Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Folk-poetry - another point about relativism

I've been reading the Kanteletar recently. Specifically, I'm talking about Keith Bosley's translation of (I think) about a quarter of the collection, which was published in the Oxford World's Classics in 1992. The collection was put together by Lönnrot as a companion to the Kalevala. These are the short songs and ballads of the oral Finnish tradition.

Of course they have been through quite a bit of literary transformation - both Lönnrot and Bosley took quite a creative hand - but that's a complication I ask you to set aside for the purposes of this note. Just take it that I'm reading folk-poetry (or folk-lyrics i.e. the words of folk-songs - there's no real distinction in this case).

I have hugely valued (and in that sense enjoyed) my copy of the Kanteletar in the twenty years since I got it. I have, as you know, a strong not to say obsessive allegiance to all things Fennoscandic. And I've dipped into it dozens of times. But the dips were always pretty short. And basically, it's only now that I'm reading it. And, no great surprise, I'm loving it.

Image from showing two pages from a collection of Kantetetar poems for children, with illustrations by Kirsti Gallen-Kallela.


Anyway it's started me thinking about art-relativism again. In previous notes I've spoken about a basic distinction between inner and outer audiences. The inner audience is e.g. film fans, and the outer audience is e.g. people who don't give a stuff about films, don't go to the cinema, and usually change channels when a film comes on the telly. The point I made then was that arguing about the merits of The Wolf of Wall Street only makes sense within the inner audience. So far, so obvious.

I don't know if I stated, but I certainly implied, that the enjoyment of art only took place within the inner audience. The arguments about the merits of such-and-such a film matter because all  the audience members know what it's like to enjoy a decent film.

As for the people in the outer audience, I took it as definitional that they could look at and enjoy a whole load of other things (perhaps the film posters, the music, the popcorn, people-watching...), but not the artefact in question.

I now realize that this is too simple. (By the way, you can forget about films from here on in.) I realize, because I'm experiencing it, that there is a pleasure in stepping back from the bull-pit of that inner audience. And that  it can become habitual. And this is what happens when you become a  student of folk-poetry.

You are, almost certainly, only distantly part of the inner audience for which the folk-poetry came into existence.

Basically, you decide to view art as nature. In normal circumstances you no more think of debating the relative merits of Kanteletar 2:220 and 2:234  than you debate the relative merits of a teazel and a dandelion. There's no-one to debate it with, for a start. Instead, your general premise is, that if a folk-poem is available at all, it is in the world of nature and justifies your interest. 

Does this mean that there is no enjoyment in reading the Kanteletar? Well, a doubt about that probably does explain why I've left it twenty years to really settle down and read it. I sensed the need, if I was going to read the Kanteletar, to put a different hat on, to be no mere voluptuary.

There's a certain one I know
a honey-berry I like
a pet bird I'm attached to
a wild duck I hold on to
   who is keen on me
   and I'm keen on him.

   He has lovely eyes
   I have a warm heart;
he has not thrown me over
nor left me alone: he has
taken me to be his own
  called me his treasure
looked me out as his fair one
chosen me as his white one.

   I'll hang on to him
   both hang on and swing
like a bird in a green tree
a squirrel on a spruce bough.

(Kanteletar 2:31, trans. Keith Bosley)

NB "honey-berry" = literal translation of Mesimarja, the Arctic Bramble (Rubus arcticus), most esteemed of northern berries.

(Rubus arcticus, image from

[Rubus arcticus formerly grew in Scotland  but has not been seen there since 1841. E.g. Thomas Walford recorded it in his checklist of rare plants in The Scientific Tourist Through England, Wales and Scotland  (1818): "Rubus arcticus. Dwarf Crimson Bramble. - Perth." .... "high regions of Ben-y-glo at Blair.".... i.e. the 40 km2 triple-Munro mountain of Beinn a’ Ghlò.]

Of course there is enjoyment. You can love spending time with a folk-poem, you can love a folk-poem, you can even appreciate what it's possible to glimpse of the folk-poem as an artwork, which it certainly is. But in a way these matters are secondary. The enjoyment is not isolated from interests whose tendencies are all outbound: understanding the common ways of life, discovering how the Finnish folk lived, learning how to play the melodies, savouring the marked differences (and occasional resemblances) between Finnish folk-expression and the Swedish and English folk-cultures in which I grew up. The enjoyment is as it were dispersed; it is not so much an appreciation of the folk-poem itself as an enjoyment of occupying the same world in which the folk-poem exists.

The quality of audience that I'm talking about here has, of course, far wider ramifications. We could call it "student" - it seems to me that a lot of students of classics are more often in this state of mind than in a traditional poetry-reader's world. They've left behind matters of literary value. Homer and Hesiod matter to them just because they exist.

You can see why, for some poetry-readers, this cooler but perhaps more integrated engagement with poetry begins to take over from the fan-fervour with which most of us begin. It draws some people away from controversy towards translation, or from poetics to literary history.

But "student" really breaks my binary paradigm of  "inner" and "outer", which however I'm unwilling to give up. I think what I would now say is that inner and outer are the poles of a spectrum of natural responses. This picture of inner and outer audiences arose, not from movies (I'm afraid I've always been rather in the outer camp when it comes to movies) but from formative experience of the art that mattered most to my generation in its teens, pop music. E.g. puzzling over why the value-difference between Stealer's Wheel and the New Seekers was a matter of intense significance to me when it was a matter of complete indifference to my mum and dad.  In those days the true "student" position, as defined here, hardly existed vis-a-vis pop music, at any rate it was hardly visible to us teens.

The point is, there's a lot of attractions that draw me towards the "student" position. But still, it is not natural. And to move away from nature, though it gives us a steadier view, always exacts a cost. So I won't be permanently spending my time with the Kanteletar. We need a living involvement with art. Tomorrow I'll be back with Tim Allen's poetry, and a controversialist once more.

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