Monday 12 October 2015

A Review of Six Estonian Poets, ed. by Doris Kareva (Arc Publications, 2015)

Alexander Jacoby reviews an anthology of modern Estonian verse, edited by Doris Kareva

“Cannot the language of this land / Rising to the heavens / in the wind of song / seek eternity for itself?” asked the pioneering Estonian-language poet Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801-1822). At the time, Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, while its major city, Reval (now Tallinn) was populated by a German-speaking elite, as was its university at Dorpat (today’s Tartu). For Peterson, a student at that university, the decision to write in Estonian was a revolutionary one. But in the two centuries since, despite having barely a million native speakers, the Estonian language has evolved a remarkably rich literary culture, which survived even the active promotion of Russian during half a century of Soviet occupation. As editor Doris Kareva, who is herself one of Estonia’s leading modern poets, writes: “For Estonians poetry has always been more than just poetry, not so much a form of entertainment as a way of keeping their language alive.”

A reasonably broad selection of Estonian prose literature has appeared in English, most notably the work of one of the masters of modern historical fiction, Jaan Kross. Anthologies of Estonian poetry in translation appeared as early as the 1950s. But this new selection of modern Estonian verse brings us up to date, gathering poems by one major writer of the late Soviet period, Juhan Viiding, and five younger poets active mainly in the years since 1991, when Estonia regained its independence.

The poets represented are highly diverse. Juhan Viiding writes on existential themes, with a keen sense of the baffling quality of life: “So much is given to us, and still we are perplexed.” This poet, who could write, “Truly, above all, I dread death,” ironically took his own life in 1995. His daughter, Elo Viiding, addresses political themes, and women's issues in particular, in a voice of biting irony. Hasso Krull is a fine descriptive poet, but also another existentialist, for whom our knowledge of mortality is reminiscent of our anticipation of the end of a period of warm weather, something known intellectually that cannot be accepted emotionally. Triin Soomets' verse has a sensuality which is at ease with carnal and romantic subject matter, but which is also apparent in her tribute to the distinctive textures of the “seething wheeling / whirlpool weaving / rampant romping / seesaw seeking / breathless tending” Estonian language itself. The youngest poet represented here, Jürgen Rooste (b.1979), produces what editor Kareva aptly describes as “dionysian poetry […] an effervescent mix of raging rock, blues and beat, howl and prayer, lucidity and delirium”. Alongside these five poets writing in standard Estonian, the anthology includes the work of a leading regional poet, Kauksi Ülle, who writes in the Võro language of Southern Estonia, and draws on the homely imagery of rural life as well as on aspects of local legend.

The diversity of subject matter is reflected in a formal variety. Most of the poets represented in this volume write primarily in free verse. But several of Juhan Viiding's poems are in regular metrical forms with fixed rhyme schemes; while Kareva claims that he “revolutioned the language of Estonian poetry”, this technical discipline also links him back to older poetic traditions. Some of the younger writers too, such as Triin Soomets, make intermittent, irregular use of rhyme and more frequent use of assonance.

The poems are presented in parallel text. While non-native readers of Estonian are few, even the reader who knows no Estonian, or who recognises only a few words, may find the original text useful, since it clarifies some of the formal intricacies which are necessarily lost in translation. Thus, reading the literal rendering of a haunting twelve-line poem by Soomets (first line “Only darkness in shadows” in English), one is able at the same time to note the alliteration in the Estonian on the letter “v”, the direct verbal correspondence between “sõrm” (“finger”) and “sõrmus” (“ring”), and the shared initial syllable of “horisonti” (“horizon”) and “hommik” (“morning”).

The parallel-text format would seem to encourage literal translation, but the poems, which have been put into English by various hands, display a variety of approaches. Juhan Viiding's rhyming poems sometimes emerge in unrhymed form, but in other cases, a presumably less literal translation finds equivalents for the original rhymes; in one example, the Rubaiyat-like rhyme scheme of a poem entitled “Morning” is preserved exactly in the first stanza of the translation, as if to exemplify the form, before being abandoned in subsequent stanzas. The diverse practices on show represent a wide-ranging set of responses to the perennial problem of how best to recapture what is lost in translation.

Editor Kareva provides an enlightening and informative introduction to this valuable anthology, which opens up new perspectives on Estonian literature and the modern Estonian experience to English-speaking readers. In one poem, Juhan Viiding speaks of “a tiny regret that not every notion translates to another tongue.” It is a mark of the excellence of this collection that the reader's regrets about this are no more than tiny.

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