Heiti Talvik: A Time Bomb

by Hannes Varblane

Besides being born a poet, one can also grow into a poet. One can develop into a poet on the basis of life experience and the heritage of other writers and thinkers, both writing in their mother tongue or using some other language. The two first guides on my path to becoming a poet were Heiti Talvik and Alexander Blok, an Estonian and a Russian. These two poets were levers to lift me up and set me on my way, to force me on my way. To become a rolling stone in the world of poetry. Here, I am going to write about Talvik, whose earthly journey ended in the Siberia annexed by the Russian empire of fear. But that was only his earthly, not his spiritual journey. For even in the small Estonian university town of Tartu in the sixties of the last century, his spiritual heritage, like a morning mist from the river, took more lively thinkers into its iron embrace. Talvik’s poetic heritage is small, very small. Two collections and a handful of poems. Nevertheless, that tiny body of work changed forever the course of Estonian poetry. When I came, in 1964, to Nõo School near Tartu and three years later to the University of Tartu, Heiti Talvik was a forbidden author, disfavoured by the ideological powers, like many other dead or living authors at home or in exile. Such was the time, such was the fate of the Estonian people. It seems unthinkable today that it was nearly impossible to read books of authors, both from home and abroad, included in that index librorum prohibitorum: they were neither printed nor was it possible to get them from the library.  It was, fortunately, different with Talvik. There were no reprints of his collections but in some homes his small poetry books had been preserved, thanks to relatively big print-runs during the pre-war Estonian Republic (600 copies); what is more, thanks to the bold silent resistance of the people of the Tartu University Library, his books could be borrowed from the library. Many books were certainly preserved also in the Special (ideological) Library Department, but a greenhorn like me could naturally not use the books kept there. I no longer remember which of my new friends first slipped a Talvik poetry book into my hand, but the two small books by Talvik and a big black collection of Blok’s verse remained my Bible for many years.

    It is not simple to write about Talvik. It is even harder to write for people from some other language space. It is the hardest to write for those who have not read his verses in the original for, as with every real poet, Talvik cannot be translated adequately. This is also true of Blok, except perhaps for the four translations of his cycle Danse Macabre that Talvik translated. Perhaps it was those four poems that led me to take up Blok.

    Heiti Talvik is a legendary Estonian poet. His newest and most complete second, revised edition (Ilmamaa, 2007) bears, like the first one, the subtitle Legendary. The opening poem of his first collection has the same title. Aino Kallas, an Estonian writer and a lady of the world, has said, speaking of her godson Heiti Talvik and his parents, that from this marriage either a genius … or a hopeless decadent could be born. In a sense she was right in both ways. Heiti Talvik (Talviken according to official documents) was born on November 9, 1904 in Tartu. His Father, Siegfrid, studying to become a doctor at that time, had extensive cultural interests and later became a specialist in leprosy. His mother Elfriede was a talented pianist. Talented also were his sister Hella (who studied at the Pallas Art School in Tartu, the first art school in Estonia, and after getting married to a Dutchman later lived in Sweden) and his younger brother Ilmar, who accompanied Heiti on his hiking tours all over Estonia and who was last seen in Pärnu during World War II – his later fate is unknown. Heiti Talvik’s father died in 1929 and his mother in 1943 in Pärnu, another home for the family besides Tartu. The life of the Talvik family was really a kind of Tartu-Pärnu symbiosis. At a time of youthful unrest, Heiti interrupted his studies at the Hugo Treffner Gymnasium in Tartu in 1921 and tried to get to know the darker side of life at the Kohtla coalmines as a simple worker. Having come back to Pärnu, he graduated from the local evening school and was, in the same year, admitted to the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Tartu. He chose Estonian literature, literature in general, Estonian and comparative folklore, and art history as his main subjects. But graduating from university was not Talvik’s main aim in life. The young poet only studied what interested him and had become one of the most erudite long-term ‘perennial students’ by 1934, when he left the university. In the same year, his first poetry collection, Palavik (Fever), was published thanks to the support and encouragement of his friends. In 1930, Heiti Talvik got acquainted with the young and popular prose writer Betti Alver, whom he married in 1937. In the same year, he also published his second and also his last collection of verse, Kohtupäev (Judgement Day). A symbiosis of two married writers is no rarity in the Estonian literary history of the 20th century, but this spiritual and physical relationship acquired a symbolic meaning. Betti’s love saved a great poet (although temporarily) for Estonian literature; Heiti, in turn, helped Betti to become one of the greatest Estonian female poets of all times.  Having the honour of being one of the laureates of the Betti Alver Debut Prize (1991), I have always felt proud of it. But let us return to the fates of one of the most famous literary couples in Estonian history. The year 1940, with its imported coup d’état of the Soviet occupational forces, changed everything. Neither Betti nor Heiti could go along with the new regime. Living in Tartu in winter, and in summer in the home of Betti’s parents in Pühaste, near Lake Võrtsjärv, they remained in a spiritual exile, trying to earn a living through translation during the German occupation that followed. As translators of literary works, they also tried to manage somehow at the beginning of the second Soviet occupation. It should be mentioned here that their material needs were always minimal. Heiti Talvik had just begun translating Maksim Gorki’s Childhood when the representatives of the regime, especially hostile towards national intellectuals, arrested him on May 15, 1945 and deported him, after a harsh prison sentence, to the region of Tyumen in Siberia. The poet, exhausted from a three-month trip by train, died on July 18, 1947 in the Urmanovo hospital, having been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. His burial place is unknown. In my youth, a legend spread that wolves killed and ate him. In a sense this is true – only the wolves were humans. Betti Alver had a long life, remaining one of the most original (and later also officially accepted) Estonian poets and a superb translator of Pushkin’s poetry. She never forgave the criminal regime for the murder of her beloved. She did not have anything to do with any officials of the Soviet state and even tried to avoid being interviewed or filmed. She said she did not exist after Heiti’s death, that she had died with him. How could she appear before the public when Heiti did not have that opportunity, when the regime had murdered him? And when I today read in Betti Alver’s collection Korallid Emajões (Corals in the Emajõgi River) the poem bearing the same title or others titled Võlg (Debt) or Raudteelill (A Flower by the Railway), I feel truly proud. There were people who remained unbroken and this gives hope also in our frustrating, spiritually bleak time.

    So much for Heiti Talvik’s earthly course. It is time to discuss his spiritual side. For, according to the words of his close friend, Talvik did not live, did not abide or dwell but ‘resided’. Sometimes he would say that if he was anything at all, he was either a priest or a soldier. To his closest friends, he was neither Talvik nor Heiti, but had a somewhat stern-sounding nickname: ‘Hapsburg’; there was no need to add the title ‘prince’ or anything of the kind. He was apparently a Prince of Poets, and an aristocrat of the Estonian Parnassus, an intellectual to several generations, liberated through constant contact with culture of all material desires. Yes, he was a bohemian, but a bohemian monk. His bohemianism was the best of all versions of bohemianism. It was not the bohemian behaviour of a middle-class youth, but an extreme limitation of needs necessary to have time for books and creative work. This was cultural bohemianism in the most precise meaning of the notion. At the same time, Talvik was not an aesthete like Friedebert Tuglas, the leading literary and cultural figure of the time, although he knew Tuglas and even lived in his attic for a time. Talvik was, in several senses, the conscience of his generation. He was also a mentor of his generation, or a guru, as we most often say today. Like Burroughs was for the Beatniks. There were three universities in fact in the university town Tartu in the 1930s. The best known of them was certainly the University of Tartu, the Universitas Tartuensis, founded by the Swedish King Gustav Adolph II in 1632. The second university was a café called Werner, and the more bohemian Ko-Ko-Ko, both gathering places of intellectuals near the real university. But the third and highly competitive ‘university’ was Heiti Talvik’s attic ‘academy’, which offered high-level introduction to world literature. Lectures (free conversations, to be more exact), often accompanied by spiritual stimulators, helped those who wanted to liberate themselves from the chains of the material world. Talvik was amazingly well-read. He had a brown-and-black notebook full of quotations from world literature. This helped in discussing themes like Quiet Self-Control and Plots of Salvation and Idealism in Literature. It is an imposing list of authors whose books filled Talvik’s alternating attics during his youth: Villon, Leopardi, Heym, Poe, Blok, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Dostoyevski, Bellman, Solovyev, Böhme, Kierkegaard, Grimmelshausen, Saadi, Pushkin, Dante, Valéry, Rabelais, Döblin, Joyce, Dos Passos, Goethe, Homer, Shakespeare, Rilke, Verhaeren, Berdyaev, Lao Tse, Hoffmann, Heine, Lermontov, Klabund, Zola, Tolstoi, Ibsen, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Cervantes, Gogol et al. Heiti Talvik was also interested in classical and oriental literature and was keen on music. At the same time, Talvik was not simply an enthusiastic omnivore; he knew what he wanted and acted accordingly.

    I will now briefly try to characterize Talvik’s work, which, despite its small volume, has succeeded in enriching Estonian poetry long after his death. Ants Oras, the main critic of the poetry group Arbujad (Soothsayers), to which Talvik also belonged, one of the brightest stars in Estonian criticism and translation, has said, analyzing the ‘beauty in ugliness’ in Talvik’s first poetry collection Palavik (Fever): “Associations of sterility, early death, rotting and decay seem nightmarish. Ugliness attracts a morbid devotion – but a melodious form, plastic as if chiselled, makes this ugliness enjoyable.” Talvik’s rhymes are excellent: such a pure, intense and interesting, unexpected and at the same time natural, full rhyme is rarely met.  The rhymes are classic Estonian rhymes, and in no way arbitrary. Some sources of inspiration and maybe even influences on his style are also recognizable. At the beginning of the collection, the early, pre-crisis Rilke seems to hover in the background, while further on Talvik’s quite original thought and stylization seem to be inspired by Villon, Baudelaire, Poe, Verhaeren, and maybe to some extent also by the German expressionists, who were trendy at the time. His powerful and incisive form is in clear conflict with the hopelessness of the content, but it was ‘still a beginning’ for the poet, although a granite foundation to build on had already formed.

    As to the second collection, Kohtupäev (Judgement Day), I have always understood it in two ways. It is much more temporal than Talvik's first volume, but it also has much more to do with eternity; it is more metaphysical, existential, religious and variable. In discussing the collection, Bernhard Kangro said very aptly: “Tedium of and protest against conventional idealism and fixed truths, not a system, but a Hegelian deconstruction of a system, finding out the primordial core of life, freedom of self, and a revolt of the will – these are the corner-stones of Talvik’s life philosophy.” The collection, although graphically precise in form, is built up cyclically. The basic motif is an understanding that one must stand against destruction with a creative fire submitted to will. Talvik’s leading motif in this collection is the will behind the words. The will, often capitalized in his texts, is a desire for ethical purification, resurrection, re-formation of self and creating a new opportunity in this defiance or rage, taming chaos. But the poet’s spiritual path did not end here. In his last poems, he seems to live in the Netherworld, having crossed all his Rubicons, and is, in the enlightenment of the Christian doctrine of love, ready to give his last breath even to an enemy.

    I do not claim here that in the last act of his earthly path Talvik acquired the status of some mystical saint in his poetry. Far from it. It was simply one moment in the flux of time and his creative evolution. For we do not know what he would have written later if he had been given that opportunity.

    But a trace in the history of Estonian poetry remained. Talvik was, unquestionably, spiritually the most alert figure of his generation and I think that he also had the most extensive content. He did not play the messiah to lead the crowd into becoming even more a crowd.  His friend Harald Parrest said: “No-one discovers an America now”, and claimed that it was Heiti Talvik who “set an avalanche in motion in Estonian poetry, which led it away from reacting to everyday events, which was so much advised, even demanded by the Orbit group of poets, away from improvisations with form, and induced again great spiritual  demands and principles of form. Soon it was not enough to put down some fleeting impressions, not enough even in free verse of accidental sounds and rhythms. It was a turning of one's back on journalistic poetry and attempts at rendering some meaning into the failed revolutions in Russia.”

    Heiti Talvik really was neither a martyr nor a saint. Those roles were unacceptable to him. But it is very apparent that the Iron Curtain, when it closed, took from him the air he needed to breath, and he could not have lived, even in silence, in these conditions. Such a vegetative life would have been impossible. And even when silenced, Talvik was unacceptable to those in power in Estonia; he would not have been acceptable to any terrorist regime. Violence remains violence, and chains are always chains. I believe that what destroyed Talvik physically was fear. He was a potential danger. But in destroying him a small miscalculation occurred. What has been created cannot be destroyed. Heiti Talvik’s poems functioned like a time bomb for me and other poets of my generation and not only for us, not only for my generation. He is one of the reasons we are, at least at the moment, living in a free Estonia.