Poetry for a new age?

Issue 4/2001 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

The brilliant colours and new free verse of the poetry of Katri Vala (1901-1944) inspired her contemporaries in the 1920s, but also divided them – into those for whom Vala’s romantic exoticism brought to mind the movies of Rudolph Valentino and those who were enchanted by the freedom of her imagination. ‘Wild and full-blooded and primitively lovely’, Katri Vala was to die of consumption at the tragically early age of 42. Vesa Mauriala introduces her work

Like many Finnish beginner poets, Katri Vala published her first works in the children’s magazine Pääskynen (‘The swallow’), and later in Nuori Voima (‘Young power’), a publication intended for schoolchildren. Around this latter, originally didactic, magazine, there subsequently grew up the Young Power League, and in the mid-1920s this in turn gave birth to a group called the Torch-Bearers, which first published intensely personal nature poetry but later began to import European influences into Finnish literature.

In November 1922 Karin Wadenström – better known under her artistic name of Katri Vala – left her sleepily happy life as a rural poet to join the nascent group of young poets. The group’s leader, Olavi Paavolainen, was a maker of unique life-choices, an incessant scholar of everyday life and aesthetics, and a person with an insatiable need for friendship and confidences. In the poet-teacher Karin Wadenström Paavolainen felt he had finally encountered a kindred spirit. His enthusiasm for Vala’s poetry had, according to Paavolainen himself, flared up in the summer of 1922 after reading, in Nuori Voima, Vala’s first free-verse poem.

In his letters of late 1922, Paavolainen enthusiastically suggested meeting: ‘You live in the divine countryside, despising the city; I in the city, admiring the countryside. – – Ah, I must not make you self-regarding (although who could swear that you will set any store by my words; you are perhaps so far above us petty souls!). You will come, promise me you will come! You will arrive wild and full-blooded and primitively lovely. You will renew us, too, I know it. That day will mark the beginning of the great “vita nuova”. You like liqueurs and cigarettes! So: a great bohemian evening as your welcome festival!!’

‘We romantics,’ as Paavolainen said, held what was apparently their first important meeting in Helsinki in February 1924. Paavolainen had increased the attraction of the meeting by booking tickets for Carmen. At the meetings, around a restaurant table, the publication of books was negotiated, letters were written – and sometimes poetry. According to the writer Lauri Viljanen, the young writers’ meetings often began in the morning, when they gathered in their favourite café, the Bronda.

After about the mid-1920s, the members of the group found common cause in cosmopolitanism, machine romanticism, the ideals of Europeanism and a respect for the humanist idea of the fraternity of all mankind. The Torch-Bearers aimed at the experience of citizenship of the world as unity between people without denying one’s own fatherland or nationality. They believed themselves to be Finland’s first literary generation, and this idea was connected with that of young power.

While Helsinki represented urban amusement and literary intoxication, Paavolainen’s own home of Kivennapa in Karelia was exotic and mysterious. Here, nothing was known of Europe, and the rest of Finland seemed like traditional, dull countryside in comparison. The young poets also became acquainted with the Karelian dunes, farther to the east; they spent their days lounging in the sunshine, occasionally casting their brown bodies into pale blue waves of the Gulf of Finland to cool down. In the evenings, they sat in the Merikylpylä casino or rambled among the overgrown gardens by the sea shore seeking, in their dark thickets, the fabulous romance of times gone by.

In the first half of the 1920s, at least in public, the young writers produced, in a spirit of unanimous friendship, work that expressed their heroic destinies as poets. The emergence of this new generation of writers was visible particularly strongly in three first collections, the Torch-Bearers albums, and a Nuoret runoilijat (‘Young poets’) anthology. Katri Vala’s first work. Kaukainen puutarha (‘The distant garden’), was published in time for Christmas 1924. The themes of the prose poem began with the cycle of the seasons from early spring to white winter, after which the author went on to describe the phases of human life: birth, the passion of youth, depression and death.

The winter meeting of the Young Power League in Viipuri in 1925 was an event which, according to the poet Ilmari Pimiä, was one of the most interesting and successful in the League’s history. It included a dramatic entry by Katri Vala in a modern black crêpe-de-chine dress embellished in front with Egyptian drapery, on her feet glittering evening shoes embellished with green ostrich feathers. After the party, the group visited Vienola, Paavolainen’s home at Kivennapa.

Pimiä remembered: ‘In the dark attic we had prepared, from old door-drapes, a comfortable-looking oriental tent on either side of whose opening we set enormous leaves taken from the fan palm in the parlour downstairs. When we arrived, and having recovered from the exhaustion of the party and our journey, we all dressed in orientally themed costumes that had been made by Olavi and me…. Inside the tent, in the middle of scented sticks of incense, blue-flamed spirit lamps flickered, and we recited poems and decorated the walls of the tent with lines of verse. Elina Vaara simply could not read any of her poems until she had tied a green silk ribbon around her curls. [The poet] Yrjö Jylhä looked steadily at Kati [Katri Vala] as he danced a fiery toreador’s dance…. Olavi himself introduced most of the dances. Playing the role of Pan, he gambolled about, the bumps of incipient horns on his forebead, like a young ram. There followed an extraordinary priestess’s dance, during which only a candle on the floor was allowed to burn; it had to be extinguished at a particular moment in the dance. But the candle was not put out at the correct moment, and a terrible thing happened: the priestess’s white cloak slipped to the floor, only to reveal the body of a man dressed in a striped bathing costume….’

From time to time the company would visit the larder to indulge in delicious cheese sandwiches made by Olavi’s longsuffering mother, or would sit downstairs in the palm parlour listening to their host improvising fantasies on the piano. Otherwise, they might go out, driving horses and sledges along the snowy roads of Kivennapa and admiring ‘the glow of light from the giant city [Leningrad] of the neighbouring country lighting up the southern sky’.

With the bohemian identities of the young poets safely wrapped up in distant dreams of oriental exoticism and in mutual infatuations, it was no wonder that their poetry collections of 1924-26 were essentially made up of romantic love poetry. Distant oriental themes provided an opportunity to flee the dullness of everyday life and seek romanticism.

In the mid-1920s the young poets made the acquaintance of modern urban culture, of which Helsinki had, in the European sense, a smattering. Cosmopolitanism made itself felt above all as an aesthetic force. France was an object of pilgrimage for most writers, some read English and American literature, a few satisfied themselves with Scandinavian connections. Impassioned Europeanness was represented by Olavi Paavolainen who, in the pilot issue of the Torch-Bearers magazine, referred to the German Paul Ernst’s slogan (about the collapse of German idealism): ‘Our time is over, thank God, it is over. A new time approaches – it must be different’. A more international line had also been presaged by the themes of a number of Torch-Bearers albums in 1925-27. The 1925 album covered new European art particularly thoroughly: Cézanne, Constantin Guys, Honoré Daumier, Henri Matisse, Eduard Manet, etc.

Katri Vala’s own visits to the metropolises of Europe – Paris, Nice, Monte Carlo – had their influence on her poetry. Although. for Vala, the modest Finnish way of life was the most significant, in her collection Maan laiturilla (‘On the Earth’s jetty’, 1930) she allowed herself ‘bedazzled’ themes linked with both modern life and outer space.

At the turn of the 1930s, liberality disappeared, cultural life became politicised and the internationally oriented core group of the Torch-Bearers fragmented when their album ceased to appear and their publisher went bankrupt. The group’s internal conflicts had grown as social and international questions became increasingly important. The solidarity that had characterised its members’ activities in earlier years despite their diverse opinions had disappeared.

In her collection Paluu (‘The return’, 1934), Katri Vala addressed her attitude to social changes, comparing herself to a willow swaying at the edge of a river: she identified with the tree, through which the winds blew and in whose branches the rebellious spirit of the world whistled a tune which contained ‘storm, suffering, love and a piece of the dawn’. According to Lauri Viljanen, Vala’s radical humanitarian poetry was part of a wider leftist stream which dominated the poetry of the Nordic countries, Great Britain and America, among others, in the 1930s. Although Vala’s concerns were different in the 1930s from in the previous decade, there was, according to Viljanen, a connection between these two selves. Vala’s radicalism was, according to him, instinctive.

Katri Vala’s particular social themes were the peace principle, defence of the women’s movement and opposition to the death penalty. Questions concerning the church, religion and Society also interested her. Vala took a liberal attitude to religion, but she must have been irritated by the shackling of religions to institutions such as the church and the papacy. Katri Vala’s pacifism had already emerged strongly in the 1920s. The rightist, militarist ideal of the Greater Finland, which gained many adherents among her contemporaries, also received a harsh judgment from her: the Greater Finns were not seeking to enlarge the spirit, but only territory, which was already in Finland, per head of population, among the largest in Europe.

Women had a unique task, which Vala described later in a piece entitled ‘Utopia naisten maailmasta’ (‘Utopia from a woman’s world’, 19 October 1938); since women at last awoken from their ‘soulful slumber’, they must decide for themselves whether they wanted to ‘join that masculine procession’. Participation would certainly ensure riches and honour, but ‘it would be criminal to join it, because it certainly, now as before, leads to war, the misuse of power, and destruction.’ It was the woman’s job to distribute love instead of hatred.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

This article consists of extracts from Vesa Mauriala’s doctoral dissertation at the Department of History, University of Helsinki: Nuoret runoilijat – itsensä toteuttajat. Taiteilijaelämää runoilijoiden keskuudessa 1940-luvulla sekä Olavi Paavolaisen ja Uuno Kailaan elämän politiikkaa
(‘Young poets – self-realisers. The artistic life among young poets in the 1920s and the life-politics of Olavi Paavolainen and Uuno Kailas’)

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