Could a Poem Claim a Nationality

English: The Poem

The Poem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For quite some while I have been playing with a certain thought. It struck me when I was thinking of writing a poem in Finnish after being in a short and uninteresting exchange of thoughts on Twitter. A journalist was trying to find Finnish government-funded artists on the social media. I was of no help.

Even if I was to successfully publish a collection of stashed poetry before applying for a government grant, I know for sure that I would never be allowed to have that money, at least not if I applied for it with creative writing in mind. The problem is language, there is no readership for someone who writes in English in a country like Finland.

In Finland everyone learns to speak and read English from a fairly tender age, but only the few odd ones in the bunch go to such lengths that they would want to use the language actively. The only Finnish journals that come out regularly in English are The Helsinki Times and Six Degrees –at least to my knowledge. I am not taking into account the free journals that exist.

Now, the government grant is there to promote Finnish art and literature. Socialism at its best I care say –ha ha. But here is where the thought came to me, what is Finnish art and literature to begin with? How does a poem claim a certain nationality? Or does a poem even have to claim a certain nationality to promote the arts in said nationality?

There were two things that came to mind first, language and setting. I’d like you, my dear reader to take a moment to reflect on what kind of a story or poem would be local to you, in a way that it would bring the tears or cheer of growing up. Once you have thought of a setting, imagine it being described in another language (let’s assume we know all the languages in the world). Does the the setting change, or does it retain the same feeling as it did in your mother tongue?

Personally I couldn’t extract Catalonia out of a poem set in Tarragona if it was in English, Catalan, Finnish, or even Spanish. If an English poem describes a Spanish festival, catching the feelings in the air or bringing out the deeply intimate scene of the locals into life then I could even call it a Spanish poem written in English.

Ernest Hemingway wrote a lot about Spain as everyone familiar with the man knows. Of course he wrote them in English as he was American, but wouldn’t the short stories of the Spanish Civil War be as much Spanish as they are American when he captures the broken toreador? I don’t know how he would have seen it.

The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1956, Juan Ramón Jiménez wrote one of my all-time favorite books Platero y Yo (Spanish for Platero and I). When I first read that great book it was a Finnish translation and it didn’t stop the early 20th Century Spain from coming to life. Even in Finnish that book remained very Spanish. As I am writing this I can only question how would it have turned out if Mr. Jiménez had planned the book to be in Finnish to begin with, would it have changed into a Finnish poem by a Spanish poet? Who knows.

When I write a poem or a story I somehow do see them being Finnish as I cannot escape my heritage even when I could be considered an international. I don’t really ever see having a Finnish readership and I see it even less likely that other Finns would consider my writing Finnish.

Before I began writing this blog post, I wrote a micropoem, once in Finnish, once in Spanish, and once in English. I tried to avoid making an interconnected translation. I did do my best to emulate a kind of typical Finnish styled poem, especially when it comes to the mood. Here it is first in Finnish, then Spanish, and finally in English.

Finnish:
Pihan halkeileva puu kuoriutuu uuteen elämään,
silmissäsi on kyyneliä.
ne leijuvat puun luokse ja yhdistyvät
aamukasteeseen.

Spanish:
El árbol hendido del jardín ha nacido de nuevo,
en tus ojos cerrados veo lágrimas
uniendo con las gotas de rocío
en la mañana –húmeda.

English:
The tree in the yard that was split in half
hatches into existence anew.
the dew tears in your eyes,
float off to join the wet morning.


I don’t know what to make of it. Could I consider that a Finnish poem in three different languages? I’d love to hear what you, the reader, thinks.

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8 thoughts on “Could a Poem Claim a Nationality

  1. I wonder when it comes to the Finnish poems, what’s the point? Shouldn’t it rhyme at the ends of lines on in between somehow, or does it use some sort of verse metre that I couldn’t discover? They just look text written in the style of poems to me, but I am not a good speaker of Finnish.

    • I’m not that good at poetry when it’s written in Finnish. I always find modern Finnish poetry very interesting, I sense an urge to break the earlier rules of poetry and a deep need to find something new. I could be wrong, and they’re just trying their best to convey their emotions to the public.

  2. I think, my dear fellow writer, that You have written a micropoem in 3 languages whilst retaining the message,theme and mood of the Finnish arcadia. But the problem is, the poem can be comprehended, understood and construed differently by/from different people/vantage points. (In another words, there are places which fit the same profile.) And that is the thing with poetry, it is beautiful in it’s own right because, like music, it is generally relatable. Therefore, I deduce, that a poem – does not have a nationality. It has contextuality. It’s citizen of the world, an internationalé. It has the love of ignorance, for it’s nationality and place of existing, is the mind. A characteristics of the beauty of all art, luckily.

    • That is true that the reader interprets a poem they read in a very personal manner if it connects with them, and in that there is no inherent conflict of nationality.
      I am mainly trying to ponder can we make the same cold distinction with poetry and literature as the boards that decide over the arts grants.
      Thank you for your comment, you brought out a point that I had completely forgot to mention anything about. 🙂

  3. Very cool notion and aspiration. Preserve your language, celebrate it. I’m reading a book now that was written simultaneously in French and English by the two co-authors. It’s heady and academic, but you might find something interesting in it. http://www.amazon.com/Surfaces-Essences-Analogy-Fuel-Thinking/dp/0465018475

    I think the more you can write in different languages, the better. I wish I could; you’ll have a deeper appreciation of the words and so many more angles to their meaning. I’m tired and drinking a hoppy beer now, so none of this is very coherent. Suppose it’s “the thought that counts.” Best, – Bill

    • I will definitely try to find this book you speak of, it sounds pretty interesting! I’d love to embark on a similar multinational or multicultural project, but haven’t run into that many like-minded folks.

      Learning languages really builds a thorough view on the different types of cultures and styles of literature that exist around the world. I consider myself lucky to be able to read and write in multiple languages.

      Thank you for your comment!

      PS. Hoppy beer is an excellent choice when tired.

  4. Hi, Miki.
    I’m Eva and I’ve arrived to your blog through the Linkedin discussion I posted looking for poets writing in English.
    It’s very interesting what you point out here. I think gorvernment would consider “Finnish” art and literature those produced by finnish citizens. The thing with the language is tricky: whereas a plastic artist born in Finland can use any media or technique and his art would be considered Finnish, why a Finland born writer who writes in English wouldn’t be considered so? The question is if government wants to promote the Finnish language for creation, then that’s another story. Otherwise, for me, it doesn’t matter which language you write, you’re Finnish, your art is Finnish. Full stop. As long as you don’t go to live to another country and get so famous that your adopting country wants to claim you for her own (like happened for example to Samuel becket or Pablo Picasso) you’ll still be Finnish.
    About the poem in three languages, it makes no difference for me. You might be describing something really Finnish (?) but in the Spanish/English texts I don’t see it. It might be because the theme is quite general/universal. Universality is the aspiration of poetry, to be understood (or more exactly “felt”) no matter the language, the country or the reader.
    I’ll go on reading your blog. I’ve seen a couple of poems that I really liked.

    • Hey! Glad to see that you came to check my blog.
      I have to say a few things about this entry though. I was still rather ignorant when I wrote this and now I know that is not the case. I had mixed up government artist grants and grants offered by private foundations.

      I agree that poetry, and most storytelling, should aspire to be universal and not anchored to one country or another. It’s not like people don’t feel the same all over.

      I hope you enjoy your stay on here!

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