Dear diary

18 October 2012 | Authors, Extracts, Non-fiction, poetry

The poet and translator Pentti Saarikoski (1937–1983) was a legend in his own lifetime, a media darling, a public drinker who had five children with four women. His oeuvre nevertheless encompasses 30 works, and his translations include Homer and James Joyce. The journalist Saska Saarikoski (born 1963) has finally read all that work – in search of the father whom he seldom met. The following samples are from his annotated selection of Pentti Saarikoski’s thoughts over 30 years, Sanojen alamainen (‘Servant of words’, Otava, 2012; see Figuring out father)

I try to write books whose reading will bring enjoyment, in other words not entertaining ones.
Suomentajan päiväkirjat
(‘Translator’s diaries’, 1970)

The term ‘world literature’ was invented by Goethe to describe the importance of Goethe.
Päiväkirjat (‘Diaries’, 1978)

A work of art is bad if it ‘makes you think’. About something other than itself. What is wrong with ‘art for art’s sake’ – or bread for bread’s sake? Art is art and bread is bread, and people need both in their diet.
Päiväkirjat (‘Diaries’, 1978)

Translation is moving a fish from one waterway to another.
Päiväkirjat (‘Diaries’, 1981)

It is said that you can have command of a language but you can’t command languages; they command you.
Euroopan reuna (‘The edge of Europe’, 1983)

Literature is not a message, newspaper, news report, it is its own reality like trees and mountains and animals in the yard.
Päiväkirjat (‘Diaries’, 1983)


Yesterday I looked at young birch trees. Is there not, in their pallor and lightness, their special immateriality, much of the most beautiful and purest femininity? An ugly woman has no right to exist, because a woman is unable to live for herself.
Nuoruuden päiväkirjat (‘Youthful diaries’, 1954)

The happiest marriages are those in which the man is impotent and the woman frigid, but such good fortune seldom occurs. Generally marriages are second-hand shops in which the woman sells old stuff and the man buys it.
Prahan päiväkirjat (‘Prague diaries’, 1966)

Sex gives new energy for living, like eating, but it does cast any light on one’s world’s view. The importance of sexuality has been extraordinarily exaggerated since it became possible to speak openly about it.
Päiväkirjat (‘Diaries’, 1982)


Only a continuous revolution prevents the revolution from devouring its children. In a continuous revolution children devour their parents.
Ihmisen ääni (‘The human voice’, 1976)

Revolutionaries are the true conservatives: the world can only be preserved by changing it.
Päiväkirjat (‘Diaries’, 1977)

A sure way of becoming a statue is to start one’s career by smashing statues.
Päiväkirjat (‘Diaries’, 1980)

I loathe officials, that whole bloody class of ne’er-do-wells, primates with ties round their necks and rectangular cases in their hands. Milk-drinkers!
Päiväkirjat (‘Diaries’, 1978)

Life has generally left a bad taste in my mouth. If I were to write my memoirs, they would be the world’s most dishonest book. It is only with children that I’ve been able to form authentic human relationships; I abandoned my own children, I didn’t ever take a single one of them to school.
Päiväkirjat (‘Diaries’, 1981)

Be a jester, not a poet laureate, for a poet laureate will lose his head; a jester, never.
Päiväkirjat (‘Diaries’, 1982)

My home would be like this: the entrance hall in Dublin, the living room in Paris, the bedroom in Rome, the study in Budapest, the kitchen in Athens and the sauna in Kerimäki.
Euroopan reuna (‘The edge of Europe’, 1983)

I have been accused
of not taking the realities into account
as if I were not myself a reality
Hämärän tanssit
(‘The Obscure dances’, 1983)

I have never cared for relatives, what is the sense of that? Everyone is related, after all.
Päiväkirjat (‘Diaries’, 1983)

I do not consider myself to be responsible for interview comments, or even, really, for what I write; I am a living person and will say it differently tomorrow.
Päiväkirjat (‘Diaries’, 1978)

The number of people in the world, right now, can be supported by the world, but there is not enough room for all the opinions of these people.
Euroopan reuna (‘The edge of Europe’, 1983)

Of course one will never learn to understand the world, one just has to try pass, squeeze oneself, through it. We shall never receive an answer to the question why we are here and build houses, roads, religions, sciences and arts. Birth is the subject of death and the reason for it, this is how one must accept it, simply: because once the world (ours) has started to exist, it will also have to cease to exist.
Päiväkirjat (‘Diaries’, 1983)

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


Today I’m going another way
coming to the meadow from the west
I want to see the mountain in unfamiliar marine light

the air is soft paper
on which the trees are blurred signifiers

I’m roaming the meadow
longing to be a poet whose song
would move stones and
organise city walls
make trees walk to carpenters
that build homes for people

An unsubstantial sorrow
is a heavy burden
but still, I still I want to see
everything in unfamiliar marine light

IV, from Tanssilattia vuorella, ‘The dance floor on the mountain’, 1977. Translation published in Contemporary Finnish Poetry by Herbert Lomas, Bloodaxe Books, UK, 1991
Other English translations:
Pentti Saarikoski: Poems 1958–1980. Edited and translated by Anselm Hollo. Toothpaste Press, Iowa, 1983
Dances of the Obscure. Translated by Michael Cole & Karen Kimball. Logbridge-Rhodes, Durango, 1987

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