Poetry written aloud

20 May 2011 | Reviews

Heli Laaksonen. Photo: Otava/Irmeli Jung

In the 21st century, poetry written in various dialects has drawn new audiences to poetry readings. A common feature of, for example, Sinikka Nopola’s short prose about the family, written in the dialect of the Tampere area, and Heli Laaksonen’s poetry, which is written in the dialect of south-west Finland, is the enormous popularity of live performances by the authors. Their audiences love to hear them read in dialect, because the texts are funny, and they sound even funnier when read aloud.

Heli Laaksonen (born 1972) has, ever since her first collection, Pulu uis (‘Pigeon swimming’, 2000), been Finland’s best-selling poet. Her three collections and audio books have achieved sales figures that are astonishing in the Finnish context – tens of thousands of copies. Her fourth collection, Peippo vei (‘The chaffinch took it’, Otava, 2011), has been at the head of bookseller’s sales lists throughout March and April.

Laaksonen writes in the dialect of south-west Finland, which is the Turku-born poet’s ‘mother tongue’. She is an excellent performer and undoubtedly the best interpreter of her own poems. In the wake of the folk poetry tradition, Finland has a strong tradition of poetry reading, but what is new about the Laaksonen phenomenon is considerable marketing, extensive performance tours and the presence of the media.

When Heli Laaksonen’s book of poetry Sulavoi (‘Melted butter’) was made public, in a chock-full Helsinki Railway Station in 2006, the wall of the station lobby was covered by an enormous image of the writer. The poet leaped from amid her fans into a poetry train to go on a reading tour. Laaksonen will likely be performing her Peippo vei at around one hundred venues a year. A tour office promotes readings whose tickets cost around twenty euros apiece. Platform shows with videos represent Laaksonen’s skills as a performing artist at their best, and large numbers of her books are sold at these events. Her poetry business has, naturally, not gone without criticism, but on the other hand she is at the moment the only Finnish poet who can survive on the proceeds of her poetry without financial assistance.

What, then, is it about Laaksonen’s poetry that attracts its listeners and readers? She succeeds extraordinarily well in combining the implicitly authentic and natural images of dialect speech with similar subjects and themes. She writes partly about past ways of life and the everyday life, nature, old people, warm human relations of the countryside, in other words about all that nostalgic quotidianity that is unavailable to modern urban life. The majority of Laaksonen’s readers and listeners are women who have reached retirement age.

Heli Laaksonen has said that she avoids both the capital, Helsinki, and foreign travel. There is, however, no nationalist leavening at the root of her poetry. When she was studying in Estonia, the poet became interested in the local dialect poetry, which is one form of the international cultural phenomenon derived from indigenous peoples and languages which is known as ethnofuturism.

If poetry was the mother tongue of humanity, as defined by the German romantics, then dialect poetry is the mother tongue of local culture. But there is some more general image of nakedness and sauna-cleanness that explains why eastern Finns, too, so like to listen to poetry written in south-western Finland.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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