Friday, April 27, 2012

Jaan Kaplinski: A Particular Sort of Ignorance

Published in Poetry Ireland Review 106, edited by John F. Deane

Jaan Kaplinski. Selected Poems. Translated by Jaan Kaplinski with Sam Hamill, Hildi Hawkins and Fiona Sampson. Bloodaxe Books, 2011. £12 stg

It’s hard to think of a poet besides Jaan Kaplinski who could write lines like

In the morning I was presented to President Mitterand,
in the evening I weeded out nettles under the currant bushes.

The lines remind us of the poet’s public life – he was a member of the post-Revolution Estonian parliament from 1992 to 1995, and is an active cultural commentator – but they also suggest where his priorities might lie. Meeting presidents is one thing but the real life is elsewhere. The nettles and currant bushes are not an escape but the proudly brandished crucial zone where poetry and the perceptive life are likely to flourish. A good deal of Kaplinski’s poetry opposes itself to the pieties and rhetoric of the public sphere; the poetry is, often, a careful deployment of silence, a recognition that ‘what/remains unspoken is always the most important.’ 

That’s to say that the poems, particularly the earlier ones here, often seem to want to approximate silence by seeing how much can be left out. They’re silent in the way classical Chinese poetry – a major influence on his work – is silent, in that they’re highly selective and restrained, but the silence is also a reflection of the keen realisation of the limits of human consciousness. In this way, maybe, the restraint of Chinese poetry fuses with the fractures of European modernism.

In some respects Kaplinski’s is an anti-poetry, a poetry which resists the poetic and at the same time is highly conscious of its own operations, something which aligns him with post-war poets like Tadeusz Różewicz or Günter Eich or with a writer like Beckett. As in their work minimalism is an aesthetic decision, in his case a kind of strategic withdrawal that may relate to his having matured in an Estonia still under the Soviets.  His own background is mixed -- his mother was Estonian, and his Polish father disappeared in the Gulag archipelago during the war, so the silences in his work are informed by a historical awareness. 

This books is a generous selection from his work, including poems written in English. He has a strong relationship with English and is actively involved in the translations with Sam Hamill, Hildi Hawkins and Fiona Sampson. The translations work forcefully, and it’s likely that Kaplinski’s pellucid style lends itself particularly well to translation, though the book only really seems to get going from The Wandering Border onwards. In the first section the poems’ embrace of silence can leave them seeming a little inconsequential and affectless.

From The Wandering Border on the poems sharpen and harden, they attach themselves to concrete subjects and mark out a territory whose borders are malleable, shifting, where shifting borderlines are, in fact, the point. In a typical poem the poet, taking out the rubbish, remembers that ‘there is/no difference between the common and the strange.’ In his poetry and prose Kaplinski turns a sceptical eye on the Western tendency ‘to think in words and see the world as a world of defined meanings.’ The Western mind, he suggests, is never so happy as when defining and drawing borders. In the real world though, ‘there are not many things, emotions and meanings clearly divided by borderlines. Defining the living world is violence, is a kind of a rape, butcher’s not philosopher’s or poet’s work.’

The poems of Through the Forest describe a retreat into a slowed down private world of home, family and contemplation. Small observation and resolute domesticity direct the eye inward towards the creating mind, noting the notation:  ‘. . .if there’s something I can do , perhaps it’s /observing that observation, grasping that seeing.’ As one poem puts it:

Perhaps, after all, poetry comes entirely from ignorance,
is a particular sort of ignorance. And that
is much harder to learn  than knowing.

That particular sort of ignorance is what animates these poems. Looking out his window at poplars, lindens, birches makes the poet want to do something with them but in the end he has to be satisfied with simply naming them and intuiting that beyond the ‘almost intelligible’ language of the branches is a knowledge somehow long known to him which ‘cannot be much different/from what can be read in books,/hands or faces.’ Likewise even in ‘the most disconsolate of landscapes’ ‘there is so much unintelligible light’.

‘Silence. Dust’ is a very typical sequence in its concentration on meagre resources. The silence in question is the inner silence from which, if absolutely necessary, poems might be drawn, and is allied to ever present dust which ‘comes and settles on piano lids in arts centres, old Bibles in attics, shelves, rugs, laundries, abandoned mills and old outhouses.’ Dust is an ever present image in the poems, linked in the poet’s mind with peace, slowed down time but also, as in a poem about the murder of Jews, pregnant with a sense of history, of what the landscape conceals, or what might be ‘hovering/ in the air as particles of ash. . .’

Kaplinski’s poetry thrives on the limitations it sets for itself. He rejects memories and dreams because he wants ‘to write/above all about what is.’ Out of the available possibilities he chooses a scrupulous meanness, a palate of quiet tones and unornamented gestures that seem to owe little to the pressures and quirks of a particular tradition yet are consonant with the landscape and history of ‘serious greyish Estonia’. It’s a frugal, doing-without kind of aesthetic, which deliberately holds language at bay. He sums it up in a prose piece he wrote for his website (

As I have grown up in a non-discursive culture, I don’t need words to think, and as I more and more often forget the words I want to use, I can do without them, even when I would like to use them.
(‘Philosophical Investigations’)

Again and again he comes back to the subject of writing itself. It’s as if all other subjects are too truly themselves and therefore inaccessible and writing the one true subject: ‘if you want to be honest,/ you must write about writing.’ Yet writing is for Kaplinski a contradictory impulse; the desire to write is also a desire not to write: ‘I ended up in literature because it seems, perhaps, closest to my proper place.’ But the proper place is elusive, or may be the kind of self suppression where the real desire is ‘to compose poetry without being a poet, to philosophise without being philosopher, to serve Christ without being a Christian; to serve Buddha without being a Buddhist; to express oneself without oneself being anyone.’ Given that life ‘cannot be contained in words, . . . cannot be explained or understood. . .’, why write? Why oppose the uselessness of language to what it can’t comprehend? Because that’s where the bite is, that’s where the poet most intensely lives. Nature is a constant presence in the poems, and the same tense, anxious scrutiny is brought to bear on it. ‘The Forest Floor’ is on the one hand a rhapsodic enumeration, full of long-lined litanies, and on the other ‘the yearning to see it all to the core, to crawl free of oneself, to crumble to dust in all those sky-keys, bird’s eye primroses, rushes, nettles and dandelions. . .’
Part of his fidelity to the actual is simply to register what is around him, including the persistent, ever-awake self:

The snow’s melting. Water’s dripping.
The wind’s blowing, gently.
Boughs sway. There’s a fire in the stove.
The radiators are warm.
. . .
I am writing a poem.
I’m writing that today is Sunday.
That the snow’s melting. That water’s dripping.
That the wind’s blowing, et cetera, et cetera.

There is about all this a clear-eyed unsentimentality. Humanity offers little consolation –  ‘I fear most of us are a badly played tune, a rattling, a rumbling, noise which is gradually extinguishing the great music of life’ – and there’s no evidence of a grand design: ‘There is no God,/there is no director,/there is no conductor./The world makes itself happen. . .’ Attending the world, and the mind’s restless shepherding of that attention is the only convincing option, and by limiting himself to it Kaplinski has created a remarkable body of work.