Friday, March 04, 2005


Last week I gave a presentation for work in the morning in Stamford, Connecticut, then headed down to Philadelphia in order to give my talk in the Theorizing Series at Penn. If I got to Writers House early – 3:00 o’clock, say – I knew that I would be able to hear the Finnish poet Leevi Lehto give a talk on Finnish poetry itself, so I was motivated to make good time.


The trick, to call it that, about going back & forth between Stamford & Philly, as I do for my job several times a year, is figuring out how to negotiate one’s way around New York City. I have been stuck in traffic amidst the great public apartment complexes of the Bronx for hours on end, which usually suggests that one should avoid NYC if at all possible. The alternate, tho, which is traveling out west on 287 through Westchester County to the northern end of the Garden State Parkway can add as much as 20 miles to the trip. And there’s never any guarantee that the parkway isn’t going to be a parking lot itself. All the other various routes to the New Jersey Turnpike seem problematic for various reasons – just the day before, I’d headed north on 9 out of Manhattan’s west side only to find myself inexplicably wandering the streets of Yonkers.


Today, however, I was motivated to make good time and my presentation was over by noon, so I crossed my fingers and headed straight down I-95 to New York City. Traffic in the city itself was slow, but not stop-and-go, so I found myself making extraordinarily good time. Indeed, by 2:00 p.m., I found myself at the Richard Stockton service plaza on the Turnpike, just 45 minutes or so from Writers House when I stopped to refuel for gas. I swung off the turnpike & headed over the river into Pennsylvania, then curled around to get back onto I-95 right where it hits the northernmost border of Philadelphia.


At which point, I discover the freeway-as-parking-lot. A check of the all-news AM radio channel tells me that they’re painting lines on the freeway up somewhere ahead. Since I don’t know this part of town at all, I decide that the best strategy is just to crawl through on the freeway. But crawl suggests movement and just under two hours – and three freeway exits – later, I surrender to reality & simply get off at the next ramp, which dumps me near Holmesburg Prison & its neighborhood of row houses & light industrial businesses. It takes another hour for me to wend my way – much of it simply following the Frankford Street el tracks – downtown & then out to Penn. Two hours from Stamford to the Philly city limits, three hours from the city limits to Penn.


I could have taken the train, but if I was going to cut through NYC on my way up in order to see The Gates, as I did, I had to drive (this is also my excuse for how I ended up in Yonkers the day before). Plus I should have heeded an old rule of thumb: never commit yourself to two major events in one day, or at least make sure they’re in the same state.


All of which is a roundabout way of bemoaning my fate that I didn’t get to hear Leevi Lehto talk. However, in the contemporary world, showing up – which I believe Woody Allen once declared to be 80 percent of success – is less necessary than ever. Lehto has posted both his talk on Finnish poetry as well as an anthology of same (plus, special bonus, a brief bilingual series of his own poetry) here. It’s all fascinating reading.


Here’s the deal. When Shakespeare was being Shakespeare, Finnish literature – like the Finnish language – had not yet gotten to writing. A history of Finland, to some degree, has always been a history of the impulses of its bigger, pushier neighbors, the Swedes to the west, the Russians to the East. If “written Finnish as we know it only began to emerge around 1850,” we have almost as a side effect a test case for many of the relationships between writing & society. Today there some 5 million Finns in a nation roughly the size of Pennsylvania (tho, like Canada, its population tends to cluster along the southern rim, so that the experience might not be as Spartan as it sounds, tho in the North it might be very Spartan indeed). Swedish remains one of the state’s official languages, and there is a Finnish-speaking minority in Sweden, as well as a cluster of Finns who expatriated themselves off to the upper Midwest of the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century, where they seem mostly to have abandoned the tongue.


Lehto divides the world of Finnish poetry into just three periods, one “classical” that extends out over the first century of Finnish writing, basically up to the end of the Second World War, a second “modernist” period focused around the 1950s & ‘60s, and a third period he generally avoids naming but which he sees as having been set into motion by the great social movements that swept Europe & North America in the 1960s. Lehto describes the so-called classical or traditional period as being one of looking to foreign models for writing, “more than anything else a time of constant experimentation with foreign poetical forms, metrical and rhyme schemes, genres, patterns.” Much of this is made more complex by the fact that the Finnish language stresses the first syllable of words as a matter of course, a phenomenon that would yield a literature of dactyls & trochees.


The implication might be that the following “modernist” period swept away foreign models, although my take on the collection Lehto has prepared to accompany his talk is that it appears on first glance rather that the writers of this period have instead substituted newer foreign models. Everything from Khlebnikov to Brecht, Celan, Cavafy or Auden seem possible in the work of this middle generation. The new generation looks a good deal like the contemporary international scene – there’s a poem dedicated to Ern Malley, another by Marko Niemi composed via Lehto’s own Google Poem Generator. It’s one of the best poems in the collection.


Lehto’s own history of Finnish literary generations takes a strange turn here, shifting away from what’s going on in the poems per se to relating the current generation’s work to trends in left theory popular in the 1970s & ‘80s:Gramsci, Althusser, Jameson. Again one senses from his discussion that Finnish poetry may still be looking elsewhere for inputs that will transform writing, only now on a new more meta- level.


American poetry is actually not that much older than Finnish writing & some of these same issues are still points of contention here. One could read, for example, Robert Bly’s dissatisfaction with the literary models provided by the Boston Brahmins around Lowell as an argument over whether U.S. poetry should be seen as an adjunct of British letters, or responding to a more international European model (albeit one that tended to be relatively conservative & not all that representative in the context of the actual writing going on in those countries). One could read Olson, Ginsberg, even O’Hara as arguments for an American nationalism in poetic form – certainly Williams saw it in such terms.


Some of the differences between the American scene & the Finnish one simply have to do with scale: you just get more poets, all kinds, good, bad, indifferent, out of a population group of 300 million than you will out of just five million. And some of the differences are historical – having Russia as one’s next door neighbor has real consequences in what happens.¹ The end result, tho, for me at least, is a series of questions posed both by Finnish poetry & Lehto’s presentation thereof:


  • Does Finnish poetry, as such, exist? If so, what is inherently “Finnish” about any of it?
  • How might we think here of Finland the state vs. Finnish the language? Lehto’s collection contains works by a couple of Finnish poets who left & came to the U.S. & became American writers, one of them Anselm Hollo. The works it presents of Hollo’s were originally published in Finland, in Finnish, in the 1960s.
  • What is the role of language, or of social history in the evolution of a “literature”? Is Literature, capital L, just poetry with an army?


One could of course substitute American, Canadian, Scots or what have you for Finnish in any of the above questions. Indeed, part of what Lehto’s talk suggests to me is the possibility of a writer using one of the less popular of the world’s 6,000 languages. Ninety percent of these languages have less than 100,000 speakers, some 350 or so have less than 50 speakers. What would it mean to “be a poet” in one of these languages? If one “wrote” great work in these mostly nongraphemic tongues, how would anyone – even the poet him- or herself – know?



¹ Lehto in fact was the Political Secretary of the Secretariat of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in Finland for a decade (1973-82), a period when the party was part of the governing coalition. Lehto’s own Eurocommunism of the period put him in the minority of the party, most of whose youth members of that generation opted for a Stalinist faction more closely aligned with the old U.S.S.R. Lehto makes the point of noting that he no longer thinks of himself as left wing.