Roundtable: On the Origins, State, and Future Perspectives of Finno-Saxon (Charles Bernstein, Leevi Lehto, et al)

photo of Charles Bernstein and Levi Lehto
Charles Bernstein and Leevi Lehto. Photo courtesy of Kirsi Poikolainen, Manhattan, New York 1994.
A roundtable with Charles Bernstein, Frederik Hertzberg, Teemu Ikonen, Karri Kokko, Hasso Krull, Leevi Lehto, Olli Sinivaara, and Miia Toivio at the Kiasma Art Museum, Helsinki, August 24, 2004.

Leevi Lehto: … since maybe Charles and I are the ones most responsible for this thing to happen, and since we’ve had chances to talk about some of the subjects which I think will come up in this discussion … now for two days already, we thought it might be a good idea to start this discussion where we left it last evening … last night …

Charles Bernstein: This morning actually.

LL: … this morning, yes, and there were others involved in this discussion … I don’t quite remember who actually came up with this concept of Finno-Saxon … But last night was the beginning of the Finno-Saxon literature, I hope …

CB: It’s really more of a movement, don’t you think …

LL: It’s more of a movement, yes, and of course the term is also a homophonic translation for “Finnish accent,” which I hope will be heard a lot in this discussion, but just to get this started, Charles, would you like to elaborate a little on this concept of Finno-Saxon?

CB: I think it is important that we just leave it as a mythic ideal, rather than to elaborate too much. But the basic conception that we realized last night was that there’s too much proliferation of the many languages in the world, and we need to understand what the root or the ur-language is that is behind all languages, the pre-Babelian state, and we are proposing that Finno-Saxon really is the mother of all languages, the deep language that underwrites all other human languages … because if we can establish that, we really could create much more stability in international semiotic exchange.

Would you like me to translate that into English?

We are conducting this whole event in Finno-Saxon, and I have to try to speak only accenting the first syllable, but I have to practice more … I’m really kind of obsessed with pronouncing the other syllables – ob-sessed with pro-nounc-ing the oth-er syl-la-bles – but I’m working on it. So that would be the first step. If those of us who grew up speaking American English would start this so we’d also be participating in this Finno-Saxon revival.

I hope we’ve made this clear. We would ask you to sign a statement of allegiance to Finno-Saxon. And then the idea would be that, globally, we’d want everyone to learn Finno-Saxon as their first language, and then as the second language they can learn the local language of their village, their county, their local shopping-mall … But the first language would be Finno-Saxon. We would have crèches that would teach Finno-Saxon … and then we wouldn’t have the problem with communication that we have in the world, which is so troubling.

Finno-Saxon makes the search for the roots of the Indo-European so much pickled herring. Because The roots of Finnish and Saxon has nothing in common, according to linguists. So were talking very primal, very ur.

LL: The funny thing is that last night was also the night for the first poem written in Finno-Saxon to see the light … of … my phone, actually. I mean, when we were having this discussion, this poem that was written by Karri, who is sitting there, in the first row, came to my phone … because Karri and I are having this ongoing philosophical discussion by text-messages, so this poem came to my phone, and then, immediately, the phone ran out of power … So I could not show this to anyone last night…

CB: We took that as a sign…

LL: As a sign … as an important sign … an omen even … But now, Charles, I want you to read this short poem, which is like the beginnings of how we are to transcribe the Finno-Saxon …

CB: Or would it be Fie-no-Saxon?

LL: Final section?

CB: Fie-no-Sex-on? (Why no sexton?) Well … this is written in … you see, what impresses me is that with text-messaging, you’re able to have all the accents … So you want me to read this work of yours, Karri? Why don’t you do it?

Karri Kokko: No, you do.

LL: He asked me to give it to you to read, aloud.

CB: I mean one of the reasons that we are talking of this is of course the very fact that even in this environment in Helsinki we are all talking in English, of course first because I’m here … although … it’s a phenomenon that is not just confined to this room. There’s a kind of default privilege for a poet writing in English, given its status as a lingua franca. And that non-national pidgin for me is different from, you know, the English that I might speak in New York, certainly, just as British English is very different, different parts of British English are different from American English, and there are many American Englishes. There’s a great utility – for me – to be able to come here and to speak as I am now, and you can follow more or less. But at the same time it is fundamentally separate from what I am interested in poetic language … which does not strike to be universal in that way, because it has … it comes from so much culturally specific resonance with the individual words and phrases and accents … and then, in contrast, is the efficiency and utility of the lingua franca pidgin that can operate above the level of specific cultures … It might seem as if the kind of English that we speak in this environment would be the same as what the English of an American poem might be, but it isn’t. Actually, the poem is, in a way, as different in its linguistic space as a Finnish poem is from this language that I’m speaking now or the one that you hear, anyway. And it is this discrepancy that interests me very much. And then there is a tremendous discrepancy between the situation of Finnish in terms of Finnish poetry, and the situation of English for American poetry. It’s been my … increasing recognition that what made the radical American poetry so resonant, starting in the early part of the Twentieth Century was the fact that the non-English speakers of English, the people not from England but from other parts of Europe, especially, really reverse-colonized or transformed American English, even in speaking it, so that second language speakers of English and the children of the second language speakers of English fundamentally changed not only the American English that we all speak in the US now, but also, and especially important for those of us here, the poetic language. And now of course I’m thinking of Gertrude Stein, I’m thinking of William Carlos Williams, I’m thinking of Louis Zukofsky. As it turns out, if you look at the period between 1880 and 1910, in the northeast and midwest, not in the south (it’s interesting that the southeast of the United States has much more continuity of Anglophonic speakers). I don’t want to make this too complicated, but it is a crucial part of understanding American English. But of course in the south there is less non-British immigrants but an overwhelming presence of African Americans, with a set of subaltern vernaculars. But if you just think of the European immigrants, 100 years ago, up to half of the total population of the northeast and the midwest were children of second language speakers or second language speakers themselves. That means they grew up in households in which an other language was being spoken. And unlike the model, say, in France, where up until now – and actually France is very interesting at the moment (we talked about it with Tommi Nuopponen recently) – pretty much people who participate in the French language, learned and internalized a strict adherence to the conventions and standards of, Académie française French. There wasn’t that much tolerance for linguistic variance. In United States the situation is much more fluid, and in fact I would say that there’s very little of an internalized sense in most Americans of what the absolute standards for English are. I mean, you can teach it, and I’m a professor of English, and of course one of the things we often do in the universities is to teach Standard English, but when you teach Standard English you realize, you know, that a very smart 18-19-20 year old might not have only a fuzzy idea of what Standard English is. They have internalized that. That wouldn’t be the case in France. It would be inconceivable that you could have someone coming to a high-level university in France who wouldn’t know what Standard French was. I’m not judging this for good or for bad, I mean, there are different cultural values and histories … and one of the reasons for our fuzziness about grammar in the United States is that there are many different cultures that co-exist. And the American language has been very expansive; there has not been a emphasis on toeing the line of the standard, but rather a process of adaptation that allowed for the American language to absorb the multiplicity of the different languages (as much as this is a utopian democratic social space it is also a neoliberal taming of difference). Now, there are perennially people in the US and otherwise who are concerned about our lack of an official linguistic monoculture, who want to impose a monolingual standard. It is a very political issue, it’s always been a very politicized issue. But as practical, or sociological, matter it can never work, because the urban dynamic, the cosmopolitan dynamic, of constant waves of immigrants is so strong. Also the invention of branded mass culture in the United States, one of the most successful export items, is entirely dependent upon this phenomenon, the ability to make a kind of universally heard slang, in other words a mass culture commodity that emerges from popular/vernacular culture. You all hear that constantly – it’s the only music I’ve been hearing during this trip to Helsinki, this kind of Americanized slang of 60’s and 70’s. It’s very appealing, I mean, I love this music, but just want to note how it manages to commodity and export the local. If you go back a little ways to see where this is coming from, I’d point to Cole Porter, who I think was the most brilliant synthesizer of a nonstandard English, making it a kind of Standard Slang, so that it isn’t marked as ethnic, racial, or regional (but surely as “American”). And on the very opposite side there would be located somebody like Charlie Patton, who is a contemporary of Cole Porter – or the great blues singer Robert Johnson whom you might know better because he’s the best known of the Mississippi Delta blues singers. Patton and Johnson are not as immediately accessible as Porter; their work seems to be marked by its accent. So to be able to create unaccented slang seems to me one of the great … geniuses of American popular culture, and of the specific set of song-writers and lyricists … especially in1930’s and 40’s … Other great examples of this would be … maybe the most famous, to think about this in racial terms, George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward’s Porgy And Bess, which sets African-American speech, but within a kind of iambic Broadway frame so it’s kind of a translation of what is really not settable in iambic terms … within a song form, with its conventional rhyming pattern (brilliantly done by Ira Gershwin) … or … earlier… Show Boat by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, especially “Ol’ Man River” … transforming or translating or transposing an African-American demotic, which remains unassimilated, into popular song. Then, on the other side, I’m interested in unpopular poets like Zukofsky and Stein, who refused that assimilation even though their work is radically connected to American speech – but it’s American speech that remains marked not as accent, ethnic accent, but as poetic accent, as a poetic function.

So all that is really the kind of deep background to Finno-, or Fino-Saxon…

LL: Please go to the final section of your presentation …

CB: So it may be that the origins of Finno-Saxon are in the Mississippi Delta … But we are looking into this … because we think that we may find some textual evidence of early examples of Finno-Saxon that precede the Blues music. We are thinking of 1879 and 1878 …

LL: Here you make me think of Hasso Krull … and actually of the discussion we had last Autumn in Tallinn when we were doing an interview with him for Tuli&Savu, where we also talked about this multi-lingual situation in Estonia which is a little bit different from what…

CB: Yes, we talked about this last night too…

LL: Right. So, Hasso, would something of what Charles was saying in the beginning of this … lecture … that we just heard … would that translate to the Estonian situation, and then I’d like you to include the question of Russian, too, not only the Finnish and Estonian…

Hasso Krull: Russian must have developed in a very similar manner to the American English, I think… because … for different reasons, but it too has absorbed so many local languages of the territory that has been called Russia, the Russia of today. It has so many different local accents that somewhat derive from those earlier or older languages of the territory … But, well, I think the multilingualism of those languages … if for example we take Estonian, it is not a small language, and it is not a large or great language, it’s somewhere really in the middle, so there doesn’t exist that structure of language as being used in any part of the world. There exists this kind of Russian that is spoken by the Russians in Tallinn, which is of course very very funny and a little bit weird, but I think all this multilingualism is not … I think it kind of turns upside down what you said about the situation in America. There it would be a multilingualism inside one language, whereas here, again, it would be the … well … the state or destiny of those middle-sized tongues … that everybody has to be to some degree multilingual, and at the same time this first language itself is becoming more and more …well … standardized, without even intending to do so, because of this relatively small size of the territory, of the relatively small number of speakers and this constant multilingualism and reaching from one level to another …to a third language, and so on. So the process seems to be similar but as if seen from the different end of the tube.

CB: .. the process being similar but from the different ends of the tube is a way of understanding this joke of ours about the Finno-Saxon. In a way, it’s like an optical illusion of a tube where one side is square and the other side is round and it looks like a tube. Because of the opposite circumstance … in a certain way, as languages… and here I’m of course thinking more of the Finnish, because Finnish … the other interesting thing to me about Finnish, which makes it so … both impossible for me to really be able to understand, but also what makes it interesting to me, as a poetic language, is, for one thing, its finitude within a kind of space and time over a long period of time… that the place names, for instance, are associated with the words and so on, because …in … well, I’m staying now for this summer in a place called Guilford, but when I’m in England, people say, “O, I know where Guildford is,” but it is another Guilford … or New York itself, everything is double to something else – and then we have the Indian names too, which underlie that – but we don’t have the continuity of a language spoken by a group of people over a long period of time that relates within the same space … But then also, equally suggestive, is the relationship between the spoken and the written, which again in Finnish is a still ongoing circumstance. So that, you know, last night at our dinner we spoke to two people, one of whom is translating James Joyce’s Ulysses into Finnish, the other is translating Homer’s Iliad into Finnish. I mean, this possibility within a language culture is something unique to the people who are in this circumstance …

LL: So you mean Ulysses has not been translated into English at all?

CB: That’s right! We still have yet to translate it into Manhattan. So maybe we could have a Manhattan version, and a Bronx version, a Brooklyn version, “and Staten Island too.” I think the Brooklyn version of Ulysses is gonna really be the one that is gonna have the most potential to reach people. But, you know, you have these shifts of population, as I was saying last night, great as the differences in this region are … in terms of, you know, cultural differences … maybe not so great. Then, again, the size of the different boroughs of New York is pretty great … and the differences (scores of different language spoken in Queens) … but what I was trying to talk about was not only the absorption of the multilingual, but also the relationship to speech, and especially accented speech, for people who are not speaking the standard version of the language, who are aware of linguistic difference (or queerness) … which becomes a constant source of energy for poetry. So often the poetry – especially for the kind of poetry that I write, or indeed modernist poetry, from Mallarmé on – is thought to be primarily textual, not so much related to speech; but I think that’s not the case at all (“that is not it, at all” as Eliot says). I think this “textual” poetry refracts the enormous energies of accentuated, nonstandard speech into a woven semiosis … and that might in fact be a point of contact between the Finnish and the American in poetry … if we zoom the frame out a bit: both dealing with the question of particularity, within a world that becomes both more and less local at the same time, where globalization departicularizes but also allows us more intense exchanges in/as poetry … It’s like this slogan “Think globally but act locally,” which is a fundamental poetic necessity, or I say “Think digitally, act analogically,” and we are acting analogically, we are trying to come up with an analysis, to create concrete connections rather than universalized systems that exist above the local. So from that other end of the tube, as an American poet, my problem is how to accentuate the particularity and locality of what I’m doing as a poet, over and against something which would not interest me as poetry, which is this undifferentiated, internationalized, communicative lingua franca – though I use that language, of course, I haven’t any other language to use really…

Olli Sinivaara: I’d like to ask more about what you said … did you mean that the modern poetry from Mallarmé on… or whoever on… has been all the time somehow related to this speak-side but it has not been on the surface, or it has not been seen, but it has been there, or do you rather mean that it is something contemporary, something that is coming out now and something you, especially in your poetical work, have been doing, like using all the colloquialisms and so on, the speech of the American etc… because I think it is interesting that if we think of the Finnish modernist poetry, one of the big Finnish modernists, Eeva-Liisa Manner, she was from Karelia and she spoke a very … I’ve heard some radio interviews… she spoke a really typical Karelian accent, I don’t know if such accent exists any more… but she really spoke like that, but I’d say there’s no trace of that in her texts, and I think this is what actually defines her importance as a modern poet… in some way that it’s … she has said that all her poetical work was an attempt to come back to the lost Karelia… or the lost town of her childhood … but the means for doing that was … a language where all the traces of this accent and this Finnish particularity had been erased … so I think that’s important to understand … that in the Finnish modernism and in the case of Eeva-Liisa Manner especially … the way of avoiding the undifferentiated local language has not been to take into account the colloquial speech, but rather the more French-like, or Mallarmé-like, abstraction … or …

Miia Toivio: Very clean… actually…

OS: Yes… clean…

CB: The relation of speech to writing is always at issue in the most radical modern and contemporary Western poetry, but the relation is often ambiguous and even deceptive, as in a kind of bait and switch con game. The idea of a pure “ur” language that’s beyond the kind of vapour of speech is the joke of Finno-Saxon, our marking of this desire for a language beyond speech as troubling. So not purifying the language of the tribe, as Mallarmé or Pound, but as Leevi says, “plurifying” the language. So, I come from that perspective, that aesthetic, ethical, and I suppose political perspective, which many people share, and many others reject. But then part of the reason some people come to that plurifying perspective is they are not included in the “pure”; maybe if they were be included, they’d be more sympathetic. So much depends on what you can identify with. When you come from a situation of migration, immigration, and displacement, not usually chosen but rather chosen for you, you have a different attitude about such things. Famous issue, from the last century. Much of what I’m saying intentionally pushes against the received history, and yes that has to do with things that I want to accentuate for the poetry being created now. But having reframed the issue, it also changes the perspective of what was going on earlier, including Mallarmé … who … you could look at The Crisis of Verse and other works of his that do touch on these issue, because, well, here it comes again, Mallarmé is a fundamentally ambiguous figure on this issue. In the American context he can be paired with Stein. Stein’s breakthrough to modernist composition was through her transcriptions in Three Lives: not only famously of African-American dialect in “Melanctha,” which has been reviled as racist by some contemporary critics, but which was appreciated by a number of African-American poets and intellectuals in the 20s and 30s, because you hadn’t seen, in writing, this dialect. In the same book she also translates German-American speech patterns, and right from there she goes into The Making of Americans and Tender Buttons, because in the repeating that she was hearing, and the sound of people speaking, she was realizing a much greater plastic dimension to the language … And Pound of course, you know, very troubling from exactly the point of view you were talking about, because Pound both understood this multiplicity, and also had the most disturbing approach to it at times in his life, looking for that purity. And of course we have Eliot too and his quest for purity. But I would say that The Waste Land, and Pound’s work, really cannot be understood outside of the context of a collage of multiplicity, of conflicting languages. Pound thought he could adjudicate these different swatches of language and come upon some way of putting them together that you would get behind the shadows of a fallen world. He could not make it … Finno-Saxon! In a way, you could say that about Mallarmé too, but Mallarmé so radically takes out the cultural and local references in a way that is not going toward the ur, the Finno-Saxo, but rather is opening a space forward, that you could move into, a geometric space. The geometric aspect of abstraction doesn’t lock it into an anterior idealization or a projected horizon. It’s a complicated answer but I think it’s. .. I’m very sympathetic to what you are saying … I think what I suggest is a product of our present thinking about the catastrophe of the twentieth century. But we are all compelled to think about that without rejecting modernism but by staying troubled by aspects of the master narrative, the purism, and so on.

OS: I very much agree with you… with what you say… and it’s important that it is ambiguous, and when I think about Manner, I just want to make this last little point. I would argue for the point that the importance of poet like Manner – for the Finnish modernism – is precisely this … that there are no traces of this background … and instead, this purity … because by these means … the sort of negative aspect or the aspect of language being autonomous – all these basic modernist ideas – are made possible in that poetry.

Teemu Ikonen: I was coming to the question of purity in language … but … you already… went… there. But let me rephrase the issue by saying … or by asking you, Professor Bernstein, how do you see your relationship to the traditions of pure poetry and impure poetry. By pure poetry I mean of course the modernist tradition that tries to purify poetry of everything that is alien to it … like referentiality, or communicative platitudes… or accents … and by impure poetry I mean, you know, as Pablo Neruda used to say, poetry that wants to touch the reader by this everyday language, phrases or platitudes in the modernist sense. So, well, I must say that I have written one sketchy essay on your poem written in collaboration with Nick Piombino, “Slow Reason,” which begins, “Poetry is sediment … I wipe off the windscreen …” I read it as a comment to this question of pure poetry and impure poetry … transparent poetry and opaque poetry…

LL: And maybe the first time an individual poem has now been mentioned in this discussion…

CB: One of the things that I’m interested in doing is troubling these kinds of binaries. My tendency would be to say that the only thing that could possibly be pure would be to maximize the impure. I always go for that side of that particular binary, or to go after some root sense that confounds the dualism … Pure and impure is another version of sacred and profane, where profanity approaches the sacred, let’s just say, in its despair. Metaphors are like that … So, I would say the problem is thinking you can think one half of the binary without immediately imbricating the other. Pure and impure are contextual relative values, like up and down. You are only up related to where you are in the building – if you are on the third floor, the fourth floor is up; if you are on the sixth floor, then it’s down. But the third floor “in itself” is neither up nor down. And for me the issue of the local and the particular, versus some kind of pure, on the one hand, or universal on the other, would have to be a relative value depending on circumstance your are in. If you are in a circumstance in which you are overwhelmed and oppressed by the claustrophobia of the regional, the local, the national, then of course you’d have an enormous reason to want to open that up, abstract that, find some way out of it; if you find yourself, at the same time, in a different circumstance constantly confronted by universalizing metaphors, then you might want to, you know, step in and concertize, particularize, resist all universals, freeze sediments in time, weigh them down. So I think the problem is trying to say that you are one side or the other … like subjectivity or objectivity … one side or the other of a philosophical binaries, whereas for me the possibility of poetry is to actually turn those things, you know, around on themselves. Let me return as I so often do to the everyday, I’m obsessed by the ordinary, and yet my poetry is much more kind of art for art’s sake in the Mallarméan way … of course, the paradox of the everyday in poetry is you have take it out of flow of the experience. When you frame it, you lose it’s everydayness. The everyday, in words, is very much related to the vernacular, or dialect, or accented language. When language becomes pure, or even “properly” spoken, so that there is no accent at all, no matter how beautiful or profound, it looses its everyday quality. The everyday quality is when you try to, um, well, try to, hm, just speak and, you know, whatever it is that you’re stumbling on. It’s stutter. How do you capture that aspect of the everyday? If I would transcribe that set of speech interruptions, it would look strange, strange in way dialect looks strange when it is written out with odd spellings. But when you hear it, it sounds absolutely rooted in its place. It’s this discrepancy between the transcription of the accented that makes it look strange, out of ordinary, unfamiliar. But at the same time that strangeness of the dialect or of directly transcribed speech comes out of actual speech acts that are not at all strange in situ, which is the fundamental situation of writing. Writing wrongs speech. Writing transforms and transcribes the speech into another dimension. And this is why the tape recorder is so very significant for poetry and for the history of the speech, the historicizing of speech. With a recording, you can hear the accents of a poem in a way that is utterly different than dialect orthography. So for me, it’s very slippery slope: the more you aspire to purity, the more, from my point of view, you become profane in a bad sense.

LL: Talking about transcriptions, now it might be time for the first…

CB: <points to Karri Kokko’s cellphone> You want me to read this…?

LL: Yes, you should read it.

CB: You want me to read this in a kind of pseudo-Finnish … or should I read it…

LL: You read it as you see it there.

CB: … in Finno-Saxon …

LL: It’s hard to do, but please, try the Finno-Saxon.

CB: Well, as far as you can tell from the textual evidence of this artifact before me … It seems to be a Nokia phone from perhaps 2004 when … the people in this period and in this region communicated on these tiny screens … they had not yet invented the paper where they could write out and have a clear, white background where you could see the letters … this would be a development that would come later on … but they did have lots of musical tones all the time, that fill the air … And they seem to sing constantly…

Well, the Finno-Saxon pronunciation of this would be:

<reads>

I could work on that a little bit to get my accent even further from the way you might pronounce it, but … Karri, you wanna read that in the Old Finnish…?

KK: I could try.

<reads>

Frederik Hertzberg: It’s like Isidore Isou.

LL: Actually, Olli made this very interesting point about Eeva-Liisa Manner trying to root out all the local or colloquial…

OS: Or to be exact, she went to Spain to write about Spanish peasants in pure Finnish to attain her Karelian roots … so it’s quite complicated.

LL: Yes. Now I kind of suspect that something of the opposite is going on in this poem. I’m beginning to sense some traces of global English in it. And I’d like to ask Karri about this mystery. It seems to be a transcription or translation of something which at least we have heard earlier in this global language we are all trying to speak here, now. Please, reveal the mystery.

KK: The mystery is, last night I met a friend of mine, and … she’s a young lady who has never read any serious poetry, only the Wall-Mart variants of poetry. And I showed her the booklet with Mr. Bernstein’s poems in it…

LL: You mean the program of last evening’s … ?

KK: Yes. And the first thing was that she … I could see from her expression that she couldn’t understand any of it. Then, when I explained that this is a poem written with all the original typos in it, no editing, just accept everything that comes on the page, she said, “O,” and started reading it again.

CB: She was reading the translation, or the …?

KK: Both. And the third thing that happened was that she started reading it aloud. I didn’t suggest it, but she started to do that. And I can tell that it was a very heavy experience for her. Then the fourth thing that happened was that she said, “You should have written this on a cellphone and not on a typewriter,” and I said to her, “Let’s do it.” And I started writing your poem on my mobile.

CB: I wrote “A Defence of Poetry” on a computer, as it enabled me to potentiate my errors, with the more fluid, resistanceless, typing. Though there is the related work, “Lift Off” which is based on manual typewriter errors. Both poems center on my “actual” typing errors. I grew up with a manual typewriter, I’m one of those quite few in this room who did. And it’s a different experience with a manual typewriter and making corrections … and I’m a bad typist, as I was saying last night. I make a lot of errors, I always have, I’m a bad speller though I’m a better speller now than I was, you know, in the earlier years. The word processor made it much easier to capture my errors … because you could just let your fingers almost relax and … improvise … into the errors, more easily than I could have with the regimented space of the typewriter. So I think your friend is right in terms that the technology of the creation did have to do with the processing of the letters. When you are writing individual letters down by hand, which I often do, I still sometimes write by hand!, it creates a different sense of errors. I don’t make typos like inverting letters when I handwrite. And when I’m typing manually, knowing that I’d have to physically correct the mistakes, especially before there was self-correcting tape, when you actually would have to go back and wipe out something … then I’m more prone to not make those errors … you know, you pay the price for them. You just watch out about what you are doing, spell the words out letter by letter, s-l-o-w-l-y … The reason why you and I makes these mistakes, like inverting letters, is because the mind goes very fast … you are thinking slightly ahead of where you are, so you are one letter before. So the technology did, in a funny way, open up that process for mistakes. But that poem is used by various people I know in teaching English. They use it in the expository writing and composition classes … for exactly the reason that you showed it to your friend. People not so much interested in poetry or literature but rather in ways of thinking about errors, in a non-punitive way (which is for me a way of thinking about poetry!).

KK: One thing that I like to add is … the fifth odd thing that happened was that when I started to writing the poem…

LL: … typoing it …

KK: … into the phone, she was watching me and could see, just looking at my hand, that I was correcting myself. And she said, “Don’t you dare correct yourself. Don’t revise it.” It was only ten minutes into her career as a poet, and she was already into all the mysteries of Finno-Saxon …

CB: It’s a wonderful story, because to me it’s not to do with a particular poem – and I’m very committed to particular poems! – but with poetics. The issue of correction is related to the issue of dialect, of accent. Because we are always correcting, whether normalizing an accent, correcting our speech to be more correct, to be more grammatical, correcting our spelling. There’s a constant self-correction mechanism which for most writers, for most people, can’t really be stopped. We do corrected our speaking, our dictions, our accents. Still with writing those self-correcting mechanisms typically operate at a higher degree. You can’t make spelling errors when you speak and you don’t need to speak in complete sentences either. So there’s something, you know, very exhilarating about reading a kind of writing which seems not to have that constant censorship or self-correcting. I mean, I think Ulysses for a generation had that function, with its stream of consciousness … So I like what you said that your friend noticed that you couldn’t give up correcting, even in a text message. … the coded language that becomes so cute in text messaging, the shorthand … originally, it’s supposed to be informal, right? But after a while it becomes a very restricted code, a standardized, official shorthand …

LL: … Now, what from my point of view is the right wing of this discussion tends to dominate a bit … and I’d like to give the floor to Fred and Miia first … but … can we risk one more remark from Olli and Teemu’s side … I know Olli could use all the time we have left, but…

MT: Well, I can be really short because I just have one thing to say … I’m a little bit … I feel this might have to do with this idea of reclaiming the language to the ones who use it… I was reading some of your essays in Content’s Dream… I don’t quite remember where but it just came to my mind as that kind of …

CB: in the “Preface” to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, Bruce Andrews and I speak of “repossessing” the word, playing on the term used when the bank takes back your house. It’s funny in this context … But let me clarify: I’m not against language standards. Before I was professor of English, I worked as a medical writer and necessarily trafficked in standardization. I’m obsessed with standardization and I value the ability to write impeccable standard English. I am not sure how much the ideological issues around standard English play out in terms of Finnish; I would think they wouldn’t. … The question isn’t, Should people learn standard English? –it’s a valuable social skill and often a crucial asset to those who have opportunity to acquire it (and an unwarranted but very real stigma for those who don’t). Rather, the question is, How you learn the standards?, and why some people do and other do not. So the poetics project of reclaiming your language means reversing the stigma of the nonstandard, recognizing that your language as you speak it has an integrity to it, that is does have value. Local languages don’t need to be transformed or abandoned, despite the social stigma attached to them. In teaching the standard, it is not necessary to stigmatize the local. It’s possible to approach learning the standard without the moralizing of correction and superiority. So this is the reclamation that is for me a fundamental dimension of the kind of poetry I want. Hey: it’s an elaborate answer to only the phrase that you used! And on the other side is the commercialization of the vernacular or informal language like text messaging, when it becomes its own formula or brand.

FH: This kind of relates, I think, to what we discussed, you discussed earlier, on the pure and impure … I would think the example of Finland-Swedish modernism is somewhat different from the Finnish modernism – since all the great Finland-Swedish modernists spoke Swedish as a second language. Edith Södergran, for instance, spoke Russian, and …

LL: … German even…

FH: Yeah. Henry Parland spoke Russian and German and French, and Elmer Diktonius was bilingual but all the time the Finnish language revitalized or vitalized his Swedish. And Gunnar Björling who was the only mono-lingual modernist, he was the most radical sort of innovator who really reveiled the standard language. I want to mention this because I think that even though they created a sort of pure language in their poetry, still, I think these variants and these other languages sort of revitalized their poetry so that this kind of modernism could take place at all, which it didn’t do in Sweden until 1940, I would say, so that this could happen so early was also because of the … was possible because of what these people had read in, say, German or Russian.

LL: And I would say something similar about many other places in Europe – Kafka in Prague being one example as Deleuze and Guattari emphasize in their study of him …

OS: And I think it is interesting now … I have one question and one point … regarding all this discussion about purity and impurity and this very interesting question about possessing and repossessing of the language which is familiar to me a bit … because I’ve lived one year in Australia and there the issue of the aboriginal poetry was interesting and the word they used for taking away the aboriginal language was dispossession. I have one question about the modern poetry as freedom from language. I think it can be said that one important intention, conscious or unconscious, partly fulfilled and partly always unfulfilled, of modernism has been – always – the emancipation of language, making language more free, creating more means and forms of poetical expression so that poetry could live its own life and perform its own tricks. I think it’s interesting regarding this discussion about repossessing the language to the users and against literary language … this opposition and the ambiguity of modern poetry. Here this question of freedom becomes very interesting because it can be said that on the other hand precisely this purity, this getting rid of the spoken word or the speech has been an important means of being free or making language free. But then, now, this discussion somehow seems to come to the point that, in our situation, one of the important tasks of the modern or contemporary poetry is to give some freedom and some space to this impure, this un-literary language. So the concept or idea of freedom as one of the most important aspects of modern poetry is very much related to this role of writing and speech in contemporary poetry.

FH: There’s also what’s happening right now in Sweden, for instance, when young writers start using a language spoken in this part of Stockholm caller Rinkeby. And they write Rinkeby Swedish which is actually of course an artificial version of what is actually spoken in Rinkeby.

CB: What is Rinkeby?

OS: It’s like the Brooklyn of Stockholm…

FH: Yeah. One of the areas where the most workers live. It’s a pretty big part of Stockholm. … I mean, there’s the question of what they are trying to do in their art … trying to structure their language – it’s of course not real Rinkeby Swedish but still it sort of resembles it … so there’s the same distance to the standard language. And that’s very much like what the poets, I would say, in the Twenties and Thirties, tried to do, inventing this sort of syntax which had the same distance to the standard language even though it didn’t incorporate the impure elements from real life …

LL: … well, the question of freedom is connected to this very difficult issue of, let’s say, subjectivity, and poetry seen as self-expression. Of course it depends on from which angle you see the modernist project so to say, but I’d say that, for me, in the modernist project one of the most important aspects is the questioning of even the value of self-expression and the view of language as something which is used for self-expression. And this of course brings in the theme of what I and some others would call constraint-based writing … of which my new work Päivä is an example … not to advertise it in any way but … now it’s for Teemu…

TI: Okay, I have a technical, concrete question that would lead to this question of freedom and subjectivity so we won’t miss the point here I hope. It was fascinating to hear you, Professor Bernstein, to recite Leevi’s poem, “Sanat tulevat yöllä” – the homophonic translation of that, yesterday … and I would like to have a bit of a closer look at the poem or two poems, or the three languages that are created by them. I think the homophonic translation creates a third language somewhere between … maybe a Finno-English language between English and Finnish. What I saw or see or what I heard and still hear is the … in your poem, “Sane As Tugged Vat, Your Love,” or something like that, is a result of many different techniques of mutation, transformation, replacement, omission … if we compare sound sequences in this Finnish and this English or this third language version. For example, when Leevi uses the word “kertaa” you have the word, “curtsy,” where the “s” certainly isn’t in …

LL: It’s his way to refer to my wife, Kirsi…

TI: … and when Leevi uses the word “koputtamatta” you have “kaput,” so there’s something missing there …

CB: To me they sound the same … say the two things again.

TI: “Koputtamatta.” “Kaput.”

CB: It’s the same…

LL: Well, the final vowel is missing…

CB: I can’t hear that …

LL: … I’ve noticed that….

CB: I have a kind of a selective hearing …

TI: Yes, but my question would be, how is homophonic translation done and what are the criteria of selection. What is your freedom? How do you see your freedom in this kind of constraint-based writing?

CB: My model for homophonic translation is Louis and Cecilia Zukofsky’s Catullus. I don’t have any fixed rules and am happy enough to swerve from the expected even in a procedure that thrives on the unexpected. I’m writing on the fly, by ear, noting phrases that pop up, that I wouldn’t have thought of except for the procedure … but yes, I like your point that the procedure does create a kind of other or third language. Also I like the utter ludicrousness of the result. Homophonic poems don’t have to be funny, even if many are; Robert Kelly shows that in his beautiful translation of Hölderlin’s “Am Quell der Donau” and also his Celan’s homophonics, “Earish.” I’m interested in the comic dimensions of poetry and poetics, as here we started with a pretty ludic premise. The ludicrous can bring abstract ideas down to earth; think of a pratfall. For me, poetic practice is about synthesizing as you go, incorporating contradiction.

So that brings me back to repossessing and reclaiming: the key being the “re-,” because it’s a process …

LL: We don’t have that in Finnish, by the way … no translation in Finnish for “re-”, is there? … The word “re-” doesn’t exist in Finnish and this is one of the reasons why the Finno-Saxon frame is so important…

CB: Naturally “re” doesn’t exist in the Edenic language! The key thing about “re-” is that it signals loss. We’ve lost what we once possessed and must do something to get it back. Simple possession (not in the sense of a Marijuana violation) is in tune with the way epic or nationalist poetry imagines its relation to its language. This language is ours, we are pro-claiming its greatness. For those of us who oscillate between dispossession and reclaiming, it’s is always a process of lost-and-found, because the danger of the repossession is that somehow you’re gonna fight a battle and you’re gonna win and establish your precinct. That’s the darker side of repossession, as in, say, the Serbo-Croatian situation, where you just had one language … and now you have two. They seem to be the same but they have been repossessed by the Serbs and the Croatians. One side uses the Cyrillic alphabet, the other uses the Roman alphabet. Of course there are deep religious and historical divisions that support this new division, this desire to go back to an older and more natural order. The aversion of this kind of ultra-nationalism is why, I believe, as Leevi said, a lot of us are interested in non-expressive and constraint-based writing … because of that darker sense of repossession as something which will allow you to express a nationalist agenda more forcefully … in contrast to repossessing or reclaiming as something that opens up a dialectical process of thinking about how a language operates at multiple levels. Freedom is never absolute. Freedom is always a question of – from what and for whom.

What is democratic social space and what does poetry have to do with it? One model for democratic social space is majority rule. The majority gets to decide what language is spoken, what’s correct, what’s allowed in school. Like many before me, I favour a model of democratic social space that ensures minority representation and minority expression, including the imaginary minorities, self-created minorities. It means allowing co-existences of difference and non-assimilation, multiplicitous spaces rather than individual minority enclaves (micro-nationalisms). It’s not an easy thing. But that’s why thinking this through in poetry is so important. Because identity is formed in and through language. Issues around ethnicity and race are language-based or language-marked. So the way we think about what this democratic social space might be is very intimately connected to the poetics of self-expression. If I have been critical of essentialist modes of self-expression, I have always said even there that the problem is the same, or worse!, with group expressions, including aesthetic schools or movements.

OS: When Fred mentioned Rinkeby Swedish and these kind of phenomena, I think they are quite global, that there are big cities where the still-existing major languages and major cultures … are not really existing any more … even though they are still powerful in the official culture … I think it is a situation that is very … it’s easy to see that this is something that happens in our time in a university area or in certain contexts of people like us, a constraint-based, non-expressive writing is a means of acquiring, paradoxically, this freedom of expression. … And at the same time, twenty or thirty kilometres to the east or west there’s an area where the same thing is acquired by precisely the opposite means, which is the traditional self-expression, using the language that I feel is my own because it comes from the inside …

CB: Yeah, it’s a difficult point. Recognizing the social context is key, because the “same” technique means often opposite things in a different context. The fight for expression may require opposite tactics in different contexts. Formal innovation is always local – that is where I part from the many positivist accounts of the avant garde. Formal innovation is not universal. Expression and nonexpression in poetry are necessarily rhetorical devices. Unreflected self-expression is an ideology just as is any idea of the purity or necessity of form. Here universalist formalism and neoliberal humanism are the one-two punch. But there is a third way. And I say this because I think it is important for those of us who are arguing this way. We often lose the battle to the fierceness of fundamentalisms of different sorts. I’m willing to accept many different views, but I’m not willing to accept that there’s only one view. And I’m as adamant in my opposition to that as anybody is in opposition to so-called relativism. I am not relativist for that reason. The dialogic basis of democratic social space is about negotiating but it is not negotiable. I won’t give up the right to negotiate.

FH: This is a real question, in the sense that I’m interested in the answer. Well, I think “A Defence Of Poetry” is a poem that works very well in performance. I just like to hear something about the dedication to Brian McHale, the cultural context, what made you … the motivation of this poem. What made you write this?

CB: Literary critic Brian McHale wrote an essay, which I liked, on reading the poetry of J. H. Prynne, John Ashbery, and me within the frame of nonsense, as in Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. As much as I love Lear and Carroll, I was pushing back against the idea that if a poem doesn’t operate within a conventional structure of meaning it can be called nonsense. I prefer to say such works make sense, that is they create sense, but differently (which is not entirely different than Brian’s view).

FH: Is it possible to be nonsensical … or not to make sense?

CB: People say nonsensical things all the time. Much of our political discourse is nonsensical in a deceptive way. Wittgenstein speaks about certain species of nonsense with great acumen. The concept of the – this may disappoint some of you – but the concept of the Finno-Saxon is a species of nonsense, it was meant to be nonsensical. But the conversation wasn’t nonsensical even though you realized that the premise was absurd. Because this particular piece of nonsense was satirizing views about language which are equally nonsensical, but not lay bare their absurdity … So it’s, you know, fighting nonsense with nonsense. And that’s in the way what I address in the poem. How nonsense can be used to annihilate the possibility of sense by those who believe their nonsense is the truth and yours isn’t.

FH: And that’s why you talk about jewellers’ tools rather than … that it’s a small rhetorical tool that …

CB: Right. That “nonsense” as a literary tool is not like a sledgehammer that pulverizes meaning; it’s a particular, delicate rhetorical modality. … In an analogous way, poetry that estranges representation is not giving up on the real, it’s fighting for it.

OS: I think this raises one question that I’ve been thinking of, about the role or the status of the writing process in this kind poetry, like in “A Defence Of Poetry,” because I think that I would argue for the point that there’s no pure nonsense in the … there’s no writing process that could be pure nonsense because the process itself produces sense even if the product is totally nonsensical …

CB: That’s right.

OS: But. What happens to this idea of the process itself being sensical even if the product is nonsensical … What happens to this aspect of writing … or these kinds of poems you write and we can read and we heard yesterday… when it is published and when it exists as text that can be read. I myself am very much obsessed with this question about the writing process: What’s the difference between reading and writing? What do you think happens to this sort of unavoidable sense of the writing process itself when the process is stopped …

CB: I think it is a very important question. The description that you, Karri, gave of your friend reading the poem was a perfect example of where I think sense takes place. Sense doesn’t take place on the page, it doesn’t take place just in the mind, it’s in the social space itself … last night at the Helsinki Festival reading, it’s hard to know what the hundreds of people there would have made of a homophonic poem like “Sane As Tugged Vat, Your Love”; surely this approach to generating a poem would have been new to many of them. We projected the poem in two columns: Leevi’s original on side and my version on right. The meaning of that poem, to answer your question on sense, is in the blank space in between the two columns. It is not on either side, it’s in that space between. The space of translation, the social space, or the space of communication and transaction: that’s where the meaning of poetry, yes!, lies. As much as I am devoted to, and fetishize, the particular poem and its text, its specifics on the page, nonetheless, the greater interest in poetry doesn’t have to do with that but rather with that social space which poetry opens up, which it engenders. In that way, the test of poetry is how it enters into the sense-making that exists in the world, not on the page.

LL: Thank you, Charles. I think we should repossess this process … some time later, don’t you think so?

CB: Absolutely.

LL: So… thanks to all of you… for coming… and… to be continued.

 

 


Charles Bernstein has had two books published in Finnish by Leevi Lehto: Runouden puolustus. Esseitä ja runoja kahdelta vuosituhannelta  (A Defence of Poetry. Essays and Poems From Two Millennia, edited by Leevi Lehto, translated by Lehto and others, Helsinki: Nihil Interit and Kirja kerrallaan, Fall 2006) and Parsing / Jäsentäen (translated by Leevi Lehto, Helsinki: ntamo, 2009). Bernstein’s 60th birthday tribute to Lehto is at Jacket2. Lehto and Bernstein’s collaborations are listed here.

Fredrik Hertzberg (b. 1966) is a literary critic, scholar and editor. His dissertation Moving Materialities (2002) deals with translation and materiality, with special regard to the Finland-Swedish modernist poet Gunnar Björling. He has published a book of translations of Björling’s poetry, You go the words (2007), and is currently writing a biography of Björling.

Teemu Ikonen (b. 1969) is currently working as a university lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Tampere, Finland. Among his research interests are narrative theory, 18th century British and French novel, and the history of experimental writing. He is a co-founder of the Finnish website for digital poetry, www.nokturno.org.

Karri Kokko (b 1955) is a Finnish poet. His visual poetry is found at http://lettttere.tumblr.com/ and http://www.nokturno.org/karri-kokko/.

Hasso Krull (b. 1964) is an Estonian poet, essayist, and translator. Starting with his debut Mustvalge (Black-white, published under the pseudonym Max Harnoon, 1986), he has published eleven volumes of poetry, including Swinburne (1995), Meeter ja Demeeter (Meter and Demeter, 2004), and, most recently, Veel ju vist (Yet, after all, I guess, 2012). His numerous translations include works by Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, Paul Valéry, Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Pierre Bourdieu, Slavoj Žižek, and Allen Ginsberg.

Leevi Lehto (b. 1951) is Finnish poet, translator, publisher, and performer. His book of poetry in English, Lake Onega and Other Poems, was published by Salt 2006. His most recent translation is a new Finnish edition of Ulysses by James Joyce (2012). He runs his own book-on-demand press, ntamo.

Olli Sinivaara (b. 1980) is a Finnish poet and translator. He has published four collections of poetry. He has also translated René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred into Finnish and is presently working with Girard’s thought.

Miia Toivio (b. 1974) is a Finnish poet and poetry activist. She worked as the editor-in-chief of the influential Finnish poetry magazine, Tuli&Savu, 2003–2006. Her first book of poetry was Loistaen olet (Shining, You Are, 2007). Her most recent work is Suut (Mouths, 2012, together with Marko Niemi), a book of sound-oriented love poetry, also featuring translations from “The Sonnets to Iris” by Jackson Mac Low.

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