About Estonian Poetry, for the Finno-Ugric Writers' Congress in Mari-El

by Mihkel Kaevats

The main reason why I prefer to be Estonian rather than being a member of any other nation in the world is connected with the possibilities and beauty of the Estonian language in poetry. The ability of our rich Finno-Ugric language to create meaningful poetry is vast, and is congenially used. Often oppressed, the Estonian identity has survived in the language, in writing and singing it. Our famous, and audibly and visibly impressive, singing together in great masses has had a more intimate counterpart – that of reading poetry. In times of rigid occupation, poetry’s message becomes more prevalent, while in comfortable, dull times of self-evident freedom it lives in the background. We are quite comfortable now. But somehow Estonian poetry lives.

It is apparently leading a colourful and varied life. The great Estonian classics – Kristjan Jaak Peterson, Juhan Liiv, Betti Alver, Artur Alliksaar, Paul-Eerik Rummo, Jaan Kaplinski and Juhan Viiding, to name only a few – are currently being followed by a respectable and still improving generation of successors. The contemporary literary life is more varied, inter-connected and fuzzy than that of the traditional Estonian canon. This accounts for the many good poets and approaches, many personal and, to a wider audience, largely unknown personal paths. Only a few, of course, will be remembered.

Free verse was introduced in Estonia in the post-Stalinist period of the 1950s. Since then, the tradition has had an equal standing with and sometimes dominance over rhythmic rhymed verse. Now, almost everybody young writes mainly free verse – the tradition is not new and we no longer have discussion about the relations of the two. So the young generation’s renewals of poetry have been mainly in themes, in language and in moods.

Selecting from the large amount of poetry for the upcoming canon is, by necessity, subjective. Here I present my vision of a contemporary canon of writers. In a personal approach, the view is ever so much clearer than in a general approach. There are still only a few poets who, in my opinion, are now great in the young contemporary poetry scene.

I would like to speak first of Asko Künnap. With his background as an artist, a designer and an ad-man, he knows and has made his way through the Westernised and image-centred Estonia of today. Yet his roots lie deep, especially in the Estonian language. His chants are archetypal, with a powerful sense of irony and an estranging rhythm. With the most personal and recognizable approach, with energy and wit, with a mystical sense of the world, he has a well-deserved place in the modern, lively, wide and chaotic pantheon of poetry. Paradoxically, his slightly mannerist texts create a new sort of life in the prospects of the whole Estonian language. That’s the poet’s mission, after all.

The second poet I would mention is quite different – a man writing under the Krishnaite pseudonym of Mathura. His simple-deep free verse, often containing a personal narrative and travel stories, creates a strong feeling of the outside, of the imaginable, of the unsaid, in the midst of a quiet and abundant flow of words. Not yet such a definitely central figure, his lyricism is what I sense to be the strongest under-flow in Estonian contemporary poetry. His poetry is warm and that makes it different from that of many others. Recently extremely productive, Mathura has moved towards the more strongly concrete and, strangely, also towards the more general and descriptive. His religious motifs have become more personal and less connected with a specific religion. With an inner peace and conviction, he, in many senses, purifies the somewhat half-talent-contaminated poetry scene.

A poet whose approach is somewhat similar to Mathura's is Lauri Sommer. He is the most profound thinker in the young literature scene today. Apparently not interested in fame, his written free verse might not ever hit the mainstream. His religious and natural mystic lyricism is conveyed in a full flow of songs – he is the troubadour, he is the wise and simple voice of the wanderer. And, as mentioned before, he is the language thinker, the warm intellectual, the conscious mystic. As a poetic personality, he might be the truest inheritor of the free folk-poetic singers and, at the same time, the full-hearted sages. Everything he does, he does thoroughly, with a wide and movingly honest touch.

A central figure in contemporary poetry is Jürgen Rooste. He is the ‘ordinary Estonian idiot’, as he himself has written, the seemingly rustic, vigorous and clever drunk who likes women, alcohol and literature. He also sings, often out of tune, but always with feeling. He is dominant in the mainstream of social poetry, but is already moving towards a higher synthesis. He might just be the one who, of the young generation, will represent Estonia best in the world: his spoken word engages audiences in auditoriums and he is the most successful promoter of poetic performances. Speaking directly and with a rhythmic system of Jürgen-style patterns, he manages to bring the all-high literature chit-chat to common readers. He brings poetry down to earth and does it honestly.

Kristiina Ehin is the most popular young female poet today. She represents the soft, alliterated and folklore-like flow of personal and social topics. Her poetry has a distinct voice and metaphors, strongly connected to Estonian, but also the wider Finno-Ugric, folklore. Her poetry is tender, emphatic and centred on woman, how it is to be a woman in the world today, but her poetry also deals with the archetypal and mythical figure of woman. Her popularity among readers also insures a larger place in the poetic world.

A somewhat different ‘poet’ is the rapper Chalice. As a musician grown out of the hip-hop community, he mixes different styles of music, being mostly influenced by jazz. His fast, rhythmical and colloquial song lyrics are the most talented representation of the fluttering hip-hop subculture. He, as opposed to the poets already mentioned, uses mainly rhymes – but they are free and jumpy, serving as bridges to his songs. Hip-hop rhyming can be considered a possible renewal of the good old rhyme tradition. His rap/speech “My people” for the Estonian president’s reception on Independence Day quickly became a classic and many were of the opinion that it was stronger, more straightforward and more expressive than the ex-Communist, ex-president Arnold Rüütel’s weighty speech. Thanks to his music, he is far more popular than any of the aforementioned.

There are lots and lots and lots of other poets, some of them also good – it’s almost hip to be a poet. The best thing about the liveliness of Estonian poetry today is the number of newcomers. The downside of this is that contemporary poetry doesn’t often break out of the literary community: poets read poets, which then makes the phenomena look like an elephant limping – with one enormous foot of poets and another, rather out-sized and cranky foot of readers. Attracting more readers is the biggest challenge.

Estonian poetry has many influences to overtake and synthesise: there is our vast folklore (in terms of the amount of collected folklore, Estonia’s collection is the second biggest in the world, after Ireland), and there are the different traditions of the 20th century. Plus, there is the development of the 21st century scene, which in many respects is an original approach. My personal belief is that poetry is just now heading toward a higher synthesis: the demoralization of the nineties has turned into a solid tradition from which to move forward. So, Estonian contemporary young poetry has something important to offer: for the wider audience and for the annals of history.