Paavo Haavikko

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Paavo Haavikko is one of the most prolific Finnish writers; he has published more than fifty books in his native language and has written equally masterfully in every literary genre. He made his debut in the 1950’s with collections of lyrical poems, and in the following decades he published novels, short stories, epic poems, and plays, in addition to which he has written two opera librettos, based on his plays: Ratsumies (1974; The Horseman, 1974) and Kuningas lähtee Ranskaan (1984; The King Goes Forth to France, 1984). The music for both operas was composed by Aulis Sallinen, and they were first performed at the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland. They have since been staged in West Germany, New Mexico, and London’s Covent Garden.

History has provided some of the major themes for Haavikko’s poetry and plays, and he has also published nonfiction in that field. His literary work includes collections of aphorisms, scripts for films, and radio and television plays. Some of Haavikko’s work has been translated into English, French, German, and Swedish. Haavikko also published three volumes of memoirs and continued to write opera libretti. In 2000, he collaborated with the composer Tuomas Kantelinen on an opera about the early twentieth century Olympic long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi. This work, titled Paavo Suuri, Suuri juoksu, Suuri uni, was directed by Kalle Holmberg and received widespread exposure throughout Europe.


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From the very start of his literary career, Paavo Haavikko never sought favor with the reading public; in fact, he rebelled against the thought that art and literature should be “pretty” or popular; for him, a poet’s greatest achievement is the writing itself. His unique contributions in the forefront of post-World War II literature were early recognized, and consequently he was awarded the Finnish Government Literature Prizes for his work in the years 1958, 1960, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1969, 1970, and 1974. In 1966, Haavikko received the Aleksis Kivi Prize (which is named after the writer of the first Finnish-language novel, published in 1870), and in 1969 he was awarded the Finnish Government Drama Prize and an honorary doctorate from the University of Helsinki. A symposium was held in 1976 in Joensuu, Finland, at which the participants, who represented the academic disciplines of literature, history, political science, and economics, analyzed and examined Haavikko’s work. In 1978, he received the Order of the White Rose of Finland for his literary achievements. Haavikko’s four-part television drama, Rauta-aika (based on his poem), which has also been published in book form, won for him the Prix d’Italia as best European television series of the year 1982.

Only a sampling of Haavikko’s poetry, plays, and other literary work have been translated into other languages. As Philip Binham, one of the English-language translators of Haavikko’s work, has pointed out, Finnish is particularly difficult to render in translation the subtlety and rhythm of Haavikko’s language; indeed, Haavikko’s poetic expression has often posed problems even to native Finnish readers. In the 1960’s, however, some of Haavikko’s work began to appear in translations, and in 1984 Haavikko won the Neustadt Prize, administered by the University of Oklahoma, which is given to non-American writers for a particularly substantive and challenging body of work. He also won the Nordic Prize of the Swedish Academy in 1993. As of 2001, it seemed perplexing to observers that neither Haavikko nor his Swedish-Finnish contemporary, Bo Carpelan, had won the Nobel Prize, as both were almost universally commended as deserving of that honor. Nonetheless, it is hard to deny that Haavikko has, over the entire course of his career, been one of the world’s leading poets.

An Illogical World

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In 1966, Haavikko published his only collection of lyrical...

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poems of that decade,Puut, kaikki heidän vihreytensä (trees in all their verdure), which in its direct and clear simplicity remains one of his major works, alongside the collections of 1973 and 1976, when he returned briefly to lyrical poetry, dealing with new and different subject matter. Haavikko’s interest was turning increasingly toward economics and history, particularly Finnish history and toward Byzantium, both of which provided him with a background against which to examine the fate of rulers, political factions and their intrigues, and man’s quest for power and riches. In short, Haavikko could study the entire world in microcosm. The world as expressed in Haavikko’s poetry is illogical, it is a paradox, and it is merciless; once an individual comes to terms with this understanding of the world, however, “looking it into the eyes every moment,” it is possible for him to live without fear and, characteristic of Haavikko, without hope.

Neljätoista hallitsijaa

Haavikko’s epic poem Neljätoista hallitsijaa (fourteen rulers) consists of fifteen cantos, based on the events described in the chronicle of Michael Psellus, an eleventh century Byzantine court historian and philosopher. The first four songs are the poet’s first-person prologue, after which he merges with Psellus, through whose eyes he draws the Byzantine worldview. The main themes are, as in much of Haavikko’s work, the position of the individual, who cannot escape his fate though he himself also shapes that fate, and the frame of historical understanding, the historical process devouring the individual, who searches for permanence but finds it an illusion. In this cyclical world, however, in which everything is in flux, an individual must, in some way, influence the outcome of the events, and he must try to combat evil, which Haavikko includes in his term “fascism.” The word represents to the poet, among some other aspects, all accumulated stupidity, in which an initially small, annoying amount may become dangerous. In Haavikko’s terminology, the opposite of fascism is pragmatic caution in all human endeavor, perceiving realities, being prepared for the worst, all the while maintaining the ability to function and staying alive. Haavikko’s interest in Byzantium links him to modernists such as the Irish poet William Butler Yeats and the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. Like those two poets, Haavikko felt a concrete, historical sense of connection to the Byzantine Empire, as raiders from Finland had encountered Byzantine culture while on expeditions southward at the turn of the first millennium. Perhaps, Haavikko hypothesized, the famous “sampo” in the Kalevala was a Byzantine machine for producing coinage! The concrete historicism of Neljätoista hallitsijaa, combined with Haavikko’s rigorously ironic view of history (his lack of credence in history’s substantiality) endows it with both spectacle and skepticism.

Kaksikymmentä ja yksi

Haavikko’s stylistic and thematic concerns and his preoccupation with human cognitive processes are expressed in the following lines: “Every house is built by many people/ and is never through,/ history and myth are told and told again/ contradicting halls lead to understanding.” These concerns led the poet to begin telling old Finnish myths anew, by rewriting one of the central cycles of the Kalevala, a compilation of folk poetry which was collected and edited by Elias Lönnrot and first published in 1835. This compilation became the national epos and had a great impact on the national culture, inspiring writers, painters, and composers, such as Jean Sibelius. Haavikko’s version of the Sampo cycle (which in folk tradition centers on a mythical talisman which brings good fortune), Kaksikymmentä ja yksi (twenty and one) takes place in Byzantium, where, according to the poet, Finnish Vikings went in search of a coin-minting machine, which they hoped to plunder.

Folk Poetry

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Haavikko continued following a partially economic point of view in his subsequent re-creations of the world of the folk poetry, which he inhabited with antiheroes, people modeled after those of modern times, while at the same time depicting the archetypal man. The poet has acknowledged his indebtedness to his native oral traditions, which have provided him with an inheritance of the world of the epic, and he has interpreted that world in the language and with the techniques of the twentieth century.


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Binham, Philip. “Dream Each Within Each: The Finnish Poet Paavo Haavikko.” Books Abroad 50, no. 2 (1976): 337-341. A brief look at the first half of Haavikko’s career, emphasizing its experimental aspect. Does not provide sufficient coverage of the poet’s Byzantine and historical concerns but is otherwise reliable and insightful.

Haavikko, Paavo. “What Has the Kalevala Given Me?” Books from Finland 1 (1985): 65. The poet discusses his relationship to Finland’s fundamental body of mythological legend and inferentially his stance toward story and history.

Laitinen, Kai. Literature of Finland: An Outline. Helsinki: Otava, 1985. This source, although superseded by George Schoolfield’s book (below), provides a good overall placement of Haavikko within the literary tradition of Finland.

Paddon, Seija. “John Ashbery and Paavo Haavikko: Architects of Postmodern Space in Mind and Language.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée 20, nos. 3/4 (1993): 409-416. Compares Haavikko to Ashbery based on observed similarities and on Ashbery’s lavish admiration for Haavikko’s Talvipalatsi. Paddon is a leading scholar of Finnish poetry in North America, and his article is one of few in English to provide sustained analysis of Haavikko’s poetic techniques.

Schoolfield, George. A History of Finland’s Literature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. Provides a substantial overview of Haavikko’s entire poetic career; also gives a sense of his comparative importance in the national literature and the cross-fertilizations between his work and that of his Finnish and Finnish-Swedish contemporaries.

World Literature Today 58, no. 4 (1984). A special issue devoted to Haavikko’s work on the occasion of his winning the Neustadt Prize in 1984. Includes not only reprints of some of Haavikko’s work but rigorous and laudatory analyses as well.


Critical Essays