Thursday, 14 May 2009

Mats Traat - an introduction to a poet

Mats Traat (born 1936) has written a long cycle of novels depicting life in the Estonian countryside during Czarist times, Independence, and the Soviet occupation. The farm of Palanumäe stands central in this suite of books. But Traat is also an observant social poet, again focusing on rural life. Critic Janika Kronberg has described Traat's poetry as follows:

"Traat made his début in 1962 with a collection of poetry considered to be close to the soil, and has to date published around twenty collections of poetry and three voluminous selections. With regard to his poetry, the term poetry of social comment has often been employed and this reflects the keenness in the 1960s on science and the technical revolution, plus the exploration of the cosmos, the scepticism of the following decades, and the joys and pains involved in the restoration of the Estonian Republic at the end of the 20th century.

Traat has remained himself. The core of his work involves an ethical pathos and a belief in the retreat of evil before good. His poetry contains a personal lyricism as well as sensitive nature portraits and sharp observations of society, but Traat never makes a cult of form or æstheticism for æstheticism's sake. And when the author, who comes from the south of Estonia, gave his cycle of dialect poems the title I Flee Into the Languages of Tartu then this does not mean that he has turned his back on the world, but that he is deriving strength from ancient expressions and values. Especially significant for Estonian poetry has been Histories From Harala (Harala elulood) which Traat has been adding to for four decades and whose first poems already appeared when Traat first started publishing. It is a collection of epitaphs in the style of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology and where the author uses concision to sketch the lives of a couple of hundred inhabitants of the village of Harala. The author acts as a chronicler, revealing history by way of the biographies, also the hidden tragedy at the departure of human life, a gentle nostalgia and humour and where it is shown that every mortal has a life worth recording for posterity."

Mats Traat is relatively unknown outside of Estonia, compared with people who have also been both prose authors and poets, such as Jaan Kross and Jaan Kaplinski. But you can read more about this author here. This is where I brought together two short essays about him on the World Literature Forum, one by the above critic Janika Kronberg, the other by Livia Viitol.

Over time, I shall be translating poetry by Mats Traat on this blog. Various of his poems are scattered through anthologies, and I translated six of them for the anthology
The Baltic Quintet. But not a great deal of his work has appeared in English. I shall not be tackling the dialect poems; in the spirit of "first things first" I shall translate poems written in standard Estonian. But apart from representing rural values, Traat also examines life in southern Estonia, around the university city of Tartu. Three of his poems here, from 1968, as a sampler:


If I were a weaver,
I'd thread sunrays into a veil
around each grain of sand.

If I were a weaver,
I'd thread a carpet out of rainbows
to cover each park bench.

If I were a weaver,
I'd thread a shawl from lark's songs
and wrap it around my darling.

But I am not a weaver.


I draw your portrait in the sand, on pine bark, in myself.
I draw the plan and it is electric.
Then I go and look for a current, to bring the picture to life.

When I finally find you and return,
the wind has trampled the plan, the waters have washed away the portrait.
A toeprint adorns the place where your eye should have been.



The toy cat has serious claws
the toy dog black fangs
the toy tiger has frightening whiskers

The tin soldier has but a heart of tin
it melts when he sees the princess
the princess utters not a word
a hole melts in the soldier
he is taken to be melted down
the cats dogs tigers laugh
their painted laugh.


This seemingly naïve love poet is the same person who, as a novelist later in life, wrote about the War of Estonian Independence, Russification during various periods, the Forest Brethren guerrilla movement, and the trauma of the kolkhoz system.

Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens


David McDuff said...

Eric, I don't know if you just made these translations of Traat's poems, but they are very good, in my opinion. I especially like "If I were a weaver".

The poems are not naive at all - they have a hard clarity that's a sign of hard-headedness, yet they are also lyrical and tender.

Eric Dickens said...

I think back in 1968, Traat was posing a bit regarding naïveté. But there are plenty more poems where those came from, which is one of his early collections called "Laternad udus" ("Lanterns in the Mist"; 1968). It is a slim hardback volume of just over 50 pages, divided into four sections: "Archipelago", "By Raft" [?], "Poem For a Winter's Day" and "Mourning Poem".

The next poems by him that I'm going to translate are from quite a different volume called "Ajalaulud" ("Songs of the Epoch"), written between 1986 and 1989, and published in 1990. These years alone tell you that the poems are quite different. Traat was now, like most Estonians, heavily engaged in the struggle for Estonian independence, and the Zeitgeist features large in these.

Just this morning (14th May 2009), when I also translated the three poems, I ordered three books by Traat online, two of which are poetry collections from this decade. The third is a book of 16 of his historically focused short-stories. If you know what you want, and can read languages, online bookshops are very handy.