Nov '02 [Home]


The Last Working-Class Poet
Petri Liukkonen Talks to Paavo Smed

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Paavo Smed is a 73-year-old former log-diver. A life-long poet, his first book, Virtakivi ('River Stone'), is being published in Finland next month by the City of Kuusankoski with the help of a foundation established by UPM-Kymmene, one of the world's leading paper companies, and Smed's employer for thirty years. Karl Marx could not have imagined that a global, capitalistic company would finance the distribution of a worker-authored book of verse, words from the other side of the barricade. The message seems to be that there are no barricades.

Although too young to participate in the Continuation War between the Soviet Union and Finland (1941-44), he has nevertheless written a great deal about the veterans of that conflict and their sacrifices. At the age of fifteen, just after the war, Smed got his first job. In 1958, he was trained as a diver. With the most primitive of devices and equipment, he plunged into the winter waters of the Kymmene River through a hole in the ice. The cold froze his regulator and tanks and the strong current sucked his mouthpiece away. History was later made by nailing, drilling, and detonating underwater explosives.

Smed's poems record the experience of the post-war generation, who built in the Nordic countries what is called 'cradle-to-grave' social democracies (or 'welfare states'—at least what is left of them). During the long construction period, writers eagerly broke sexual and political taboos. By the 1980's, however, the intelligentsia had become bored with politics. Individualism replaced community values, consensus mooted the issues of class struggle. In the E.U., the greatest achievement of European Social Democrats and the Catholic Church, the idea of welfare state has lost its momentum.

Without a doubt, Smed's oeuvre is part of the heritage of Finnish working-class poets, who started their careers in the 1930's under the influence of Harry Martinson, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, and Vladimir Mayakovski. It is a tradition which is coming to an end, or more accurately: it is over. At First of May celebrations [European Labor Day], nobody wants to hear poems recited anymore; red balloons are nicer. Today, European poetry appears to be a schizophrenic play of self-negations. What remains from the avant-garde is just material for exploitation, for ironic rewriting or clumsy recycling of old ideas. Pastiche is the program of modern poetry. Of course, there are always alternatives, starting from hermetic existentialism.

Smed grew up reading Arvo Turtiainen (1904-1980) and Viljo Kajava (1909-1998). The translator of Whitman's Leaves of Grass into Finnish (Ruohoa) in the 1960's, Turtiainen fought against Stalinism and became the most celebrated leftist veteran author. He had no successor. Viljo Kajava was an advocate for humanist values. His optimistically colored poems dealt with nature, work, and family life. A new collection of Kajava's works was published in 2000, and he is still widely read.

Among major English-language poets, those whose subjects are most similar to Smed's are Philip Levine and Simon Armitage. Like Smed, Levine dares to be interested in everyday life, in simple and true things, such as the taste of small red potatoes (vide: Levine's 'The Simple Truth').

I knew
You would let me in.
Warm dumpling soup
you gave,
those dumplings
I didn't like.

(P. Smed: "I remember it, Granny")

I do have to ask myself whether the term, 'working class writer', means a person from a working-class background, one who identifies with working-class issues, one whose readers are working-class, or all of these.

Smed's poems are straightforward compositions in plain, easily understood language. They are simple, like a good hammer is simple, but they are never prosaic or sentimental. In several, Smed writes of his role as a 'singer'. Sometimes he 'sings' to his lawn and sometimes to its greenness. To avoid misperceptions (my own mostly), I underscore that these impressions have nothing to do with Whitman ('I celebrate myself, and sing myself…'), but rather, with Eino Leino (1878-1926), Finland's master of song-like verse forms, who served as model for generations of poets (too many, in my view). The Romantic idea of the poet as 'singer' comes from him.

The fact that Smed, at 73, wants to say something about history and politics separates him from younger European writers, who are blithe about their lack of commitment. On the whole, current events poetry fell out of fashion in the Nordic countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Against this background, I view Smed as the last authentic working-class poet, one still interpreting the collective experience. The following piece, written on September 11, 2001, is published here for the first time.

And they were all running.
The burning, collapsing
twin towers.
The whole wide street,
full of horror,
crying, well-fed
On a road
edged by a jungle,
a naked, thin child
burned by napalm.

* * *

October 17:  I am meeting Paavo Smed at the Voikkaa branch library, where he has been a regular visitor for decades. Smed's female companion once worked there, but I'm not sure whether they are still together. Two assistant librarians tell me they have made fresh coffee for us. To my surprise, there are cookies, cheesecake, pasties, and two coffeepots set on the backroom table. Paper napkins are folded in triangles. These people could start a successful catering business.

Smed arrives a few minutes later. He looks much younger than his 73, and is dressed in blue jeans, an old suede jacket, sneakers, and a baseball cap with the inscription, Sunds Defibrillation. [Photo] Smed has lived his whole life in Kuusankoski. The Kymmene River, running through the city, has been his fate, his inspiration, his livelihood. He nearly drowned in the river when he was just five, later learned to swim, and from the age of 15 worked for the Kymi Paper Mill, mostly as a diver, until his retirement in 1987. Smed's poems have appeared in local newspapers and in anthologies, but his first collection is coming out next month.

My first question to Smed is whether I'm right to call him the 'last working-class poet' in Finland. He tells me he was born into a working-class family and has never wanted to write for anyone but people in overalls. I tell him I have read many times his poem about men who 'crawl with a monkey wrench in hand / between hot rollers of a stopped paper-machine', and women, who 'walk with knobbed legs, stiffened by concrete floors / carrying their wash buckets'. (The lines are from "I would like to write so…", which begins:  'You have confused my mind / teachers and other masters of arts'.) Smed responds to my question, saying, "You can call me a raw recruit as a poet. I don't write for the smart set."

Smed lives on Pakanavuori (Pagan Hill), which is famous for its ancient rock paintings. One of them in particular, a stick figure, has long fascinated him. This subject arouses my curiosity and I start to draw an imaginary time-line from the figure to him: Could it be that the figure is a diver, too? A library assistant in a blue silk blouse comes in and asks shyly whether we would like more coffee. She looks like Gwyneth Paltrow. She pours another cup for Smed and leaves us, closing the door softly behind her. I lose my train of thought.

Smed tells me he lives in an old two-room cottage. Though he has now electricity, he used to burn oil lamps. Water for household use comes from the lake or from the well. He managed to do without television for fifteen years. In one poem, he writes:

Täällä vuoreni päällä yksin,
joki alhaalla virtailee,
se tietää: "Tuolla on yksi
joka pyörteitä kuuntelee."

I'm here alone on Pagan Hill
at its foot the river flows
it knows me well: "He's one of those
who listen to the whirlpools' sounds."

I am familiar with the 'whirlpools' of Smed's handwriting. All the twists and loops of the letters are clear, but they look like his pen has the weight of ten kilos, or as if it were a 'meter-long birch log', as Smed claims in a poem. Sometimes I have stopped reading Smed's text and simply followed the contours of his letters, forgetting the meaning of words. Perhaps manual work affects the way one holds a pen; it becomes like a chisel. Bureaucrats use a pen as though it were a hair pencil from ancient China; their texts must first be deciphered. This is only my personal observation, but Smed's handwriting is similar to Kalle Päätalo's, a lumberjack, contractor, and very popular novelist with whom I corresponded years ago. The details were his style.

From Smed's poems, I have concluded that when at home he usually sits by the window. On the table he has a lamp, pen, paper, and a typewriter which he seldom uses. He laughs when I quote these lines from one of his poems: 'in the moonlight / hares were copulating / Under my window / they did it.'

Smed tells me that he often got his best ideas for poems at the bottom of the Kymmene River while working as a diver. And he wanted to surface as soon as possible to write down what had come to him.

Smed suddenly looks tired as he speaks of how little remains of his childhood playgrounds by the river. I remain silent, thinking that Nature only changes, but it never grows old like we do. Smed talks about his smoking habit. He has smoked red North State cigarettes—a very strong brand—all his life. In his youth, he played ice hockey and soccer, and his lungs were purified by every match. When he was a diver, he went for long hours without smoking, but he did not give up cigarettes until he got seriously ill and was put on a respirator.

Ne jotka ihmettelevät
miksi helteellä kannan vettä
paljaan kallion koloihin
eivät ole nähneet kuinka leppälintu kylpee.

Those who wonder
why I carry water on a hot day
to the clefts of barren rock
haven't seen how a redstart bathes.

I ask why he has written only a few poems about diving. Smed confesses that he doesn't know. He never kept a journal, not even a dive diary, though he spent five hours a day year-round underwater. The river bottom was dark and full of wood and mud and he had to move carefully. The divers worked in pairs, one below, the other manning his partner's air hose. His son also tried to become a diver, and was for a short time Smed's air hose man.

In one poem, Smed describes how he goes into the water, to bring up a sunken outboard motor. There are no shining sea anemones or algae forests, but the poet wishes: 'One day I'll dive, / and perhaps hear / sometime / the whisper of scallops.'

Before we leave the library, I thank the young woman in the blue silk blouse and ask her name. "Emma", she answers. It puzzles me what kind of parents would give their child a name like that. I take photos of Smed. He looks into the camera, good-humored, and says he's going to buy sugar for his 'blueberry fool'.

Paavo, my friend, you once told me you had a dream in which gods encouraged you to write, and to "stand up for the weaker". Are you quite sure they were gods down there? Still, all of us who have met you and read your poems know you have a great heart. If I were down there at the bottom of a murky river, weights on my back, I would feel safe if you were up above manning the air hose.

Petri Liukkonen is the creator of a hugely popular site which contains detailed biographies of thousands of authors from all over the world, e.g., Hannu Niklander, whom he interviewed for the May'01 issue. He writes often on literature for this and other magazines.