duration press -- international poetry

Lauri Otonkoski

from the introduction to 20 Poems, (Duration Press)

The invitation to write an introductory note to my translations of these poems by Lauri Otonkoski set me to thinking about the folks among whom I was born, and some of their cultural traits. From the safe distance of Boulder, Colorado, it appears to me that Finns are notoriously reticent and taciturn. An example: Robert Creeley, who spent a year as a visiting Fulbright scholar at the University of Helsinki, once told me about a social occasion at his and his family’s temporary residence in that town: as soon as the Creeleys left the room, the invited Finnish guests -- who had not met before -- would immediately, and typically, cease all conversation until their hosts returned. “Small talk” among “strangers” is an unknown cultural concept.

Lauri Otonkoski’s books do not provide any biographical information -- there are no blurbs, no photographs of the author. The back cover of his latest book, Ahava (March Wind), tells me that it is his fifth published collection of poems, and that he is also the author of a children’s book titled Otto.

From the Finnish Writers’ Union’s directory I gather that he is forty years old and lives in Helsinki.

From a visit to Helsinki in 1997 (at the invitation of the Helsinki Festival), I have the memory of a pleasant cross-town walk in his company, from a reception at the Swedish Embassy to a smoky artists’ and writers’ watering hole where we joined some other local literati. The memory includes the impression of a tall, solid, bespectacled young gentleman, warm in manner, obviously well-read, with a compelling intellectual curiosity.

We may have discussed the landmark visit of some L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets in the Eighties (Lyn Hejinian, Kit Robinson, Michael Palmer) on their tour of Scandinavia and Russia. While these poets’ work is not widely known or influential in Finland, one might see certain parallels in their (and their successors’) work with that of some younger Finnish poets: after a brief flurry of Expressionist and even some quasi-Dadaist writing in the nineteen-twenties, by a group calling themselves the “torch bearers,” Finnish poetry relapsed into neo-classicism and national Romanticism until the early nineteen-fifties, when the work of poets like Paavo Haavikko, Tuomas Anhava, and Pentti Saarikoski introduced “modernism proper”. Since then, given the polyglot education of most Finnish writers and the “globalization” of cultural phenomena, the poetic literature has adopted, adapted, and absorbed much of what has taken place in USAmerican, Latin American, European and Far Eastern writing since the days of Apollinaire and Pound. As is always the case in such cross-pollination, there have been some curious time warps: Pound was not translated into Finnish until the nineteen-sixties, while John Ashbery’s work was translated well before that of William Carlos Williams (both within the last decade).

It is a pleasure to contribute these 20 Poems by Lauri Otonkoski to Jerrold Shiroma’s laudable project of introducting poetry from far-flung places to the “happy few” readers of poetry in translation.

Anselm Hollo
Boulder, April 1999



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