Earth, tree, wind
Leena Kirstinä on the iconoclastic and pioneering poet – for children and adults – Kirsi Kunnas
Fifty years ago the poet Kirsi Kunnas liberated Finnish children’s poetry from its boring didacticism: she revived ancient nursery rhymes, fables and epigrams that can parody human frailties and fabricate fairy-tale social criticism. Her hilarity, brilliance and linguistic virtuosity have charmed readers of all ages.
A post-war Finnish modernist, Kunnas (born 1924) published her début volume, Villiomenapuu (‘Crabapple tree’, WSOY), in 1947. In the 1950s her children’s volume, Tiitiäisen satupuu (‘The Tumpkin’s wonder tree’, 1956), rejuvenated children’s poetry. Her translations of the classical English nursery-rhymes in Old Mother Goose helped her to enhance the ways of writing fantasy, humour and nonsense.
Kunnas resisted the expressionism of the 1930s and the imagism of the 1950s, wanting to permeate her free verse with musical values, rhythm and rhyme. By placing an extremely similar version of her children’s poem ‘Pimeä ratsastaa’ (‘Darkness rides out’) in her adult volume Vaeltanut (‘Wandered’, 1956), she demonstrated that adult poetry and children’s are not fundamentally different in kind (see pages 185 and 186). The dark rider can be a spell to dissipate the fear of darkness and simultaneously a Lorca-like allegory of death.
In the background of Kunnas’ poetry are the 1930s English poet Stephen Spender and the pioneering Finland-Swedish modernist Edith Södergran (died 1923).
She herself has spoken about the poetics of ‘the ellipsis’ and ‘the spiral’. Ellipsis is a spatial figure, connecting even vastly distant points: infinity and the infinitely small encounter each other in images charged with movement and activity. Chance, the absurd and paradox are essential components of Kunnas’ poetic universe.
In a new phase of her adult poetry, Kuun kuva meissä (‘The image of the moon in us’, 1980), the microcosm and the macrocosm interpenetrate. Recurrent images in all Kunnas’ work have been the earth, the tree, the wind, the sun and the moon. The tree is a trope for humanity and the world. The wind, unpredictable as life, unites the earth and the sky, spirit and matter. The moon is a symbol of occult knowledge, feeling and intuition.
Kunnas is attracted to optical phenomena – light, its reflections and double exposure. She could be called a cosmological nature-poet, whose nature imagery is pervaded by experiences of Einsteinian space-time. The mystical unity of everything is studied with careful observation, and awareness of myth and the concepts of modern physics.
Translated by Herbert Lomas
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About the writer
Leena Kirstinä (born 1944) is a translator and scholar, and is Professor Emerita of Literature at the University of Jyväskylä
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