On the uselessness of poetry

Issue 3/2002 | Archives online, Authors, Essays

Poetry has become a habit, or a dependency, a bit like a long marriage, or the habit of doing the football pools, or of getting involved in jazz.

I began my career as a writer in the autumn of 1962 with a slim volume of poetry, Ventil (‘Valve’). Ever since then I have written and read poetry continuously. Over a period of forty years I have published about twenty collections.

Since for most of that time I have also had other jobs, either as a psychiatrist or as a politician (from 1987 to 1999 I was a member of Parliament, from 1990 to 1998 leader of the newly founded Vasemmistoliitto [Left Alliance] and from 1995 to 1999 Minister of Culture in Paavo Lipponen’s five-party government), my writing of poems has often been concentrated on summer holidays and weekends. So it’s often summer in my poems.

But I’m happy about my dependence on poetry, and assume that it’s less harmful to one’s health, and also less expensive, than cigarette-smoking, golf or excessive whisky-drinking à la Dylan Thomas.

I have given a lot of thought to this matter of poetry, the writing of it and what we call creativity. Recently I sent my publisher a new manuscript that deals with the creative process itself, or my experience of what takes place in soul and body when a fictive text is born.

Anyone who has done any kind of creative work knows that a large part of the job consists of fighting all the resistances and the ambivalence that each time do their best to prevent the writing. lf the text is to be interesting and readable, we must give it the whole of our personality, including the irrational parts of ourselves, and the four-to-five-year-old omnipotent child in us; you know, that all-powerful Münchhausen or Emperor of China who at once makes writing so easy and so infinitely enjoyable. The Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has described the experience: that feeling one has when a kilo weighs seven hundred grammes and not more!


I’m 65 now, but I would never have grown that old without two bypass operations, whereby the hardened coronary vessels in my heart were exchanged for new and healthier ones. To be sawn in two halves and have one’s heart removed and placed on a table like some sort of sandwich filling is, of course, a nerve-racking experience. Death becomes more obtrusive and more concrete than it was before. Even though I had often quoted the words of my favourite Swedish poet, Gustaf Fröding – ‘One must get used to being dead’ – I was taken unawares by the intensity with which I experienced the fear and the dread of quite simply vanishing.



At the same time I experienced a degree of consolation with regard to my heart trouble and my heart operations. It was a hard-to-define sense of calm and trust (I am not religious), to which I gave expression in a short poem in the book: I let go and allow it to happen. I fall but I don’t fall. I am in the embrace. It is simple and clear. I am carried upwards, taken by the hand.

My years in politics and my daily exposure to political and socio-judicial jargon meant that there were times when I felt a purely physical need to read and write poetry. Whenever I had a free week I would drive to our summer house with my car full of poetry books, rather as an alcoholic retreats to solitude in order to open his bottle of hooch.

From politics I also learned that nothing kills living, creative language as effectively as the conscious aim of persuasion, agitation, or propaganda. The poem is so important precisely because it doesn’t have an aim. It is completely useless, and that is its importance. The poem also confirms the essential insight that only when one stops striving for something does one attain it.

Translated by David McDuff


No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment