Enough is enough!

Issue 4/2001 | Archives online, Authors, Essays

Katri Vala’s admirers regarded her as a kind of priestess of passion for life. A hundred years after her birth, the contemporary writer Leena Krohn begs to differ

I have in my life been inspired by many poets – Salvatore Quasimodo, Charles Baudelaire, Nils Ferlin, T.S. Eliot, Edgar Lee Masters, Rainer Maria Rilke, for example.

Eino Leino, Uuno Kailas, P. Mustapää and Saima Harmaja are among the idols of my childhood, Edith Södergran and Helvi Juvonen those of my youth. Their verses must have formed such firm structures in my brain that I would be able to mumble them even if I were to become a victim of Alzheimer’s disease.

Katri Vala has never been one of these poets.

It is wiser to write about an author whom one loves or has loved than about one whom one has never felt to be significant to oneself. If a reader tells a writer why he does not like her, he presents the writer with demands after the event: you should have written differently, have been different from what you are. That is of course unjust and unreasonable. But literary criticism cannot avoid even such unreasonability.

Katri Vala was a pacifist, an early feminist, later in her life a social critic, a champion of the weak and the oppressed. I should have many reasons to greet her poems with joy. But they do not move me. Particularly Katri Vala’s early poetry, which provoked her contemporaries to admire her as a kind of priestess of passion for life, now echoes emptily, naïvely and unconvincingly, at best amusingly.

I am sure her passion was genuine and truly experienced, but the writer did not have the capacity to communicate this authenticity to her readers. Today one can do no more than shrug one’s shoulders at the half-baked exoticism to which Vala fell into and which was largely based on sheer ignorance. ‘You will arrive wild and full-blooded and primitively lovely….’ her fellow poet and admirer Olavi Paavolainen wrote. It is difficult for me to discern any primality in a person born in the village of Muonio in Lapland writing about musk and palm trees and tamarinds which she has never smelt or tasted, or dressing herself up in sequins or ostrich feathers. (These, it is true, were soon ruined by the dust of the Helsinki streets.) Neither did all her contemporaries unreservedly fall down and worship the cult. The Finland-Swedish poet Elmer Diktonius quite justifiably characterised Vala’s longing for imagined southern paradises as ‘wretched yearning’.

In his dissertation Uuden aikakauden runous (‘Poetry of a new age’, 1987), the critic and scholar Pertti Lassila writes that modernism is generally understood as a characteristically formal innovation, but in the 1920s this was not so. Katri Vala’s poetry, it is true, did not bring anything new in terms of form to Finnish poetry, and very little in terms of content. Blank verse was already in use, and Vala’s declamatory, pathos-laden style is characterised by an unconcrete and conventional image language. Her ‘bubbling’ enthusiasm for creativity and her liking for big words are dubious.

A cynic might comment that they are characteristics of amateur writers which one can read in the overflowings of every new generation of adolescent girls. Poetry flees states of ecstasy, desire or falling into a trance. When Vala writes sydän lemuaa mahlalle (‘my heart smells of sap’) or: kevätpurojen raivokas hurmio, ‘the raging ecstasy of spring brooks’, or: kuohuvan nuori jumala, ‘God bubbling with youth’, or: sieluni on kuin suuri, veripunainen silmu, ‘my soul is like a large, blood-red bud’, the reader is shaken in quite the wrong way. Aaargh! If only she had even left out the word ‘like’!

What is true of Vala is also in generally true of the other members of the Torch-Bearers group of writers to which she belonged. Their poetry leaves me cold. Foreign to me are the Torch-Bearers’ strong consciousness of generation and their worship of youth, in other words immaturity. Vitalism, the admiration of youth as a value in itself and the extreme emphasis on body culture were pan-European trends in the first two decades of the century, and of course staples of the Third Reich. (And what of now, one might ask!)

I am troubled when I find echoes of Södergran, for example, the greatest poet of the Finland-Swedish modernism. Professor Kai Laitinen has commented that Vala had probably absorbed her Södergranian style independently. I doubt it. And independently or not, that which is, in Södergran, deeply moving, becomes, in Vala, mannered and unconvincing. Her paradisiacal utopia never deepens or transcends itself in the manner of Södergran’s yearning for the land that is not.

Truly, the Torch-Bearers’ emphasis on the instinctive at the cost of the rational occasionally goes to ridiculous lengths. And it cannot be defended simply by saying that times were different then. That is true enough, of course. Who today would be enchanted by a shimmering vision of paradise in Muslim countries or Bedouin tents…. Nevertheless, some contemporary writers were able to write on a quite different linguistic and mental level, completely without incense (although there was certainly a lot of cigarette smoke). I am, of course, referring essentially to Finland-Swedish modernism. In fact, the Torch-Bearers’ lack of literary or theoretical resonance, the primitive nature of their critique of civilisation and the conventionality of their formal language compared to that of the real avant-garde slightly shocks this Finnish writer of a later time!

But shocking in a different way is the story of Katri Vala’s life, her hard work, her exhaustion, her poverty, her bitterness, her passion, her illness and the loneliness of her motherhood. Her late poetry, but above all her newspaper columns and essays, are given additional depth by her social conscience and her genuine indignation, which are born of lived life.

A tendential poem such as the one about the little brother cannot go unrecognised, either. It is a complete and tight whole, a logical pattern and at the same time a song.

And that is enough, Katri Vala.

For more writing by Leena Krohn, see Books from Finland Archives or www.krohn.kaapeli.fi

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