Monday, February 19, 2018

Finnish Poets

On the day of Finland's centennial celebration, December 6, 2017, we had a celebration in Duluth at the Depot. Over 600 people attended to appreciate Finland's culture and independence. We also enjoyed good food, visual art, music. Many Finnish immigrants settled in Minnesota. My grandparents arrived in the early 1900s.  At the event, I read these poems as way to acknowledge the sources of inspiration that continue to feed my writing.  

Eeva-Liisa Manner  


I will show you a way 
that I have travelled. 

If you come 
If you come back some day 
searching for me 

do you see how everything shifts 
a little every moment 
and becomes less pretentious 
and more primitive 
(like pictures drawn by children 
or early forms of life: 
the soul's alphabet) 

you will come to a warm region 
it is soft and hazy 
but then I will no longer be me, 
but the forest. 


MOTHER TONGUES by Kirsti Simonsuuri

There came a distant cool loneliness
without the hell of others
I spoke alone in all tongues
I forged keys to secret languages:
fresh water, Latin
sweet strawberry, Finnish.
My silence was as deep
as once in the womb.


GROUND-ICE by Helvi Juvonen

My joy is made of ground-ice.
It does not melt.
A vein of water runs deep,
the spring shimmers
over my silver ice
clear as glass.
You see my ice.
Do not touch.
After all it is cold,
spring water.
You see a human face,
you see your own,
a good face.

IN THIS LIFE by Helvi Juvonen

I tell of an enduring summer,
streams that do not run out,
trees that do not shed their leaves,
land on which grass does not wilt.
In that land, the land of which I sing,
ravens fly, bringing food.
In that land, the land of which I sing,
there is always a hand for a human hand.
My friends, the chosen few,
I’m telling you
of truth’s enduring summer.

From Pohjajäätä [‘Ground-ice’], 1952)


Poem by Risto Rasa 

Niin kuin aalto uittaa aallon 
yli valtameren, 
niin selviydymme mekin 
toinen toisiamme tukien. 

Just as one wave carries another wave
Across the ocean,
So we, too, survive
One supporting the other. 


Älä elämää pelkää’ by Kaarlo Sarkia

Don’t be afraid of life,
don’t shut out its beauty.
Invite it to sit by your fire,
or should your hearth expire,
to meet it outside is your duty.

Do not ever say:
this is mine alone.
Drink from life’s cup
and once again give its pain up.
If you never beg to own,
the world’s riches are yours today.
Be bold, stake all on one card:
ahead you’ll always see death’s gate unbarred.

– – –
Älä elämää pelkää,
älä sen kauneutta kiellä.
Suo sen tupaasi tulla
tai jos liettä ei sulla,
sitä vastaan käy tiellä,
älä käännä sille selkää.

Älä koskaan sano:
‘Tämä on iäti minun.’
Elon maljasta juovu,
taas siitä, jos tarpeen, kivutta luovu.
On maailman rikkaus sinun,
kun mitään et omakses ano.
Elä pelotta varassa yhden kortin:
näet aina avoinna kuoleman portin.

Translated by David McDuff

Friday, July 8, 2016

Juhani Pallasmaa: Form That Is Liberating

On Writing and Architecture

Architecture and poetry are related. They both rely on design and the two employ repetition and variation. The Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa considers architecture also a form of mental space.

The mental space of poetry is one that I seek. Poetry creates an associational field of energy that is driven by breath, by sound, and by form.  The lines of poetry have tension and release, and they propel the reader into a mind space that is one of discovery. It's possible to speak of the things that cannot be articulated in any other way.

In an interview on an architectural website, Archdaily, Pallasma provides some insight into his work. He has two books about architecture:  The Thinking Hand and The Eyes of the Skin.  These reflect on the importance of the physical senses and the sense of touch in his work:
There is a rather wide agreement in science that our amazing hands are not products of our spectacular brains, but we have our amazing brains due to our spectacular hands. The body and the hands participate in everything we do, perception, remembering, thinking and imagining, not to speak of physically making something. 
In my view, everything is related with everything else, and as an architect you can nourish your mind through philosophy, poetry, art and the sciences. The important thing is that your mind keeps seeking for new things and their interrelationships. Besides, the best medicine against the negative consequences of aging is to maintain your sense of curiosity.
Of writing, he says:
Writing has turned into a journey or adventure for me. After I have written the first sentence, the process begins, and I even frequently end up eliminating my first sentence or changing the title several times. My writing always arises from my personal observations and thoughts. I do use a lot of quotes, but that is for the purpose of creating a layering of thoughts from various historical eras. I quote thinkers, writers, scientists, artists, etc, because of my respect for what they have established and to place myself in that continuum of tradition. 
Early on I also became conscious of what I was aiming at in my work, too conscious, I would say today. A high level of self-consciousness can become a problem as it interrupts the unconscious flow of thought.
Details ultimately articulate and define the idea. A sense of tactile intimacy is important for me, and I attempt to detail my buildings and objects so that they are inviting in a tactile sense. The same applies to writing; an essay can be too straight forward, rationalized and forcefully persuasive. I like my thoughts to meander instead of being too logical. I wish my writings to have an unexpectedness and non-linearity, that could bring somewhat surprising views into focus.
I also like my sentences to include ideas that I never intended or aimed at.
Tom Emerson, in a book review, wrote of Pallasmaa:
The ability to absorb knowledge into one's whole being before forgetting is Pallasmaa's obsession and provides a timely, poetic conception of architecture as both haptic – represented by craft – and linguistic – fine art and literature in particular. In short it is a meditation on the existential use of knowledge in making the world.
In Dwell Magazine (Oct 2015) Pallasmaa said:

In advertising and much of the commercial world, human minds are manipulated to become even more obsessive consumers. In my view, the task of art and architecture is to liberate individuals, not to manipulate. Art and architecture have to be open-ended, and that is why the poetic dimension is so essential. Only poetry can empower people in a liberating manner.
Pallasmaa is a writer, teacher and artist interested in the haptic -- he pays attention to touch and the hand. The doorknob is the handshake of the house, he says.

Writing usually comes through the hand, and a book provides a sensual object for the reader to hold.   Haptic poetry is poetry that relies on the sense of touch and texture to provide meaning.  It is sculptural.  There are examples of this form online, see

In poetry, Pallasmaa's ideas can also be applied. Architecture and poetry both seek emotional resonance. The architect and the writer search for a form that is liberating.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Finnish Poet: Paavo Haavikko

The Finnish poet Paavo Haavikko wrote:
"ei Suomi ole mikään kieli, se on tapa istua penkin päässä karvat korvilla"
(Finland does not have any language, it is a way to sit on the bench from hairs in the ear)

Paavo Juhani Haavikko (January 25, 1931 in Helsinki – October 6, 2008) was a Finnish poet and playwright, considered one of the country's most outstanding writers. He was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1984.

Here is an excerpt of a translation of "On Becoming a Forest" into English

To begin with, one must note:
There are many wise men. But on the other hand, 
there is not a single insane tree.

Selected Poems by Paavo Haavikko, translated by Anselm Hollo,  published by Carcanet.
ISBN: 978-0856359149

Friday, March 11, 2016

Three Finnish Poets

Edith Irene Södergran (4 April 1892 – 24 June 1923) was a well known modernist poet. She was Finnish, but she wrote in Swedish.  In her notebook, she wrote: "I do not write poems, I create myself; my poems are the way to my self."  Here is the poem "On Foot I Had to Cross the Solar System: "

On foot
I had to cross the solar system
before I found the first thread of my red dress.
I sense myself already.
Somewhere in space hangs my heart,
shaking in the void, from it stream sparks

into other intemperate hearts. 

Kirsti Simonsuuri (born Dec 26 1945) from her book Mother Tongues: 

I alone I spoke in all tongues
forged keys to secret codes
sweet water: Latin
wild strawberry: Finnish
my silence was as deep
as in the womb, once


Marja-Liisa Vartio (11 Sept 1924- 17 June 1966) wrote:

The mirror doesn't give me my face.
When I raise it to eye level,
I see only a landscape,
only a mountain, water, plateau and horizon,

These excerpts are from an anthology of Finnish women poets, Enchanting Beasts. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Tua Forsström - The Principle of Wings

The Snow Whirls Over the Courtyard's Roses

Tua Forsström, translated from the Swedish by Stina Katchadourian

The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses.
Didn't bring my boots and scarf, leafing
through books, don't know what to do with all this light!
You wouldn't approve of the colours.
It's too striking, Andrei Arsenyevich, too
much, too much of everything!
You exchanged the wings for an aerial balloon, a clumsy
creation cobbled together from rope and rags, I remember so well.
Before, I had a lot and didn't remember. Difficult
to stick to the subject. Difficult to stick to the subject.
Hope to return. Hope to return to the principle
of wings. The fact remains: the freeze preserved
the rose garden last night. 'The zone is a zone, the zone is life,
and a person can either be ruined or survive when
she makes her way through this life. Whether she makes it or
not depends on her sense of self-esteem-' A hare
almost hopped into the entrance hall here at the Foundation,
mottled against the snow; it's October in the hare's calendar.
You seem to be a moody sort of person
and it's possible that none of this is of interest to you.
On the other hand, you yourself complain fairly often.
I'm writing because you are dead and because I woke up
last spring in my streetside hotel room in Benidorm to that wonderful
high twittering. One shouldn't constantly say one is sorry, one should
not constantly give thanks, one should definitely give thanks. Lake
Mälaren like lead down there. The rest is white and red.
The books blog writer, Carol Rumens, writes about this particular work:
The poems in After Spending a Night Among Horses are inspired by the film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky and are interleaved with quotations from Tarkovsky's film, Stalker, and from his prose-book, Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Tarkovsky once said, "There is only one way of thinking in cinema: poetically." Forsström expresses the reverse idea, of thinking in poetry cinematically. The collection itself is a montage, and many of the individual poems, like this one, draw on a similar technique, combining different settings, seasons, voices and moods in one imaginative sweep. All have a dream-like and open-ended quality. 
Forsström has said that she writes every poem 50 or 60 times, and that she often travels with her notebooks to a foreign city in order to complete a poem. "The snow whirls over the courtyard's roses" seems to open a poetry workbook, to show us an intriguing display of raw material. It's a series of comments, notes and sketches for future writing, held together by the casual but constantly-renewed conversation with Tarkovsky. There are moments of lyric concentration and heightened rhythm, but they're held in a framework of increasingly long and enjambed lines which seem to exert an outward pull. While the imagery of snow and roses recalls Louis MacNeice's poem "Snow," Forsström's vision of the world's incorrigible plurality is far more discursive. There's really no zone, it seems to say, and no magical room, even for the poet: there's only the journey.
I'm fascinated by the recursive qualities, the repetitions and dialogue with the film-maker. The visual images are vivid.  The principle of wings seems important - an upward movement whether this is actual bird flight, the ascending balloon, or snow.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Helvi Juvonen

Because I am so close to the Finnish culture (my grandparents were born in Finland), I love to explore literature from Finland. These perhaps were influences on my grandparents, and as I read more Finnish literature in translation, I recognize and appreciate the connections.

Maybe this is because of the northern landscape — the cold and dark winters, the forests and lakes, the animals. Maybe this is because I was born in two languages. Each language shapes perception and thought. In poetry, my fascinations, my methods, my style is sometimes similar to the work of certain Finnish poets. Finnish poetry adds a new and interesting light.

Helvi Juvonen's poetry is arresting. According to Emily Jeremiah,

The sense of being in between can also be linked to Juvonen’s place in literary tradition, for she was a poet at the cusp of modernism. 
Modernism came to Finnish poetry in the 1940s and 1950s; at this time, formal restraint slowly gave way to freer forms. Juvonen’s poetry combines technical formality with startling imagery and a clear, direct voice. It moves between rhyme and free verse and forms a bridge between ‘tradition’ and modernism. 
Helvi Juvonen published five collections of poetry between 1949 and 1955; a sixth was published posthumously in 1959, and in 1974, a collection of prose works, edited by Mirkka Rekola, came out.

Helvi Juvonen's poem, "Cup Lichen" (1952) is vivid:

The lichen raised its fragile cup,
and rain filled it, and in the drop
the sky glittered, holding back the wind.

and from her poem "The Tightrope Walker": 

Two summits rose up above the dark.
Between them,
taut as a bow’s arc
the walker’s rope is strung.
If you look into the dark, dizziness strikes.
You need to have brains of ice. 
I see the summits, both ablaze.
Back and forth, back and forth!

And this poem:
At mid-day the cranes flit.
The furrow is slashed bare.
Voices cry
with longing for some place away from here,
with longing for somewhere else away from here.
In another review by Soila Lehtinen, Juvonen is quoted as saying: "Kneel before what’s smaller than you, listening with your eyes. A word’s hidden there, bright and quiet."  Here is an excerpt of prose by Helvi Juvonen:
At last she grasped what was ahead. Not, in fact, discrete sunrises or sunsets, not some particular burning day here or there, but the present moment unfolding forward by itself. Coiling forward, it rolls into a ball within her brain, within her consciousness and beneath it. It is pastness living in herself and in the present moment. To meet the past you must meet yourself. Suddenly she grasped that you could find yourself in another’s eyes, live in another’s interior, note it as a fact, close your eyes and forget, repose in recipience of peace, because you’ve driven into peace the dead living within you, or the shades they left behind, dream-beings repeating events of long ago.

The pastness lives in me, and my exploration of the language and literature allow me to meet this aspect.

Juvonen also translated the work of Emily Dickinson into Finnish. I can feel similarities between their voices, and obviously Dickinson has had some influence.

The following two reviews provided information for this profile:

More poems by Juvonen (in English):
More prose by Juvonen (in English):

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Kalevala: The National Epic of Finland

I consider the Finnish Literature Society website a good source that describes the Kalevala.  To understand it's significance, read this:

To see the text in Finnish
To see the text in English

Runos singers perform the Kalevala while playing a kantele :

An excerpt from the Finnish Literature Society:

It has been estimated that approximately 2,500–3,000 years ago there occurred a major new development in the culture of the proto-Finnic groups living near Gulf of Finland. The result of this development was a unique form of song characterized by alliteration and parallelism as well as an absence of stanza structure. The poetic metre of these songs was a special trochaic tetrametre which is now often called Kalevala metre.  
When sung, the lines actually had four or five stresses, and the melodies covered a narrow range, usually consisting of only five notes. The old folk poetry does not originate from a single historical period, but is a mixture of numerous layers which vary in age. The oldest layers are represented by mythical poems which tell of creation acts in a primordial past, as well as the origins of the world and human culture. 
The main character in epic poems is usually a mighty singer, shaman, and sorcerer, the spiritual leader of his clan who makes journeys to the land of the dead in order to seek knowledge. The songs' heroes also have adventures in a distant land beyond the sea, on journeys where they woo potential brides, make raids, and flee the enemy. Lyric songs express human, personal emotions. Ritual poems focus especially on weddings and bear-killing feasts. Kalevala metre incantations are verbal magic, which was part of people's everyday lives and activities. 
The archaic song tradition was a vital, living tradition throughout Finland until the 1500s. Following the Reformation, the Lutheran Church forbade the singing of the songs, declaring the entire tradition to be pagan. At the same time, new musical trends from the West found a foothold in Finland. The old Kalevala metre song tradition began to disappear first from the western part of the country and then, later, from other areas as well. Some songs were recorded already in the 1600s, but most of the folk poetry collection work was not carried out until the 1800s. In Archangel Karelia the old poetry tradition has survived until the present day.