“Matti Kuusi was the forerunner of what may be called historical ethnopoetics,” writes Lauri Honko in his obituary of Kuusi (FF Network 15). But scholarly discussion of such fundamental questions of folk poetry has not ceased with Kuusi’s passing, as is evidenced by Lotte Tarkka’s broad critique of Thomas DuBois’s book Folk Poetry and the Kalevala (1995) in the same issue of the newsletter.

DuBois’s method is ethnopoetic: he sets out to study meaningful relations between texts and genres and the ways in which metonymic and associative processes work in poetic traditions. The method of juxtaposition is efficient. Lotte Tarkka is correct in writing that DuBois’s book is a welcome invitation to discussion. Tarkka’s review also warrants some response. Because it may be difficult for readers to follow a detailed critique of a critique, however, I will limit my remarks to a few examples from Tarkka’s discussion of the lyric (DuBois pp. 231-58).

Some of Lotte Tarkka’s remarks should probably be regarded as her own contributions to a scholarly discussion, although they are worded like critique of DuBois’s work (e.g., her discussion of her own views of what is and is not a subgenre of lyric tetrametric poetry).

Tarkka also criticises DuBois for overgeneralisations, at the same time making statements such as: “Thematic, even strophic similarities on the other hand connect each and every genre within the poetic tradition sung or recited in the ‘Kalevala meter'”. Such a broad statement is, of course, an erroneous overgeneralisation when it comes to issues of theme; moreover, we cannot even speak of Kalevalaic poetry as ‘strophic’.

DuBois is criticised twice for comparisons between the significance of lyrics to Ingrian women and in Setu tradition or Archangel Karelia. The Setu region and Ingria are, according to Tarkka, separated by geographical distance and they represent different cultures. Felix J. Oinas, however, pointed out long ago the strong cultural connections between Ingria and Setu-Land across Lake Peipsi; Elsa Enäjärvi-Haavio demonstrated common features of the areas in her study of the 1940s, and I have provided numerous such examples in my study of riddle songs.

Do we need, however, to apologise for a more open and comparative research perspective? Why is it not valid to shed light on the emotional significance of women’s folksong using a few examples from the regions where a women’s tradition of the same kind existed? Research always depends upon some sort of comparison. If a Finnish folklorist had presented such comparisons from the Balto-Finnic song area, it would have been greeted as a welcome new perspective and the folklorist praised for innovativeness and broad use of source materials; when the folklorist is foreign (DuBois), however, he is said to err in his lack of ethnographical and material-based expertise.

Twice DuBois is criticised as well for not having made use of Senni Timonen’s great study of Ingrian lyrics and Larin Paraske. This study, although in process, has not yet been published. On the whole, DuBois has great cognisance of Finnish research in this area and he used a number of Timonen’s published articles.

DuBois presents an example of a singer’s fame and notoriety in tradition: a song is attributed to Larin Paraske by another singer. In Tarkka’s view such attributions do not represent a native hermeneutics, because they owe their existence to Paraske’s fame in Finnish culture. Certainly DuBois knew that Paraske’s local fame arose partly from her notoriety in the eyes of her collector. Such a fact does not invalidate the example, however. The improvisation of songs in both old and newer metres was common in the Karelian Isthmus throughout the period of collection and such material on aspects of local village life belonged to the living oral tradition.

Every ethnographer recognises the opportunities for misunderstanding which arise when one confronts a foreign language. There is a statue of a female folksinger in the city of Helsinki, but her name, “Larin Paraske”, is quite incomprehensible to Helsinki people. Lotte Tarkka presents as DuBois’s most egregious linguistic error the use of “Larin” rather than “Paraske” when referring to the famed singer (“Larin” is a genitive form of the singer’s household’s name) The error, however, is quite understandable when one considers that in Salminen’s catalogue of Ingrian singers, the performer is listed as “Larin, Mikitantytär Paraske” just as if “Larin” were her family name. The blame lies with the Finnish researcher. Paraske’s husband was Gavril Stepanoff (son of Stephan), called “Kaurila of Lari”.

The matter seems of little consequence, not worth mentioning to an international readership, but not according to Tarkka. By her account, mistaking Larin Paraske’s name means a great deal. Tarkka believes that DuBois wishes to use the singer’s first name only and sees that as disparaging; Paraske thus would lose her identity and even her dignity. Just how this would happen, Tarkka does not explain. Many Finnish researchers use the Karelian or Ingrian singer’s first names. The reason derives not simply from a feeling of closeness but also from the extraordinary complexities of nineteenth-century Orthodox naming practices. Perhaps Paraske should be called Paraske Nikitina (after her father). It is telling that Tarkka makes the same “errors” for which she criticises DuBois in her own discussion of the singer, writing, e.g., “Larin Paraske is mentioned”, “the name of Larin Paraske” (rather than the correct “Paraske of Lari”); “Paraske’s undisputed renown” (i.e., a scholar’s intimate use of first name).

Lotte Tarkka continues her criticism of this same point: the Paraske-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.” But from the point of view of an experienced expert in naming practices, the name “Larin Paraske” (Paraske of Larila / Lari’s household) does not say much about either the woman’s social role or her “social context”. Paraske’s husband Kaurila also went by several names: Larila’s Kaurila or Kaurila of Lari, his little hut. In western Finland, for example, where surnames are a late development, a man often took his farm’s name as either his surname or his nickname (e.g. “Mäkelän Matti”, “Matti of Mäkelä’s household”).

Lotte Tarkka calls for the use of a linguistic consultant. What linguistic consultant, however, would have been able check such archaic texts, the background of which is known to only a few researchers worldwide? It is important to note that DuBois’s translations are by and large excellent.

We can only hope that despite Lotte Tarkka’s criticism, Kalevala-metre folk poetry will continue to be studied outside as well as inside Finland. The contributions of international scholars enrich our discussions and we do not want our discipline to become isolated. We have to thank DuBois for his contribution to this field of study, for having scaled the language barrier, and for having brought many aspects of research to readers outside the Finnish language area.

Leea Virtanen
Professor of Folkloristics
at Helsinki University until 1994

(FFN 16, October 1998: 23-24)

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