May 4, 2014

Poetry: the Spirit Boat

Poetry is rooted in old ritual.  I found an interesting blog, Spirit Boat, that explores shamanic tradition in Finland, both ancient and contemporary.  The Finnish word for shaman is noita or teitäjä. Tietää is an infinitive verb that means to know, tell, spell, bode, portend, or forebode. Teitäjä has the word "know" in its root; the word ending indicates one who does this. Similarly, the word oppia means to learn. Opettaja means teacher. In Finland, scholars have documented a very long tradition of shamanic practice. The title of the blog comes from Finnish cave drawings that depict figures in a vessel crossing to the spirit world. Leppä, or Harold Alden, points to the use of (oral tradition) poetry, cave drawings, carvings, and other arts as integral to shamanic practice.  The photograph here is a female Finno-Ugric shaman, date unknown. 

In English the word rune refers to "a mark or letter of mysterious or magic significance, or the small stones or pieces of bone used as divinatory symbols." The Finnish word runo translates as poem. In plural, it's runoja. In Finnish, a poet is a runoilija. In the photo to the right, rune-singers are performing the Kalevala stories, the oral storytelling tradition of Finland, a collection of creation stories, mystic adventures, wedding and folk poems, and incantations. These three performers are from Suistamo in the early 20th century. Playing the kantele is one of the most well-known singer of Kalevala songs, Iivana Shemeikka. Iivana Onoila and Konstantin Kuokka hold hands and sing astride the bench. 

The first written account of this practice of sitting on a bench in this way, hand in hand, was in 1778. Apparently, it was common to have two singers perform, one taking over when the other paused.  In "Body, Performance, and Agency in Kalevala Rune-Singing," Anna-Leena Siikala explores at length the performance style.  It makes me think of two people in a boat. This is intimate, and it's quite different than the practice of poetry performance nowadays.  I wonder if it might have a root with the Mongolian Tuvan throat-singers (mostly men) and Inuit throat-singers (mostly women). The Inuits I have seen perform in pairs, holding hands similar to the photographs of old Kalevala singers.  

This photograph shows another female poet from the past, a traditional rune singer Kaisa Vilhuinen. She lived in the Swedish part of 'Finnskogen' and died in 1941.  About the Kalevala, Anna-Leena Siikala writes:
The notion of intertextuality of Kalevala epic and incantations refers to the fact that these genres represent a larger field connected to the mythic knowledge of the other world performed by singers and seers. The concept of field has its advantages in incorporating communicative acts in the socially organized world.
The Kalevala combines genres. The Kalevala that we have today was transcribed by Elias Lönnröt in the late 1800s.  He did not collect all of the poems in the oral tradition. Some were lost. Different singers and different regions had variations. What he was able to gather became an epic. One can learn about the adventures of the magic singer Vainimoinen or about beer or ways to charm a bear (sometimes called "Honeypaws") or how to prepare for a wedding.  Siikala writes that the runoja (poems) pointed to the wider fields of knowledge: nature, farming, cultural ways and spiritual stories.

The Finnish culture bears resemblance to many Native cultures in the Americas.  One strong similarity is the way that both cultures considered many things--wind, stones--to be live beings. Each has a strong connection with the natural world.  Luonta is the Finnish noun that means nature. There is an interesting phrase in Finnish: Minä liikun luonnassa or Lounnassa liikuminen:  I like moving (or to move) in Nature. The words express the Finnish affinity for Nature and being outside.  Another strong element of the culture is the sauna (pronounced sow-na) -- it always was the first building erected on land.  The very first saunas were smoke saunas, but now it is mostly wood-fired or electric heat.  Water, stones, fire.  It is a place of cleansing, relaxation, and meditation. 

Sometimes, the old Finnish shamans would recite poems until they entered a trance state (called falling into a crack).  The metaphor of falling into a crack evokes a descent or being "between," and it describes well the process of writing poems. I consider poetry to be a spirit boat, in that poetry is a vessel or an object that holds the spirit. It seeks a mutuality of spirit, of one spirit speaking to another. Nowadays, poems are not necessarily written to be part of a religious ritual. At least mine are not.  However, writing poetry has become my spiritual practice. I honor its power of incantation and metaphor (metamorphosis).  

In performance, good poems hold the audience's attention. Many times, I've made final decisions about revision right before or onstage.  No other setting makes me more aware of the lines, individual words, and phrasings. My pencil slashes the paper, deleting every extraneous note, so the final result is precise and condensed. I believe the plays evolve into their best form through performance as well.  Often I perform poetry with Kathy McTavish on the cello, a much more powerful sound than the kantele. Occasionally I have performed poetry in dialogue with poet Ellie Schoenfeld.  One begins and then we take turns, selecting a response to the other's poem. It is a practice that is improvisional, demands deep listening in the moment, and I think it's similar to rune-singers. But we don't hold hands--or we haven't, yet. 


Kalevala. Translated by Eino Friberg.  Otava Publishing Company. 1988.  Print. 

Leppä.  Harold Alden.  Spirit Boat. Web blog.  Retrieved 4 May 2014.

Mette, Aputsiaq.  Nordic Thoughts.  Web blog.  Retrieved 4 May 2014.

Siikala, Anne-Leena. "Body, Performance, and Agency in Kalevala Rune-Singing."  Oral Tradition, 15/2 (2000): 255-278. Print and Web.  Retrieved 4 May 2014.

Smithsonian Folkways.  "Throat Singing." Web. Retrieved 4 May 2014.

1 comment:

  1. This is really interesting, I've always been fascinated by shamanism and recently read New Finnish Grammar a novel by Diego Marani which included references to and extracts from the Kalevala