Thomas A. DuBois, Finnish Folk Poetry and the Kalevala. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995. 328 pp.

Thomas A. DuBois’ “Finnish Folk Poetry and the Kalevala” is one of the rare monographs written by a non-native Finnish-speaker on Kalevala meter poetry. DuBois’ research concerning the Finnish-Karelian area is an ambitious attempt at interpretation of a culture alien in many senses. Obstacles of temporal, geographical and linguistic distance have to be surmounted. The ultimate alien aspect is the poetic language itself – a language that by definition remains foreign, even for a linguistic insider. Analytical as well as concrete distance from the field can be an asset: it helps one to see things in a new light. The hazards of the enterprise are, however, as evident as the assets.

DuBois sets out to study the artistic agendas or communal and personal aesthetic systems inscribed in the oral and literary variants of Kalevala meter poetry: in the epic compiled by Lönnrot on the one hand, and in the oral tetrametric poems he used as his source on the other. Through the juxtaposition of these texts or corpuses, DuBois delineates the aesthetic confrontation between folk and elite cultures in a specific cultural and historical context. Adequate analysis of such a multi-faceted topic presupposes a profound and extensive knowledge of both cultural contexts and forms of verbal art.

DuBois’ theoretical and methodological background is in ethnopoetics, “the study of culturally specific aesthetic systems as evidenced in oral performance” (41). Analysis of such “aesthetic resources” as repetition, parallelism and grammatical details in orally-communicated texts is broadened by the theoretical concepts of intertextuality, multigenericity and metonymic association. In other words, DuBois sets out to study the meaningful relationships between texts and genres in Kalevala meter poetry, and the ways in which metonymic and associative processes work in poetic traditions.

The argument is elaborated in a set of methodological dialogues: the oral poet initiates, and the literate scribe, Lönnrot, responds. DuBois juxtaposes the oral poems of the singers Arhippa Perttunen, Vihtoora Lesonen, Luka Tarasov and Larin Paraske with the Kalevala, and the ways in which it appropriates texts and genres of oral poetry.

The Nativity

In the first dialogue (chapters 2-3), DuBois analyses stylistic variation in the Nativity-song of an Archangel Karelian singer, Arhippa Perttunen, who according to the writer “epitomizes the oral tradition of Karelia prior to the Kalevala”. Lönnrot’s response, the ways in which he alters the oral Nativity while incorporating it into the Kalevala, is analysed both in terms of aesthetic structure and religious significance.

DuBois’ ethnopoetic study of Arhippa’s Nativity presents an interesting preliminary framework for the analysis of the aesthetics of Kalevala meter poetry. DuBois is ready to admit the general problems concerning the applicability of ethnopoetics to his data (41-42). The texts are edited and printed versions of texts transcribed by hand, performed in situations untypical of the genre. The collectors normalized and edited their texts in various ways – at times, DuBois interprets the editorial remarks by the collector as variations sung by the singer (47-48). The texts left to us offer “only a schematic representation of the performances observed”, writes DuBois.

After all of these caveats, the applicability of ethnopoetic analysis to the oldest manuscripts of Kalevala meter poetry remains open to dispute. To some extent, the impediments could be compensated for by widening the scope of analysis. The study of more texts from the same singer (or other singers of the same region), from different poems and genres would give a richer and a more reliable picture of the native system of poetic communication.

Ethnopoetic analysis sets some qualifications for the data, but even more is required from the analyst. First and foremost complete fluency in the language is required. Grammatical and stylistic complexities, the special character of the dialect and of the poetic medium have to be perceived and understood in order to get at intricate aesthetic and linguistic structures and details. Unfortunately DuBois falls short of the standards set by the task he undertakes.

In analysing Lönnrot’s version of the Nativity, DuBois uses the notion of diaeresis (Walter Ong) to highlight the processes of textualization. Diaeresis, the distancing of “performed words from their ambient social environs” and reactualization of them “in different contexts and different combinations” (100) is, according to DuBois’ problematic notion, only characteristic of the literate culture. This black-and-white divide between orality and literacy probably stems from Ong, but it gives too simple a picture of oral textuality. Diaeresis is a process characteristic of all textuality – one facet in the process of creating of meaning in all texts, whether oral or written.

Writes DuBois: “The erasure of the actual performative context and artist allows for the highlighting of contexts and singers mentioned in the folk poems themselves. The singing situations of nineteenth-century peasant life are thus replaced with an imagined pre-conquest Finnish past, in which poets — perform songs for the entire Finnish people. This appropriation of the song, its performer and its supposed context for symbolic ends is carefully promoted in Lönnrot’s epic” (101).

Even if the processes, methods and aims of diaeresis differed radically, they exist, however, within oral tradition. In an oral performance, the relationship between the narrator, singer, and the text is far from a simple matter to be complicated only in the transition to the written medium. In the old tetrametric poetry, the actual performative context and the singers’ voices were perpetually set vis-à-vis the performances and voices within the narrative world. Rhetorical strategies such as reported speech and “citation” of texts “belonging” to other genres not only create a level of metatextuality, but even more importantly, they connect the narrative world and the cultural reality of the singers. The singers could raise their authority by ascribing their utterances to Väinämöinen, the mythical bard and sage, or tradition itself, the “ancient knowledge” of the community. “Textually constructed voices” (cf. 105) and the hierarchy of different kinds of voices are seminal in the dynamics of oral textuality and rhetorics.

One aspect of diaeresis as treated by DuBois is the distanciation between the known (the meaning of the Nativity) and the knower (Arhippa and his audience). As Lönnrot transforms the poem into the 50th canto of the Kalevala, interpretive control shifts from the oral culture to the “editorial apparatus”. The overall change from Arhippa’s “pious meditation on a sacred event – the incarnation” into Lönnrot’s version which “portrays the events as a symbolic expression of an historical event – the arrival of Christianity” (94), is analysed with insight. However, the writer’s perception of “the known”, the “intertextual, metonymic” meaning of the Nativity within its oral context raises some serious questions. DuBois’ knowledge of synchronistic folk religiosity in Archangel Karelia is lacking, and he thus gives a false impression of the motivating ideology behind the Nativity.

A closer look at the study of Marianic themes in Karelian orthodoxy as well as the role of the Virgin Mary in native religious practices would have shown, for example, that the alleged “desacralization” – or rather humanization – of the Virgin in Lönnrot’s hands was not foreign to native rituals and other contexts in which the Virgin was actualized. On the contrary: the “very mortal midwife’s charm” (109) that Lönnrot placed in the Virgin’s mouth belonged to her patronage so intimately that both the charms of childbirth and the Nativity could be called The Hymn of Mary. The “sacredness” of the Nativity was not “Biblical” (cf. 109-10) and the sharp line between the sacred and the profane does not apply to the vernacular religiosity reflected in the tetrametric legend poetry and incantations associated with it.

The literary influence

DuBois’ second dialogue (chapters 4-5) takes place within the oral poetic tradition subjected to literary influence. DuBois presents two singers, Vihtoora Lesonen and Luka Tarasov, who have presumably used the written epic Kalevala as a source or inspiration for changes in their oral repertoires.

Here DuBois enters a grey area between folk and elite cultures, the interface between orality and literacy that has long been marginalized in folklore research, largely for ideological reasons. There is no trace here of the romantic illusion of an immaculate “authentic” oral tradition, totally free from external influence. DuBois analyses with distinction the process of selective learning, in which the singer only makes use of those elements of the literary epic that are in harmony with local, oral aesthetics.

The analysis would have benefitted from further elaboration on the basis of ethnographic data. The concrete processes of transmission from the literary to the oral, or ethnography of reading – especially of reading aloud – are given no notice. For DuBois, the singers simply “learned” and “borrowed” “directly” from the Kalevala, and, after that, made their alterations (184, 187).

According to DuBois, the literary influences stand as a proof of “the esteem and authority accorded the text [Kalevala] in folk communities of turn-of-the-century Karelia” (37). The rare ability to read and/or write was indeed highly appreciated, but the singers’ attitude toward the Kalevala had little to do with the status of literacy as such. According to DuBois, the written epic profited from the authority of the print which was “associated with God and czar” (185). Literacy was, however, associated with modernization, even secularization, and had less to do with vernacular religiosity or the reception of the Kalevala.

The singers acknowledged the differences as well as the similarities of the Kalevala and the local oral tradition, but the fact of the literary influence is more complex than that – I shall return to this point later. The singers’ notion of the Kalevala and literacy ought to be scrutinized by presenting appropriate primary sources and by critically evaluating the literature available. DuBois is content to cite the authoritative exegete of the Kalevala, Väinö Kaukonen, to prove that “for many Karelians, the Kalevala represented not something foreign and literary but a work both familiar and exemplary, a sourcebook for recovering the oral tradition of the Finnish people” (185-86; emphasis mine). The ethnographic context of Kaukonen’s statements, the Soviet Karelia under Finnish occupation in the 1940’s, does, however, give little if any evidence of the situation at the turn of the century.

The politically, socially and culturally turbulent years around the Russian revolution were a decisive hallmark in the life (or death) of oral tetrametric poetry. No analysis of a transition or rupture in a system of aesthetic communication can ignore the broader historical framework in which the cultures in question interact – sometimes violently, as in the case of Karelia. The whole issue is indeed “replete with thematic, political and historical significance”, as DuBois states in his research program (37). Karelians had no need for a textbook in “the oral tradition of the Finnish people” since they were not a part of such a national or ethnic entity (except in the sense established by the offensive Finnish nationalism that was only starting to develop). At the time, the idea of a literature-based national heritage made little sense in a local, oral or semi-oral culture. For the local singers, performing and cherishing tetrametric poetry was, at its best, the ongoing negotiation of an artistic, ethnic and/or local identity. It echoed and varied the voice of their own local wisdom, the meaning of which became highly problematic during the process of modernization.

The Knee Wound

As an example of the influence of the Kalevala, DuBois analyses the poem The Knee Wound as performed by Vihtoora Lesonen. Interestingly, Vihtoora only reproduced those lines of the Kalevala that resembled the tradition of the region and of his family. According to DuBois, he omitted the inserts of lyric poetry and wedding songs, since these were “extraneous to the epic tradition as conceptualized among Viena Karelians and to the Knee Wound song itself” (192). To be precise, though, lines alluding to wedding songs and lyrics do appear frequently in the epic poems of this area, but only in thematically relevant contexts.

John Foley’s notion of the role of tradition as the “enabling referent” is highly useful in the treatment of the relationship between the epic genre and magic incantations. In his comparison between the versions of The Knee Wound in the Kalevala and as sung by Vihtoora, DuBois notes that while Lönnrot was forced to include extensive passages of healing charms in the epic in order to explicate the acts of Väinämöinen, the oral versions simply alluded to the sphere of magical healing. The oral poet could rely on the “traditional, metonymic understandings of Väinämöinen, magic healing and the Knee Wound song” (192).

Multigenericity may work like this in tetrametric poetry, especially in Archangel Karelia, where the status of the tietäjä, the specialist in the incantantion tradition, was significant. In the particular case analysed by DuBois (197-200), however, the argument does not apply. Throughout the Finnish-Karelian culture area this epic poem or its fragments were used as a mythological introduction (historiola) to the blood-stanching charm: Väinämöinen is wounded, and he sets out to sekk a healer for his wound. He finds a (supernatural) helper, and the charm is frames as the helper’s reported speech. The alternative epic introduction of the blood-stanching charm is the incantation recounting the mythic origin (synty) of iron and thus the weapon that caused the wound. Typically, the narrative introductions exclude each other, but there exists hybrid forms that allude to the origin of both the cause and the healing of the wound.The metonymic understanding concerning the bond between The Knee Wound, The birth of Iron and the blood-stanching charm made the hybrid form excessive and even tautological. Even so, the rethorical strategies of connecting The Knee Wound and the charm are varied: for example, a blood-stanching charm could be structured using the plot of The Knee Wound but exchanging the mythical hero for the ego of the charm, the healer.

According to DuBois, “the Knee Wound — seldom actually includes the loitsu [charm, incantation] it callsfor” (199). Thus Vihtoora who included a blood-stanching – and, to be precise, The Birth of Iron – in his Knee Wound “departed” from the local tradition followed the Kalevala (197). DuBois fails to see the difference between the different kinds of magical speech acts, the blood-stanching charm and the narrative incantation recounting the birth of iron. In the local idiom, both texts could be referred to as Raudan synty (The Birth of Iron) Vihtoora’s text was a hybrid in combining the two alternative introductions to the charm, not literary because of the inclusion of one.

DuBois presents his mistake as an “interpretive challenge”, and argues that within Vihtoora’s family, the literary influence had already created an expectation uncharacteristic of the local oral tradition: the lack of the poem’s culmination in a charm was now perceived as a problem. Vihtoora solved the problem by allegedly “draw[ing] the [charm] from a book”. DuBois comes close to unearthing his own mistake by noting that “the lack of a charm at this juncture [was seen] as problematic” because charms were generally “a standard part of the epic performance tradition”. (199.) The situation is further complicated by mistranslating a native statement used as evidence. The comment “Tähä peähä [polvenhaavarunon lopuksi] tulou rauvan synti kun se ukko ottau ta rupieu parantamah. Se oisi ollu iellä rauvan synnin laulettava” has been translated as “Right here comes the birth of iron song when that old man starts to heal him. In olden times one would have sung the birth of iron” (199). The latter sentence ought to be translated as “It [The Knee Wound] should have been sung before the birth of iron”.

The literary influence is due to the erosion of the metonymic field of association motivating the epic universe and its mythological undercurrent. The tendency to include more extensive passages of incantations is characteristic of the epic tradition of the early twentieth century. It was only after a long and painful erosion of the community’s social as well as cultural reality that the explicitness characteristic of the literary epic was needed: the audience was becoming “illiterate” in the mastery of its own oral tradition.

There is, nevertheless, evidence of a native disposition to link genres and poems into larger units – even in the pre-Kalevala stratum. This linking undoubtedly occurred at the level of meaning and interpretation, but to some extent also in texts as performed: one of the traditional contexts of epic performance was a singing contest, the winner of which was the one who could sing the longest. There is no doubt that Lönnrot’s driving forces in compiling the Kalevala were literary by nature, but he is stil one of the few who witnessed the oral tradition when it was alive and kicking. One of his aims was to be true to this living reality. The true nature of Lönnrot’s intergeneric expansions was to make explicit the tendencies and immanent associations that made the poetry meaningful for its native audience. He by no means invented them.

In his analysis of the other case of a singer influenced by literacy, Luka Tarasov of Olonets Karelia, DuBois formulates his notion of multigenericity most fully. The very essence of Kalevala meter poetry, of intertextual influences from poem to poem, singer to singer and genre to genre, especially the relationship between incantations and the epic genre, is analysed with insight. The magic incantation within the epic metonymically activates not only the patterns of thought and action associated with this ritual genre, but even more importantly, serves to bind the narrative realm to the life of the singers.

Despite their merits, the first two methodological dialogues suffer from the narrow scope of the analysis and the writer’s superficial knowledge of the source material and its ethnographic context. Statements concerning the metonymic, associative processes of meaning and intertextuality within the oral tradition remain empty albeit trendy catchwords if these fields of signification are not analysed and shown effectively to be operative in the creation of meaning for the singers and their native audience.

The lyric

The third confrontation takes place in Ingria and within the confines of the lyric genre (chapters 6-7). DuBois analyses some lyric songs by the famous Ingrian singer, Larin Paraske. The aim is to establish basic generic features of the Ingrian lyric, e.g. the prominence of a dialogical and communicative structure, as well as to highlight folk hermeneutics, vernacular strategies of interpreting the lyric. As a contrasting aesthetics, DuBois delineates the usage of lyric songs in the Kalevala.

According to DuBois, Ingrian lyric poetry “represent[s] in highly stylized manner the norms and resources of normal Ingrian conversation, heightened into an aesthetic system” with the acute “issue of a speaker and the presence or absence of an interlocutor”. This interesting phenomenon has been introduced and analysed in depth by Senni Timonen in her extensive work on the lyric genre in general and on the lyric of Ingria and Larin Paraske in particular. DuBois has little to add to Timonen’s interpretations, which he mentions only in passing.

As DuBois notes, “any discussion of lyric form should also account for ethnographically verifiable observations regarding audience reception and interpretation”. In his analysis of Ingrian native hermeneutic strategies, DuBois presents three “known modes of lyric comprehension and evaluation” (253-58): 1) association with events in one’s own life, 2) contextualization in a particular ritual (wedding songs) or communal experience and 3) ascribing the poem to a particular singer.

As an “ethnographic verification” of the first mode mentioned, that of autobiographical motivation, DuBois presents Leea Virtanen’s essay on the poetry of the Estonian Setu women of the 1970’s and 1980’s. One may well question the relevance of such ethnographic contextualization. The realities lumped together are separated by a significant geographical distance and over one hundred years of turbulent history, social and political changes; in short, they represent different cultures altogether. Cultural comparison is, in fact, disguised as ethnographic verification. The same applies to the other “verification”, found in Archangel Karelia. How does one “verify” native hermeneutic strategies when there are hardly any explicit, documented native statements concerning the poetry? The only possible way seems to be systematic analysis at the metatextual level of the poems themselves.

The verification of the second interpretive strategy rests on a notion of the wedding songs – and especially the songs of mockery performed at weddings – as a subgenre of lyric poetry (232, 255-56). “Supergenres” such as the lyric (as defined by DuBois) have little to offer in the formulation of a native aesthetics. Wedding songs and laments are not a subgenre of tetrametric lyric poetry but distinctively ritual genres with specific contexts of performance. Thematic, even strophic similarities on the other hand connect each and every genre within the poetic tradition sung or recited in the “Kalevala meter”.

The conclusion, that “lyric interpretation within the Balto-Finnic culture area could rely on either personal or generalized, traditional understandings of typical feelings” is problematic in itself. The fact of a “personal reading” of the poems performed by a singer is not a hermeneutic strategy characteristic of the Ingrian poetry nor of the lyric, but surely one general feature of any culture’s hermeneutics? Are these two tendencies not the two dialectical aspects of any interpretation of a (poetic) utterance? How does one draw the line between the personal subjectivity or assumed feelings of an individual, and the matrix of a cultural language of sentiments? Once again DuBois’ argument would have greatly profited from Timonen’s problematization of the issue.

The third hermeneutic strategy of ascribing a poem to a particular singer is exemplified by a poem collected in Southern Karelia in 1935. The words of the poem are ascribed to Larin Paraske, and framed as a song sung and composed by her. The poem does not, however, provide ethnographic proof of native hermeneutic strategies but rests on a very different tradition. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ingrian and the Southern Karelian poetic traditions were influenced by the literary tradition and publications of Kalevala meter poetry. In the poem presented by DuBois, Larin Paraske is mentioned because of the renown that she gained within the literary, Finnish national culture. The local sphere of “publicity” and Paraske’s undisputed renown was hardly thematicized in expressions such as “the singer, Larin Paraske” during her lifetime. Attributions like this were rare, and they do not represent a form of native hermeneutics – note that in this context DuBois’ notion of the “native” excludes the possibility of a literary influence. More often, the songs were attributed to epic heroes, the poetic ego or tradition. Rather than a notion of authorship, the phenomenon has to do with the authorization of the performed text.

Ethnography and translation

Analysis of the dialogue between folk and elite cultures and their respective aesthetic systems is always an exercise in understanding an alien culture. It necessarily involves several levels of cultural translation. All poetry is a foreign language, the translation of which is an elementary starting point for interpretation and analysis. The more intricate the analysis aims at being, the more attention should be paid to correct, verbatim translation. Regrettably, DuBois’ translation falters, and there is no mention of a language consultant.

Some mistakes are epiphenomenal and do not invalidate the argument. Some mistakes portray the ideas of older authors and researchers in a nonsensical and misleading light. Some graver mistakes reveal that the translator is not acquainted with the typical stylistic and formulaic features of Kalevala meter poetry. Other mistakes are trivial, and derive from faulty copying of the text from a sourcebook. In ethnopoetic analysis, inexactitude in translation makes the reader suspicious.

The following mistakes caught my eye – the first two are Lönnrot’s classical statements, the remaining ones lines in Kalevala meter. “Valmis kirja hävittää muistolta laulamisen arvon” – “A ready book strikes from memory the value of singing”; should be “A ready book destroys the value placed on singing from memory” (93). “Loimi niissä melkein ylehensä on huolista kehrätty, kude erilaatuinen ollen” – “The warp is nearly always spun of cares, the weft of isolation”; should be “The warp is most often spun of cares, the weft being of a different kind” (234-35). “Silloin lauloin lapsuuttain ja huusin hupeluuttain” – “I sang my childhood and shouted my frivolity”; should be “I sang because I was a child and shouted because I was frivolous” – in the same poem, the repetition of the word “huuvan” (“I shout”) is misspelled as “juuvan” and consequently interpreted as the singer’s variation, “I whimper” (242). “Kun olin omilla mailla mie kuulun kuulusalle ja heläjin heiluvalle” is translated as “When I was on my own lands I was known to the famous, and I hailed those on the swings” and interpreted as “When the speaker lived on her family’s lands, she enjoyed the fellowship of many and hailed them readily”. The lines simply mean that at home, the speaker was heard of all around the ears’ reach; in other words, that the people around her knew the speaker and her good reputation (248).

Certain systematic errors also remind the reader of the unsurmountable distance between the analyser and the object of study. Throughout the book, the name of Larin Paraske is given as “Larin”. This form, however, is the genetive of the name Lari or Larila, the farm of the singer’s husband – the commonplace designation “Larin Paraske” should be translated as “Paraske of Lari”, or “Lari’s Paraske”. In the case of “Larin”, the peculiar, yet recurring tendency to call the representatives of the literate culture by their last names, and the representatives of the folk intimately by their first names, means that the cherished folk artist loses her identity, and one cannot help feeling, some of her dignity. The last example shows not only inadequate linguistic competence, but even relative ignorance concerning the social context of the poetry under study – women’s role in the community, for example.

Seeking assistance from a language consultant should be routine in the publication of a hardcover, expert monograph of this kind. Elimination of unnecessary and grave mistranslation would show adequate respect for the data and the intricacies of poetic expression – “artistry”, as DuBois has it. More fundamentally, the procedure would operate as one guarantee of the validity of the analysis.

Because of his lack of ethnographical and material-based expertise, DuBois is inclined to undue generalizations (i.e. those already mentioned concerning Finland, Karelia and Setu-land; blood-stanching and The Birth of Iron). Macro-concepts such as the Balto-Finnic culture area or the lyric “supergenre” do not seem viable for ethnographical contextualization or ethnopoetic interpretation.

DuBois states without hesitation or reference to first-hand data that incantations were “regarded as sinful” in Archangel Karelia (131), that “biblical concepts” were central “in the folk categorization of verbal acts” (241) and that the Savakko and Äyrämöinen ethnic groups were Orthodox rather than Lutheran, as was in fact the case (11) – to name a few simplifications and errors. The problems are most obvious in DuBois’ notion of Finnish-Karelian folk religion and Christianity. Due emphasis on the native ritual system and the mythological function of tetrametric poetry seems to be overshadowed by the foregrounding of the essence of the poetic tradition as art – as if these two aspects were in some sense incompatible.

Despite its shortcomings, DuBois’ book is a welcome invitation to discussion. The method of juxtaposition is efficient, and the cases chosen offer thrilling examples of how poetic systems work and interact between or within the minds and texts of Thomas, Elias, Arhippa, Vihtoora, Luka and Paraske. True originality, profundity and reliability, on the other hand, can only be accomplished in research which avoids untenable comparisons and is more informed about and sensitive to the source material and cultural context. Without hard-earned expertise in the “field” of the dusty archives, any claims concerning “native” culture are liable to resemble speculation.

Lotte Tarkka
Finnish Literature Society

(FFN 15, April 1998: 22-28)

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