LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 25, No.3 - Fall 1979
Editor of this issue: Jonas Zdanys
Copyright © 1979 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Aleksis Rannit. Donum Estonicum. Cid Corman and H. J. Tjalsma, trs. New Rochelle, New York: The Elizabeth Press, 1976. 69 pages.
Aleksis Rannit. Cantus Firmus. Henry Lyman, tr. New Rochelle, New York: The Elizabeth Press, 1977. 50 pages, illustrations.
The poetry of Estonian poet, critic, and art historian Aleksis Rannit (born 1914) is a difficult entity to define. Like the work of other writers who can be called "aestheticians" and whose work can be called poesie pure, Rannit's poetry is concerned with itself as an artifact of Art, and seems to exist as a kind of frozen gesture in which life itself is relieved of its intensity and is rendered as a static element, lights and colors made subservient by Rannit to the architectonics of his verse. Throughout his later work there is an unstated reliance on the Kantian notion of "purposiveness without purpose" and concern with the Keatsian equation of Beauty and Truth which frees his artifact—the poem—from any historical constraints and emotional coloration. This is so because, for Rannit, as he writes in the poem "Cyprus" from Donum Estonicum, "content is form constituent," and in his poems both are rendered as a unity through what Rannit calls the creation of form through the "mathematically sensitive use of language." Such a concern with the mathematics of language, no doubt, led to, or perhaps developed from, Rannit's interest in the use of the quantitative pausal prosodic meter, a type usually associated with Classical verse, which is based on syllable length, on quantity, rather than accent or stress. It is a poetry unique in the recent history of Baltic letters.
Rannit's concern with metrics is mostly lost in these two books of poems in translation because, unless one considers Williams' experiments with the "American foot," the quantitative meter is a rarity in English poetry, whose metrics are primarily accentual in character, and is even more difficult to duplicate in translation. But the other aspects of Rannit's work come through in these fine and sensitive translations. In both Donum Estonicum, translated by Rannit in collaboration with Cid Corman and H. J. Tjalsma, and in Cantus Firmus, which is the work of Rannit's former student Henry Lyman, the quality of Rannit's Estonian verse is masterfully rendered in English. The poem "Painter" is a telling example:
Give me a color's rust—
not its luster.
Gentleness consists of
I hide even the dry shine
of my shrewd blood.
My small array of brushes
drily radiates, dry and
dusty my faint charcoal.
O don't ask
why birds don't
sing at sea.
The stripped purity of line and conciseness and transparency of image in this poem—and, indeed, in most of the poems throughout both books—temper much of the stylistic loss in the translation process, and sum up the unique quality of Rannit's crystalline, form-dominated work.
Rannit's concern for form includes an interest in the way his poetry is presented, and that may be one reason why these books are so expensive: Donum Estonicum sells for $16 in cloth and $8 in paper, and Cantus Firmus for the truly steep price of $50. Much care seems to have been taken in producing these handsome books, and no expense spared. The materials used are of first quality, and both books were designed by the famous book maker Martino Mardersteig, whose family has been producing books of quality for some 400 years. They were printed in Verona, Italy, and published by the Elizabeth Press in limited editions: 900 of the bilingual, en face edition of Donum Estonicum, and 750—with 100 of those reserved for presentation—of Cantus Firmus, which is published in a large "art book" format.
Donum Estonicum is a fine, interesting collection of poems selected from four of Rannit's books in Estonian: Saluted avarust (From the Enclosed Expanse, 1956), Kuiv hiilgus (Dry Radiance, 1963), Sormus (The Ring, 1972), and Heliaste (Step of Sound, 1976). Most of the twenty-eight poems in this collection are tight, balanced, and accomplished, though a few, most notably "Longissimus Dies" and "Osculum" contribute little to the overall quality of
the volume. The poems reveal a range of themes, though poems about artists and artificers and, of course, about poetry and the act of making poetry, dominate what is really an aesthetician's book, a book of poetry about poetry. The tone of each, perhaps because of Rannit's preoccupation with form, is consistently the same. It is as if Rannit attempts to do himself what he enjoins others in the poem "Perotinus" to do:
O keep your ideas,
let color's profile freeze!
Know perfection fits
only the diamond's colorless
The poems in this book are like that diamond: perfect, yet somehow colorless and passionless, "icy as lightning,/ shadowless light that has traversed/ the diamond." The poems are lucid, intense, and precise, but may take some getting used to, especially if the reader has been immersed in the various current schools of contemporary English poetry, and especially the "confessional." The book, on the whole, is well worth having, and is a necessary and valuable addition to all collections of Baltic literature, European poetry, and modern poetry in general.
Cantus Firmus consists of sixteen of Rannit's poems to Estonian etcher-engraver Eduard Wiiralt (1898-1954), with whose work Rannit recently shared the spotlight in an exhibition at the University of Virginia. The poems are clustered around, and spaced by, six Wiiralt prints which have been selected from Rannit's own collection: Eyes, 1948, Claude, 1936, Panther and Puma, 1937, Head of a Man, 1948, The Poet Speaks to the Stones, 1948, and Head of a Negro, 1933. The prints by this fascinating artist, who lived virtually his whole life in poverty and solitude, engrossed in his careful and meticulous work, reveal the same sort of clarity of line and image which mark Rannit's poems, and each part of the book— poems and prints—reflects and compliments the other. The central poem "Line" self-consciously comments on that relationship:
This love toward line,
toward light through all,
all moving and all magnifying
thunderbolt of soundless thunder.
All binding and all bounding line,
exacting as that rhyme of death
in Bach, Phidias, Ingres,
and Wiiralt and Valery.
I have broken faith with color,
and my poems measure to the line—
line the sum of things engenders
in this ascetic
square of mind.
Cantus Firmus is a collector's item, and will no doubt enrich the collections of those interested in fine books, those who have a passion for Estonian art or first-class examples of fine print-making, and those who wish to have a complete collection of Rannit's work in translation. Others, I fear, will find the $50 purchase price too prohibitive, though it is, no doubt, an accurate reflection of the consummate craft and artistry which have gone into physically producing—printing and binding—this fine volume.