Poet of the senses

Issue 2/1988 | Archives online, Authors

The midwinter Finlandia contest is followed in Finland with almost as much excitement as the Booker Prize in Britain. The fourth Finlandia Prize – 100,000 Finnmarks – was awarded in January to the poet and prose-writer Helvi Hämäläinen, 80, for her collection of poetry Sukupolveni unta (‘Dreams of my generation’, WSOY).

Hämäläinen was tipped as favourite among the ten contenders. All the same, the award was a pleasant surprise, for the author had not published a word for twenty years. To the new generation it was as if she were making her debut.

Hämäläinen’s comeback, in other words, was brilliant.

In celebration of her eightieth birthday, she had agreed to gather together unpublished poems that she had written over the years. The result was a collection of great myths, traditional but at the same time completely fresh: it is a work of innocence and pain, death and unjust punishment, pantheistic joy and the longing for beauty. The Second World War, the tragedy of the concentration camps and the pollution of the natural environment are its central themes.

The newcomer was greeted with immediate enthusiasm. The uncompromising nature of the subject matter, the width of the perspectives, the power of the paradoxes and the colourism, all received praise.

Readers as well as critics discovered this work by a writer who had made her debut way back in 1930: Sukupolveni unta reached the top of the spring best seller lists: seven editions, 21,000 copies.

I ask the writer, were the strong poems dealing with the Winter War written at the time, or afterwards? Her answer is almost angry: ‘How could such an enormous matter take shape in the mind at once? They have been born gradually. I couldn’t have written about the Winter War as it happened.’

In Hämäläinen’s lyrical poetic language it is as if longing and suffering have attained a concrete form: they are present, without explanation. That is, I think, one of the distinguishing characteristics of a good poem: Hämäläinen has found words for the inexpressible.

At the height of the Finlandia celebrations, just as the television studio lights were extinguished, we toasted the winner in champagne. We raised our glasses jokingly to the moment when the writer had delivered her manuscript to the publisher and had turned away down the stairs.

‘Can you publish poems like these?’ she had asked, and the publisher had replied that yes, now it was possible again.

‘When I left, my mood was incredibly light and free,’ she says now. ‘I wanted my poems to put the record straight for the people whose voices have been silenced.’

What, then, prevented the publication of the poems earlier, I ask. She says that she just hadn’t felt at home in the cultural climate of today.

‘There had been a change of generation at the publisher’s, I didn’t know people any more… and besides, the publisher wasn’t exactly encouraging.’

I wonder curiously whether there is more unpublished work in Hämäläinen’s cupboards, and she blinks as if in horror: ‘My goodness yes! Manuscripts, diaries and memoirs, poems and novels, any amount of them!’

But she does not promise to publish them, not this time, anyway: ‘Self-criticism doesn’t allow it.’ She does, however, promise to gather together her memoirs, little by little.

Critical reception of this nature mystic, this ‘brother of the cornflower, sister of the buttercup’, has almost always, from her first published book, Hyväntekijä (‘The do-gooder’, 1930), been favourable. Her novel about the Finnish intelligentsia, Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä (‘A respectable tragedy’, 1941), on the other hand, raised enraged polemic over the question of whether it is right for a writer to use living people as models.

The work was read as a roman à clef. The originals of its doctor who falls in love with a maid, and his wife, were sought and found in Helsinki society. Scandal ensued. The handsome if ageing writer-intellectual was identified as the well-known writer Olavi Paavolainen, Hämäläinen’s good friend.

‘I suppose I was fairly cruel then,’ sighs the writer now. ‘At this age I’m much more considerate.’

The political preoccupations of the characters in Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä – the fear of war and opposition to Hitler – were censored on the outbreak of war: the first edition was destroyed, and a second edition with a cut of a couple of pages appeared a few years later. The novel was published in its original form only in 1981, four decades after its first appearance.

A kind of book war had broken over Hämäläinen’s head as early as 1935. The cultural politicians of the right at that point made clear their view that ‘whores and communists’ had no place in high­ quality literature. They chose as their battlefield Hämäläinen’s Katuojan vettä (‘Ditch­water’), which examined the phenomena of the time from the point of view of the disadvantaged. It tells the story of a woman who is left alone with her new­born child, loses her job and is forced to live on social security. The book tells of the joy of motherhood, the necessity of changing attitudes and of the growth of the individual, not stressing politics in any sense but rather in a human and general way.

Collective responsibility, the feeling of belonging to society, is one of the central themes of Hämäläinen’s work I comment I that I feel that her miniature novel Tuhopolttaja (‘The arsonist’, 1949, reprinted 1988) is one of her best works. It is full of a dark glow, and aggression too.

‘But there’s fellow-feeling there, too,’ she says at once. ‘The implication of the ending is that we are all responsible for what happens. ‘Tuhopolttaja, like many of my other works, is based on real events in a village where I once lived.’

Hämäläinen’s expressive power, in both her prose and her poetry, is characteristically poetry of the senses. The Finnish countryside in summer is like an intoxication to her: she describes its biological effectiveness, its eroticism, as strongly as F.E. Sillanpää, with the genuine naïveté of Marc Chagall.

Culture – art, music, poetry, architecture – is another source of inspiration. ‘I write because beauty drives me mad, I am like a temple to which a persecuted god has fled,’ she confesses.

‘I was born like that,’ she adds. ‘When I was born – I was the third girl in the family – my mother hoped that perhaps this child might be beautiful… Well, I don’t know if I turned out beautiful,’ she says, bashfully, she who has always been one of the undisputed beauties of Finnish literature. ‘But I grew into someone who sees beauty everywhere.’

She still remembers how strongly drawings of the gods of antiquity affected her as a child. Or the experience John Keats’s worship of beauty offered her as an enthusiastic library-goer at 16 or 17.

In the context of the Finnish modernism of the 1950s her ecstatic visions of nature represented the paganism of the senses against which the younger generation pitted the cool, aristocratic weapons of the intellect.

I ask her what she thinks of the advent of modernism in Finnish poetry, and she shrugs her shoulders: ‘Nothing, because I don’t know anything about it. I read modern literature only occasionally, I like the classics, history books and various chronicles.’ But this eager patron of antiquarian booksellers nevertheless pauses to admire Leena Krohn’s Tainaron, a charming and allegorical novel that appeared in 1985.

And a moment later she is commenting, in her forthright way, on the fact that little things have for a long time been admired in Finnish poetry, ‘because they’re so sweet’. ‘But the big feeling, it hasn’t disappeared anywhere; it will come back, if not now, then in the next generation,’ she forecasts.

When Säädyllinen murhenäytelmä was republished in 1981, after the ‘long drought’ of modernism, the power of the senses appeared to be inspirational again. Hämäläinen was rediscovered, and the book was awarded a retrospective Government Prize for Literature. The Eino Leino Society, which had always represented the vanguard of modernism, awarded its literary prize to Hämäläinen a year ago.

We sit in the 1930s Torni Hotel in Helsinki, and she is full of cultural memories. She is unruly and full of pranks. I ask what she will do, now that she is a rich woman.

‘A hundred thousand marks! I’ve never had so much money, and neither have many other writers.’

She says she wants a painting by a particular artist. Whose, I ask, and she, who has been openness itself, is horrified: ‘You can’t answer a question like that!’ It becomes clear, nevertheless, that the painter is Finnish, and an old favourite.

The champagne glasses are empty. Another celebration is over at the Torni Hotel, and the star of the day prepares to go home.

‘I’m just a visitor in all this publicity. Now I shall go back to my quiet life.’ Her grandson will be waiting, probably hungry, she worries. ‘I’ve spoilt him rotten, like all the men I’ve loved.’

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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