Mouth first

Issue 1/1993 | Archives online, Authors

llpo Tiihonen was born in the industrial town of Kuopio, in the north of Finland, where his father was a postmaster and his mother a post-office clerk, but he soon evoked the streets and flats of Helsinki, and later the seaport of Hanko, as well as the mystery and nightskies of the country.

Two of his plays, one for adults and one for children, have recently been running to full houses at the City Theatre in Helsinki. His first television opera, Angelika, is due for screening shortly.There has always been a theatrical, playful, childlike and lyrical tone in his verse, and so it is not surprising that – though the qualities are shared with Shakespeare – he is sometimes considered a lightweight. But I agree with Auden, another serious and playful poet, that the significant new poet is likely to reveal himself through his delight in language.

He writes in loose metre and rhyme, cross-fertilises slang and other current jargons with dialect-words and poeticisms, resorts to words not in the dictionary, loves double entendre, and takes off in unlikely directions. He is the poet at play with a bag of tricks, but he has a pressing and fertile malaise too, and, in spite of his gift of the gab, he is often bombarded with intuitions that make him grope for formulae. A persona stands ambivalently in the market – the world is a market-place – and fumbles for some old saw, or a soaring phrase, wondering what he came here to say.

Influenced by Mayakovsky, Yesenin and Fröding, his newness has ancient roots with a lot of old poetic tendrils. An exponent of current angst, he yet sports something very like an uncynical belief dressed up in the costumes of disbelief. He can move from despair to ecstasy with hardly a gear-change. He is perhaps a romantic and metaphysical poet bewildered by a materialistic environment: open to the mystical and transcendent, not as idea but fleeting experience, awareness of the noumenal reality of phenomena. He flirts with the outre, then stomps on it – and then confronts us with a daring affirmation. He takes risks with tone: it is part of being human: ‘we dash about mouth first down here, and even fall on our face’.

His Dostoyevskian compassion for down-and-outs and the rejected, for the undignified and comical tragedians of the railway stations and the streets, is not that of a saint: he is a sensualist, a mortal lover, with a powerful feeling for the absurd. The angel of night, who may be only something in Tiihonen himself, does not reject them: she –

has come with a consignment
of eternal hot water and beds
supplies of teeth and legs
and strong nerves for nervous people
who’ve lost their heads

and this is the way this Christmas Eve
         at eleven fifty-seven –
         dustbins lids go off with loud reports
and a hundred drunks are rising
         with no passports
         straight into heaven.

The pariah befuddlement of his lame dogs gives them an unremarketable noncommonsensical angle on the world – perhaps a direct intuition of what philosophers and sages grope for intellectually. Two old clowns are jeered at by some self-satisfied drinkers: ‘A con’s con: who knows what dream the whole thing’s sitting on?’

If he is uneven, with a slippery facility and leanings to sentimentality, he is not boring, and he has time as well as the potential for development. There are no guarantees: he might become very interesting indeed, or he might sink into vapidity. But he is a pleasure to watch and already a poet of some achievement.

As for translation, he is the most stubborn problem I have set myself. Of course, there always have to be some liberties with dictionary literalness and linguistic sequence if the englishings are to produce equivalent effects, but often a mere connotation or inflection will do it. A poet who writes austerely is easier to translate. With Tiihonen I have sometimes needed to stretch ingenuity to find a cadence, rhyme, allusion, irony, or wit; but he is liberty-taker himself, and I have taken pains to preserve not distort his spirit.


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