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Skating on the Sea : Poetry from Finland

Edited and translated by Keith Bosley, Bloodaxe Books 1997

Review by Essi Kiviranta

A prodigious amount of reading and detective work has gone into the making of Keith Bosley’s new collection of 150 poems, Skating on the Sea: Poetry from Finland. For the first time, Englishbook cover of Skating on the Sea speakers can sample, within one set of covers, the three Finnish traditions: the ancient oral, the nineteenth-century early Finnish and the Swedish tradition. "It is like having Geoffrey Chaucer and Dafydd ap Gwilym side by side", says Bosley.

Just a few days of random dipping into the book made me feel like the poet Kallio’s chirpy cricket who "... out of lusty joy / blurted its delight / on a honey-sweet hummock / beside mead-sweet flowers".

A number of poems in the present volume have already appeared elsewhere in Bosley’s translation, for example in the mammoth tome of oral poetry The Great Bear, in the Kalevala, a slimmer selection of lyric poems from the Kanteletar, and in volumes of poems by Aleksis Kivi and Eino Leino. This new selection satisfies the cravings not only of the dipper but also of the methodical reader who wants to find out how Finnish poetry began and what paths it then followed through the centuries.

The Finnish reformer, Bishop Mikael Agricola, who first created a written form for Finnish over 400 years ago, has been accused in an insensitive school textbook of being a poor speller! Keith Bosley has sensibly not tried to render Agricola’s Preface to the Psalter in pseudo-ancient English, but has cleverly given an authentic feel of the original by retaining Agricola’s tentative spellings of the names of ancient Finnish gods, such as Äinemöinen (for Väinämöinen), Achti (Ahti) and Wirankannos (Virokannas).

The reader can also make exciting discoveries here, especially with poems that may already be familiar in the original. Most Finns will know the ballad of ‘The Death of Elina’ (Elinan surma), with its dramatic, abrupt ending, from the Kanteletar. Here we have an older version, reminiscent in style of the Kalevala. And those who at school assemblies were bored to numbness by the 12-verse hymn, "Wretched man, are you not made / sore afraid" (Etkös ole, ihmisparka, / aivan arka), will here find a thought-provoking translation of its full 23 verses.

Otto Manninen, an early translator of Shakespeare and Runeberg, whose poem ‘Skating on the Sea’ lent its title to this book, gave Bosley most trouble. Much admired at the turn of the century but for long virtually ignored, Manninen’s erudite and complicated metaphors are finding a new response among Finns, as Bosley confirms in his pithy and informative notes.

The notes also contain details of many of the musical settings of the poems, with composers’ names and opus numbers. However, a few well-loved songs have managed to elude even Bosley’s keen ear, among them Aleksis Kivi’s ‘Song of My Heart’ (Sydämeni Laulu) set for male voices or mixed chorus by Jean Sibelius (Op. 18/6). Space will have to be found in any subsequent edition for this and the poem’s new setting, by Einojuhani Rautavaara, for his latest opera based on the life of Aleksis Kivi.

But enough of niggles, Skating on the Sea is an absolute delight. So much poetical variety from such a small nation. And one can only admire the breadth of Keith Bosley’s reading, his phenomenal command of English, let alone of Finnish and its myriad variants, both ancient and modern, his feel for appropriate styles, and now also his command of Swedish. Do read and enjoy!

Essi Kiviranta is a freelance arts journalist

photo of Keith Bosley

Keith Bosley at the book launch

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