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Leaving War Behind

Written by: Tuula Hökkä |

Finland lived under the shadow of one war after another in the early 1940s. Adversity and economic shortages long outlived the end of the Winter War and the Continuation War in 1944. The wars altered the traditional role of women. They assumed men’s duties in industry and rose to prominence in the cultural and artistic spheres. The gloominess of the age created a deep thirst for art and literature. A great deal of poetry was published and an unusual percentage of the first-timers were women, both Swedish- and Finnish-speaking.

Among them were refugees from Karelia like Eila Kivikkaho (1921-2004) and Eeva-Liisa Manner (1921-1995), as well as patriots and communists like Elvi Sinervo (1912-1986). Their poetry, however, did not centre on politics or patriotism, but on the self, personal experience, family, home, children, the world, and humanity.

The journal Taiteen maailma, no. 11-12/1945. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, Helsinki

Post-war poetry sought to create forms that differed from the classical approach, whose status had grown during the war. The voice that had informed the official rhetoric and heroism of the war years was no longer of service. Young women, who frequently were more eager than their male colleagues to discover fresh perspectives and to emerge from the shadow of war, found their voice earliest and most naturally.

Their concept of rhythm comprises forms that are both free and more metrically strict. Their basic models hark back to popular poetry and ballads as well as dirges.

The universe of their poems is populated by nature, myths, and public life. Femininity, both active and passive, and an all-embracing, strikingly open sexuality pervade their writing. Women’s emotions and the stages of their lives, including childbearing and motherhood, are described in physical terms: to wit, the first poems published by Aale Tynni (1913-1997) in Kynttiläsydän (1938; Candlewick). Subdued and reflective tendencies are visible as well. Thought strikes like lightning in a particularly melodic and emotionally charged poem by Eila Kivikkaho. Kirsi Kunnas (born 1924) explores the possibilities of poetry by means of abstract imagery, including metaphysical concepts. Her aesthetic is suffused by lightness, movement, and flexibility. Warm, extroverted religiosity, on the other hand, shines through in a book by Anna Maija Raittila (born 1928) entitled Päivänvarjopuu (1955; The Parasol Tree).

Free verse was the starting point for Auringon tytär (1943; The Daughter of the Sun) by Anja Vammelvuo (1921-1988), Lapsellinen maa (1943; Children’s March) by Helvi Hämäläinen, and Villiomenapuu (1947; Crab Apple Tree) by Kirsi Kunnas. Eila Kivikkaho and Eeva-Liisa Manner, as well as Aila Meriluoto in Lasimaalaus and Sirkka Selja in Vielä minä elän, use stricter and more lyrical forms in addition to free verse. The imagery ranges from Hämäläinen’s lush, magical world to Kivikkaho’s austere, philosophical minimalism.

The Great Femininity of Life

Vielä minä elän (1942; I’m Still Alive), the first book of poetry by Sirkka Selja (born 1920), reflects the horror and suffering of the war. Her poem “Lapsi ja sota” (Child and War) raises the voice of protest from a child’s point of view and with feminine sarcasm.

Taman lauluja (1945; Tama’s Songs), her third book, is one of the first works of the 1940s that approaches free verse in an unforced manner. Despite the title, the style is surprisingly prose-like. Tama is a creature that symbolises the various facets of femininity and love, including both motherhood and masculine ‘alienation’. The sexual theme touches upon Edith Södergran’s writing without her contradictory ego consciousness. Selja depicts femininity as a primary source of energy, a finely tuned sensitivity to the subconscious, voluntary submission to the laws of life, and faith in the harmony of the cosmos. She symbolically invokes her values and principles by creating an atmosphere of Eastern or prehistoric culture. Her use of simple main clauses shapes an abrupt colloquial rhythm that heightens the suggestive effect. Her play Eurooppalainen (1946; A European) hones the feminist theme, criticising Western values, simple-minded intellectualism, and the war: an Eskimo village is portrayed as a positive antithesis to the European way of life.

Aila Meriluoto (born 1924) was the most celebrated and widely read female poet of post-war Finland. Whereas Selja’s innovative form and theme of femininity attracted little attention, Meriluoto’s Lasimaalaus (1946; Stained Glass) was received enthusiastically as a pure, idealised vision of womanliness, a courageous and unsentimental vision of the post-war world.

In addition to the topic of art, Meriluoto’s first book contains several variations on the theme of female sexuality: from a young woman’s longing and disappointment, to a character whose violent passion convinces her that she is a witch, to the unresolved conflict between eroticism and sex, described in terms of petrifaction:

“My body is like a bow in the dark / it is taut, hot, weakened / but if you come to me, I know / that I am only a stone in your arms.”

The central themes of her early poems are art and femininity. The disciplines her images most often evoke are sculpture and church architecture. The narrative voice wholeheartedly and purposefully explores art forms traditionally reserved for men, affirming its femininity while drawing the strength and inspiration for its creativity from a male premise.

Sairas tyttö tanssii (1952; The Sick Girl Dances). shifts its focus from women and artists as parallel entities to individuals. The narrative voice becomes more absorbed in itself and its own silences. The ego is no longer delineated on the basis of gender differences. Nor is it a form that merges with male divinity, but an internalisation of various dimensions and their dynamics. Meriluoto’s first book of poetry contains an eccentric witch who is worn out by her violent passions and threatens “to suffer, huddled up, in silence for a thousand years. / I will put my whole being into it. You who are a mortal see nothing.” The book portrays femininity as neither defiant witchcraft nor identifiable with the masculinity of the “cathedrals”, but a new self-confidence, an ability to value both femininity and masculinity – including annihilation.

Who Remains, Who Gets Lost?

Female and male poets started off at about the same rate in the 1940s while poetry by women constantly gained ground as a force for renewal. The balance abruptly shifted in the 1950s and 1960s in favour of men. By the late 1940s, a whole new generation was branching off in a much more experimental and innovative direction. English imagism was their main source of inspiration.

The publication of the theories of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the 1949 translation of The Waste Land, and Tiet etäisyyksin (1951; The Ways to Far Away), Paavo Haavikko’s first book, heavily affected Finland’s view of the new poetry. The poet was to be more of an artisan who experimented with and polished language than a gifted observer. Perceptions were reflected in images; the ironic, sceptical attitude provided a natural platform from which the world and the individual could be contemplated and described. Complex imagery and free verse that approached colloquial speech were the new poetry’s chief means of expression.

The work of female poets may be interpreted as a commentary on a genre that was in flux, as well as an elaboration of creative strategies, both personally and in relation to the institution of poetry itself. A remarkable number of women were able to forge distinctive identities and write their own brand of modern poetry – clear evidence of their importance and strength in the shadow of the war. The poetry of the early 1950s was rich and varied. While critics carried on a vehement discussion about modern, complex imagism, many women devoted themselves to other concerns and wrote poetry that was propelled by a powerful sense of rhythm, reflecting both movement and subtlety. Häät (1952; The Wedding) by Marja-Liisa Vartio (1924-1966) and Kääpiöpuu (1949; The Dwarf Tree) by Helvi Juvonen (1919-1958), as well as works by Eila Kivikkaho (1921-2004), stood out for their use of the rhythms inherent to popular poems and ballads while striving for condensed means of expression.

Juvonen’s images revolve around the inner awareness of animals and rocks, mysterious muteness, and disquieting laughter. Kivikkaho’s metapoems of the 1950s reflect darkly on the relationship of poetry to ‘song’ and ‘speech’, along with women’s poetry as ‘stillness’. Vartio managed to publish only two books of poetry, Häät and Seppele (1953; The Garland), both of which proceed from both her own inner landscape – as well as that of popular poetry – and an unsettlingly vulnerable emotional state symbolised by women’s mourning, celebration, and dance. Meriluohto also uses images of dance to illustrate the birth of female self-esteem. Her Pahat unet (1958; Bad Dreams) makes the transition to free verse. The lack of emphasis on rhythm permits greater sensitivity to everyday subjects, relieving anxiety and alienation with humour. Many female poets, including Meriluoto and Laura Latvala (1921-1986) – Yökkömökki (1945; Yökkö’s Cottage) – and Kirsi Kunnas, increasingly wrote for children, playfully combining poetry, prose, and nonsense. Kunnas devoted herself to cheerful and nonsense verse starting in Tiitiäisen satupuu (1956; The Tumpkin’s Wonder Tree) and did not write modern poetry again until 1980.

The problems of female writers were portrayed thematically – not to mention stylistically by means of verbal metamorphoses, alternation among genres, and the emergence of new ones – as well as through the return to poetry and a clear artistic posture, as in Eeva-Liisa Manner’s Täma matka (1956; This Journey).

The new elements of poetry by women arose from Finnish tradition and the unconstrained use of language. It often revolved around dance, song, mourning, speech, and silence, which lent it certain metaphysical values: the foundation of poetry is defined as the body which is fully capable of perception, feeling, and thought.

Few female poets started off in the 1950s. Vedessä palaa (1954; It’s Burning in the Water), the first book by Mirkka Rekola (born 1931), largely maintains a strict metrical form. The style is intellectual and ascetic; the imagist poems combine elements and words with double meanings. An observation takes on the form of a revelation. Both Manner and Rekola saw modern relativism as a kind of ethic that allowed them to examine the various aspects of a perception and employ an unrestricted idiom. Klassilliset tunteet (1957; Classical Feelings) by Maila Pylkkönen (1931-1986) integrates voices of both critical and traditional women from various epochs into modern colloquial poetry. Yön sarvet (1960; The Horns of Night) by Tyyne Saastamoinen (1924-1998), who lived in France, captures the ebb and flow of the inner self through wide-ranging colloquial speech.

Translated by Ken Schubert