Winged fever

Issue 4/1996 | Archives online, Authors, Essays

After the collective and individual catastrophe of the Second World War, doubts notoriously arose as to whether poetry was possible ‘from this time on’. Theodor W. Adorno declared that writing poetry after Auschwitz was impossible. And Tadeusz Rozewicz said he wrote unpoetry for survivors, for the terrorised, for the dead. Poetry was, for him, ‘borrowed scraps of words, the uninteresting words of the great graveyard’. This is a harsh judgement. More than any earlier written word, post-war poetry was confronted by destruction, hunger and, contrariwise, rampant overconsumption.

Many poets of the Sixties and Seventies resolved these questions by asserting that poetry was in fact an anachronism; anyone continuing to write poetry must forget individual alienation, word-magic and music. Poems should be made by abandoning metre and conveying politically correct truth. In making generalisations about reality – while unable to differentiate it from propaganda – these writers divagated from reality, which is distinguished from utopia by its multiplicity and complexity. Poetic modes as varied as the low mimetic, propaganda poetry, ‘concrete poetry’ and even nature poetry thus managed to become foreign to reality. Themes like participation, progress and liberation frequently led to bigotry, utopian cloud-cuckoolands and blind man’s buff with the self. As Arto Melleri’s allegory puts it, the ‘swankeepers’ vainly ‘fish the shattering waves for reflections’.

Once more the crumbling of systems revealed, and perhaps more clearly than ever, that behind the supposed reality – the delusion of it – lay a genuine reality with its furies and monsters.

The Sixties and Seventies showed that poetry cannot be reduced to a lowest common denominator. Poetry cannot eliminate certain tensions – between the con intimissimo and the public, the visible and the invisible, harmony and discord, the concrete and the enigmatic, suggestion and the stance. This gamut is evident to Arto Melleri. Distrusting ready-made truisms, he conceives a poem as a tool of consciousness, the experience of an individual.

Melleri’s early historical observations and link-ups can certainly be seen against a background of world history; but they are also a countermove to Finnish cultural politics of the Seventies, agit-prop poetry and naive nature lyrics. The volumes include, for instance, a parody called ‘Agit-Prop’, and another about pub-table world-improvers whose dynasty lasts twelve pints. In response to a miniaturist collection of the Seventies, The forest wall is merely a green door’, Melleri has, ‘Frost dusts the forest, whose wall / is no “mere green door”, but rather / a hole through to Grimm’s fairy tales’. Melleri’s lesser-known compositions include those tight and bright situationpieces which startle by bringing to mind ‘the art of the national awakening’, going back to the early days of the century. But they are calls to the individuality of each, not nationalistic slogans.

Heroism: merely enough daring
to see Mud eye to eye
and admit: Mud it is, just mud,
that sort of short-sightedness.

(‘Olympia’, 1980)

According to Elias Canetti, the essential thing today is to trace the moment when ‘humanity suddenly lost reality’. For Melleri, the essential thing is to find the point where reality becomes drama.

Melleri may utilise the cliches of popular culture and the axioms of a mechanised world, and the ‘I’s’ of the poems are occasionally bewitched by history’s brainless vaudeville; but he opposes, in Nietzsche’s fashion, anyone who finds phoney reality and the events of history significant.

In the poem ‘The Airship ltalia’, General Nobile flies over the craters of history:

Farewell, darlings,
General Nobile's sailing in his airship
to a glittering death...
whoever knows the journey's end
as he sets out is there already,
wafted on his wing-stubs;
farewell, doubters – smiles on your lips like the imprints of horse-bits:
'he'll never get there this way' –
'get there' – as if 'there' were
some place;
in one day you can only manage a day's journey...

Interviewed, Melleri has always spoken against stylistic trends and conceptions, things like ‘postmodernism’. The truth lies in the decomposed and the materialised. His polemical poem against Emile Zola’s naturalism asserts that perspectiveless painting is closer to reality than a photograph or a telegraph.

Ostrobothnia, Melleri’s home background, endures in poetry: the village that ‘disappears in the way it came into ‘being’. Melleri can compare this vanishing world to the southern states of America, giving the reader comic shots of an evangelistic preacher or an American visitor. Melleri’s persona in these childhood reminiscences is Huckleberry Finn: the prodigal son. The wandering preachers and religious sects of southern Ostrobothnia have left their traces on Melleri’s speech. Religious experience is in fact for Melleri a symbolic and personal affair, not to be written off as backwoods language.

The life lived, memories, form the scenario for a self-destructing Europe, the Zeitgeist, Apocalypse and Fin de Siecle. Michael Hamburger claimed that Ezra Pound looted historical moments and backgrounds in order to use them as evidence. For Melleri too, events shift like film shots, flashes and angles: persons and epochs often merge with irresponsible simultaneity. In ‘Cannabis sativa’ the narrator has, through smoking a joint, a simultaneous experience of different periods and events. Grand Hotel, written in the form of an opera libretto, happens both before the First World War and after the Third.

According to Robert Musil, the slick spirit of the 19th century produced a fever that grew instant wings, and no one knew precisely what was going to come into being. For Melleri now Europe is living in the grip of this undefined fever and more tensions that haven’t yet exploded. Or, as he amends Marx: ‘so that the scripture be fulfilled: / a ghost is haunting Europe / without finding a country, a people, / it haunts, a ghost.’ Here and there are mementoes of a former glory, gladiatorial combats, and a circus: the Grand Hotel, where the celebrations begin as the century flies off its hinges.


Melleri’s poetry is visited by personae from a variety of mythologies. Out of an erotic portrait gallery emerge Primadonna, Mata Hari, a femme fatale, a modern-day Penthesilea and a Medusa – ‘the white mistress’. Melleri favours this autoerotic figure, even though a sexual encounter is possible: ‘orgasm speaks all / languages, the only interpreter / between Night and Day, Heaven and Earth’. Primadonna ‘dances with her own maidenhead in the snow’, and the Femme Fatale obtains all she wants: ‘with her name on their lips the soldiers march to their death.’ Truth too is a sort of Femme Fatale: Truth beds with many men / but takes no money / nor loses her maidenhead.’

The orgy and Grand Hotel themes evoke writers of the last century but also many contemporaries who have written about the overproducing society. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard is one. A key notion in his work is the question ‘What will you do after the orgy?’

‘We live in a postorgiastic era. Our time was preceded by a mass orgy of the real, the rational, the sexual, the critical, the anticritical, growth and the crisis of growth. We have lived through the production and virtual overproduction of all objects, signs, communications, ideologies and satisfactions. Everything has been liberated, the game has been played out, and now we’re asking each other for a decision: WHAT WILL YOU DO AFTER THE ORGY?’

Melleri replies in his poem ‘After the Ball’:

Some day every pleasure dome turns into
      a subterranean dungeon, dawn
                      casts across the French chalk
the shadow of a grill.
       This time the make-up won't wash off,
and for the last waltz you must always
           fetch your own shackles... from over the congealed
wine-puddles, the broken glass, the torn-up
                       visiting cards:
      the counts and viscounts you met in the evening
have lost their estates by morning.
All you can bring to the last waltz
      are your own irons, and with those you have to dance
                     till you drop,
or else renounce them, blow the candles out,
           and sleep head down on the marble table,
 to stop you hearing: tomorrow
            is crashing down in front of you
                       like the gate of Spandau.

Here the narrator of the poem is an uninvited guest at a great orgy, where ‘you must pay for everything / especially what you didn’t order’. And what the others – the Femme Fatale, the Stand-in, the porter, or Mata Hari – don’t notice the reader feels to be on its way: a collective postcoital tristesse.


Melleri has realised something else Jean Baudrillard calls for: ‘Since the world drives to a delirious state of things, we must drive to a delirious point of view.’ Melleri’s sequence Mau Mau raves and reconnoitres with an out-and-out dictatorial genius, like Kubla-Khan in a delirium. The language is at once pathosladen, erotic, raw, miserable, sensitive and brilliant. Breathlessly the poet turns hallucinations into words, closer to improvisation than ever. The monologue is not so much a poem as a potpourri of theatre, jazz, cinema and pop-song lyrics. The Mau Mau Freedom Organisation is a symbol of the new Africa that is ineluctably penetrating into western consciousness. The continental plateaux are changing places, creation and evolution are turned upside down.

As Apocalypse, ‘The Edge’ and Africa draw nearer, the white man’ sits at his table set for dinner. This is a notion we find in Melleri’s Grand Hotel theme, but it also brings to mind the Last Supper. And why not Peter Greenaway too, whose film aesthetic crystallises lust, murder, dessert.

Europe – the great wreck – is drifting out to sea with, at the helm, the Flying Dutchman, Apocalypse, Illusion. On the great opera set the drums thunder the end of everything. The cry of the Mau Mau wails like a bewitching saxophone.

But Mau Mau is also a hymn to an apocalyptic and nihilistic Orpheus, Melleri tightens and tightens his ecstatic spiral spring, right up to the climax:

And the cataract thunders
already very close! very close!
       a hand's-breadth! one step! a breaking
                       guitar string's breadth away!
in you yourself! in you yourself!

we're the brotherhood of Night!
we come to life only at midnight
when the city's peacocktail
is spread against the sky!
we're the brotherhood of Night!
and the flaming songs break off
always halfway through, into a fit of coughing, a siren wail ...
and the flames catch the nightclub curtains!
the neon light goes out, once and for all!
and with dawn the stray dogs wander round the blackened ruins of the night club …
                                                                     they tear at the singer's charred 
corpse, they tear at it, rip it
to shreds!

he licked fire till the fire
licked him! he licked fire!
the fire licked him! and grief comes in
without taking its shoes off, it walks
the floor with muddy feet!
he licked fire! the fire licked him!

The four volumes subsequent to Mau Mau are more desultory than the earlier volumes, the poems often close to the occasional, or to diary entries, The starting point is frequently personal. Elävien kirjoissa (‘In the land of the living’, 1991) started, according to Melleri, as a kind of Spoon River Anthology on the death of a friend and consists of monologues by various characters representative of a ‘burnt-out’ generation.

The beauty of the love poems is always Janus-faced, spiced with lyricism, obscenity, deformity, pathos, and humour, Melleri celebrates a single night’s forget­fulness, as if he were some medieval Persian on his divan and comes to conclusions, like ‘in the Quasar-bazaar there’s no trading in love’, ‘No one has power over beauty’, and ‘feelings are far from profitability calculations’.

For Melleri, the poems’ ‘program’ is simple: a poem should reach the head, the heart and the genitals. His linguistic power is a rarity in cityfied Finland, and his language brings to mind the exuberance and down-to-earthness of folklore, proverbs and dialect.

Powerful rhythm and verbal music are his native inheritance. His speech is humanly physical-bodily and fragmentary: sudden sentence-shattering affections guide the internal rhythms. Love of unpolished human speech makes him evidently unwilling to smooth out roughnesses by sticking to the rules.


Relatives for Melleri are hard to find in Finnish literature. In his debut year, 1978, he was in marked contrast to the mainline poets of the Sixties and Seventies writers of miniaturist and/ or politically committed lyrics. Yet connections can be seen with works published at the time of Melleri’s early poems. Pentti Saarikoski’s Tiarnia trilogy (1977–82) charts the world with new eyes and asserts, in Melleri’s manner, that ‘We must free ourselves from world-views, so we can see the world’. Surprisingly, there are links with Eeva-Liisa Manner’s final volume of poetry, Kuolleet vedet (‘The dead waters’, 1977), too. Melleri, Manner and the later Saarikoski demonstrate – in their very different ways – the impossibility of generalising about the world, and they emphasise individual experience. The poems are ‘sequences from universal and private mythologies’ (Manner).

Melleri can be reminiscent of Beatnik poetry, the early Allen Ginsberg in particular, but he is, unlike many contemporary American poets, free from the Beats’ later indulgence in mannered wholesale products.

Melleri’s poetry furthers the tradition of European visionary poetry, following on from William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lautreamont, Arthur Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

This article is an edited version of an essay published in Kirjojen Suomi (The Finland of books’, Otava, 1996), edited by Juhani Salokannel


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