Anselm Hollo passed on recently. When I lived in Finland for five years in the late nineties we often corresponded. Not much has ever been written about his poetry in an academic sense. In my book Andrei Codrescu and the Myth of America I have a few sections on Hollo. This is part of a cumulative chapter on what I call "The Investigative Poets," consisting of Hollo, Codrescu, Clark, Sanders and Creeley. What distinguishes them is partially the legacy of Olson (Maximus) but also partially the legacy of WCW, and a focus on the particular. Here are a few pages from a twenty-page chapter:
Poetry/Oedipus: The Investigative Poets
Codrescu's inner circle of poet friends includes the Finnish poet Anselm Hollo -- who also publishes his work at Coffee House Press in Minneapolis. Like Codrescu, Hollo is a poet who has come from another European language culture, and is one of the few outsider poets in the history of English to reach something like insider status.
Hollo's family lineage is purely Baltic. His Swedish-Finnish father was a famous translator of Russian and English texts into Finnish, and his mother was a German speaker from Riga, Latvia. He has made his niche in the American poetry world alongside of Codrescu. His poetry is also a reference to the outside, and maintains the distinction between inside and outside as a central theme. Codrescu has written a blurb to one of Hollo's books, Outlying Districts: "I await Anselm's new poems with more eagerness than those of any other living poet. His work is 'news that stays news,' a poetic gazette that is one of our times most accurate neural readouts. If you can't remember your way to your heart, Anselm's poems will show you."
In the poem "On the Occasion of & as an introduction to Robert Creeley's reading at Kultuuritalo ("The House of Culture") in Helsinki, Finland on Valentine's Day '89" we can see that some of Hollo's concerns are also Codrescu's:
time & again when I falter & half believe
those always articulate dogmatics
who say our words can never be our own
but are merely signs
devised by controllers
(the controllers being the other dogmatics
on top of the heap)
anything one might say
is merely a reflection
of those historico-socio-economic conditions
that make one this deluded
little pile of shit
that presumes to have thoughts
of use to others as species fellows
I think of the way a hawk's
or a gopher's days are an investigation
of its world
the way the days & words
of Robert Creeley's poems are
of our human universe
se on saatanen hyvä runoilija
se panee psyyken lepattelemaan
a bloody great poet/ he makes the psyche flutter
like the little white curtain
in the candle-lit window
at the end of the booby-trapped garden path
(from Outlying Districts 27)
Like Codrescu, Hollo is multilingual. He speaks Finnish, Swedish, German, and English fluently. He moves between cultural worlds in a way that very few American poets have ever done. He is prolific, and yet has a very limited critical audience. In the Modern Language Association bibliography, there is not a single article consecrated to his work, after some thirty volumes of poetry.
In the poem just cited, Hollo is arguing that poetry should not be a matter of language closed in on itself, in the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E school vein, but rather turned outwards towards life, in an investigation of the outside world, in the manner of a hawk or a gopher. Many of Hollo's poems reiterate this theme, in a soft, and not very aggressive voice, which is always lit with humor. His is a nomadic poetry, describing places and the life in them with a precision that lies always close to the American vernacular. In the poem "'and Today's Credo is...'" he writes:
Don't feel like hiding in the archetypes
Don't trust the stuff that's supposed to give you
The Grand Shivers
(take top off head, etc.
But what about melodious?
I have trouble with
So I guess this avuncular
will have to do
(from Outlying Districts 27)
In the opening line, Hollo dismisses the deep image school of Robert Bly, founded on a Jungian dream analysis paradigm for poetry. He doesn't go in for the big emotions, nor for melodiousness, but rather goes for an "avuncular vernacular" which describes his poetry -- friendly, generous. His major theme is the breaking up of the artistic act, his art is an art of artistic self-disruption, letting in the incidental, and keeping art from closing out life.
Always nomadic, obsessed with a certain kind of perennial marginality, Hollo's poems, like Codrescu's, are often composed on the run and composed circumstantially, that is to say, in honor of certain almost non-occasions, in which incidents are put together into a poem, providing a seemingly incidental snapshot. His poem "The tenth of May (1988)," for instance, praises the quotidian qualities of a life without great events. "Jane is out being a delegate/ when she comes home/ we'll light the candle & have some spinach spaghetti/ with Mr. Paul Newman his sauce/ his good cause sauce & smiling face on the label... ...oh Eros we thank thee for thy gifts/ this day the day/ of the great book burnings in Deutschland/ fifty-five years ago" (Outlying Districts 18). "Letter to Uncle O., for Andrei Codrescu," is an homage to Ovid, and pays tribute to this solitary genius in a land of barbarians. Like Codrescu, Hollo is a poet who in some sense is an outsider, and in a more limited sense an insider. A European in America, he writes in an American vernacular, about American subjects. He is not writing in a Finnish vein, but in a peculiarly American vein of the picturesque inflected by a certain Finnish love of nature, exploring the country in the manner of a hawk or a gopher, neither of the two being overly glamorous creatures, his central metaphor being an investigation of the poetics of community. Unlike Codrescu, he is not a Hapsburg, but from a Baltic nation, with a different history, a different religion, a different language of origin, which occasionally asserts itself within his poetry. Like Codrescu, there are no hard and set criteria in Hollo’s poetry. He doesn’t categorize. Everything can find its way into his poetry, and there is a sense that both everything and nothing matters....