was a highly literate and iconoclastic left-wing radical in a "buffer zone" country whose political climate in the Cold War years was one of far greater ambiguities than that of the major Western European states. He was, for a time, a youth idol—the popular press referred to him as "The Blond Beatle of the North"—whose often scandalous public behavior and pronouncements, combined with his introduction of uninhibited Finnish vernacular into the language of literature (particularly in his translations of Ulysses and The Catcher in the Rye), shocked many of his elders in much the same way that William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg jolted the establishment in the United States. The titles of some of his books from that period—Out Loud; The Red Flags; I Look Out Over Stalin's Head—indicate his search for a public and engagé mode of poetry. He became the editor of a literary and cultural journal sponsored by one of Finland's Marxist-Leninist parties but was relieved of that post after publishing the first-ever Finnish translations of Ezra Pound in the journal's inaugural issue. Herbert Lomas, the distinguished English poet and capable translator of Finnish poetry into British English, writes about first meeting Saarikoski around that time:

  "I remember him in a Helsinki bar in his early twenties, a confident young man with short black hair [so much for the 'blond Beatle' tagAH] and a big grin, enjoying his fame, and drinking too much out of an apparently celebratory recklessness. He was changing everything." (1)  

The Helsinki bar was, most likely, one called the Kosmos, where one may find, to this day, grizzled artists and writers who will reminisce about those nights with Pentti, with the typical humorously anguished Finnish nostalgia that has recently been brought to the movie screen by Aki Kaurismäki. To round out the picture, one should perhaps mention that Saarikoski was also married four times and fathered five children. His extended travels and sojourns as a guest of writers' organizations both East and West, commemorated in books titled Walking Wherever, Letter to My Wife, and The Time in Prague, did not do much for a stable family life in that hedonistic era.

The forty-two pages that launched Saarikoski into his time of fame and notoriety, in which he was "charting what it was like to be very much alive, Finnish but unparochial, and seriously preoccupied with a just and enlightened society in a time of world-wide confusion, unenlightenment and injustice" (Lomas) (2), were published in 1962 under the title Mitä tapahtuu todella—What Is Really Going On. (3)

I stress the number of pages because the page, as a unit, is an important element of that serial poem's composition. In its own way, the poem is as carefully and artfully composed, if not as hermetic, as Mallarme's A Throw of the Dice. For a poem that became a kind of talisman for a whole generation of young Finnish readers, it is, nevertheless, remarkably complex. It is not an inspired rant or catalogue propelled by a rhetoric of outrage, like many of, say, Yevtushenko's or Ginsberg's works of the same period. Reading Saarikoski's What Is Really Going On is more like walking through a gallery with a series of white-washed rooms and discovering, in each room, a verbal construct as limber-jointed and changeable as an Alexander Calder mobile:

cold globules pass through the heart

                          I want to get out from inside you
                           the trees
              scratching against one another

light and warm in the cafe
                                       an absolute sign
                          number or letter seen from a bus
                                                    window every day

        now I stand by the wall alone

               and the disaster cannot be averted


hairs grow out of the star

                                       eye stuck to steaming asphalt

        no one within the radius
                                       of this language
                                       went from the wood into the wood

                                                                   the end is near
                            the silver needles
dialectical materialism is
                                       order and sense
                                       of language and world


                            communications have been interrupted
                                       the trees have stopped growing
                                                                   I stand on the sidewalk

not knowing my sex (4)

In an essay published in 1982, U.S.American critic Vincent B. Leitch discusses What Is Really Going On as a—and perhaps the first—"postmodern" Finnish poem. He points out that "Finnish literary historians make no formal distinction between modernist and postmodernist modes—both of which arrived in Finnish-language poetry within a dozen years of one another. . . " (5) He goes on to quote Saarikoski himself from an interview published shortly after the book:

  "I collected various sentences from newspapers, from people's speech, from books-anywhere, and then put together new units with them and my own sentences; I described my writing as 'democratic' or 'dialectical' because different notions were allowed to threaten one another in the work." (6)  

My reason for discussing the 1962 book at such length in what is, essentially, an introduction to Trilogy (Sun and Moon Press, Los Angeles, 1999), Saarikoski's last completed work, is simply that the former can be seen as a kind of structural blueprint for the latter. I am tempted to say that What Is Really Going On relates to Trilogy the way Kasimir Malevich's early, lean, constructivist paintings relate to his mature work, which may, in its figurativeness, seem "retro" to a superficial observer while actually incorporating the conceptual principles and frames of those early abstractions in a masterful way.

After a number of books in which Saarikoski explored versions of his earliest lyrical modes inspired by the Greek Anthology (whose Finnish translator he became), or the more didactic "Out Loud" form of discourse, he returned, in 1977—the pubhcation year of the trilogy's first installment, The Dance Floor on the Mountain—to the "shifting magnetized field" (Leitch) of What Is Really Going On, and created a serial poemnot a poem sequenceof proportions comparable to the work of American counterparts such as Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn, Robin Blaser, and others. For a definition of "serial poem" I turn to Joseph M. Conte:

  "Narrative discourse endeavors to create the illusion of movement that is both linear and continuous. When we praise such writing for the progression of its terms toward some conclusion, we use such phrases as 'seamless logic' or 'smooth transition.' The movement of the serial poem, however, is curvilinear and disjunctive. It generates a centrifugal force, which is always directed away from a central axis [. . .] The series expresses its structure as a set of tangencies. Each contiguous part (or metonym) on the poetic line, aware of its antecedents and consequent links, implies a textual whole. But the intersection of these contexts will be small, and frequently they will meet only at discrete points." (7)  

The great Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones describes his—probably still just "modern"?—sense of this kind of composition in the introductory note to his Anathémata:

  "What I have written has no plan, or at least is not planned. If it has a shape it is chiefly that it returns to its beginning. It has themes and a theme even if it wanders far. If it has a unity it is that what goes before conditions what comes after and vice versa. Rather as in a longish conversation between two friends, where one thing leads to another; but should a third party hear fragments of it, he might not know how the talk had passed from the cultivation of cabbages to Melchizedek, king of Salem. Though indeed he might guess." (8)  

At the time of his work on Trilogy, the mid- to late seventies, Saarikoski had withdrawn from the limelight of Finnish public life and the strains two decades of being an only too enthusiastic big fish in a small pond had imposed on his mind and body. With his wife, Norwegian-Swedish writer Mia Berner, he established himself in an old house on an island just off the west coast of Sweden, not far from Gothenburg, and cultivated his own backyard in a typically troll-like way, superimposing the rich and various, wild and woolly landscape of his mind on the surrounding countryside with its low mountain ridges, petroglyphs, caves, and harbors. Lomas remembers meeting Saarikoski in this phase of his life:

  "Shaggy, unkempt, with a Kalevala beard out of Gallén-Kallela, and a red dome of a cap that made him look like the priest of some arctic cult, there was nevertheless mischief in his eye. He knew that, as the physical incarnation of the mythical backwoods Finn, he represented a funny statement that he nevertheless took seriously. No one found the disguise more ridiculous than this free spirit himself. He had looked like the young Lorca; now he looked like a con-version of the ancient Väinämöinen." (9)  

The not-too-distant exile from his homeland brought, as he himself observed, a renewed keenness to his poetry and prose, both in original work and translations. It also brought a sense of great changes continuing in the world, mostly not for what one might call "the better," and a concern for what a thinking and feeling person's stance might be when confronted by the implacability of historical forces this person had once, in the euphoric decade 1965 -1975, dreamed of affecting by his life and work. Two untitled fragments from the early eighties bear witness to this:

       I am the last
                          human being
       in the world
             I have survived
                          the atomic war


             IT IS NOT
             to change the world
       it is the World's task
                          to change philosophy
       And so I have become
                                      a non-Marxist

Reading those lines, it strikes one as a genuinely Saarikoskian irony that their author was, not long before the time of writing them, invited to be a distinguished guest at the University of Iowa's International Writing Program—then disinvited because someone with that kind of veto power had 'discovered' Saarikoski's erstwhile "Communist" affiliations.

In The Edge of Europe, a book-length essay subtitled "a kinetic image" and written during the time of the trilogy's composition, Saarikoski returns to a philosopher who had been an inspiration to him in his teenage years: "Thinking of Kierkegaard. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Socratic irony, and this should have provided a clue for the Kierkegaard scholars—but the only one who understood him correctly was Kafka, because for both Kafka and Kierkegaard life was a matter so serious that it could not be taken seriously." (10) In the trilogy, Saarikoski commemorates both great K's, as well as his mentor the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus after whom the third volume of Trilogy is. named: The Dark One's Dances. For the 1978 edition of his collected poems, Saarikoski wrote a footnote to a poem published in his very first book in 1958:


[the poem:]

The wise man, a Greek
called the Dark One
was right, I
see it now:

I'll never get there
by nightfall
and at night, asleep

I return to my
                       beginning (11)

[the footnote:]

  "The wise man, a Greek:" the Dark One, Gr. Skoteinos,
nickname of the philosopher Heraclitus. Heraclitus is a
member of my poetry staff. (12)



In the introduction to his magnificently unadorned translation of the Heraclitean fragments, Guy Davenport says, commenting on Fragment 69:

  "The Greek says that ethos is man's daimon; the moral climate of a man's cultural complex (strictly, his psychological weather) is what we mean when we say daimon, or guardian angel. [. . .] The daimon has foresight, the psyche is blind and timebound. A thousand things happen to us daily which we sidestep or do not even notice. We follow the events which we are characteristically predisposed to co-operate with, designing what happens to us: character is fate." (13)  

In Trilogy, Saarikoski takes an extended, amused, bemused, and unpretentious look at some of the "thousand things" previously sidestepped or unnoticed: the chores of dailiness, in a way often reminiscent of Paul Blackburn's Journals (another great "last work"); his both familiar and unfamiliar—northern but Swedish—surroundings; memories thought long buried; the "Masks of God" he is reading about in Joseph Campbell's three-volume work of that name, written—and read by Saarikoski—long before its author became a television personality. He also wanders through the labyrinth of "events which we are characteristically so predisposed to co-operate with, designing what happens to us" and speculates that if we can transform that sign, the labyrinth, with its implications of rigidity and claustrophobia, into another, that of the dance, we may be able to revive an older, more truly participatory sense of both the word and the world.

There is, however, no dogmatism or "improving message" in these word-constructs, and in that respect, Saarikoski's trilogy differs from Olson's Maximus (or its great and antagonistic predecessor, the Cantos) and is closer in spirit to Robin Blaser's The Holy Forest and its erudite yet often disarmingly direct humor and wide range of attention. Of this particular phylum of United States poetry, Saarikoski, as far as we know, was familiar only with the Cantos and the work of William Carlos Williams, although I recall his mentioning an interest in Olson's work. The parallels with certain major serial poems written and published in the U.S. in the last three or four decades that Saarikoski's trilogy manifests are, it seems to me, due to a shared grounding in a) modernism—in Saarikoski's case, primarily via Pound and Joyce—and b) the ancient Greek poets and thinkers. "The most beautiful order of the world is still a random gathering of things insignificant in themselves," said Heraclitus; he also said that "the stuff of the psyche is a smoke-like substance of finest particles that gives rise to all other things; its particles are of less mass than any other substance, and it is constantly in motion: only movement can know movement." (14)

Saarikoski often spoke of his conviction that poetry and walking were closely related activities; he also said: "What I prefer to surround myself with is accidental, not intended, not premeditated, just left there, forgotten, lying around on the table—we'll use what comes to hand." (15) And: "The unexpected always happens, so unexpectedly that I have to pay attention every second: everything might suddenly shift into a new light. Nothing has changed, but everything's lit up differently." (16)

I have found his Trilogy a great book to leave lying around the house. Very often, when it has "come to hand," the way it witnesses the world's signs has shifted them into a new light, a light whose curious, even idiosyncratic sanity justifies his claim that Heraclitus is a "staff member" of his poetry. In life, Saarikoski often seemed to himself and others, not always happily; a brother from another planet; in his work, he made that planet worth a visit and a thoughtful stroll.



1. Herbert Lomas, "Haavikko and Saarikoski: Lyrical Strategies." in
2 PLUS 2: A Collection of International Writing, ed. James Gill (Lausanne:
Mylabris Press, 1985), p. 181.
2. Herbert Lomas, "Pentti Saarikoski" in Contemporary Finnish Poetry,
ed. and trans. Herbert Lomas (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1991),
3 Text from this volume is included in Pentii Saarikoski, Poems 1958-1980,
ed. and trans. Anselm Hollo (West Branch, Iowa: Toothpaste Press, 1983),
pp. 23-54. The selection is ten pages short of the complete volume: at the
time, I found those ten pages either too "local" in their references to Finnish
politics of the late fifties or otherwise redundant. Further readings of
What Is Really Going On have convinced me that I was wrong, and I intend
to finish a complete annotated translation of the book.
4 ibid., p. 30 and p. 33.^
5 Vincent B. Leitch, "The Postmodern Poetry and Poetics of Pentti Saarikoski." Scandinavian Review, December 1982. p. 62.^
6 ibid., p. 62.^
7 Joseph M. Conte, Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodenl Poetry
(Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 23.
8 David Jones, The Anathémata (New York: The Viking Press, 1965), p. 33.^
9 2PLUS2, p. 181.^
10 Pentti Saarikoski, Euroopan reuna. Kineettinen kuva (The Edge of Europe. A Kinetic Image) (Helsinki: Otava Publishing Company, 1982), p. 172.^
11 Pentti Saarikoski, Runoja (Poems) (Helsinki: Otava, 1958).^
12 Pentti Saarikoski, Tähänastiset runot (The Poems So Far)
(Helsinki: Otava, 1978).
13 Herakleitos and Diogenes, trans. from the Greek by Guy Davenport
(San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1979), p. 9.

14 ibid., fragments 40 and 43, p. 18.^
15 Pentti Saarikoski, Asiaa tai ei (Something to Tell You, or Maybe Not)
(Helsinki: Otava, 1980). p. 64.
16 ibid., p. 126.^