Builder of words

Issue 4/1988 | Archives online, Authors

The poet Lauri Viita (1916–1965) was a master of rhyme and rhythm, a linguistic sorcerer who, for that reason, has been little translated into other languages. He also gave his home of Pispala, a suburb of Tampere, a lasting place in Finnish literature with his novel Moreeni (‘Moraine’)

In the course of a couple of years after the Second World War Finnish poetry altered unrecognisably. The old post-symbolic poetry with its artful end rhymes suddenly seemed old-fashioned and its diction hackneyed. The new poets, Paavo Haavikko foremost among them, wrote a great variety of texts, abandoning fixed rhythms and end rhymes. The circle of adherents to the ‘old’ poetry seemed to be restricted to poets who had begun their careers before the war; almost all the younger writers followed the new direction.

There was, nevertheless, one exception: Lauri Viita (1916–1965). Making his first appearance in Finnish poetry in 1947 with a volume entitled Betonimylläri (‘Concrete mixer’), he was able to breathe new life into many of the stylistic forms of traditional poetry: he used end rhymes in a way that had never been seen before and brought into his poems words that had previously been avoided; he demonstrated himself to be a master of rhythm, with a totally individual ability to paint with vowels and hammer home combinations of consonants to their greatest effect; he brought to poetry new attitudes and subjects, above all the fresh, unself-conscious rhythms of speech.

Lauri Viita was born in Tampere, an industrial city which has been called Finland’s Manchester, which after the war developed its own self-assertive literary group, confident of its own talents. Many of its members were of working-class background; many of them had not completed their school careers, and hardly any of them had been to a university. But they were all the more enthusiastic visitors of libraries on account of all this, and the mental edifices that were born of their discussions were all the loftier. An active literary circle soon formed around the librarian, Matti Mäkelä, among whose members, giving inspiration, was an articulate art theoretician, Alex Matson, translator into Finnish of the novels of Joyce and Faulkner, and ponderer on the problems of the novel (his important collection of essays, Romaanitaide, ‘The art of the novel’, appeared in the same year as Lauri Viita’s first volume of poetry, 1947).

Lauri Viita was the first important writer of the Tampere group. He was soon to be followed by Väinö Linna, whose war novel Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier, 1954) attracted international attention. The starting point of the Tampere writers was a powerfully felt realism based on the concrete experience of life; they shunned the experimental modern poetry then being written in Helsinki, regarding it as a theoretical and almost decadent phenomenon. The opposition of Helsinki and Tampere was for a few years a typical and at the same time fruitful tension, which naturally resulted in polemic and debate but also inspired the Tampere writers, at least, to give of their best.

New in Lauri Viita’s poetry was the Tampere setting, the imagery of working-class life and the easy-going use of language. His poem Alfhild is a tenderly drawn portrait of a working-class mother and of her unquenchable belief in life; the model was Viita’s own mother. Joki (‘The river’) can be read as both an intensive portrait of childhood and nature and as a description of the birth of a poet, of the power of the imagination. Betonimylläri, which develops into a metaphysical vision, starts from the metaphor in which an ordinary cement mixer is compared in his creative power with a god. Viita often treated ‘official’ piety and religion ironically, but he could also find tones of great warmth, as in the poem Pappi ja pakana (‘The priest and the heathen’). He was not greatly attracted by the doctrines of Marxist socialism, which gained a great deal of ground in post-war Finland: in the poem Kapina (‘Revolt’) the revolutionary ideal is profaned effectively– by comparing it with an onslaught of bedbugs.

In addition to his debut work, Lauri Viita published three volumes of poetry: the poetic work Kukunor (1949) and the collections Käppyräinen (1954) and Suutarikin, suuri viisas (‘And the cobbler, great wise man’, 1961). His greatest artistic achievement after Betonimylläri was his novel Moreeni (‘Moraine’, 1950). It portrays the life of a growing working-class family in the Pispala suburb of Tampere – Viita’s own childhood home – and the central figure emerges, again, as the mother, Josefiina, at whose side can be discerned the father, Iisakki, a tireless builder and planner of the new: ‘The image of God must create’. The need or compulsion to create achieves its highest level in their son, Erkki, who is a maturing poet.

The real-life models of the Nieminen family are clear, particularly in the case of the mother and father: links with Lauri Viita’s own development can be traced in Erkki’s thoughts. Just as in the poetry, a belief in life and life-threatening destructive power are seen side by side in Moreeni. Josefiina dreams that the entire ridge on which Pispala is built stands on golden foundations, and illustrates both in her words and in her actions the theme of life. But alongside the slightly idealised vision of working-class life the dark forces of existence are also discernible, the civil war of 1918 and the mental collapse of some members of the family. Shadow accompanies light throughout the novel.

Moreeni starts off as a strongly rhythmic description of landscape that is close to a prose poem. At the same time it uses vivid spoken language and vulgar phrases that give the text its particular colour. Viita wrote a second novel, Entäs sitten, Leevi (‘What next, Leevi’), but was unable any longer to achieve the intensity and richness of Moreeni.

Lauri Viita’s poetry, too, changed along the years. On the one hand it exhibited new features – among them a folkloric element, the metre of folk poetry and the use of folk sayings – but on the other hand the increasing word-play and monomanic concern with the problems of language were symptoms of something else: the flagging of the poet’s spiritual powers and the strengthening grip of his illness.

Both Lauri Viita’s second wife, the poet Aila Meriluoto and a student of his work, Professor Yrjö Varpio, have interpreted the poem Iso mies (‘Big man’) as a symbolic portrait of its author. In it a great man arrives in a town which is too small for him to fit in, and in the end he melts away into the surrounding countryside. In a way, that is what happened to Lauri Viita. His lofty, sparkling ideas, his endless flood of talk, his sentences which tied themselves into paradoxical knots, no longer fitted into the real world in which human beings must live. But as long as he was still able to adjust his creative power to his surroundings and to the rules set by language, he wrote poetry and prose whose originality and vigour make it among the most memorable achievements of Finnish literature.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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