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Selected Poems , by Paavo Haavikko and Tomas Tranströmer

Selected poems. Paavo Haavikko. Translated and with an introduction by Anselm Hollo. Tomas Transtromer. Translated and with an introduction by Robin Fulton. - Paavo Haavikko; Robin FULTON; Paul Anselm Alexis HOLLO; Tomas Transtromer

This book offers translations of selected poems by two great Scandanavian poets, the Swede Tomas Tranströmer (b. 1931) and the Finn Paavo Haavikko (1931-2008). The former is translated by Robin Fulton and the latter by Anselm Hollo. Both translators write short but useful introductions about their poet. Since I am going to write elsewhere about Tranströmer, who has been one of my favorite poets for decades, I shall discuss only Haavikko's work here.


The Finns were dominated by their more powerful Swedish, German and Russian neighbors for most of their history, attaining an independent Republic only in 1918. Their independence was fragile and came to a temporary end during the Second World War.


Finnish language literature also seems to be of rather recent origin  - preceded by folk songs and religious tracts associated with the Reformation, their high literature began in 1835 with the publication of the Kalevala. In the second half of the 19th century Aleksis Kivi wrote his poetry and the novel The Seven Brothers; as I understand it, this novel and the Kalevala are regarded by the Finns as the most important literary works in the Finnish language. Finnish high literature is young and has found its way haltingly, having to deal simultaneously with the mythologizing "back to the roots" nationalists and the literateurs trying to impose Swedish and German poetics upon a completely alien language.(*)


However, after the Second World War, with the independence of the Finnish Republic again in hand (if at the cost of keeping the Soviets happy in a number of ways quite disadvantageous to the Finns), Finnish language literature began to thrive with a new generation of authors well familiar with the most recent literary developments in the major European cultures.(**)


In this generation Paavo Haavikko was one of the primary figures, a modernist with his own style. He wrote novels, short stories, theater bordering on the Theater of the Absurd, and some very fine poetry. I haven't a clue about the Finnish language (except that it is totally alien to all of the languages I do know), so I have read translations of Haavikko's poems into German and English. 


What came through both the German and the English translations is that Haavikko is a laconic poet; the words are few and energetic, and this energy is magnified by the leaps he often makes in his poems. Some of these leaps make connections that are too private for me to follow, but generally he turns the poem towards the reader at least partially.


Here is an extreme example of his laconic energy:


A squirrel,

Scooped out of 




Even the shadows


Ejaculate into

                        the wind


In his selection Hollo has concentrated upon some of Haavikko's cycles, sequences of closely related poems amplifying and resonating with each other, the longest being the 23 page cycle of 9 poems called The Winter Palace.(***) In the cycles Haavikko treats large scale, public matters in which history, politics and social concerns enter, albeit obliquely. In these cycles Haavikko often enters into an incantatory mode, not unlike that of Ezra Pound, but terse, so terse.


But not always; here is the beginning of the cycle The Birthplace:


And yet, we must have a word with happiness,

Build the house to catch the sun's light,

Open our windows on the valley;

So, be seated under the tree and listen to it,

Exchange pleasantries, talk to it,


Give up all hating, see the fir growing, and the rose

How it flowers there, by the field,


Before the lake freezes over you hear the horsemen

On their way to the forest, before the mountains grow dark in Bohemia,

The Bohemian mountains, the Bohemian forests,

Deep down to the forests of the Balkan,

Deep down into Balkan dust

Where pine, fir and willow rise out of the sand, a white bird perches

On the far side of the Danube, utters a pitiful cry.


Thus begins a cycle in which Haavikko despairs about the efficacy of poetry in the face of threat - recall that he lived through the Second World War and was writing during the Cold War - but he finds some solace in the huge European forest stretching from Finland through the Balkans:


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

It is the inheritance of generations, the poets, also, rest there,

Oh, at last I can say it, they rest there,

Dug down, squeezed down with great effort under the sod,

It is true: they are resting


In the book




Manfred Peter Hein presents a larger selection of Haavikko's poetry translated into German, along with an informative essay about Finnish literature. Both Hein's and Hollo's translations are very good.


(*)  Kivi's rejection of both of those currents was part of the reason why his work was finally recognized, long after Kivi died in poverty and indifference, as so crucial to the literature.


(**) There was an earlier blooming of the literature of the Swedish speaking minority in Finland; I mention particularly the wonderful poetry of Edith Södergran (1891-1923), but one must go back at least to the "national poet of Finland," Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877), who also wrote in Swedish.


(***) I find that I have to give you a tasteling of the self-referential irony of this piece:

This poem wants to be a description,
And I want poems to have
Only the faintest of tastes.
Myself I see as a creature, hopeful
As the grass.
These lines are almost improbable,
This is a journey through familiar speech
Towards the region that is no place,
This poem has to be sung, standing up,
Or read without voice, alone.