(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Paavo Haavikko belongs to the generation of Finns who experienced World War II as children, growing into maturity in the immediate postwar years, a period which in many ways constituted a watershed for the Finnish society, in which a major, still ongoing culture change began in the 1950’s. The largely rural society (seventy percent of the population lived in the countryside until the postwar years) had been a major source of literary themes for the prewar writers and poets. Finnish as a creative literary language was still relatively new, Finland having been part of the Swedish kingdom for six hundred years and of the Russian empire for one hundred years, during which time Swedish was the language of culture and education. In the nineteenth century, a smoldering nationalistic movement gained impetus, under the influence of the ideas of the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, and, in 1863, the Finnish language was granted equal status with Swedish. The following decades produced an abundance of writers of Finnish-language literature, which reflected Continental European trends and the “national neo-Romanticism.” The latter was partly a product and a culmination of the struggle for the country’s independence, which was gained in 1917.

World War II broke the continuity of Finnish literature. The war experience and the resulting circumstances and conditions caused a reevaluation of prewar ideas and ideology. It was a time of careful assessments of history and of the present possibilities for the country’s political, economic, and cultural survival. New influences from the Anglo-Saxon world, especially in the form of translated literature, reached Finland, and in the late 1940’s a new generation of poets entered the literary scene.

Many of the representatives of the new poetry experimented with a number of styles, not immediately finding one distinctly their own. Not so with Haavikko. His first poetry collection, Tiet etäisyyksiin (the roads to far away), published in 1951, when the writer was twenty years old, showed him following his own instincts and philosophy about the nature of poetry and of language, humankind, and the world. The poets of the new era of modernism strove for fresh forms of expression, rejecting the preexisting poetic structures and in their themes avoiding any sort of ideology or sentimental self-analysis. Haavikko took these aims further than anybody else. He constructed his poems in nonrhyming, rhythmical language, attempting to get as close as possible to the spoken idiom.

He set out to examine the “eternal issues” of love, death, the identities of man and woman and their relationship to each other, and the possibilities for the individual human being in an ever-changing world, in which the human character, man’s psyche and behavior, and his actions and passions stay the same. Haavikko also set out to find linguistic expressions that would most clearly and honestly define and depict all these phenomena. Haavikko sees language as restricting humanity’s perception of human processes and thoughts, even causing an estrangement from the realities of life. In an early poem, he speaks of the limitations of his native language: “Finnish isn’t a language, it’s a local custom/ of sitting on a bench with hair over your ears,/ it’s continual talking about the rain and the wind.” In another poem, he speaks of his own role as a poet in improving the existing modes of expression: “I’m on a journey into the language/ of this people.” On the other hand, Haavikko has also realized the advantages of his mother tongue, whose structure allows a compactness and a poetic construction in which “the relations between one thing and another, the world picture, are the most important elements.”

This last observation pertains to...

(The entire section is 1566 words.)