Gospel truths?

31 March 1999 | Authors, Reviews

Lauri Otonkoski

Photo: Irmeli Jung

Lauri Otonkoski (born 1959) has the reputation of being a poet who passes attentively by and always has room for doubt.

He assumes a chatty tone, full of an irony often at his own expense, though his schooling as a music critic has given him a fine ear and the art of producing structures comparable to music.

Otonkoski has published six collections, two of them prizewinning. In 1996 he received the Nuoren taiteen Suomi-palkinto (‘The Finnish Award for Young Artists’), and in 1997 the Finnish Radio Poetry Prize, ‘Dancing Bear’.

Otonkoski’s poetry is dialectical: one might easily style him a post-Hegelian poet, for example. For him poetry is a conflict between icon and anecdote. Truly, though, he uses neither of them in any established sense. He has personally redefined them for his own purposes.

Anecdote is narrative, which Otonkoski uses all his resources to escape. Anecdote employs chronology to depict an image of the ‘I’ that desires, fears and hopes. A reader keen on anecdote can follow the development of intentions in poems: he’s interested in the persona’s cares. But anecdote stains the purity, beauty and elevation of the art. An anecdotal poet drifts towards banality.

Icon on the other hand represents an impossible dream of formal purity, a pure poetry that transcends time, place and the I. If the poet chooses icon as his style, he does indeed find purity but drifts, in turn, towards the monastic cloister, denying life. Icon forms a chemical culture for fanaticism and political orthodoxy; and indeed it’s no great distance from the purity of the cloister to ethnic cleansing. Therefore Otonkoski chooses both icon and anecdote. He unites Finnish modernism’s best but conflicting tendencies: Pentti Saarikoski’s open, multithematic and chatty style with Paavo Haavikko’s structured, icily intelligent, concentration.

The reader of Ahava can follow how icon and anecdote take the measure of each other in a single poem. In the poem ‘Observations on true voluptuousness’ Otonkoski’s formal demands are aimed at pruning attributes away from the poem, so that reality is seen conceptually. The effect is of an individual who lives in a totalitarian state where expression of feeling is forbidden but manages nevertheless to open his heart: ‘On his way to work he sees an incident / and decides to tell his nearest about it that night, / employing a few colloquial expressions.’

In his Ahava Lauri Otonkoski faces the difficulty of speech, especially nowadays when we’re surrounded by continually conflicting interpretations of phenomena, and rhetoric fosters doubt.

After experimenting with ambiguity, reduction and decorative running imagery as aesthetic solutions, Otonkoski rejects them. To overcome this semantic hiatus, he’s turned again to the four gospels: those meaningful anecdotes, in other words, that the poet ought to get free from. He skirts these fundamental stories, modifies them, and doubts, tissuing a polyphonic and dazzlingly beautiful texture that proceeds in the manner of a weird fugue.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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