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Manner, Eeva-Liisa (1921–1995)

Manner, Eeva-Liisa (1921–1995)

Finnish poet, playwright, novelist, and translator who was a leading figure in the modernist movement that changed the literary landscape of Finland in the 1950s . Name variations: (pseudonym) Anna September. Born in Helsinki, Finland, on December 5, 1921; died in Helsinki in January 1995; daughter of Leo Johannes Manner and Elsi Irene Kukkonen Manner; never married.

Born in the early years of Finland's independence from Russia, Eeva-Liisa Manner grew up in a middle-class family with a father who worked as an editor. Her formal education ended with junior high school. During the traumatic wartime years of 1940 through 1944—when Finland, an ally of Nazi Germany, twice went to war with the Soviet Union—she worked for an insurance company. Manner then worked for a publishing firm (1944–46) before turning to writing and translating to support herself. A precocious author, she had begun publishing collections of poems and short stories in 1944; by 1951, she had released three such volumes, all to respectful but fairly subdued critical responses. Of these books, the 1949 Kuin tuuli tai pilvi (Like the Wind or the Cloud) provided the most clues to the writer's potential talent. Shy and retiring, the unmarried Manner was often in fragile health and shunned publicity, choosing to live not in intrigue-ridden Helsinki, the political and cultural center of Finland, but in the nation's second city, the much more serene Tampere.

In 1956, with the publication of her verse collection Tämä matka (This Journey), Manner's writings finally received wide recognition in Finland. Emphasizing a rejection of strict form, as well as an elaborately structured, freely associative Imagism, the poems in this book were declarations of independence from traditionalism in Finnish poetry. Her bold modernist assertions brought free verse and new metaphors to a national poetic tradition that was ready for revitalizing. With this book, Manner literally changed the course of Finnish literary evolution. By 1964, Tämä matka had appeared in five editions, several of which contained modifications by the author. By the early 1960s, the influence of the poems was clearly evident in much of the verse being written by the younger generation of Finnish poets.

Like many European intellectuals of her generation, Manner rejected the school of thought based on reason and science which had dominated Western culture since the 17th century. In addition to regarding this system as having led to all manner of catastrophe—social, political, and moral—in the modern era, Manner also believed that sterile intellectualism had demystified the universe by stripping it of all magical and metaphysical meaning. In Tämä matka, she pokes fun at two of the founding fathers of modern thought, Descartes and Spinoza. Her Descartes declares that "philosophy is loneliness and loneliness is cold, and a dead body, which copulates with reason"; and Spinoza the apostate Jew offers to God his lenses, equated with philosophy, only to discover that they all give wrong refractions, and concludes: "I am agreeable now/ when I bring pain, solitude,/ without/ the written ignorance." Manner did not, however, entirely reject the tools provided by reason, asserting in her 1957 essay "Moderni runo" (Modern Poetry) that for a reader to truly grasp new forms of poetry "requires that the reader's … reason participate in the movement of the poem."

In her poem "Strontium," from the 1960 collection Orfiset laulut (Orphic Songs), she spoke for the millions who had become convinced that the nuclear age was not the start of a new Utopia but rather the creation of the distinct possibility of a global annihilation: "strange smokes are rising / invisible ashes are raining / bartering death. / For they, the Skilled Ones, / are almost destroying the whole world / although it is half dream."

Manner regarded the poet's mission as a unique one of acquiring and transmitting a wisdom that transcended knowledge. She was influenced by the more mystical of the ancient Greek philosophers, by Chinese mystical traditions, particularly Taoism, and by aspects of non-rational approaches to ultimate truth including astrology. Also inspired by music, Manner modeled many of her poems on musical forms and attempted to discover the polyphonic structures that organize the universe. Among those composers whom she found to most affect her creativity were Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Webern. On more than one occasion, Manner stated her belief that the music of Bach had provided the key to the clarity and logic of modern poetic expression.

Manner's rejection of Christianity was indicated in many of her works. Making little or no distinction between the belief systems originating in the Old and New Testaments, she saw Christianity's vast body of ideas as inevitably responsible for legislating an intolerantly puritanical world which was incapable of seeing beauty in the earth's natural energies. In a well-known poem on childhood, she speaks of the grandmother who, when displeased that an organ-grinder had created a pretty tune in the courtyard, would take out her psalm book and start singing a harsh and "broken song." In her 1951 novel Tyttö taivaan laiturilla (The Girl on the Pier of Heaven), she defined all religions as being cold and hostile systems of human intellect, part of the "logical disorder" that she saw as continually at war with the infinitely more preferable system of "magical order." The latter, thought Manner, had the potential to empower us with the ability to better understand, and function within, our universe.

Called "the quiet Cassandra of Finnish poetry" by Philip Binham, Manner could not escape the conclusion that humanity was essentially a destructive force in the world. Contemporary events were alluded to in some of her works, including the 1968 Soviet bloc invasion of Czechoslovakia as well as the presence of grinding poverty and social injustice in Spain, where she lived for part of each year. But her most intense and concentrated writing in the final decades of her life can be found in her verse, which continued to examine the human need to seek an answer as to whether or not our existence had a meaning.

In addition to writing poetry which is becoming increasingly known worldwide through translations, Manner was a novelist, playwright, and translator of distinction. Her 1972 novel Varokaa, voittajat (Beware, Victors) has been described as "a significant analysis of violence." Set in an unspecified southern nation, it begins with a political assassination and depicts a world of oppression where the menacing presence of the poor is juxtaposed with obscene displays of wealth by the rich. Although they are not likely to attract mass audiences, Manner's plays are also distinguished. Her 1959 verse drama Eros ja Psykhe (Eros and Psyche) is a blend of lyrical and dream elements, while her 1965 play Uuden vuoden yö (New Year's Eve) is a spiky drama that bears a considerable resemblance to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, although Manner did not know of Albee's work at the time she wrote it. In both Toukokuun lumi (Snow in May, 1966) and Poltettu oranssi (Burnt-Out Ocher, 1968), Manner created poetic dramas that explored the psychological essences of very young women. Manner also provided the Finnish reading public with a large number of highly praised translations from the works of foreign authors including Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Hermann Hesse, Georg Büchner, Edward Albee and Patrick White, as well as the works of several contemporary Japanese and Spanish authors.

As a sensitive writer who struggled not only with the perennial problems of her craft but also with the burden of being human in an age of cruelty and destruction, Manner had a largely pessimistic outlook. In the long philosophical poem that ends her 1968 book Fahrenheit 121, she speaks of a world "made as it is of fog and rust," expressing a despair which can also be found in her play Burnt-Out Ocher. Yet, in some of her later works, Manner gave indications that her pessimism was not an all-enveloping despair. In Kamala kissa (A Horrible Cat, 1976) and Kauhukakara ja Superkissa (Little Terror and Supercat, 1982), she found whimsical humor in a mirror world where cats play the roles of people (as did the equally austere T.S. Eliot from whose famous collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats Manner got the idea for some of her cat poems). These two books make a collection of international cat portraits and political satires, as well as of metaphysical and mystical cat aphorisms. One of the most memorable characters is the cat painter "Salve Dali," a wonderful portrait of the exuberant Spanish painter. In 1980, a wide selection of her poems from the years 1956 through 1977 appeared in print and was hailed by critics. Manner was the recipient of numerous Finnish literary awards, including the Michael Agricola Prize and the Alexis Kivi Prize. Universally respected by Finns, she died in Helsinki in January 1995.

sources:

Ahokas, Jaako A. "Eeva-Liisa Manner: Dropping from Reality into Life," in Books Abroad. Vol. 47, no. 1. Winter 1973, pp. 60–65.

——. "Manner, Eeva-Liisa," in Virpi Zuck, et al., eds. Dictionary of Scandinavian Literature. CT: Greenwood Press, 1990, pp. 400–402.

Binham, Philip. "Protest and After in the Finnish Theater," in World Literature Today. Vol. 54, no. 1. Winter 1980, pp. 58–61.

Bosley, Keith, ed. and trans. Skating on the Sea: Poetry from Finland. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1997.

Branch, Michael. "Manner, Eeva-Liisa," in Robert B. Pynsent and S.I. Kanikova, eds., Reader's Encyclopedia of Eastern European Literature. NY: Harper-Collins, 1993, p. 249.

Dauenhauer, Richard, and Philip Binham, eds. Snow in May: An Anthology of Finnish Writing 1945–1972. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978.

Laitinen, Kai, ed. Modern Nordic Plays: Finland. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1973.

Lomas, Herbert, ed. Contemporary Finnish Poetry. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1991.

Manner, Eeva-Liisa. Die Welt ist eine Dichtung meiner Sinne. Translated by Ingrid Schellbach-Kopra and Stefan Moster. Eisingen: H. Heiderhoff, 1996.

——. Selected Poems. Translated by Herbert Lomas. Guildford, Surrey: Making Waves, 1997.

Niemi, Irmeli. "Finland: Women in the Limelight," in The UNESCO Courier. Vol. 36, no. 4. April 1983, pp. 36–37.

——. "Modern Women Playwrights in Finland," in World Literature Today. Vol. 54, no. 1. Winter 1980, pp. 54–58.

Partnow, Eaine T., and Lesley Anne Hyatt. The Female Dramatist: Profiles of Women Playwrights from the Middle Ages to Contemporary Times. NY: Facts on File, 1998.

Tuohimaa, Sinikka. "The Poetry of Eeva-Liisa Manner: Unveiling Reflections of Life," in World Literature Today. Vol. 61, no. 1. Winter 1987, pp. 37–40.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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