Paavo Haavikko

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Haavikko, Paavo 1931–

Haavikko is a Finnish poet and dramatist. A leader in the modernist revival of poetry in Finland, he also introduced the Theater of the Absurd to that country with his drama Münchhausen. Both ancient and modern history have proved to be a great influence on Haavikko: the theme of history as myth as well as the poet's own perceptions of modern history inform his work.

Kai Laitinen

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[Two important poles are represented in the poetry of Paavo Haavikko.] On the one hand, the world is real, unavoidable, but difficult to understand. One cannot help listening to its voice. On the other hand, man cannot expect permanence or stability. The world flows like his own speech, and in this changing world the only possibility of orientation is to "know almost everything yourself." This is man's basic situation in Haavikko's poetry. (p. 41)

Haavikko was twenty when he published his first book in 1951. The title Tiet etäisyyksiin could be translated somewhat inexactly as "The Ways to Far-away." This, with some of its central motives, gives the book a certain romantic undertone: there are deep shadows, decorative historical images, views of old houses and gardens. But these images are used in a personal way, illustrating the aims of the poet. The opening poem is typical: one has to ride through the countries drawn on maps, faster than "the troops of thoughts." In hindsight, this poem can be considered as a pretentious artistic program. At any rate, Haavikko has done what he predicted—he has passed the well-known countries drawn on the map of Finnish poetry, and has also succeeded in keeping a distance from the "troops of thoughts." The military image of the troops (or an army) of thoughts is typical of him, just like the other historical, medieval images of riding, horses, kings, or falcons.

His second book Tuuliöinä ("On Windy Nights," 1953) is his most lyrical collection. He writes love poems and speaks more openly than before, but he also makes use of mythical material. In the third collection, Synnyinmaa ("Birthplace," 1955), historical imagery again dominates; the book contains also some magnificent poems about poetry, and meditations on the situation of man in the contemporary world…. Haavikko's fourth book Lehdet lehtiä is less uniform in tone than its predecessor, but it further develops some central themes and introduces new ironic accents in his poetry…. Talvipalatsi ("The Winter Palace," 1959) is a synthesis of Haavikko's poetry of the Fifties—a poem of poetry, language, love, and history. (p. 42)

In the autumn of 1966 Haavikko returned to poetry with a new collection, Puut, kaikki heidän vihreytensä ("Trees in All Their Verdure" …), considered by many critics his best book….

There are a few recurrent subjects in Haavikko's verse. Again and again, four matters occupy his mind: history, poetry (and language), love, and death. They are of course not separate, static elements, but changing themes; all can exist in the same poem, blending one with another, or leading into still different themes. Sometimes they are present stylistically: Haavikko can write love poems in historical terms, or treat of historical events in economic or statistical language. His artistic solutions are never simple. But how could they be so, when he deals with topics such as the relativity of human life, the complexity of the world, or the insecurity of man?

Still another difficulty arises in Haavikko's poetry: his unwillingness to give names to single poems or to classify his experiences conceptually. In the collection "Trees in All Their Verdure" there is a poem called "Faulkner, Early in the Morning"; but the title is to...

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be found only in the index, not above the poem itself. In many verses based on historical material, no keys of this kind are given; an image, an illusion, or a single word can open the poem or give the reader important clues…. In many cases, the access to some of Haavikko's poems and stories has been found only later; but it is typical of him that, despite this difficulty, his texts can have an immediate impact on the reader. The atmosphere, the images, the ironic undertones are enough to guide him in the right direction at least….

Haavikko's historical imagery has many sources. He takes material from antiquity—often from Rome—from the Middle Ages, from the time of Frederick II, and frequently from Russian and Finnish history. There is, one critic has noticed, a definite "St. Petersburg image" in his poetry. "This white city, written by architects in their perpendicular hand" is one of Haavikko's favorite places, especially in the long poem "The Winter Palace," in which the old Russian capital equips him with both décor and central symbols. Finally, he often makes use of our own time and the political history of this century. In "Trees in All Their Verdure" there is a cycle of poems, "A Clear Guide to Later History," a cynical study of the helpless situation of a small country in world crisis…. (p. 43)

History is to Haavikko no static phenomenon; it is something happening, flowing, always changing. There are a few given things, which come back like a hidden pattern—cruelty and egoism of great powers, influence of money, greed for power, corruption. The process itself never ends…. In this way, Haavikko is able to move in his historical poems on several levels at the same time. Figures blend into each other, but the fundamental situation is essentially the same. Past actors play present roles. Sometimes, too, the opposite solution can be used, and present actors play past roles. The effect of this technique can be startling: the reader sees two figures simultaneously, or experiences two situations in the framework of one scene….

Like history, love is to Haavikko no constant or unchangeable thing. There are both romantic and cynical aspects to his conception of love. In the second book, "On Windy Nights," the romantic aspect dominates in many poems….

Later, Haavikko's poetry is no longer dominated by Eros but by Sexus…. "O bitch world," Haavikko writes in "The Winter Palace," and, in the same poem, woman is seen as "carnivorous, a trap, a little meal/with a soft hunger." The poem is full of Freudian imagery, certainly quite consciously; in part, it can be considered a study of the power of the female element in human life. Then, in "Trees in All Their Verdure," a new perspective opens: that of longing. Some of the most striking poems in the book deal with death and memory, how trivial objects may contain something of the beloved herself. The word "death" is not mentioned, but its presence is felt in every line.

The fourth subject to interest Haavikko is language and poetry. This is quite natural, because he started writing during a period of stylistic innovation in Finnish poetry and soon developed into a virtuoso of the new form of expression. His texts are full of original details, new stylistic accents, and hardly audible undertones…. (p. 44)

[To Haavikko] poetry is something concrete: it is a house, or it is a landscape to go through. In "Birthplace," poetry is also seen as a country, as the home of the poet; Haavikko speaks of "the Empire of poetry." The image of the empire is central in the magnificent poem, "Now, as I Tell You of the Emperor …," which belongs to the very essence of Haavikko's production…. The poem of the Emperor is …, in a certain sense, a poem about the "slyness of sincerity." It can be read in two ways: on the one hand, as a praise of poetry and the power of imagination, and on the other, as an unmasking of all kinds of propaganda. What surprises us is that the poem is so perfectly ambiguous (in the Empsonian meaning of the word); in its kind, it is one of the most complete achievements I know.

Haavikko's metaphors and intense symbols are not mere literary or stylistic devices. They tell something essential about our existence. "It isn't worth talking to the wind, arguing with the water/asking trees, answering the grass." Irony and paradox are the language of reality. This is the way things are. The world is a cruel place; it gives false information, it is difficult or impossible to understand, it speaks "indistinctly, rapidly, and about all things simultaneously." Haavikko's solution is to face the world and to learn its language. You cannot escape this insecurity and you don't have to accept it, but it is the lot of man: "you have to know almost everything yourself." (p. 45)

Kai Laitinen, "How Things Are: Paavo Haavikko and His Poetry," in Books Abroad (copyright 1969 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 43, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 41-6.

Richard Dauenhauer

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Haavikko's poetry may be viewed as a two-pronged attack on the style and content of Finnish poetry before 1950. However, while the details of many poems are peculiar to Finland, most of Haavikko's poems are international in their modern style and attack on positivism and national romanticism, and on the irrationality of human perception.

The nine-poem cycle "Winter Palace," published in 1959, is one of the landmarks of modern Finnish literature, and firmly established Haavikko as the most original voice in postwar Finnish poetry. The poem is the culmination of many of the themes of the first decade of his writing….

["Winter Palace"] uses the modern associative technique, described in the opening lines as:

                  Side by side:
                  The images.
                  To have them tell you….

And, apropos of this technique, the poet also questions the tyranny of language and syntax, viewing them as one of the many conceptual categories which severely limit our perception and expression. Elsewhere he asks: "And what is the subject of this poem,/And is it a poem?"

The answer to his second question was clear: one young Finnish poet published a book of blank pages to dramatize the impact of the "Winter Palace" in forcing younger poets to redefine their conception of lyric poetry and find a new starting point. (p. 161)

Richard Dauenhauer, "Finno-Ugric and Baltic Languages: Paavo Haavikko," in Books Abroad (copyright 1970 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 44, No. 1, Winter, 1970, pp. 160-61.

Jaakko A. Ahokas

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When Finnish poets broke with tradition in the 1950s, there was no leader among them, no innovator bolder than the others who could mark a road for others to follow. Haavikko's first collection of poems … was not the very first to be written in the new manner; but the author almost immediately established himself as the most individual of the new poets and also … the least accessible to the average reader. At times critics and essayists have expressed bewilderment when attempting to analyze his works; ready-made labels do not easily apply to them, although such terms as "imagism," "decadent surrealism," and "romanticism" have been used…. Features typical of Haavikko's poetry [are an] interest in a mythical or, at times, quite well-defined past, described in solemn and slightly mysterious words, somewhat in the manner of St.-John Perse, and his abrupt changes from the description of material things to the rendering of thoughts and feelings…. In the 1950s, critics and essayists stated more than once that poems were not intended to be clear and unambiguous messages, that they are not even meant to be understood, and, in his way, Haavikko has stated something similar. Flowers are often taken as the symbol of pure, non-materialistic beauty, but it would seem that to Haavikko even they are too tangible to represent his poetry; at any rate, when speaking of the "farmers" by whom he obviously means the general public, he says: "but they will say then: I told you so,/I know that they will plant rows of chrysanthemums into the landscape,/for, they say, I am a lie,/…/for, they say, I am a lie, my chrysanthemum is only smell,/the chrysanthemums of the farmers are true, they are planted and they flower."… This poem is a good example of a technique of poetric narration which I recently heard described as Mallarméan, which consists of eliminating the first part of a metaphor; indeed, no word like "art" or "poetry" is ever mentioned in the poem. Haavikko, however, goes even further; once the second part of the metaphor has been stated, it can become the first part of another one, and these two parts can interlock in the same sentence…. (pp. 37-8)

Haavikko is interested not only in the history of mankind in general, but in definite historic events and characters, which appear in his poems from the first collections on. True to himself, he does not always name the characters and the events, but it is, however, perfectly clear to every educated reader who and what is meant…. Haavikko's treatment of historic motifs has with time become clearer and clearer, although he has still managed occasionally to leave his readers in doubt about his intentions…. [For example,] a short story about the future in a Communist Finland was written in such a subtle manner and avoided so carefully all Orwellian horrors that … it was not until some time had passed that its true import was discovered. Haavikko, who dislikes the present-day political situation in Finland, probably thought that he had proved his point by showing that, if Finland would become Communist, few people would notice the difference. A "Finnish Suite" in that collection is formally about the events of 1809, when Russia conquered Finland but allowed it to become an autonomous part of the Empire. The encounter between representatives of the two countries was accordingly friendly, but Haavikko underlines the lack of any true understanding between them; he makes one of the Russians say, in the only line written by him that has become a quote: "Finnish is not a language, it is a way of sitting at the end of the bench with a fur cap pulled over your ears." (p. 39)

Jaakko A. Ahokas, "Two Poets of Finland: Paavo Haavikko and Bo Carpelan," in Books Abroad (copyright 1972 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 46, No. 1, Winter, 1972, pp. 37-43.∗

Philip Binham

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Paavo Haavikko has always been a prolific writer. Poetry, prose, plays, whatever he turns his hand to he executes with ease and assurance. The year 1975 was a gala year for him: in addition to his collected poems in two large volumes, Runot 1949–1974 … and Runoelmat …, he also produced a highly successful opera libretto, Ratsumies (The Horseman …). (p. 337)

Haavikko's poetry as a whole forms a tightly-woven, complex tapestry, in which many themes merge and emerge. Most poets write of love and death, many of poetry. Haavikko's interest in history seems, however, to put him in a more select company among modern poets. In [a] radio interview he was asked why he so often veiled his themes in the history of Rome or Byzantium and in the Finnish past. His reply was:

Everything is history. The antique world is where it happened. I am not veiling them in history. When I was young I read poems, but I didn't understand them at all. They only contained generalizations, and he who generalizes is a fool. I thought that if I should write poetry myself I would start from reality, from real events.

[In] much of his work Haavikko concocts a poetic mix of history and myth. The myth is evident early in Synnyinmaa (Native Land; 1955). Later, in his long narrative poem Kaksikymmentä ja yksi (Twenty and One; 1974), where the subject—the search for the sampo—is mythical, this quality is enhanced by the semi-archaic language, a device which the poet has continued to use, in his opera libretto and elsewhere.

A poet's truth, his "reality," cannot of course be bound to concrete facts alone. Thus Haavikko uses several key concepts (I avoid the word "image," since Haavikko, like many modern poets, is suspicious of the thing that stands for something else) to expand his reality. One of the most commonly noted is the tree and the forest…. Haavikko's forest, his history, never stands still; it is always shifting, flowing. The word virta, a stream, flow, constantly recurs: "Speech flows in a flowing world/speech flows in a flowing world/and you yourself must know almost everything" (Lehdet, lehtiä—Leaves, Leaves; 1958). The repetition in these much-quoted lines, reinforcing the idea of flow, is characteristic of the poet. And the flow suggests a lack of permanence. (pp. 337-38)

Both impermanence and man's unawareness of it are vital to Haavikko's history. The unawareness appears in the frequent return to dreams and sleep (Finnish provides the poet with a suitably ambiguous word: uni means both "sleep" and "dream")…. One of the songs [from "Four Dream Songs"] runs: "Three dreams there are each within each, each inside each. In a dream, made from dream, woman sleeps … Baby in the woman, sleep in her womb, still unborn baby, still unborn who sees the dream." I have quoted this song and drawn on it for my title because it reflects the flow of past into present and future, it describes the state in which people move through life in Haavikko's world, and it suggests the complexity of that world and of his poetry. (pp. 338-39)

For Haavikko Finland is a microcosm of the world in the same way as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, with its own special problems, it is true, but always keeping them in perspective. I cannot resist noting in passing that the reason why his work has not been translated more is not that it is special to the Finnish world, but that it is so difficult to render the subtlety of his rhythms and use of language satisfactorily. (p. 340)

Philip Binham, "Dreams Each within Each: The Finnish Poet Paavo Haavikko," in Books Abroad (copyright 1976 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 50, No. 2, Spring, 1976, pp. 337-41.

Philip Binham

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["Wine, Writing" is Haavikko's tenth volume of poetry.] Wine is life, and so are women and bread. Drinking, eating, Eros—all are of the same category. They give the taste of life. The glass is shaped like a woman; wine is god too. Haavikko writes of "the man who eats and drinks his god, in little pieces, as bread and as wine." And writing is drinking, wine the writer: "Wine writes better than me, it's true/in the bottle lives a savage spirit."

Life and death are inextricably interwoven. Death is a tyrant to beware of "when death begins to seem safe, gentle,/trustworthy." Life and death are represented by elemental things, the wind, grass, leaves, trees. Like the trees, the writer too must die, "this wise, cunning, false/and stupid man." Also tyrants are the "well-meaning bureaucrats, the exploiters," who take what the writer earns.

The words in these poems are like delicate glass, blown into patterns of sound and sight….

All these themes (symbols, concepts—what should one call them?) are intertwined. Haavikko uses no similes; one can hardly speak of metaphors, so closely are things bound, so completely do they merge. They spring from, they represent the poet himself. At least it seems to me that these poems are more personal than is most of Haavikko's earlier work, in the sense that the distance between poet and reader is diminished. But there is nothing narrowly personal in this elegant, slender volume. The final effect is as before: indirect, many-layered, tantalizing, suggestive.

Philip Binham, "Finno-Ugric and Baltic Languages: Paavo Haavikko," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring, 1977, p. 308.

Philip Binham

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At the end of "Harald's Farewell" the Narrator tells us that the King "meditates, in his mind, that life in the end is a pretty villainous tale. Goodbye." "Harold's Farewell" (Harald, jäähyväiset, 1976) is the last of twelve plays collected in Paavo Haavikko's Näytelmät (Plays,… 1978). All the tales are pretty villainous in their way, though their ways are various enough; but there are certain recurrent themes, some of them familiar from Haavikko's poetry, some more suited for drama. Critics of Haavikko generally agree on his complexity and ambiguity, the inseparability of the components and concepts of his world. This makes the task of analyzing his works more difficult. In trying to clarify, one is constantly in danger of oversimplifying, of not doing justice to his sophistication, or even of losing him entirely….

[His first play], Münchausen (1960), was an absurdist play written before the theatre of the absurd had reached Finland. It deals with subjects that will reappear in his work: "history," Russia, the leader, absolute power and its ruthlessness, high politics. Negotiation games of political cat and mouse are played in Haavikko's favorite "white city," in a St. Petersburg palace (not the Winter Palace this time). The mouse is Poland, about to be dismembered by Russia, in the person of Catherine the Great, and Austria, represented by its emissary Baron von Münchausen. The Russian cat has longer claws.

The motifs of Münchausen appear more richly and profoundly in what I consider Haavikko's best play, Agricola ja kettu (Agricola and the Fox; 1968). History now moves closer to home. As in the later Ratsumies (The Horseman; 1974), Finland is caught between Sweden and Russia. The characters are still men of power, but they are more fully drawn, more human. (p. 244)

The men of power appear in many of the later plays, more often than not as rulers. They are willful, certain that they know best. Gustavus Vasa claims that he is the people, so why have elections? They are grasping; their need and greed for money are insatiable….

Although Haavikko's public leaders do not disappear in his later plays—King Harald is the center of a series of radio plays—there is a growing interest in more private themes. Along with this shift, women characters are more common, more important and less dumb. They are more certain of their identity than are the men….

We might say that Haavikko's women remind their men that for all their strutting and their big talk they are still at the mercy of forces beyond their powers. He is too subtle to make any such generalization outright, but there is in his plays something beyond, something poetic, defying definition…. The strong men may think they master their world—they momentarily impress us with their worldly wisdom—but they are really only children, villainous or not, scampering aimlessly in Haavikko's playground. (p. 245)

Philip Binham, "Poets Playground: The Collected Plays of Paavo Haavikko," in World Literature Today (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 244-45.