Horror on the first line

15 October 2010 | Authors, Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series, Finnish authors ponder their profession. In his radical youth, the poet and author Ilpo Tiihonen thought blind rage was what fuelled poetry. As he later found it’s a lot more complicated, he began to invent ways of loosening literary tension

When I was a little more than 20, when I thought I had completed the manuscript of my first volume of poems, everything was going to hell.

I wanted life to be political, exotic, inspired, but the Finnish way of life, with its instructions and its home loans crushed people into a stiff and monopositional way of being. One of submission. I protested. We made an underground magazine whose cover showed Nixon peeing on South America. We founded a propaganda theatre which raged against the colonels’ junta in Greece. And there was plenty to vilify about the Finnish bourgeoisie, too. I hated capitalism, TV advertisements and the high prices of bus tickets. And there was no hot water in my rented digs. The main thing was to protest.

I had written hooked on adrenaline, with Mayakovsky as my dealer. Written a bunch of poems in a blind rage, but a brusque rejection from the publisher and the passage of a year were necessary before I understood that I understood just a little about writing, and didn’t yet know anything about myself. Not even that rage was only one possible stimulus to write.

I threw away my first manuscript and began again, listening and progressing cautiously as if on one night’s ice. I wrote poems or, rather, portraits of the children and places of my childhood. When my first collection was published I was 25 and had passed the worst; I no longer wrote literature about literature, but what I knew and felt.

When, now and then, I meet aspiring young writers and tell them about my work, it’s very tempting to give advice. For them this may be dangerous, but for me it’s sometimes useful. For the strict principle that you have just formulated for someone else is the one you take pleasure in breaking as soon as you turn your back on them. I have favourite slogans such as ‘The word wind is no more lyrical than the word windcheater’ or ‘Don’t ever decide what you’re going to write about’. Neither do you need definitions of what poetry is (definition shrinks it immediately and takes charge).

But how to avoid the temptations of knowing it all, and how voluptuous it is, from time to time, to give vent to really juicy definitions: ‘Of course, poetry is a startling composition using the stuff of angels, the salicylic acid of whimsy and awakenings tempered with dreams, and if injustice prevails, poetry socks it in the jaw with its soft fist in order to restore the balance between morning and evening, and if profit poisons water and air, then poetry praises the useless in order that breathing might continue, that the moss might retain its speed and the clouds of calm weather their Rubensesque plumpness, and that we should have an answer when we are asked: What did you come here to say?’

Sadly, my own doctrines and brilliant definitions are of no help at all when writing an sich. Only chance, or a subconscious knocking against my skull, can kick a poem into action. Plenty of beginnings collect on little pieces of paper in the back left pocket of my jeans, but most of them leave along with the washing water. From one of those that survived, I remember ‘You don’t swim in champagne in the Samppalinna swimming pool’. It seemed to fulfil some of the (perhaps Mayakovskian) rules I’d set up for the beginning of a poem: it had a good rhythmic pace [champagne is samppanja in Finnish], the melody was good in relation to the content, there was contrast, and because Samppalinna, in the city of Turku, is a natural swimming pool available to everyone, and not a luxury spa, the basis of the phrase felt socially apt and active. I cherished that first line for a couple of years, and only after dozens of attempts did it develop a continuation.

To a poet, this is as familiar as the telegram sent from Yerevan to Moscow at the time of the Soviet space-dog Laika: ‘Have dog, send the appliances.’

But what to do when you’re not the sharpest knife in the drawer and all that needs to be done has ground to a halt?

Emptying is a good way of ensuring new supplies. On a bright autumn day in a forest full of mushrooms you can walk so far that literary tension loosens into a cep-Zen way of being. In Helsinki you can pedal furiously round the city’s sea-shores on your bicycle until the phrases in your back pockets are nothing but pulp and if you happen to be in Paris, you can stand at the Musee d’Orsay in a queue until you feel a drink is due.

In contravention of my doctrines, I have often decided what to write about. Opposites have power, contrast is a handy method. On Christmas Eve when housewives busy themselves in their well-heated homes until they are blue in the face setting their tables with the best they have to offer, a Helsinki charity organises a Christmas dinner for the homeless in an old exhibition hall. The smells are a little different from those of a bourgeois household, but even the underprivileged get their ham and Christmas pudding once a year. My poem ‘Dirty angel’ is about these Finns.

So maybe an active lack of principle should be the poet’s motive force. I don’t know.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

Dirty angel

The angel of night
is loitering on the stair
waiting the rear
and, pack on back, with her dirty nail
      digging in her pretty ear

and she´s come with a consignment
of eternal hot water and beds
supplies of teeth and legs
and strong nerves for nervous people
      who´ve lost their heads

      and this is the way this Christmas Eve
            at eleven fifty-seven –
      dustbin lids go off with loud reports
and a hundred drunks are rising
                    with no passports
                        straight into heaven

Translated by Herbert Lomas (from Hyvät, pahat ja rumat [‘The good, the bad and the evil’, WSOY, 1984]; see Electric Verses)

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