SOCIAL CRITIC GIVEN TO MELANCHOLY
Pentti Saaritsa’s poems are filled with endless communication between the subject and the world surrounding them. Individual poems often take their starting point from the speaker’s observations, and the poems are used as ways of commenting upon objects and things which the speaker sees. The world here is constructed through the idea of observation: without one who observes, there can be no object for observation. Saaritsa has often stressed the need for sensitivity towards the association of words, images and concepts: the poet must have the ability to see these things and the connections between them in a fresh way, as if for the very first time. The point of departure in these poems is very subjective: the ‘I’ is always at the focus of events and its relationship with the world around it is often brought to the fore. Despite its extreme individualism, the speaker in these poems is never seen as separate from its environment. Highlighted in the poems is often a sense of being in the world and, more specifically, in a society or in nature; as such, the poems are very outwardly motivated.
Pentti Saaritsa’s debut came in 1965 with the collection Pakenevat merkit (‘Fleeing symbols’), a work which includes many prose poems. Even his early poems display a thematic preoccupation with existence in the present moment and in memories. Compared with his later works, the structure of these early poems is often very fragmented. In the collections immediately following this, Huomenna muistan paremmin (1966) (‘Tomorrow I will remember more clearly’) and Varmuus kerrallaan (1967) (‘One certainty at a time’), structure began to settle down somewhat and thought processes became clearer, thus making the poems far more approachable. One constant feature of Saaritsa’s work is a certain roughness, which may appear to bring conflict to an otherwise calm poem or may take the form of an image verging on the surreal, which eventually merges with the harmony of the beginning.
“Sometimes between November and December / on overcast mornings in Finland / there appears on the surface of lacquered wooden objects / as cautious little emissions a resplendent / 300 year old / Dutch light”
(Maailmaa köyhempi, 1988) (‘One world less’).
At the end of the 1960’s one of the most prominent themes in Saaritsa’s work became ways of existing and encounters; encounters with Europe’s bygone age, at other times seeing the future in a child or an encounter with a town immersed in the joy of having paid the Soviet Union compensation after the war and being able to progress.
Throughout the 1970’s Saaritsa’s poetry became much more terse and was reduced towards what could be seen as aphorism. The beginning of the decade brought the publication of his most openly political collections: Jäsenkirjan lisälehdet (1971) (‘Additional Pages from the Members’ Book’) and Syksyn runot (1973) (‘Autumnal Poems’). At his most political Saaritsa is uncompromising and hard-hitting:
“Beware, comrades, / look around to see / where the applause is coming from.”
Saaritsa’s poems never speak exclusively with the voice of the masses or of society; the voice of the individual and of a world of experience can always be discerned in the text:
“prowling in circles / around important things, / silently becoming excited as the evening draws on / they begin to whisper / and above all they dread being understood / correctly” (‘Additional Pages from the Members’ Book’).
In the collection published in 1976, Tritonus, Saaritsa’s style seemed to have become very highly developed. In his later poems, the most significant changes have been internal. The free meter of the poems, their insistent rhythm, taut concrete images and repeated symbols, such as mouth, lips and eyes, appear in Tritonus just as much as in the rest of Saaritsa’s later output. The poems begin to withdraw further and further from prose and establish themselves in the description of a vividly perceived world, which disguises abstract images beneath the poems’ superficially approachable structure. This takes the form of an even lyrical depiction of the everyday, to which the use of meter and ‘high’ poetic style gives an extraordinary quality. Common phenomena are brought together in a way, which Saaritsa considers to be like someone looking at these things for the very first time. After achieving formal cohesion in the mid 1970’s, Saaritsa’s work began to form a unit in its own right, a unit of which individual poems form constituent parts.
During the 1980’s Pentti Saaritsa published five volumes of poetry and one selection of previous poems. In the collections Virtaava seinä (1984) (‘The Flowing Wall’), Taivaan ja maan ero (1985) (‘The Difference between Heaven and Earth’) and Maailmaa köyhempi (1988) (‘One World Less’) the voice of an aging man can clearly be heard: what is often a chokingly tormented and taut sense of sorrow is brought about by the theme of giving up and of the need to get out of the way of the next generation.
“So many doors / already shut, behind and ahead / mostly behind, the most cherished, / the ones, through which we were supposed to step into a better world / into stronger illusions, longer lasting summers”.
“I will try to learn how to rejoice / at the thought of giving up, and my best poem / I shall write all my life” (Maailmaa köyhempi).
A decade later a voice filled with irritation from years of frustration can be heard. In the volume Oltava on (‘It must be’) from 1995 Saaritsa describes a world, in which the poet is watching a society, which has been revealed as decayed and devoid of ideals. He still nonetheless strives to comfort himself:
“There are stairs and rising / and birth. / There is light and water and the horizon / and memory and the song of return. / There is. Must be.” Four years later, the collection Elävän mieli (1999) (‘A Living Mind’) shows how Saaritsa’s frustration had deepened.
“Forbidden to draw breath in peace / millennium.”
The poems in this volume form a verseless whole. Individual poems rarely have a title, rather they have the feeling of belonging together, like chapters from the same book. The imagery in these poems still comes frequently from nature: its constituent parts such as the earth’s surface, the wind, water, fish and birds, but also elements of that which is constructed, parks, houses and towns as well as aspects of culture such as technology, universities and virtual reality. These poems speak to their contemporary readers of a familiar world, which makes them easily approachable. This established form also helps to make the reader feel more at home. Their vantage point is however still somewhat in the past: the speaker is going through the “third equinox of a hangover”, the last time life felt overwhelming was a long time ago.
In addition to writing his own volumes of poetry, Pentti Saaritsa has done an enormous amount for Finnish literature as a translator. He has translated a great deal of Latin American literature, on which he is an expert. His most notable translations of poetry in recent years have been the anthology entitled Salaperäinen seurue (1997) (‘Mysterious Company’), Jorge Luis Borges’ Peilin edessä ja takana (1998) (‘On both sides of the mirror’), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Tuhkan laulaja (1999) (‘The Ash Singer’) and Fernando Pessoa’s En minä aina ole sama (2001) (‘I am not always the same’).
In 1999 Pentti Saaritsa received an award from Suomen Kulttuurirahasto and in 2000 he was the recipient of the Young Aleksis Kivi Prize. For his work as a translator, Saaritsa was awarded the Kääntäjäkarhu (Translator Bear) Prize by Yleisradio (theequivalent of the BBC) in 2001.
translated by David Hackston
Pakenevat merkit (1965), Huomenna muistan paremmin (1966), Varmuus kerrallaan (1967), En osaa seisahtaa (1969), Jäsenkirjan lisälehdet (1971), Syksyn runot (1973), Kuuden syksyn runot (1974), Tritonus (1976), Yhdeksäs aalto (1977), Nautinnon suola (1978), Mitä näenkään (1979), Ovi ja tie (1981), Takaisin lentoon (1982), Runoja 1965-1982 (1983), Virtaava seinä (1984), Taivaan ja maan ero (1985), Maailmaa köyhempi (1988), Bagatelleja, opus 16 (1991), Laulut ja lunnaat (1992), Oltava on (1995), Pohjakosketus (1998), Elävän mieli (1999), Yön soiva osa (2001), Valkoiseksi maalattu musta laatikko (2006)