The next nine lives
30 September 1998 | Authors
‘I was blamed by another translator for working with the early Ilpo Tiihonen,’ writes Tiihonen’s translator, Herbert Lomas; ‘He was supposedly superficial.’
It’s a mistake to confuse lightness of touch or facility with superficiality. Shakespeare himself, who wrote three plays a year and ‘never blotted a line’, must have had facility. And lightness of touch is a sign of intelligence and artistic security. Ilpo Tiihonen (born 1950) carries his intelligence and his reading of the Swedish and Russian classics (Fröding, Mayakovsky, Yesenin) without self-importance, which may not always pass for a paradoxical humility.
What singled out the early Tiihonen was his difference from his contemporaries and predecessors; and his pleasure in craft, his relish for language, form and play were promising. He makes use of rhyme, creating an ironically slanted lyrical satire, whose cynical defences do not disguise a fundamentally romantic emotion.
As for difference, Mozart said his music was no more original than his nose a profound remark. Originality doesn’t consist in an endless pursuit of novelty at all costs, but in the business of finding and being oneself. Many poets not only look alike on the page, they sound alike and even seem to be saying similar things. Tiihonen was following his own nose and believed the smell, even if it sometimes made him look sentimental or alarmingly naïve.
The mystical including romantic yearnings, thanatos, and compassion for down-and-outs and drunks sits oddly with his streetwiseness. He’s always been tuned in. Angels have appeared in his work, and not altogether ironically. His intuitions could lead him to a religion of a heterodox, not necessarily wacky sort. He has the childlikeness that goes with superior talent, and he runs literary risks without apparently noticing the risk.
At 48, with a considerable body of poetry and theatre behind him, he’s well past the age for a mid-term crisis. It will be time for either developing maturity or disastrously evading it.
His current volume is obviously an interim one, but he seems as young as ever. He’s always been uneven, and there are still experiments that don’t seem quite worth it. He’s not lost his capacity for games, but now futility seems to have become a serious opponent. ‘Do you recognise the void that’s knocking at your door?… Have you held futility in the palm of your hand?… What carries weight is the thinnest of laths.’ Desperation invites a plethora of questions. ‘Could you give a name to wonderful sounds / no one can hear?’
He hopes his hands will never be empty. He prays to a God both infinite and scattered about in the world’s coat pockets, without believing. Nevertheless, he asks help in putting two words together. Like Wolf in the Italienisches Liederbuch he remembers Auch kleine Dinge. In spite of his irony, he probably does long to set his hair on fire and become a summer cloud, remembering how the match once swayed as part of a great tree.
The urban poet has started remembering the lakewater cracking its ice roof like a sentence graved on a window. And his nine lives are coming up for assessment. The big question must be about his next nine.
As for translation, that’s always been difficult with Tiihonen for his form, his slang, his colloquialisms, his word-play, his tone. For a parallel effect literalism is impossible. He still rhymes, but not in the poems here, where, his simplicity is just as difficult. It’s not form but idiom that’s the problem: finding constructs that will produce the right balance between faux-naïveté and sophistication.
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About the writer
The prize-winning British poet Herbert Lomas (1924–2011) translated Finnish poetry and prose – much of it for Books from Finland – for more than thirty years. His collected poems, A Casual Knack of Living, appeared in England in 2009.
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