Leevi Lehto, Lake Onega and Other Poems

by Michael Peverett

Leevi Lehto is a totally net-enabled poet, so one can begin anywhere. For example, in his corner of Anny Ballardini's Poet's Corner, where everyone has a corner. Here are four of the sonnets from Lake Onega, the English version of this work, which appears in totality in the book I'm reviewing. (This totality, however, is only partial, because of the work's previous incarnation in Finnish, at which stage it also had a web interface that allowed you to generate new poems.) The English version is not exactly a translation in the traditional sense, Some of its sonnets are homophonically derived, some present quite new material. E.g. "Oft and always" - The note explains: "The Finnish version is a translation of Sir Philip Sydney's 'Sonnet 45' in Astrophil and Stella (1581-82), the English one an improvisation on that".

Also in this corner are a couple of translations of classical Finnish poets, Eino Leino and Aaro Hellaakoski. The classical era in Finnish poetry is not much further back than the start of the twentieth century - before that, Finnish was not often a written language. So Eino Leino is a patriarch poet, though roughly contemporary with Yeats. When Leino comes into English the results tend to be barbaric, no more so in Lehto than in Cid Erik Tallqvist (Voices from Finland, 1947):

     Said his say thus the Earth-Spirit:
     »Three-lock Kouta art by name called.»

     Gloomily smiled Gloomy Kouta;
     »What man can know, I know also,
     What the gods can, that can I, too;
     But not bind the blue flame's burning,
     Nor bring back by black art bygones.»

And here by Lehto:

     My heart is a harp-of-the-wind, of-the-wind,
     its strings are a seat for a ceaseless song,
     when in night, and in day, alone, alone,
     it sounds to the air, ever-shivering.

     Here on earth so cursedly familiar
     are the yards of the clouds, the huts of the winds.
     No brothers nor sisters I ever can have:
     As strange is my self, just tingles and rings!

But Lehto's barbaric English is adopted more methodically. This is from Aaro Hellaakoski's most famous poem "Hauen laulu" (the Pike's Song):

     From his hole so wet and drenching
     a pike rose up to tree to sing

     when through the greyish net of clouds
     first gleam of day was seen
     and at the lake the lapping waves
     woke up with joyous mean
     the pike rose to the spruce's crone
     to take a bite at reddish cone

      [Kosteasta kodostaan
     nous hauki puuhun laulamaan

     kun puhki pilvien harmajain
     jo himersi päivän kajo
     ja järvelle heräsi nauravain
     lainehitten ajo
     nous hauki kuusen latvukseen
     punaista käpyä purrakseen]

Or take the later lines:

               opening his
                mouth so bony
               sidewise moving
                the jawbone phony

Nothing in the original really excuses the word "phony", it is there for the felicitous sound like "crone" and "mean". Lehto says, in the introduction to this book, a bit plaintively: "There may be an element of Second Language English in at least some of [the self-translations] - if so, the reader is asked not to see it as altogether inadvertent." As that sentence itself shows, Lehto's English is as near fluent as dammit - and why would it not be, since he has lived and taught in the US for the last twenty years? This linguistic barbarism is intentional, even when it is accidental, as perhaps when the poem by Eino Leino ends "I give rice to the feelings", a mere typo for "voice" as I suppose. If you want an unpoetic sample of Lehto writing in English, then pick one of his many important and engaging essays on transnational literature in a post-Language context, as sampled here:

I've at times thought of myself as an American poet only writing in Finnish, at others as a Finnish one, yet whose medium is more or less "barbaric" English.
("Finland Between Coercive Swedish and Barbaric Danish" - Interview with Annelie Axén in Kritiker 5 (June 2007)).

I'd like to speak about language-fugal sublime here.
("Plurifying the Languages of the Trite" - and see Note 5 of the same essay).

I have proposed a concept of literature of "Barbaric English" - the English spoken as a second language. This has now developed into an interest of all kind of barbarized versions of all the languages involved (I just finished a longish poem in Norwegian, a language I don't know enough even to know what I have said in the piece.) These development will evidently pose new challenges for American poets, many of whose, if truth be told, are only too complacent with only disfiguring their own dear English.
("In the Un-American Tree; The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetries and Their Aftermath, with a Special Reference to Charles Bernstein Translated". The Norwegian poem is here.)

..about "Nations Being Enemies of Literature". I've used this slogan to describe a special mission of ntamo [Lehto's internet publishing house] to chart a new (public) space beyond and between nations, a transnational literary scene....
("Nothing That Is Initially Interesting To More Than Seven People Can Ever Change The Consciousness Of The Masses")

But the best arguments for Lehto's barbaric English are 1. His inspiring reading of one of the sonnets, "Exactly. Absolutely" with its authoritatively deviant pronunciations, and 2. The national self-crippling defence-mechanism of identifying and bonding over the extraordinary quaintness of foreignisms, as evinced not only by lovers of true poetry and standards in Hampstead but by motorists complaining about offshore call-centres and by almost-daily comic routines on the Chris Moyles show.

Paradoxically, to fully appreciate the contrariness of Lehto's slogan about nations being enemies of literature, you have to see it against a Finnish background, i.e. the devout Herderian nationalism that gave such enormous impetus to the birth of written literature in Finnish, in e.g. Eino Leino.


So, on to the book in question. Salt, whose translation series has never really got off the ground, have presented it as a translation (a self-translation, mainly) from the Finnish, and have put the inevitable iconically unspoiled lake on the jacket so we appreciate that we're abroad and that this represents an added attraction. To a certain extent this is wrong. Some of the poetry was written in English from the start, and some of the rest has been not so much translated from Finnish as composed anew in its new language. So is Lake Onega and Other Poems really an exemplary work in a new mode, the true transnational literature that Lehto envisages in his essays, the first sample of this new World Poetry, as he names it in "Plurifying the Langues of the Trite"? Well no, I think it is premature to characterize it in that way: more accurately, I should call it a dream of a new world poetry, or perhaps (to further misquote one of Lehto's favourite quotations) the "pursuit of transnational poetry by other means".

For a start, there is that traditional-looking title, which deserves to be considered in two halves. I suppose some non-Finnish readers might assume that Lake Onega is a lake in Finland: it is not. It is a big lake in Russian Karelia. Nevertheless, the foregrounding of this lake is turbulent with political resonance in a Finnish context. As Lehto himself helpfully explains: "This was the furthest the Finnish troops advanced during The Continuation War, 1942-45 - too far in many people's opinion, me included." In other words the title invokes the whole vexed, buried and inflamed matter of ultra-Nationalist Finnish claims (romantic or realistic) to a larger Finland incorporating some part or other of the Karelian backwoods where the Kalevala oral traditions once supplied the material for what became reinvented as a national epic (the one thing that the oral material very certainly was not...). But how does Lake Onega manifest itself in the sonnet sequence to which it gives a title? In the most deadpan way imaginable: as a word. For example Ääinen (the Finnish name for Lake Onega) is treated as a kind of stretched pun, since it also can be interpreted as meaning "little sound" and therefore a literal equivalent of "sonnet". Besides that, the name links up with Pushkin's Eugene Onegin - the hero's surname (not a genuine Russian surname) is derived from the lake in question. And the eponymous sonnet itself consists of a series of mainly hilarious book-titles, a deflation of all the pretensions of title:

     Maigret and His Lady Friend. Widow of Yours,
     Hostess of Mine. Fumbling Poems. The Sin.
     Manners of the Youth. Wine for the Wise. Lake Onega,
     its Plants, & Fish, & Flow, & Waters.

     Eugene Onegin. A Conversation. Sister.
     The Horse's Sex-Life, Short Stories.
     Tax-Index of the Helsinki Region. ...

Lake Onega (here and elsewhere referring to the sonnet sequence of that name, not the whole book) therefore blankly refuses to invoke nationalism and history, it absolutely insists on its internationalism, its word-games, its messy open space into which almost any subject may stream, but from which nothing like a subject emerges. "Not written against a horizon of meaning", as Lehto somewhere felicitously puts it. Yet at the same time for a Finnish poet to name a sonnet sequence Lake Onega is somewhat akin to a US poet writing a non-referential book and calling it Bay of Pigs, or maybe like when Swell Maps put out a single about "sucking city boys today" in 1978 called "Dresden Style". (Don't press these analogies, history fans...)

And now for the second half of the title, and Other Poems. The book proposes itself as a kind of selection of Lehto's later work, arranged chronologically so that we can read a story of metamorphosis from (in the early 1990s) lyrics in the manner of Finnish modernism to (in more recent times) "more procedurally oriented work" - for example, the Google-based poem "Of the Help Her Art" from around 2003. So while the materials are distinctly innovative in form, the book itself is quite an old-fashioned kind of artistic narrative, a reader for the uncommittedly curious. Lehto is no doubt a realistic enough operator to know that getting a poetry book published outside your native land, except by the most miniscule of book presses, is difficult enough on any terms; some such compromise as a putative "Selected" is probably inevitable. But anyway, how should this narrative be read? Should we say of the earlier poems in the book (though they are by no means early ones in terms of Lehto's entire career) that they are there to be seen as outmoded, merely to introduce and set off the more radical work that follows? Or should we see this later work as accepted by the publishers only on the proviso that there ought to be some "real" poetry as well? I don't know, but the resulting mixed impression is certainly absorbing, even if we don't perhaps know the code - maybe because we don't. And I'm willing to believe that it's considerably more absorbing than e.g. Lehto's hardcore Päivä (Day) of 2004, a response to Kenneth Goldsmith's Day that easily disproves Goldsmith's claim to be the most boring writer who ever lived (it consists of Finnish newsfeed from Aug 20, 2003, but with the sentences rearranged in alphabetical order) - though even this produces unputdownable reading compared to Craig Dworkin's austere Parse or Emma Kay's numbing Worldview (read about all of them here).

As it stands, you will spend a lot more time reading the exquisite "Snowfall" (1994) or, of course, Lake Onega (1997) than "Of the Help Her Art". The relation that this last poem bears to e.g. "Snowfall" is like the protective translucent tissue page to the relief-coloured aquatint in an old book, i.e. you are affected by the tissue page, you may even appreciate its purity and lack of datedness compared to the aquatint, but you don't spend much time staring at it. But as Goldsmith has often remarked, it is not necessarily the point of writings in the conceptualist zone actually to be read, or readable.

However, the contrast is not quite so stark as all that. Unexpectedly, there are continuities in Lehto's work that pass across these quite radical formal boundaries, for example a musical witnessing of urban business, as here:

     timely too                all, the buried ones included
     And without forgetting the dead ones, he specified

     as an across-this-world's-swarming-and-whirling-large-
                    specifying shadow

     as a snowy rain
     a-flooding with butterfly- and certain kind of bread-formed

     with cities, objects with their aftermarket, pots, flowers
     on window sills, with carpets shelves light-spots measure-
          sticks houses

(from "Snowfall")

and here:

     containing partly acoustic music, partly that from the turn
          of the century,
     reflected at the surface of the wall using a computer and a
     and during the intermission to the holy ceremony,
          refreshments. I really was taken over by horror
     when I saw burned that good man form Biscay, who as
          godfather had married the godmother

     reflected at the surface of the wall using a computer and a
     XXL size lush big-breasted shaven offers relief to men of
          all sizes and descr in Yliviesk evenings nights.
     When I saw burned that good man form Biscay, who as
          godfather had married the godmother,
     I'm excited by him having sex with another man:

(from "Ananke: A Pantoum", in which, Lehto tells us, "The bulk of the poem is based on direct quotations from online and newspaper dating services".) A Lehtoic sound and manner emerges clearly from both these poems, the first of them perceptibly late-Finnish-modernist and the second broadly procedural. In that respect Lake Onega and Other Poems reads very well as a unified book, not merely a historico-biographical record of experimentation.

And, in every way central to the book, I keep drifting back to Lake Onega itself, which is the most fascinating piece of construction here. Sonnets - a rare form in Finnish - could hardly be more traditional in English terms, and Lehto (unlike many modern sonneteers) is continuously interested in realizing the traditional sound of a sonnet, e.g.

     Ear's yelling question's killing seismograph,
     in linkup one, two thousand chilling mall
     virtually uniting all the drunkards

     to really vouch it all, for rotting vitamins,
     vigils whereat? Men may take it all,
     consigning even. Or reeling moonward.

This is the sestet of "Negative Capability", - "Half-homophonical on the Finnish original which, again, is half-homophinical on John Keat's 'Bright Star' sonnet". Whose sestet goes:

     No---yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
     Pillowed upon my fair love's ripening breast,
     To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
     Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
     Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
     And so live ever---or else swoon in death.

It's surprising what survives this double mash-up through the sieves of language - the play of double-L sounds, the resumption of the repeated absolute "ever" in the repeated absolute "all", and the near-rehabilitation of "ever---or" in the last line. But Keats' vision of swooning inactivity is thoroughly translated away from its tender context of a loved one's embrace; socialized, it turns into reeling drunkards in a mall and also into human technological progress, e.g. travelling to the moon. Both "stedfast" and both mindless, exactly as per Keats' recipe, and sarcastically offering a new interpretation to the phrase "negative capability".

Perhaps sarcasm isn't quite the right word. Though mordant judgment, or potentially mordant judgment, characteristically surrounds such comic episodes as the admin department in "Back Office", or the cod-opera trimmings of "Jagellonicae", one thinks rather of the stance of Lake Onega as distinctively open-minded. Judgments stream into the poems because human discourse tends to be highly judgmental. But in using the phrase "open-minded" of Lehto's sequence I don't particularly mean "non-judgmental", either. What I refer particularly to is the openness at source, i.e. to the range of materials allowed in, not to what is judged of them. Most poets, I suspect, exercise a very strict control over this phase of the process. You might choose literary models (such as Sidney or Keats) or philosophical or scientific ideas, or popular proverbs, you might treasure found particles of slang or obscenity or objective perceptiveness or pop culture. You might give vent to private-personal expression. You might make the poem represent who you are, or you might try to avoid that at all costs. But generally, you decide to exclude some few of these possibilies: they're not part of your vision. In Lake Onega none of these are excluded, so that possibly a teleological "vision" has been junked altogether. By continually messing up the materials by further destructive processes like barbaric English or backwards quotation or the double-homophony mentioned above, more source-material is allowed in than was allowed for; it is not just musical ingenuity, though it is that (Lehto evidently gives full musical weight to his term "language-fugal sublime"). It is one of those overflowing parties, like the one in Carry On Abroad.

Lake Onega even finds room for an open-minded admission of Finnish modernism, in the form of a palimpsest on Pentti Saarikoski. You can discover a critique in this, but my perception is that for all the manifest difference in the kind of poem this is, there is no definable distance between Lehto and his subject. The concerns of the world transgress both languages and poetries.

     The Language of Flow (I think)

     Asking the Water, I ask where I swim:
     what gets "in-read" in you, being a "dream";
     that and no more? not consciousness?
     deep as a major, strong as a minor, as

     a traitorous hunch, a wizard so white, as
     a parish or garish, a gang, parasite - and a kite
      (in my view), and perhaps a swaying
     of night - and the steeple I broke myself

     against, a shipwreck (not transposing to earth).
     A luscious being, in view of the uncles.
     A blossoming flight. A translative. Full

     as vacuum, though full of you,
     encircled, departed, in view of the strand
     and all the bundles there, if you please.


NOTE 1: As readers of English poetry we naturally tend to associate Lehto with his American connections e.g. Bernstein and Goldsmith. The Finnish connections are doubtless as important: Jyrki Pellinen, Arto Kytöhonka, Matti Tiisala, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, Jukka Mallinen, Aki Salmela, Janne Nummela, Cia Rinne, Tuukka Terho, Jukka Tervo, Markku Aalto, and many other writers - mere names to me - on ntamo).

NOTE 2: It's time to take issue with Lehto about something, and it's this: "It wouldn't surprise me to see the next step in this process to be a certain return to creativity - this time not based on a vision of authentic language but on the authentic experience of the strangeness of all languages instead: in the spirit in which I have proposed Finnish to be seen as one of the real world languages - i.e. marginal to the point of being able to stand for all the others' marginality..." (from "Nothing That Is Initially Interesting To More Than Seven People Can Ever Change The Consciousness Of the Masses"). Applauding the general concept, I feel like pointing out immediately that Finnish and the other Nordic languages are in some ways very exceptional - consider just for instance its remarkably high standing, the high regard in which the Nordic zone is held within e.g. the rather xenophobic English-speaking zone - popularly perceived as (not only white and first-world and affluent but) more culturally advanced, better at design and technology and politics and education and politeness, than even we are... an uninspected esteem that e.g. this essay contributes uneasily towards cementing. Or consider the unique relationship of Finland to two super-powers, its mysterious if sometimes fraught closeness to Russia and in another respect its cultural fraternity with the USA - no other western European nation has such a young literature, so unreservedly committed to international modernism and secularism. Obviously I am speaking at a high level of generality, and anyone who knows better could have fun ripping these generalizations to shreds, but the point is that there's no way that Finnish can usefully represent e.g. the 520 languages of Nigeria (English excluded), most with no written literature. If Finnish poetry is an important growth-point marking one pattern for future transactions between cultures (and it is), this is precisely because it is unrepresentative, it is marginal in unusual conditions.


Leevi Lehto's Lake Onega and Other Poems was published by Salt in 2006 (ISBN 978 1 84471 115 4).

Delighted! All points taken, one way or another. The typo in the Leino transl., though, is not for "voice" but for "rise" ("herätän tunteita", "stir feelings"). And I never lived or taught in the US - actually have never lived outside Finland.
Luin, tai siis yritin lukea - oli liian paljon sellaista, johon en ole tutustunut vaikka alue on kiehtovaa.
Sanos hitaalle hämäläiselle, että mitäs' sää oikein toss haluut sanoon?
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