Paavo Haavikko

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A poet first and foremost but also a novelist, short-story writer, dramatist, biographer, essayist, editor, historian, librettist, and screenwriter, Paavo Juhani Haavikko (HAH-vihk-koh) is Finland’s most versatile, prolific, and prominent literary artist. Haavikko was among the new generation of poets who brought about the modernist revolution in postwar Finnish poetry when he began publishing verse in the early 1950’s. He also introduced Theater of the Absurd to Finland with his play Münchhausen in 1958. In a career spanning half a century, Haavikko has produced many books of poetry; several novels; numerous stage, radio, and television plays; and more than a few works of nonfiction. Among many honors, Haavikko was awarded the prestigious Neustadt Prize in 1984 and the Nordic Prize from the Swedish Academy in 1993. He has also pursued a second career as a businessman, in real estate and later in publishing.

Haavikko was born in Helsinki on January 25, 1931, to Heikki Adrian, a stationery store owner, and Rauha (Pyykonen) Haavikko. In every significant way, Haavikko’s adult life began in 1951, when he was twenty years old. That year he left the University of Helsinki without graduating, published Tiet etäisyyksiin (roads to far away), his first book of verse, and began his mandatory two-year stint in the Finnish army, eventually attaining the rank of sergeant. That same year he also began working part-time in his brother’s real estate business, a vocation he would practice until 1967. On June 7, 1955, Haavikko married Marja-Liisa Vartio, a divorced poet and novelist seven years his senior. Their first child, Johanna, was born in 1956. A son, Heikki, was born in 1958. Sadly, Haavikko’s wife died on June 17, 1966. The following year Haavikko quit the real estate business to become a literary director at the Otava Publishing Company. He also became director of Yhtyneet Kavalehdet Oy (illustrated magazines), a position he would hold from 1969 to 1982. In 1971, Haavikko married Ritva Rainio Hanhineva, a literary scholar. In 1983, after sixteen years at Otava, Haavikko joined Art House, a publishing company founded in 1975 that specializes in high-quality literature and is particularly known for its science titles. He became managing director in 1989, a position he held until the end of 2001, when his son, Heikki, succeeded him. Now semiretired, Haavikko remains owner and chairman of the board of Art House.

When Haavikko started publishing his verse, Finnish poetry was mired in what has been dubbed “Finnitude,” an aesthetic that poet and translator Anselm Hollo describes as “two kinds of neo-Romanticism: the ‘cosmic,’ self-searching, or the folkloristic, ‘national’ kind.” Rebelling against these archaic and stultifying fashions, Haavikko launched what critic Richard Dauenhauer has described as “a two-pronged attack on the style and content of Finnish poetry before 1950.” Though he was deeply influenced by the works of T. S. Eliot, Haavikko adopted a spare modernist style that lies somewhere between the allusive minimalism of Ezra Pound and the stark imagism of William Carlos Williams. In his 1994 autobiography Vuosien aurinkoiset varjot (the sunny shadows of the years), Haavikko, referring to himself in the third person, wrote: “Haavikko writes concrete texts without symbolism or sentimentality. When he says ‘a house’ it just means a house. When he deals with symbols or ideas, he gives them a pretty rough time.” As for content, simple, concrete nature images predominate, but Haavikko’s poems tend to be highly cryptic and somewhat surreal. At first glance, they are not discernibly “about” anything, but repeated, careful readings disclose certain themes and preoccupations. Critic Kai Laitenen identifies these as “history, poetry (and language), love, and death” and notes that...

(This entire section contains 1038 words.)

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they are “not separate, static elements, but changing themes, all can exist in the same poem, blending with one another.”

After his debut collection appeared in 1951, Haavikko published Tuuliöinä (on windy nights) in 1953, Synnyinmaa (land of birth) in 1955, and Lehdet lehtiä (leaves, leaves) in 1958. In 1959, he brought out Talvipalatsi, translated in 1968 as The Winter Palace, an ambitious cycle of nine poems that became a key work in modern Finnish poetry, its effect on younger poets somewhat analogous to the effect that Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) had on his generation. In the opinion of poet John Ashbery, The Winter Palace may be one of the great poems of the twentieth century.

Toward the end of the 1950’s, Haavikko began to work in other literary genres. His first play, Münchhausen, debuted at the Finnish National Theater in Helsinki in 1958. A second play, Nuket (the dolls), was staged two years later at the same venue. In the early 1960’s, Haavikko reeled off three novels in quick succession. Yksityisiä asioita (private affairs), set during the Finnish civil war in 1917, deals with a man who refuses to get involved with people or politics. Toinen taivas ja maa (another heaven and earth) examines the events leading up to a double suicide. Vuodet (the years) chronicles the life of a vagabond. When none of these novels proved popular, Haavikko abandoned the longer prose form and experimented with shorter pieces, such as the monologue “Arkkitehti” (the architect) and the short story “Lumeton aika” (in Lasi Claudius Civiliksen salaliittolaisten pöydällä; “Snowless Time,” 1967). Critic Philip Binham describes “The Architect” as “an Ingmar Bergman-type drama, in which the elements of the story are reflected in the internal duality of the main character.” “Snowless Time” is a satiric alternative history in which Haavikko imagines what would have happened if Finland had been taken over by the Soviet Union. Binham notes that it is “one of Haavikko’s early examples of Finnish opportunism (a favorite theme),” exposing a cultural tendency to deal with problems by avoiding them altogether.

Haavikko returned to poetry with Puut, kaikki heidän vihreytensä(the trees, all their green), a sarcastic reinterpretation of Finland’s recent history. Throughout the 1970’s, Havvikko was enormously prolific, publishing a dozen new books of verse and a much larger number of stage and radio plays. In the 1980’s, he concentrated on nonfiction. Since then, he has published only occasionally. In his laureate’s acceptance speech for the Neustadt Prize, Paavo Haavikko summed up his somber—and quintessentially Finnish—vision of life: “Real problems were not made to be solved, but rather to be borne with, lived with, in all countries and seasons, as time passes and changes the terms of life.”


Critical Essays