Street-corner man

Issue 1/1997 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

In the first part of a series on writers and their inspirations, the poet Ilpo Tiihonen writes about his early hero, the poet Arvo Turtiainen

My first concrete encounter with the poet Arvo Turtiainen, the kind of encounter where the poem comes alive and declares itself to be electricity, sound, flesh, part of the atmosphere, took place at Christmas 1967. The poet’s work Hyvää joulua (‘Merry Christmas’) had just been published. My parents received it as a present from my big sister’s boyfriend, then a strict radical. There is a slight sense of apology about the greeting the giver scrawled in the book: ‘This is not a Christmas Present, not a protest, but an opinion.’ For my parents, low-ranking civil servants who had been through the war and embraced middle-class values, Turtiainen did not really exist, preferably not, at least. With a sotto voce cough the book, unread naturally, was slipped on the dark side of the bookshelf, whence I was welcome to take it as far as possible from the living-room.

For me, in the travails of my puberty, systematically loathing everything my parents liked and did, Hyvää joulua was a delectable Christmas dinner. I read ironic lines about idyllic Christmases complete with trees and candles, Santa Clauses and fatty hams; on offer, to spoil the holiday spirit, were reminders of the way winos celebrated Christmas (organised in Helsinki’s old exhibition hall by the Friends of the Poor), complete with Kräkkä-Jesus, who ‘goes mad every year. / He resurrects tomorrow in the third precinct / he gets to heaven / to the loony-bin / out of January’s frosts’; there were the poet’s memories of his rather low-life Christmases. Swearing, mockery of the Church’s smugness, truth too coarse for some dinner tables.’

This poetry did not serve the idyll that the gingerbread, paper elves and hymnsinging tried to persuade me was worth internalising. As a young domestic rebel, I naturally became interested in that conflict, and at the same time in Arvo Turtiainen (1904–1989).

Most of the children of the war generation turned their backs on their fathers’ heroic deeds, either finally becoming fed up of the old mens’ endless, half-drunk stories of ‘how we outflanked the enemy’, and giving them two fingers, or – still worse for mothers who had spent their wars in the women’s auxiliary services – beginning to sympathise with the old traditional enemy, Russians. Turtiainen was of the war generation, a lieutenant in the Winter War, but he refused to fight any longer in the Continuation War of 1941-44, and was sent to gaol for treason. This was heroism of a different order, and since my generation could do nothing more than refuse to serve in the peacetime army and generally ended up in civilian service in some government institution, most likely as an office gofer, the legend of someone who had languished in prison for his principles was pinned as a sun to the wall alongside the picture of Che Guevara. Thus it was the fate of Turtiainen’s poetry, too, to join the red canon.

The left-wing group of writers and artists, Kiila (‘The wedge’), which celebrated its 60th anniversary last year, was Arvo Turtiainen’s cosmodrome. He was its chairman from the beginning to 1951, and a notable éminence for the rest of his life. Professor Raoul Palmgren sees as the general background to the foundation of Kiila ‘the reactionary social and political system … opened up by the [extreme right-wing] Lapua movement in Finland (with its cultural manifestations, which were characterised byfervent nationalism, militarism’ escapist aestheticism and metaphysics and the rejection of freethinking and radical international influences, including literature in translation) and fascism and the threat of a new world war with accession of Hitler.’

For the motto of his collection Minä paljasjalkainen (‘I was born here’, 1962), Arvo Turtiainen took a phrase from his Danish colleague and contemporary Paul La Cour: ‘Poetry is populated with people whom you meet in the street.’ He had announced that programme in his first work, Muutos (‘Change’, 1936), and subsequently stuck to it. Turtiainen’s man in the street, however, was not just any old bloke, but a character drawn with strong physical and ideological lines. People are encountered at their work-places, some ploughing the fields, most of them in the factories, building Helsinki, and also in the prisons. The political age and distress breathe heavily through his texts throughout his entire oeuvre: the veins of his poems bulge at the temples with moral outrage, and poetic niceties are hardly considered when the fury is on him. Although hay sometimes sways and lakes sometimes shimmer, Turtianen is in his poems a robust dreamer, and brushes aside the critics with a quotation from Carl Sandburg’s poem Style: ‘To hell with your talk of style! / As well as saying / where a man has got his style / you can tell / where Pavlov a got her legs / or Ty Cobb his eye for cricket.’

For me, Arvo Turtiainen’s poems are character, human portraiture. And when I think of Turtiainen, I cannot help but think of my own father and, more broadly, of the entire war generation, staring over my shoulder, those great, muddled ranks of Finnish dads.

A portrait, a character-poem, is an attempt to populate poetry with soul-brothers, as well as a kind of literary hommage to those who give the material for writing. This is the best of what, as a young poet, I absorbed from Turtiainen’s work. The poem acts as a stage. The portrait is poetic theatre, and perhaps it was because of Turtiainen, among others, that I wound up writing song-plays for theatres; musicals I do not call them, for they are theatre built of songs, and often, in particular, of character-songs. A number of Turtianen’s poems are included, as obvious choices, in the anthology Suomalainen omakuva (‘A Finnish self-portrait’, Otava, 1991): portraits of dozens of Finnish poets over a period of more than a hundred years.

In addition to Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River and Walt Whitman’s Grass, Arvo Turtiainen brought Vladimir Mayakovsky’s central works into the Finnish language. Both have the same kind of angry power, but there is none of Mayakovsky’s image-building fury in Turtianen: his metaphors are more conventional. In any case, in his work as a translator he seemed drawn to poets who sharpened his pencil with an axe, among them the Finland-Swede Elmer Diktonius. One linguistic dimension of Turtiainen’s work is Stadi slang, the everyday language of turn-of-the-century Helsinki, whose exotic elements come from Russian and Swedish and which he uses in a couple of his collections of the 1960s. For this reason Turtiainen was celebrated as the Stadi poet, a kind of urban counterpart to another honoured old literary figure, F.E. Sillanpää.

Another poet beloved of me and many others, P. Mustapää, was writing at around the same complicated period as Turtiainen. Compared to him, Mustapää (alias the professor of folk poetry Martti Haavio), was, in the political scheme of the 1920s and 1930s, right-wing, but in his poems he is often the poet of folk-song, summer and, as it were, summer holidays. One can juxtapose Mustapää’s poem ‘Dolce far niente’ (1945) with Turtiainen’s ‘Työttömän kesä’ (‘Summer on the dole’, 1936). Both involve lying on a midsummer lawn and gazing at the sky, but where the narrator of the former poem, the tinsmith Lindblad, has no care for the morrow but floats in a blissful ecstasy of being, the empty man of the latter hears in the idyll of leisure the song of his guts and tells even the ants of the laws of society. Between these two fine poets, that juxtaposition is telling. Turtiainen does not allow himself to go on holiday.

A wise saying has it that ‘young men should seek the company of old men’, with the reservation that one’s own father cannot be part of that company. Arvo Turtiainen has been, for me, one of these old men, with whom I have made my journey. During his lifetime I never spoke to him, but because he is a poet conversa­tion is still possible. I have often asked his poems what my father was like. I receive contradictory but very Finnish answers.

Arvo Turtiainen is, for those who know something about the man, a total phenomenon, a Fennoid phenomenon. He saw the expressions of the Finnish civil war of 1918, languished in prison during the Second World War, and received an honorary doctorship as an old poet in 1973. In recent times there has been much debate in Finland about the justice of the biographical method in literary scholarship. Turtiainen’s direct biographical details are inseparable from his poems; he is his own biographer. Perhaps the only aspect of his life which is not visible in the poems is his short spell as a dental technician. But his satires certainly bite.

Arvo Turtiainen still belongs among the phalange of living poets. As the seller in my favourite second-hand bookshop said: So manly! Or a young grave-digger: The translation of Spoon River is always vital! Or a teacher troubled by Turtiainen’s leftism: A fine Helsinki poet! And I: A great eccentric, as a poet should be.

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