BY: KAIA Gallagher

Sirje Kiin is an Estonian writer, poet, and journalist currently living in South Dakota, and the biographer of Marie Under, one of Estonia’s best-known poets.

Born in 1883, Marie Under established herself as one of Estonia’s premier poets in the beginning of the twentieth century through her expressionist and neo-romantic poems. Her early poetry explored themes of happiness, joy, and erotic love. Later, during the 1920s, she addressed topics related to justice and death, with lyrics that merged dark, apocalyptic visions with a yearning for happiness and all-embracing love.

Some believe Under’s poems, with her focus on the freedom of the human spirit and her use of a sonnet structure based on folk traditions and trochaic rhythm, embody the spirit of Estonia. Because of the patriotic and nationalist themes within her poetry, Under’s work was banned in Estonia after the country was occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, yet she continued to write poems in exile that expressed her longing for her homeland and included metaphysical introspections about a patriotism that extended beyond political boundaries.

For her groundbreaking work, Under, who died in 1980 in Stockholm, Sweden, was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature thirty times. Her poems have been translated into at least twenty-six languages. A selection of her poetry in English, Child of Man, translated by W. K. Matthews, was published in 1955, while translations of her poetry can be found in English poetry anthologies, such as Contemporary East European Poetry 1983, 1993, etc.

Six examples of Under’s poems are also available at: http://estonianworld.com/culture/six-poems-estonian-poet-marie/.

Kiin became interested in Marie Under when she analyzed Under’s poetry as part of her doctoral thesis for the University of Turku in Finland. As a well-published author, Kiin has written extensively about Estonia’s national identity, Estonian literature, and Estonian intellectual life during the years of the Soviet occupation. In this interview, she shares her views on the unique and groundbreaking qualities in Under’s poetry.

THE COACHELLA REVIEW: Marie Under is celebrated as one of Estonia’s greatest poets. In your view, what are the characteristics of Under’s poetry that resonate both with Estonians and with a broader reading audience?

SIRJE KIIN: Under was one of the most influential Estonian writers of the twentieth century. She is as significant (even mythical) a figure for Estonians as Goethe is for Germans, Cervantes for Spaniards, and Molière for the French. In addition to her deep significance in Estonian culture, Under is one of the most translated Estonian poets, into at least twenty-six languages, a fact made more interesting by her translation of poetry from sixteen other languages into Estonian. Under wrote about eternal common issues to all human beings such as love, beauty, joy and sadness, nature, life and death, the meaning of life, the fatherland, hope and loss, faith and doubt, but her artistic language was unique—full of surprising metaphors, original rhymes, and rhythmic dynamics. She used the full set of human senses—color, sound, touch, and smell.

TCR: Under lived during turbulent times. She grew up in Estonia when it was part of Tsarist Russia, was a young poet when Estonia achieved its independence in 1918, and went into exile in Sweden at the end of World War II when Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union. In what ways did these events influence her poetry?

SK: Under was able to continue writing poetry despite the deep depression caused by the trauma of being forced to flee her home country in fear of her life. In exile, she was able to express the heart-wrenching drama of the Estonian people. She grew to be the boldest and most compassionate political poet in the history of Estonia by speaking the painful truth about the Estonian national tragedy that so deeply shocked her heart.

TCR: Under was a leading member of the Siuru literary movement, which was founded in Estonia in 1917, before the country became independent. Poets affiliated with this movement stressed the freedom of the human spirit with futuristic, expressionistic, and sometimes erotic themes. Can you describe how being part of this movement influenced Under’s poetry?

SK: A question we might ask ourselves is, “Did Siuru influence Under or did Under more influence Siuru?” Under was the princess of the group, perhaps its most important member, and was supported and emboldened by her fellow poets. Her passionate love poems were dedicated to her lovers, who were also members of the group, the first in 1915 to Artur Adson and then in 1917 to Friedebert Tuglas. Her sensual, erotic love sonnets fascinated many young readers of her time, but shocked some older critics and teachers. As the only female member of the group, she received harsh critiques from the public. There were even suggestions to burn her or put her into jail for immoral writing. The harsh criticism significantly impacted Under’s writing, causing her to turn to translation of German expressionists. That, in turn, changed the themes of her poems to be darker and more expressionistic, about war and death instead of her earlier romantic and sensual love poems.

TCR: Under lived during turbulent times. She grew up in Estonia when it was part of Tsarist Russia, was a young poet when Estonia achieved its independence in 1918, and went into exile in Sweden at the end of World War II when Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union. In what ways did these events influence her poetry?

SK: Under was able to continue writing poetry despite the deep depression caused by the trauma of being forced to flee her home country in fear of her life. In exile, she was able to express the heart-wrenching drama of the Estonian people. She grew to be the boldest and most compassionate political poet in the history of Estonia by speaking the painful truth about the Estonian national tragedy that so deeply shocked her heart.

TCR: Under was a leading member of the Siuru literary movement, which was founded in Estonia in 1917, before the country became independent. Poets affiliated with this movement stressed the freedom of the human spirit with futuristic, expressionistic, and sometimes erotic themes. Can you describe how being part of this movement influenced Under’s poetry?

SK: A question we might ask ourselves is, “Did Siuru influence Under or did Under more influence Siuru?” Under was the princess of the group, perhaps its most important member, and was supported and emboldened by her fellow poets. Her passionate love poems were dedicated to her lovers, who were also members of the group, the first in 1915 to Artur Adson and then in 1917 to Friedebert Tuglas. Her sensual, erotic love sonnets fascinated many young readers of her time, but shocked some older critics and teachers. As the only female member of the group, she received harsh critiques from the public. There were even suggestions to burn her or put her into jail for immoral writing. The harsh criticism significantly impacted Under’s writing, causing her to turn to translation of German expressionists. That, in turn, changed the themes of her poems to be darker and more expressionistic, about war and death instead of her earlier romantic and sensual love poems.

TCR: Under was connected to a broader community of European writers during the prewar years. Who were some of the literary contemporaries who influenced her work? In what ways does Under’s poetry reflect her own individualistic style of writing compared with those of her compatriots?

SK: In her younger years, Under read many German romantics, but her ideal of a true writer was Goethe. She sang Goethe’s songs in German even on her deathbed in her late nineties. Common values were love of and closeness to nature, natural pantheism, the idea of eternal circulation of… life, birth, death, and rebirth, which are so beautifully expressed in changes of the four seasons in nature.

In the 1920s, Under translated German expressionistic poetry and was influenced by it, especially when choosing the main themes of her own expressionistic poetry about war and death, sadness and mourning. But Under managed always to keep her original metaphors, her own original poetic language and style, incorporating a diversity and dynamism of feelings, from darkness to the brightest light, from lowest point to the highest sky.

 TCR: You have written about Under’s travels throughout Europe before World War II. Based on her letters, how did she view the changing world around her?

SK: When Under traveled in Europe, her main interests were cultural differences in theater, art, and music. She loved gothic architecture, churches and cathedrals. Some of her longer poems possess a literary structure that could be compared to gothic architecture. She was also fascinated by changing fashions, not just in clothing but also, for example, in medicine. She wrote to her teenaged daughters about modern theater, art, and the free lectures she attended at Western European universities, such as her opportunity to hear a lecture by Rabindranath Tagore.

TCR: How would you characterize the poetry that she wrote while she was living in exile? In what ways did the themes in her poetry reflect the broader experience of Estonians who were also forced to flee their country?

SK: In exile, her poetry greatly exceeded patriotic and cultural expectations. She became the refugee voice of tens of thousands of Estonians. Perhaps more important, she became a voice of conscience for the Estonian nation. In that way, she spoke not just for those who were forced to flee but for the hundreds of thousands who were left behind. The occupation of Estonia by the Soviets essentially put its people in captivity for decades, and they desperately needed a voice to tell the world of their pain. Under’s brilliance as a poetic thinker and a writer enabled her to voice their common tragic feelings and suffering.

TCR: Under was well-known prior to World War II when she was nominated thirty times for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but her poetry was outlawed during the postwar years when the Soviet Union occupied Estonia. How did this censorship impact the distribution of Under’s poetry within Estonia? Given these restrictions, how familiar are young Estonians with Under’s work?

SK: The fact that, in Under’s occupied home country, her name and poems were for decades forbidden and her books burned contributed to the process by which reverence about her grew to mythic dimensions. Because of the very limited access she had to the reception of her books in Estonia, she apparently never completely realized how great a myth she had become in Estonian culture, both within the country and in exile.

Some soldiers carried her patriotic poems through the war and prison camps. Some people were arrested and sent to prison camps in Siberia because of copying or sending Under’s poems to relatives. Under’s lines were in people’s hearts despite being forbidden. The effect of being prohibited was quite the opposite of what was intended by the occupiers: the more she was forbidden, the more her poetry was loved and read in secret among the close friends and families.

While in exile, she became a national hero at home. Her patriotic poems were read on national holidays and at independence day celebrations. Her modest home in Stockholm became a pilgrimage destination.

Today, Under’s poetry is an integral part of the high school curriculum, so every Estonian student knows at least some of her love poems. Older generations remember her patriotic poetry, which helped us to keep our heads and spirits up during the darkest years.

TCR: Under is said to embody the spirit of Estonia. Can you give us an example of a poem that captures a uniquely Estonian narrative?

SK: I give you an example of her exile poetry from 1954, where she captured the feelings of the nation, violently split into two parts, first in Estonian, then in English:

Valge tund

Valgete lindude lend,
Valevi tiibade lai-laia lund–
Mälaril valguse tund:
Ärka! Ärata end!

Miski vist kaotsi mus läind–
Teisiti kord olen näind
Valgete purjede liiliaid,
Teisiti helkis siis laid.
Miski vist kaotsi mus läind.

Päikese helisev lõõm.
Süda ent vaikne kui surnuaed,
Kuhu elusalt maet
Enne tähtaega lämmated rõõm.

 

The Hour of Light

White birds in flight,
luminous wings of vast snow—
Lake Mälar’s hour of light:
Wake up! Wake yourself!

Something within me seems lost—
I once saw things in a different way
lilies of white sails,
the islet shone differently then.
Something within me seems lost.

The sun’s ringing blaze.
My heart is as quiet as a graveyard,
where buried alive
before its time is smothered joy.[/one_half]

(1954; translated by Tiina Aleman)

 

TCR: Since poetry is best read in the language in which it has been written, what are the challenges for translators who seek to capture Under’s work in English? Are there nuances in her poems that are lost in translation?

SK: Rhymed poetry is always much harder, sometimes even impossible to translate; it needs to be created again in another language and therefore cannot be the same as in its native language. Under created and often used new words and irregular rhymes—never before used in Estonian—and this increases the challenges for translators. Additionally, her strong dynamics and rhythm have often not been well-captured in translation. Linguist Ilse Lehiste has written about those issues in her study “Marie Under’s Poetry: Some Problems of Translation,” 1983, http://www.lituanus.org/1983_3/83_3_05.htm.

It’s possible that Under never was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, despite being nominated so many times by different professors (Ants Oras, K.W. Matthews) and different PEN-clubs (London, Helsinki), due to translation issues. Compounding the problem was the fact that most of the translations of her poetry into German, English, and Swedish were done either by linguists or fellow refugees, not by actual poets. I fell into a lake of luck when I connected with Tiina Aleman, who translated the poems that appear in the upcoming English version of my Under biography. Tiina’s translations are among the tiny minority of many of Under’s translations that capture both the raw power and infinite softness of Under’s poems.

TCR: What relevance does Marie Under’s poetry have for the Estonian community of today? In your opinion, what would be her appeal to a contemporary audience?

SK: Early in her career, Under instinctively identified herself with the individual, romantic role of the poet, but the experience of tragic historical and political injustice made her sensitive to the suffering of her nation. She managed to meet the spiritual needs and expectations of several generations of Estonians, and therefore remains a powerful figure in Estonian culture even today. Many young poets have been influenced by her poetry. Recently a collection by contemporary Estonian poets—inspired by Under—was published.

TCR: For English speakers interested in exploring Under’s work, where do you recommend beginning? Some of Under’s selected poetry that was translated by Leonard Fox is available on Amazon.com. What is your opinion on the quality of that translation and that work in particular as a reader’s first exposure to Under’s poetry?

SK: Many earlier translations of Under’s poetry are too dry and literal; they are not poetic enough to capture the dynamics of Under’s fantastic rhythms and inner power. I believe that Tiina Aleman’s translations, which appear in the forthcoming English translation of my Under biography, will connect English readers with one of the great poets of the twentieth century, and in the history of Estonia.

 

Kaia Gallagher is working on a memoir called Return to Estonia, which explores her connection to her Estonian heritage. She is an MFA graduate at the University of California–Riverside’s Low Residency program.