A poet’s perspective

Issue 4/1986 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Aila Meriluoto. Photo: Pertti Nisonen

Aila Meriluoto. Photo: Pertti Nisonen

When Aila Meriluoto burst on to the world of Finnish poetry 40 years ago in the autumn of 1946 she was at once hailed as a youthful prodigy. Praised lavishly by the leading critics, the 22-year-old poet’s first collection, Lasimaalaus, sold in phenomenal numbers: in a couple of years it went through eight editions, or 25,000 copies, which in Finland is still a record figure. Today total sales are well over 30,000.

Two poems attracted particular attention. One was Kivinen Jumala (‘God of stone’), a poem of defiance unleashed by the experience of wartime bombing, in which God is portrayed as having changed into a stone statue, and people as having hardened correspondingly. It was the first reaction of the younger generation to the war – abusive, strong and inevitable, the proclamation of the death of the kind, just God.

The other central poem of the collection was Lasimaalaus (‘Stained glass’) from which the collection took its name: a taut post-symbolist vision and a dazzling synthesis of the oneness of the world. Baudelaire, master of correspondances, might well have been satisfied with it.

The poems contained in Lasimaalaus are, broadly, divided into two groups. One rests on the Finnish tradition, on folk song and word music. The other is European, examining the individual’s internal world. Its inspiration is revealed in the object of some of Meriluoto’s translations and essays – the Austrian Rainer Maria Rilke. Like him, Meriluoto experienced the outside world as an object that could equally well belong to the world of dream and fantasy and is charged with secret meanings. In Finnish poetry that was something completely new.

Far from home

Aila Meriluoto’s next three collections of poetry are closely bound, in many ways, to the subject matter of her first volume: Sairas tyttö tanssii (‘The sick girl dances’, 1952), Pahat unet (‘Bad dreams’, 1958), Portaat (‘Stairs’, 1961). They include many of Meriluoto’s best poems, whose message is splendidly pathetic, and at the same time rich but controlled.

Then there begins a new phase, a journey away from her former lyric style, and also away from her native land. The turning points are the poet’s estrangement from her highly talented, but increasingly mentally ill husband, fellow poet Lauri Viita – and her move to Sweden. Aila Meriluoto lived in Sweden for 12 years, from 1962 to 1974, first in the north, in Swedish Lapland, and subsequently in the little town of Enköping, near Stockholm.

This new phase makes its mark on Asumattomiin (‘To the unpopulated regions’, 1963), Tuoddaris (1965), Silmämitta (‘Rule of thumb’, 1969) and Elämästä (‘On life’, 1972). The change in the poet’s own surroundings is not the only factor in her new style: it is also influenced by a new movement that became apparent in Finnish lyricism in the 1950s, characterised by free rhythm and strong poetic images. This pushes aside Meriluoto’s regular rhythms and examination of the profundities of the human mind. Her rhythm becomes broader and freer; but at the same time, as her poetry loses its strict metre, something of its former concentration and intensity is lost. The poems become more wordy and sophisticated; touches of astringency and cynicism emerge in poems about the role of women, love poems, and particularly poems post amorem. The last two collections from her Swedish period include poems in Swedish – poems that indicate that Meriluoto could just as well have continued her career in that language.

Return home

At the same time memories of home become more powerful. Many poems are linked with childhood and the lives of members of the family. These are seen most clearly in Elämästä in which, in the final poem, ‘words just thin out’, and the receiver of the poem letter is accorded ‘Greetings./ From life/ seen from here.’ Humour and consciousness of relativity are also more in evidence: the poet begins to see herself ironically, relinquishing her earlier absolutism, and to observe the way of the world sometimes with sympathetic amusement.

In her next two collections, Varokaa putoilevia enkeleitä (‘Beware of falling angels’, 1977) and Talvikaupunki (‘Winter city’, 1980), her latest to date, the return home has taken place and the poems’ tone becomes more balanced. In one of the Talvikaupunki poems ‘Words began to emerge distinctly: window, song, blade of grass./ Not big words./ But significant’.

For a long time Meriluoto’s finest poetry was held to be primarily that of her first published work. Her later volumes have not received as much attention, although they appear to contain more individual, vigorous and strong poetry. It is true that Meriluoto moves in very different areas from the best known modern Finnish poets, Paavo Haavikko, Eeva-Liisa Manner and Pentti Saarikoski, but even her most unfamiliar poems are stamped with her own, deeply individual mark.

Who’s who in the diary

The diary is interesting for two reasons: as a picture of its time and as a documentary of the development of Meriluoto’s character and talents. It describes frugal, uncertain times in post-war Helsinki, with room temperatures kept to the absolute minimum and food supplies scanty. In literature, the communist poets, released from prison, demand the revaluation of values. The thirst for culture is immense: university lecture rooms are filled to overflowing with students of all ages, particularly for the philosopher Eino Kaila, a brilliant lecturer and a compelling, if somewhat self-assertive and thorny, personality. There are queues for concerts, and books are debated passionately. It is an effervescent time of change, which soon begins to show results: the modern lyricism of the 1950s, the war novels of Väinö Linna and Veijo Meri, new architecture and Finnish design. Meriluoto’s first journey abroad, to Switzerland, which takes place as the result of a scholarship at the end of the diary, is a rare luxury at a time when there is next to no foreign currency to be had and visas and customs regulations make travel almost impossible.

The personal aspect of Meriluoto’s diary contains material that is sometimes almost sensational. Behind the abbreviation VAK looms the national figure of V.A. Koskenniemi, then 61, the dominant poet of the inter-war period, Professor of Literature at Turku University and soon to become a member of the Academy of Finland. He was one of the most influential critics in the country and published an exceptionally favourable review of Lasimaalaus, which led to personal aquaintance. The diary describes the Goethe-like role Koskenniemi adopted towards his protégé, with whom he rapidly became infatuated, and the disturbance he caused both in the mind of the young poet and in her relationship with her boyfriend, K. But the character who occasions the ripped out pages (21.2.1947) remains unidentified; neither is he revealed in the author’s postscript.

Maila Talvio (2.2.47) was a friend of Koskenniemi, a fiery, conservative writer who held literary circles for students in her home. ‘Sicra’ was Aila Meriluoto’s sister Sirkka, who later died of cancer and whose name appears in its correct form in the poem ‘Daddy (in heaven)… ‘

As Aila Meriluoto herself says in her postscript, the diary is a graphic description of the young poet’s ‘passionate fight for identity. The beginner poet’s burning desire for publication and the painful sexual development of a girl of sheltered upbringing are basically the same search for and shaping of self.’ The events that followed – with the exception of the Swiss trip – can be read in Aila Meriluoto’s Lauri Viita, legenda jo eläessään (‘Lauri Viita, a living legend’) published in 1974, in which she describes her sick poet-­husband and the disintegration of their marriage.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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