Six Estonian Poets: Juhan Viiding and others since him


Kuus eesti luuletajat

Six Estonian Poets (Anthologies, English)
Published by Arc Publications, 2015, pp. 166

When the writer and literary critic Igor Kotjuh posted on his Facebook account the top ten events in Estonian literature in 2015, one of them was: “the year of translation anthologies”. According to Kotjuh, at least six different anthologies or special publications of Estonian literature were published in other languages.

Two of these were released in English: the online magazine Words Without Borders published a special edition on Estonian literature featuring the works of nine different authors, and the British publisher Arc Publications released the sampling of Estonian poetry Six Estonian Poets. The latter is no ordinary work, thanks to the fact that it was compiled and edited by Doris Kareva (1958), one of the most popular poets in her homeland. As the compilation’s title declares, its selection includes the works of six Estonian poets. Five of them are still active, and each has played a very significant role in contemporary Estonian poetry. Although the selection is not extensive, the main trends of newer Estonian poetry nevertheless stand out. Three of the authors were born in the 1960s, and so the start of their respective creative paths coincided with the restoration of Estonia’s independence. Even so, temporal coincidence does not necessarily mean a parallel in terms of content. Poetry may certainly flow along with an era during turbulent times, but it may still contain that level of language in which one can speak on timeless topics. Thus we don’t, for instance, encounter any overt social tones in the works of Triin Soomets (1969). Some may certainly regard her as a feminist author, as she speaks from the female position in many of her poems. Still, if we were to tie Soomets’ works to some greater conceptual trend, existentialism might be most suitable. She is intrigued by the eternal tensions in human relationships, as well as their reflections in our own consciousness, a recording of them that is both as emotional and as precise as possible.

Although Hasso Krull (1964) has written quite a few pieces of social criticism over the years, his creative reach is too broad to be captured fully in one or two sentences. Krull’s poetry is characterised by his generous use of references, the placement of singular texts in a broader context, and the connection of ideas to other texts, all resulting in personal experience being joined with some greater whole and a quest for wider unity. While French poststructuralism and postmodernism had a more extensive influence at the beginning of Krull’s artistic career, his interests have since focused on heritage, mythology, folklore and nature. Spiritually akin to Krull’s poems are the works of Kauksi Ülle (1962), which likewise derive from folklore and Estonian nature but are more specific in terms of location, focusing on Võru County in south-west Estonia. Kauksi Ülle writes in the Võro language, not in Estonian; her inspiration springs from local beliefs and Estonian runo songs (regilaul), through which she is best able to describe the perseverance of old traditions and of the trials faced in the crosswinds of history. Looking at the collection’s two authors born in the 1970s, their styles are characterised by a different kind of mind-set: one that is much more active, an attitude that echoes social events and moods with greater immediacy. The collection’s youngest author, Jürgen Rooste (1979), is probably the frankest poet of his generation. Rooste is a romantic rover of city streets, who – in addition to his self-sardonic confessions and love for women, beatnik literature and music – perpetually criticises his country’s politics and the Estonian mentality. Elo Viiding’s (1974) criticism goes even deeper, uncompromisingly detailing the inner logic and contradictions of social norms and ideals. Once again, it would be too restricting to label Viiding’s work as feminist, since she is interested not only in women’s position in society, but also in how all kinds of positions are formed and adopted in the first place.

However, standing in an echelon of his own is the collection’s sixth author – Elo Viiding’s father, Juhan Viiding (1948–1995). One could say that he doesn’t stand apart from the other poets, but rather above them. The late renowned poet, actor and singer has become an Estonian legend. This could partly be due to the fact that Viiding was a colourful character, and was known for his witty social spirit. Since Viiding was an actor, he was unsurpassed in performing his own texts, especially since many of his poems were seemingly written to be read and even sung aloud. Viiding’s personality and fate added a dramatic, “largerthan-life” shade to his works. Most Estonians are familiar with his lines: “What is this poet’s poetry? // It is: when you think about life / and something else besides.” It is this “something else” that formed the core of Viiding’s poetry: an obscure longing that is reluctant to yield to formulation in words, that entices and challenges life. Viiding accepted the challenge and became one of the most outstanding experimenters of Estonian poetry. His most famous experiment was Jüri Üdi. It is hard to say that Üdi was merely Viiding’s pseudonym: Üdi’s works were far too independent. Üdi was like a separate personality: a sarcastic and artistic figure, for whom language was no longer a tool of expression, but rather a manner of expression. Üdi loved to switch linguistic registers and meaningful tones within a single poem, as a result of which many of his texts come off as both humorous and melancholy. There was always seriousness in play, always play in seriousness. The extent to which the severity of Viiding/Üdi’s poems conflict with the inner mobility of their message is remarkable. The sense of freedom in Viiding’s poetry no doubt cast a shadow over his unexpected death, but he personally would hardly have treated his posthumous stardom with saintly seriousness.

Juhan Viiding was a true linguistic master who brought the balance between a poem’s polished form and the density of its message to perfection. He found in the Estonian language the exact rhymes and phonetic compositions which, when crafted into poetry, cause the reader to feel that the words were invented precisely for that text. Estonian language and Estonian poetry have not been the same since Viiding’s death, and his works had a more-or-less direct effect on nearly everyone who grew up to the music of his words.


By Jan Kaus

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