Gatecrashing the universe: the poems of Ilpo Tiihonen

4 December 2009 | Authors, Reviews

Ilpo Tiihonen – Photo: Irmeli Jung

Ilpo Tiihonen – Photo: Irmeli Jung

Ilpo Tiihonen defies definition: he is, at one and the same time, a cosmopolitan poet who draws his influences from Latin America and the early Soviet avant garde, and a local poet for the whole of Finland, a fabulist who plays with language and a rough-hewn romantic of everyday life.

In Tiihonen’s selected poems, Lyhyt oodi kaikelle (‘A short ode to everything’, 2000), readers are invited to admire the prospekts of Moscow and Paris’s Montparnasse.

Most fondly pictured, however, are spring work-days wherever Tiihonen (born 1950) is living – in recent years, the working-class Helsinki suburb of Kallio, which has on the one hand scrubbed up to become a favourite of students and the more bohemian middle-class and on the other gained notoriety for its bread-lines, prostitutes and street winos.

Tiihonen, who has also written poetry for the theatre and for children, has participated in the mythification of his home streets with his popular musical play Kallion kimallus (‘The sparkle of Kallio’, 1989). His latest collection,  Jumalan sumu (‘God’s mist’, WSOY, 2009), deals with the Finland of emptying factories, contract workers and unfulfilled promises with the bruised warmth that is familiar from Aki Kaurismäki’s movies. And, in the spirit of Erasmus of Rotterdam, his praise of folly satirises those who worship the god of the bonus cheque.

Tiihonen’s previous collection, Largo (2004) was greeted with praise and prizes. Jumalan sumu seems proof against pomposity. The poet presents a choir of ‘tarred lungs and crapulosity’ whose ‘cacophonous sniffing, slurping / and shuffling’ has no end.

A child of the 1960s and 1970s, and inspired by jazz, folk, Bob Dylan, Donovan and Finnish folk song rather than the high modernist aspirations of the 1950s, Tiihonen made his debut as a champion of utility poetry that mocked high culture. Subsequently, he has emerged as a charmingly old-fashioned champion of basic values with a strong consciousness of tradition. He has not neglected to honour his home gods; among the characters who make their appearance in Jumalan sumu are another slangy Kallio lad, working-class poet Arvo Turtiainen (1904–80) and the melancholy rock and pop star Rauli Badding Somerjoki (1947–87).

When metre and rhyme were still banned from the agenda of contemporary Finnish poetry, Tiihonen was already making his melodic expeditions. Now, too, his depictions of Finland rock and roll, right down to the choruses.

Detachment liberates Tiihonen, allows him to be serious. The street-cred existentialist ponders the lot and lotlessness of man. He reaches for pantheistic visions of nature, original creation myths and even beyond death. Tiihonen also analyses the hubris of contemporary man, his search for control, his fears and his helpless longing for virtue.

In addition to everyday life, the poet looks to the stars. He likes to look down on the staggering and stumbling of ordinary people from a cosmic perspective. As Jumalan sumu puts it, ‘your head’s in the stars, your feet / are solidly in their dust’.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

More poems by Ilpo Tiihonen here, introduced by his English translator Herbert Lomas.