Helsinki-born and based in the city, the son of a businessman, Paavo Haavikko has published more than 60 titles over almost 40 years. These include novels, short stories, narrative poems with characters from the Kalevala, a thriller, collections of economic and political aphorisms, libretti, […], plays, TV scripts, and historical works […] He is also an accomplished businessman, investor and publisher, and […] at age 58, he founded a flourishing advertising and publishing company of his own - Herbert Lomas.
Haavikko’s poetry tends to pessimism, is richly aphoristic, and delights in paradox. ‘His favourite form’, Herbert Lomas writes, ‘is the sequence: short, condensed, […] organisations of abstract, contradictory pseudo-statements’. These often feature startling, quicksilver changes of viewpoint. His work is informed with a sceptically conservative outlook on history and politics: he is supposed to have said ‘I don’t wish to change the system. It’s bad enough already’. It seems to me that many of his poems have an autumnal quality to them: rich and full, but with a certain coolness, with an apprehension of the coming winter…
Haavikko’s long poem The Winter Palace, published in 1959, is seen by many as his crowning achievement. Unpromisingly, perhaps, it could be described as a series of reflections on the difficulties of writing poetry, and of ‘building’ with language, in general. The happy outcome of this rather self-referential project, however, is a dazzling and suitably palatial literary construction.
With the precision of a scientist [Haavikko] often juxtaposes images so that phenomena are examined through their antitheses. The tone is unsentimental and neutral, but he does not hesitate to give advice or teach: ‘When they’re buying, sell. Buy when they’re selling. / First think slowly, then act quickly. / Get out of bad businesses fast / Forget them.’ (from In the World, 1974) One of Haavikko’s collections of aphorisms is actually entitled Speak, Answer, Teach (1972). His aphoristic style has created sayings that have become national property as if they had long existed in folklore. Among them is the much quoted ‘real delicacies are raw: oysters, salmon, and power’ - source here.
My source for most of the translations featured above was Anselm Hollo’s volume of Haavikko’s Selected Poems published by Carcanet in 1991, although in one or two cases I have used Herbert Lomas’ translations, from his anthology Contemporary Finnish Poetry, published by Bloodaxe (also 1991). A few of the quotations above, and the author photograph below (by Irmeli Jung) were also lifted from this latter volume. Click on the poems (or sections thereof) above to see a little more of the same, or, alternatively, click here to see them in a 4-page PDF document.