Poetry and speech

Issue 2/1996 | Archives online, Authors

The poet is condemned to language. He has been forced to abandon the mysterious union between language and reality. In retum, he wants his Iines, at least, to solidify into objects, part of the order of beings, to be like a ready-carved statue. But this does not happen. Language has its own caprice, meanderings and underground life.

The poems of Lauri Otonkoski (born 1959) are not like sculptures. Sometimes they do not even seem like beings among other beings. His poems gape open at the edges, and their ambiguous content emerges to question the composition of the extemal form. Metamorphosis is not the poems’ theme, but their nature: obscure at their limits and constantly changing in form, their reference is far beyond themselves, to a region where the reader must struggle with disturbing shadows and unfinished constructions.

Perhaps the reader has in mind a total poem, a tautly strung bunch of Iines which could be embraced as it is, absorbed into oneself, embraced as part of one’s experience. But, although enjoyable, Otonkoski’s poems are troublesome: the rasping sound from the contact between experience and language is made audible through writing. As a reader, I find myself at a point of friction, I am nonplussed, I am forced to start again. And this is precisely how the force of the poems is measured, the strength of their raw materials: how many incentives they offer for further readings.

Otonkoski’s starting points include nothing strange to the poets of our time. The great ideals are in the waste-basket (in other words, they have not completely disappeared), and the only weapon for the fight for vigilance is a penetrating scepticism. The poems are driven by restlessness and distance. The titles of two of Pentti Saarikoski’s collections of poetry of the 1960s have become mottoes: Kuljen missä kuljen (‘I go where I go’) and Mitä tapahtuu todella (‘What is happening really’). Otonkoski’s poetry affirms the first; the attitude expressed by the second is realised only by the desire to see round the next corner – no longer programmatically, but in the faith that by piercing social delusions and the lure of the apparent we can reach the realm of raw truths.

An individual word is often considered to be the basic unit of a poem – a word which, like a wild animal, does not consent to taming by direct Communication. But Otonkoski’s basic unit seems to be the sentence. Each sentence is a cleft, both whole and meaningful. Is reality, everything that is, ‘the entirety of states of being’. It is impossible to control or capture this entirety in linguistic images, but the poet can split parts from it, from different sides, different corners.

Otonkoski writes coincidental poetry, but this does not mean that the coincidences are random or absurd. Among his surprises are symmetries, parallel movements, reflections: relations between things that the poem can bring forth by choosing short-cuts and observation points beyond obvious perception. Otonkoski’s narrator often expresses his astonishment and puzzlement before his discoveries. He is amused, sarcastic, ironic, and sometimes even lyrically entranced as hemakes his words fit, resound and articulate the world.

In his most recent collection, Musta oli valkoinen (‘Black was white’), Otonkoski writes: Think boldly: the sky is glass / Think more boldly: the sky is glass / but the stones are light.’ This alchemical use of words – this reversal of a familiar metaphor – must take place within the consciousness of the reader. The poem does not satisfy itself with imagery, linguistic imagery: instead, it must bring about a real change in how we perceive, how we weigh things up.

Through the influence of Pentti Saarikoski, a demand for the use of spoken language in poetry became dominant. Some went so far as to call poetry speech: the aim was immediate and flowing expression. The rhythm of the new poetry was to be the rhythm of speech. Otonkoski’s work both supports and denies this demand. His poetic voice is capricious and defiant, and the same time fluent and relaxed – qualities we can consider characteristic of speech, if the speaker happens to be blessed with these gifts. But in this case speech also includes interruptions, throat-clearings, sarcastic comments and stumblings over words. And little laconic additions, often unfounded, existing only through the power of the word. Otonkoski also writes about obstacles to speaking:

I knew: so much to say
       but form coughed and drove
       on to every lurking reef.
I knew: form without herbs, that would be
 an empty gesture,
       suicide, like vvatching
       the arts channel on too small a screen.

Poetry is not the same as speech. Otonkoski’s poems question the connection between speech and the speaking self. They do not do it by referring to linguistic theory or as part of a poetics of its own. Rather, it is a question of the situation of the poems’ speaker: he is forced to exorcise the language he uses, squeeze out of it what he can but also recognise that what happens in the world exceeds what can be captured in poetry – whose consequence is sometimes a plaintive tone.

Complete lack of illusions can lead to a writing of disappointment andmisery. Sometimes this does, indeed, happen with Otonkoski – but that is only one of his voices. Suddenly the poem changes position, switches sides, sets one sentence against another. Like the wandering self, the objects described do not remain the same.

Otonkoski shows a clear tascination for recording immediate impressions. But his poetics also carries with it a sense of distance: what is not said is also important, as Otonkoski says, directly, in this poem: ‘Perhaps, just now, I know / what is not visible, what I do not tell.’ He feels a fascination for ‘impure’ poetry, in which discord breaks lyrical development, or social observation which, in passing, recalls the artificiality of power-structures. And he feels a fascination for so many other things that his poems are sometimes like battlefields. The battle can be tiring, but it is not destructive: a celebration of the senses, the supremacy of rhythm, the vertigo brought about by sharp bends.

Sometimes these poems approach what Paul Celan called realism of the soul: flashes fly through uncharted areas, without any logic but the fitting of the vibration of the phrase to the oscillation of the soul. Sometimes they simply are what they are, writing, speech, the amused recycling of cultural references. In one prose poem, an anonymous speaker says: ‘There is no pure being. There are just departures, arrivals and empty spaces.’ Purer being than departure and arrival I do not know; neither do I know a better subject for poetry.

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