In 19th October, Helsingin Sanomat published a poetry review that caused a commotion in the poetry community. A senior editor, Jukka Petäjä, took five debut poetry collections and bashed them in an arrogant manner in a review of just under 490 words. Petäjä took aim at the books and tried to sink them as worst exhibits of current experimental writing. The irony is that hardly none of the books can be considered very experimental. What was symptomatic in Petäjä's writing was his inability to recognize poetic implements used by each of these poets; his attack was vicious, antagonistic and personal, using such expressions as "Change of voice in new poetry" (which in Finnish can be understood as a derogatory reference to silly breaking voice of a teen-age boy and to the young age of the poets), or "lack of sense erupts in a masturbatory monologue". He begins his review with an incomprehensible statement, which tries to establish a scientific tone:
"Proud new poetry aims to deconstruct everyday experiences and place the abstracted consciousness somehow sideways and in opposition to traditional world of concepts, which provides too narrow frame of mind to the life - and to poetry. It wants to come close to aesthetic saturation point where poetry forces itself written anew, in another way."
Whee! At least I cannot understand what that means. Maybe it means that: "new poetry wants to be, ahem, new"? As a topping to the insult Petäjä misspelled authors' names and Timo Harju's collection was mentioned only in one sentence. It is obvious from the sentence that the critic did not even read the book. Summary: the critic bundles together five books, makes an unsubstantiated claim (well he cites some verses that seem to prove his point) that the books are experimental and avant-garde poetry, and by the way, they are crap. Trust me, I'm a professional.

The review received immediately a flood of responses on the Helsingin Sanomat discussion forum (currently 127 messages) as well as a host of critical blog posts, parodies and debate. Many posts in fact offered better analysis of the bashed poetry collections than Petäjä's original review did. Most responses to the review argued that the review was unfair because it bundled together five different works that should have deserved to be reviewed as individual and independent works, in addition Petäjä was wrong when he insisted that they represented some kind of experimental poetry. Most people in Helsingin Sanomat discussion forum appeared using their real name, not an alias, which is unusual. It is known that at least one comment by Karri Kokko was not published. Kokko posted his comment in his blog, and it is really very innocent. There is no obvious reason why it did not pass the moderator. After two days the heads of paper's editorial culture department stepped forward defending Jukka Petäjä saying, and I summarize now: it's really difficult to understand this avant-garde poetry, you know, and if a professional reader cannot understand this stuff, to whom is it meant for?

It may sound strange to make a fuss about one critical review, but Helsingin Sanomat is a powerful media and beating five debutants to pulp is a bit too much. There is of course authority at stake. For the media to stay as an authority it has to act as an authority, to be the gatekeeper and the tastemaker. One way of establishing the status of a gatekeeper is to prove that you have your finger on the pulse of the contemporary literature. And Helsingin Sanomat does this every year by dealing a price to best debutant writer. These five poets could have been on the shortlist for this price, but it seems that their books were not even read by the judges, let alone understood in the context of contemporary writing (or literary history for that matter). This of course undermines the authority of the price.

One aspect of the case is that all of these five books were published by small poetry publishers ntamo and PoEsia. Helsingin Sanomat has been known to have a distaste for such small publishers and it seems that these five books were unfortunate to have the label "small publisher" on them. In my opinion these two publishers produce some of the best poetry books in Finland and they publish more poetry than the big established publishers do together.

Leevi Lehto, publisher of ntamo, made a formal demand to Helsingin Sanomat to make a new review of Timo Harju's book because the first review made libelous claims of the book (the book being experimental having "introduced multiple-choice questionnaires and musical scores to Finnish poetry"). Multiple-choice questionnaires and musical scores are not really new in finnish poetry, let alone in international poetry, as everybody knows.

Mistakes in the poets' names, pointed many times in the discussion forum, are still uncorrected in the internet version of the review.

Here is a list of the books and links to their publisher's websites.

Original review in Finnish and link to discussion forum can be found here:
Uuden runouden äänenmurros (Change of voice in new poetry)
Amuse yourself with Google's translation of the review.

A list of links to blog posts and debate can be found on PoEsia website, in Finnish:
Traumatisoivaa avantgardea oikein tosissaan (Truly traumatising avant-garde)

1 comment:

Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl said...

This seems quite familiar, somehow - a trend that's definitely to be seen in Iceland as well, at least. Although the Helsinki scene is livelier, in the sense that this has actually sparked a debate, or at least a semi-outrage. When similar things happen in Iceland it never amounts to more than a few irritable facebook-statuses and comments.