Ilmar Laaban is often called the father of Estonian Surrealism. A mentor for some fascinating followers, he is still unparallelled in his ways of playing with a language with pure joy, and with that discovering and showing the hidden treasures of it. He turned the previous tradition upside down: full of unexpected meanings, neologisms and loans, Laaban`s poetry amuses and arouses, touching the deepest layers of the human psyche.

He began publishing poetry, already thinking in surreal terms, in Estonia in 1938, but his most famous collections of poems in the Estonian language Ankruketi lõpp on laulu algus (The End of the Anchor Chain is the Beginning of Song, 1946) and Rroosi Selaviste (1957) were published in exile, in Sweden.

Ilmar Laaban was born in 1921 in Tallinn into an Estonian-Latvian family. He studied composition and piano at the Tallinn Conservatory and then Romance languages at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Tartu. In 1943 he fled from the German army via Finland to Sweden. Between 1943 and 1949 he continued his studies at Stockholm University where he lectured in Romance languages and philosophy. He worked as a freelance writer, publicist and lecturer in Stockholm. Amongst other things, he was a Scandinavian correspondent for various elite French and Italian magazines. In Swedish cultural circles, he won recognition with his series of radio broadcasts about modern French art. He also lectured on French art at several universities in the USA. Since 1975, he was a member of the International Art Critics Association.

Throughout the period of Soviet occupation, it was forbidden even to mention Laaban’s poetry in his homeland. A momentary exception to this was the political spring of 1956. But summer never arrived. Forbidden fruit is always sweet. Laaban’s work spread the more rapidly in manuscript form. His poetry was eagerly circulated by Soviet-era students of the Humanities. It was only in 1988, during the active de-Sovietisation period, that Laaban was again published and fully appreciated at home. In addition to his collection of poems published in 1990, another book appeared in 1997: titled Marsyase nahk (The Skin of Marsyas), this contained Laaban’s critical and theoretical articles.

The End of the Anchor Chain... derives from the Bretonesque main trend of Surrealism, Rroosi Selaviste (about a Frenchwoman) is a bit closer to Pataphysics – a trend which separated itself from Surrealism. Its most remarkable representatives in France were Raymond Queneau and Michel Leiris. The turn-of-the-century French dramatist Alfred Jarry (King Ubu, Super-Males), who is considered to be the forerunner of Pataphysics, was among Laaban’s favourite authors. Laaban’s third collection in the Estonian language, Oma luulet ja võõrast (Poetry of My Own and of Others, 1990), published in Tallinn, includes previously published poems as well as 73 unpublished poems. The collection of Laaban’s work under the title Skrifter began appearing in Sweden in 1988 (volumes 1–4).

In his article Perspectives of Surrealism (1944) Laaban wrote: “The aim of Surrealism is not to replace scientific reality with that of the Unconscious, but to merge them, thus forming a new surreality. In the process of its creation, an automatic text or a science fiction story merely act as initial steps.” This very much holds true for the whole work of Laaban himself.

Piecing together the ideas of Gerard de Nerval, Andre Breton and the USA-based literature professor Aleksander Aspel, one might say that a Surrealist exists on the narrow bridge between madness and sanity and seeks a point in our minds where life and death, reality and fantasy, future and past, the expressible and the inexpressible no longer seem contradictory. The bridge itself is narrow, but eyes that have the ability to synthesise, like Laaban’s, can enjoy a surprisingly expansive view.

Starting from the nineteen-sixties Laaban produced Sound Poetry. This kind of poetry (if indeed it can be called poetry) is primarily meant for the ears rather than the eyes. What matters is the timbre; the meaning of a word – if there is any – is secondary. In the humming of the sound poetry, in vibration, play of tones and the gradually increasing lung activity, it is often not possible to distinguish words. Sound Poetry exists on the border of poetry and music. Laaban with his education in music was in an excellent position to write such poetry.

Laaban was also a prolific translator: he translated into Estonian poems by G. Apollinaire, Ch. Baudelaire, J. Cocteau, P. Emmanuel, H. Michaux, P. Reverdy, A. Rimbaud, J. Arp, P. Celan, E. Grave, Chr. Morgenstern, R. M. Rilke, N. Sachs, W. Blake, J.R. Jimenez, F.G. Lorca, G. Ekelöf, E. Lindegren, B. Malmberg etc. Laaban also translated Estonian poetry into Swedish and German, and French poetry into Swedish (the collection 19 moderna franska poeter together with Erik Lindegren).

Ilmar Laaban died in 2000 in Stockholm.

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