The heart of reality

Issue 2/2007 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

The experience of nature always inspired the poet Aaro Hellaakoski (1893–1952), but in his universe – composed of rhyme, rhythm and linguistic brilliance – existential questions remain vital.

Man is a being tied to an intersection. Like some creature floating helplessly in the water, he sees shadows of the infinite in the surface and senses the depths beneath the surface, but neither is within his grasp. The poet Aaro Hellaakoski often uses the surface of water, two-dimensional space, as a symbol of the fate of man. Expertise in the natural sciences and experience with research, both rare for a poet, left their mark on Hellaakoski’s lyrics; he received his doctorate in geography in 1929 and had a long career as a schoolteacher.

His poetry divides temporally and thematically into two periods, 1916–­1928 and 1941–1952. The debut collection was followed by five more; the last, Jääpeili (‘Ice mirror’, 1928), is a culmination of the first half of his output, which questions both the symbolism-influenced, post-romantic, already automated poetic style of the beginning of the 20th century and the classicising current that developed in response to it.

Poetry must address reality and express individual experience without aestheticising it by conventional methods. Hellaakoski prefers conversational language and informality. In the background are the conflict of idealism and disillusion caused by the First World War, Finnish independence and the Civil War. Hellaakoski’s poetry is an adaptation of the European expressionism of the time.

Jääpeili is the most important achievement of the meagre Finnish-language modernism from the interwar period. It includes typographic experimentations, concrete poems, in which the visual form and linguistic meaning work together. Hellaakoski reported getting ideas from Guillaume Apollinaire. His avant-gardism combines the primitive, folksy, dreamlike, modern, conscious, and instinctual; his expression is effortless, with rhyme and rhythm according to the language, but still often with a fresh twist.

The Winter War of 1939–1940 was a deep crisis for Hellaakoski, as it was for so many other writers, too. It resulted in a return to poetry, which he thought he had left for good. The collection Vartiossa. Runoja sodan vuosilta (‘On the watch: Poems from the war years’, 1941) began the second half of his work, which include Uusi runo (‘The new poem’, 1943), Huojuvat keulat (‘Swaying prows’, 1946), Hiljaisuus (‘Quiet’, 1949) and Sarjoja (,’Series’, 1952), as well as a posthumous collection, Huomenna seestyvää (‘It will brighten up tomorrow’, 1953). Hellaakoski’s late output is a complex building up of a new worldview and life philosophy. Despite some Christian symbolism, it does not lead to a conventional Christian confession.

In 1943 a highly influential dialogue written for the masses by the leading Finnish philosopher of the day, Eino Kaila, appeared, Syvähenkinen elämä. Keskusteluja viimeisistä kysymyksistä (‘Spiritual life. Conversations about final questions’, 1943). Kaila was a logical empiricist and explored in his work the foundations for the scientific world view, but also the nature of the aesthetic experience. The natural scientist Hellaakoski may have felt a kinship with Kaila’s philosophical dialogue.

The experiences of the war could lead to nihilism and realisations of the absurdity of life. At the same time, they could also require a new worldview. It could nevertheless not be founded on simple faith or the rational optimism of enlightenment, which felt naïve after the great battles of the Winter and Continuation Wars, Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

In Kaila’s dialogues a painter describes his relationship to reality and art: ‘What is the heart of this reality? It is fairytale and magic, it is the infinitely deep expression and significance that is hidden in everything, if only you are able to see it. “An artistic victory” is all the greater the smaller is – from the perspective of the mundane – its outward subject.’

The fairytale and magic of the artist’s musing has an important place in Hellaakoski’s early poetry. In his later work he finds them anew. The experience of nature and man’s relationship to nature receive more ideological weight. But to him the book of nature is not written by God in the traditional way, nor does he proclaim pantheism excessively.

Sarjoja (1952) is the conclusion of Hellaakoski’s lyrical philosophy, an oratorio without melody, a hymn to art, nature and life. Its serial, narrative poems come together as a whole which belongs to the great achievements of Finnish poetry. The secrets of nature and existence cannot be solved, but as his life speeds by, the individual human can sense that it is not a source of anguish but of hope.

Translated by Owen Witesman

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