Paavo Haavikko

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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...

(This entire section contains 1566 words.)

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This last observation pertains to Finnish folk poetry, a rich warehouse of themes and frames for his work. Haavikko set out to clear from literary expression all empty rhetoric and pathos, taking words, which he perceives as “treacherous symbols,” and using them to find the truth. In this never-ending search for truth—for ultimately there are no answers—Haavikko creates poetry in fluid combinations of images and concepts, taken from nature, everyday urban surroundings, mythology and tales, and classical antiquity as well as more recent history.

The structures of Haavikko’s poems are complex, multifaceted, and multilayered. His lyrics have been compared to rich tapestries, to top rough-edged crystals, and to modern Finnish objets d’art. All these descriptions are fitting, and perhaps one more could be added, a concept taken from nature: Haavikko’s poems could be seen as many items frozen in a block of ice; the block may melt, the ice become water and part of the continuous life cycle, and the pieces encased may become recognizable and identifiable, or the ice block may remain an enigmatic, opaque object, beautiful to contemplate but giving no answers to the viewer. Haavikko’s poetry has also been likened to music, its sound obviously being most resonant in the original language. In the end, the responsibility for an interpretation and an understanding of the poet’s ideas is left to each individual reader.

As Kai Laitinen and others have pointed out, Haavikko’s writing is deeply rooted in a cultural and geographic area and its social and historical processes; the poet’s perspectives are those of a European and of a citizen of a small European nation. The small size of the Finnish reading public (and, for writers in the Finnish language, a international public without much innate potential) has led Finland’s writers to be unusually versatile, working in several forms and often having different identities in different genres or milieus. At times, the author’s work reflects not only an individual’s loneliness and feeling of being different but also an entire nation’s sense of isolation and separateness.

Besides that, Haavikko has had much to say about the most central and universal issues of human existence—the identity of an individual, the relativity of values, and the difficulty of living—and about the concepts of society, history, and literature. He has said it through complex anachronisms, analogies, and “precise ambiguities,” all the while refining and defining language, which in his work, especially in the opera librettos and the aphorisms, has become increasingly sparse and intense. He has moved freely between literary genres, letting the subject matter determine the form of his writing.

In an interview, Haavikko has stated that, when composing poems, he always lets the entire poem take shape in his mind, before writing it down, for fear that the words will take over and begin to lead a life of their own. He may use concrete images or paradoxes, weave the thread of human experience through several time periods, illuminating the present through the past and speaking about the future at the same time:

The Greeks populated Mycenae,
the poets of Rome in their turn
filled Greece with shadowless beings,

there is no night when no one wrote

someone’s writing into these rooms too,
poem-dressed lovers, when we are not saying

The room is not free but full of breathing

and embraces, light sleeping, hush,
be still, so we don’t wake, someone’s writing
into the night.

For Haavikko, there is no separation of time and space; human existence, behavior, interactions, and in the end human fate, remain the same.

From the early metaphysical lyrical poetry through the plays, opera librettos, epic poetry, aphorisms, and historical analyses, Haavikko’s work has continued to create lively debate, providing new perspectives and new insights through its oracle-like visions and presentation of world structures. In the meantime, Haavikko continues to search for “himself, woman, god, tribe, old age and the grave” and the uniqueness of things, “not wanting generalizations, either, but trying to make things concrete.” For Haavikko, one who generalizes is a fool, and in his work the poet never pontificates. He merely invites the reader onto new paths, to which he has opened the way.

The Winter Palace

The collections of poems published by Haavikko in the 1950’s firmly established him as the most original and brilliant representative of the modernist group. The nine-poem collection The Winter Palace is a synthesis of all the themes which had preoccupied Haavikko in his previous work. The collection derived its name from the imperial Russian palace in St. Petersburg, and within this frame of a center for historical events, the poet examines the nature of art, poetry, love and death, and political power. The first poem begins: “Chased into silver,/ side by side:/ The images./ To have them tell you.” The poet warns the reader to be alert, to enter this experience with an open mind, and through personal perception to organize the kaleidoscope, which will follow, into a comprehensible whole.

As an eighteen-year-old high school student, Haavikko had read T. S. Eliot, who without doubt pointed him the way “into the unknown.” At about that time, Haavikko wrote a poem which served as a declaration of his intentions: “Bridges are taken by crossing them/ Each return is a defeat.” From then on Haavikko continued crossing bridges, and The Winter Palace has been mentioned as the Finnish Waste Land:

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.

Haavikko, Paavo