A portrait of Elmer Diktonius

Issue 2/1982 | Archives online, Authors

Elmer Diktonius

Elmer Diktonius at his home in Kauniainen (Grankulla). Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Elmer Diktonius, one of the leading Finland-Swedish modernists of the 1920s, was a revolutionary poet, prose-writer and critic who also tried his hand at composing. Professor George Schoolfield, whose article on Diktonius appears below, appends his own translations of several of the lyrics: a filler selection is going to be published in the United States, Recently Professor Schoolfield has been working on a biography of Diktonius which he hopes to publish soon.

The literary fate of the Finland-Swedish modernist Elmer Diktonius (1896-1961) has not been an altogether happy one. Saluted early and late in his career as Finland’s Strindberg and as a possible rival to Mayakovsky in the contest for the greatest lyricist of the revolution, Diktonius would seem, surely, to deserve a place on the world’s literary stage. Yet the attention he has received outside the north has been mostly unwitting: the writers of program notes quote his description of the Silbelius Fourth, ‘the bark-bread symphony’ without knowing its source, the collected concert-reviews of Opus 12: Musik (1933). Surveys that might have introduced him to a larger public are silent. The chubby Pelican Guide to the European Literature of Modernism ignores him; the Penguin Book of Socialist Verse omits him from its 134 specimens of the lyric left; and Ulrich Weisstein’s volume of Expressionism as an International Literary Phenomenon does not have him in its chapter on ‘Expressionism in Scandinavia’, although he would qualify – as the Swedish scholar Bill Romefors has proved – as the major northern heir of German expressionism.

Puns and allusions

Of course, an author needs to have been translated, particularly if he writes in a small language, in order to make an international splash, and Diktonius offers enough obstacles to frighten all but the most foolhardy translators away. He got off to a strong start, with the French version of his ‘Jaguar’ suite included by Ivan Goll in a florilegium of contemporary poetry, Les cinq continents (1922); but the rest has been, if not silence, then a very occasional representation in out-of-the-way anthologies and magazines. In English, it is difficult, or worse, to find a convincing equivalent style for the ‘explosive’ poetry – from Min dikt (‘My poem’, 1921) to the summing-up in Stark men mörk (‘Strong but dark’, 1930) – or for the idiosyncratic prose, shot through with puns, Fennicisms, and allusions to contemporary Finnish affairs, of the scatological pastorale, Onnela: Finsk idyll (‘Onnela: Finnish idyll’, 1925), the ‘woodcut in words’ Janne Kubik (1932), and the bizarre gallery of the Medborgare i republiken Finland (‘Citizens in the Republic of Finland’, 1935 and 1940). The sentimentality and the nature-quietism of the verse collections of the 1930s offer additional problems; what is movingly simple in the original may come out simplistic and maudlin in English, and the best poetry of the final volume, Annorlunda (‘Otherwise’, 1946) and Novembervår (‘November spring’, 1951), once more brings up allusive cruxes, as in the surrogate national anthem, ‘Our Land Number Two’ or the portrait of the decaying Eino Leino.

At home in Finnish

In a letter, Diktonius told of his admiration for the great Finland-Swedish journalist Guss Mattsson (1876-1914), but expressed the fear that Mattsson was not an exportable treasure; one may have the same fear about the sometime internationalist Diktonius, who became so specifically Finnish that even Swedes across the Gulf of Bothnia lacked the frame of reference necessary to appreciate some of his later work. And there are, in addition, those numerous complaints about the ‘un-Swedishness’ of his prose, complaints that reached a climax when his translation of Kivi’s Seitsemän veljestä (‘Seven Brothers’) appeared in 1948. Of all the Finland-Swedish authors of his generation, Diktonius – who came from a Swedish-speaking home but attended Finnish schools and spent his childhood summers in a Finnish-speaking countryside – had the closest ties with the nation’s majority tongue: he wrote his first published essays and some of his tyro verse in it, readily used it for uncollected poetry (edited by Jörn Donner in 1956) and prose, translated Janne Kubik into it, and, toward the end of his creative life, talked about ‘new plans’ for Finnish autobiographical writings. But he complained bitterly when his good friend Axel Åhlström publicly stated that the poet was a Finnish native-speaker who had chosen to write Swedish, and he skewered the ‘pure Finnish’ movement with the remark, typically Diktonian: ‘they get the fantods when they hear a Swedish word.’ The question of the Finnish colorations in Diktonius’s language may seem a little odd to Anglophones, who have long been thankful for the employment of, say, ‘Irish English’ to creative ends. Perhaps Sean O’Casey would have been his ideal translator.

Punishment for apostasy?

The outside observer may wonder, too, if there are not other causes for Diktonius’s present and relative obscurity. He has, nowadays, no special constituency, no devoted followers. His life was, in its way, even more pathetic than Edith Södergran’s (the outburst of creative energy in the 1920s, the sensations of early aging, the frittering away of time and strength on bread-and-butter writing, the dreams of a major work, the gathering symptoms of physical and mental deterioration); but it is hard to make a legend out of it, unless it be a morality play in which a Marxist god punishes the poet for his apostasy. A legitimate topic for Diktonius studies, as Thomas Henrikson has shown, is that of his political involvements, first with Otto Wille Kuusinen – who became the ‘Red’ minister of information during the Civil War and, surviving, a right-hand man to Josef Stalin – and then with Axel Åhlström’s ‘revisionist’ and socialist newspaper Arbetarbladet. But the dogmatist Kuusinen was a more skillful esthetic mentor than he was a proselytizer; Diktonius’s attitudes toward the ‘revolution’ rapidly became ambiguous in the extreme. Conversely, the admirable Åhlström taught Diktonius tolerance, and gave him an always open forum – but the poet’s celebrations of the working man, clean of flesh, bronzed of muscle, and gnarled of back, are often word-equivalents to bad poster-art. Pyknic himself, Diktonius had a profound aversion to regular exercise or employment; his one job during his lifetime – if one ignores the cottage industry of his columns, reviews, and squibs – was a six months’ stint as a sheet-music salesman, in 1912 to 1913. Politics aside, he may be touted as something of a universal genius; a dissertation has been written (by Matti Vainio) about his musical compositions, but, on the evidence, it would be extravagant to argue that his decision to abandon notes for words meant a substantial loss for Finland’s or the world’s musical culture. In his contemporaries’ view, he was a major exponent of a radical change in poetry-writing, and the Swedish critic Göran Printz-Påhlson talks of an affinity with Ezra Pound in his ‘whimsical technique of admonition and his informal rhetoric’, to cite but two examples of his new poetics; but he was a colorful rather than a magisterial maker of theoretical statements (in contrast to Rabbe Enckell, whom Diktonius admiringly and enviously called ‘our theoretician’); and, an eclectic in his poetic means, he cannot be said to have formed a lyric school. His narrative prose has been called experimental (Bengt Holmquist refers to the wonderful ingressus of the story ‘Josef and Sussan’, as a meeting of James Joyce and Aleksis Kivi); in the disingenuous introduction to Janne Kubik, Diktonius hints that he indeed may be considered a novelistic innovator of Proust’s or Huxley’s stature. Nevertheless, the novel – despite its division into narrative chapters and, then, the author’s commentaries on them – does not offer any upsetting structural complexities or notable intellectual or psychological subtleties. It can be enjoyed in one sitting, as Eyvind Johnson said. The complexities – arising from the author’s attitudes toward his not very bright hero and toward the events the hero experiences – become apparent only on second or third reading. Diktonius was an extraordinarily ambitious artist, at least in the earlier bases of his career, and tried to be a poet of ideas, as in the ode on the creative systole-and-diastole of the universe in Stark men mörk; but such poems are in fact failures, interesting mainly to literary historians. The judgement of Margit Abenius, that Diktonius was rich in spirit but not always in thought, is cruel but not unjustified. Even the much-praised aphorisms of the angry young man, in Min dikt and Brödet och elden (‘The bread and the fire’, 1923), are often painfully juvenile in their radical’s moralizing – as Diktomus recognized later in his life. At the same time, he did not meet the requirements of that different but related role Kuusinen is supposed to have chosen for him, the ‘poet of the millions’. His poems of revolution are frequently altogether self-absorbed; a mass audience, if such existed, would probably agree with the remark of Olof Enckell, Diktonius’s biographer, that he was a ‘cultural aristocrat of the purest water’. In his penultimate prose collection Medborgare II (‘Citizens II’, 1940), he described himself as a ‘little-read Finland-Swedish author,’ not without perverse pride. Perhaps he did not want followers, a constituency, after all. Before the disastrous concert of his songs, in May, 1920, he told his teacher and friend, Erkki Melartin, that the public would not be worthy of his work.

Acoustic artist

Nonetheless, the quasi-proletarian and prideful elitist knew how to transmit himself, his visions and his feelings, with a maximum of (apparent) directness and a fresh and utterly winning verve. In his seemingly offhand way, he is a masterful if unschematic rhetorician who employs every sort of means, quite literally from the sublime to the ridiculous, to captivate the reader and to sweep him into his own perceptions. Both an unfriendly witness, Artur Lundkvist and a friendly one, Rabbe Enckell, have stated that Diktonius, instead of working in a poetic furor, was a painstaking craftsman; Thomas Warburton, however, says that he had a different mode of creation, pouring out large quantities, and then choosing the most convincing among them. In the poetry of the twenties, the reader is caught up by Diktonius’s almost lunatic energy; later on, he finds himself a disciple (perhaps against his will) of what Lionel Trilling would have called Diktonius’s ‘normal mysticism’ a savoring reverence for each process of existence; in Janne Kubik he is made to view civil war and the waste of a small and aimless life with the good nature (paradoxically at once boisterous and serene) which becomes a Diktonian hallmark. Betraying a little condescension, Printz-Påhlson says that Diktonius’s poems can be ‘letters from a good friend’; rather, both the poetry and the prose, at their best are the recitations (or, at times, compelling conversation) of a singular voice; like Alfred Kerr, the German critic from whom he learned much of his reviewing art, Diktonius was an acoustic artist and it must have been a singular experience to hear him read aloud. In his diary, Hans Ruin speaks of his manner ‘which made us forget his ugly voice, his careless pronunciation and the man himself, with those rat-eyes in his fantastically large face, and the small, round limbs, in the sausage skin of his jacket.’ Yet, as often in Diktonius, one discovers contradictions about externals if not the core; Rabbe Enckell remembered, instead, the beauty of his voice as he read from Gogol’s Dead Souls. A book for the rest, with a burlesque but redemptive humor which appealed to the author of Janne Kubik and the best of the novellas in Medborgare.

Voluble self-concealer

Here though, one is impelled to think again of the translator, and his unhappy or even desperate lot: how can the specific voice of a Diktonius be carried over into another language? It might be that, to prepare for the task of turning Diktonius into American English, William Carlos Williams could offer good preparatory exercises – the American imagist whose works Diktonius evidently did not know. He rendered some Whitman, Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg into Swedish; what would he have thought of Vachel Lindsay and his ‘higher vaudeville’? In both Diktonius and Williams, there is the energy, the seeming carelessness, the keen eye for the little detail of existence, and the often amused but never condescending heart. And the same impudent devotion to the home soil: Williams’ upsetting but affectionate In the American Grain came out the same year as Diktonius’s Onnela.

Still a comparison with Williams has its clear limits, as does that with Strindberg (whose sovereign intelligence and crankiness Diktonius surely lacked) or Mayakovsky (an ‘extreme futurist,’ whose ‘hopping logic,’ Diktonius wrote, ‘will give spasms to the eyelids even of the professionally initiate’).

Diktonius is sui generis, possessing a personality which, according to Göran Schildt’s judgment, allowed him ‘directly, without intellectual discussion, to test the content of whatever he met: a human being, an art work or any fragment of experience whatsoever … the expressionistic emotional attitude which he carried to its extreme.’ But – a favorite Diktonian word – but Diktonius, for all his directness, is also a voluble self-concealer, a not uncunning creator of his own myth, aspects of this honest man which add to his allure.


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