Ellen Niit – a lyricist by nature

Text by Sirje Olesk

Ellen Niit is a classic of Estonian children’s literature, mainly as a poet. The author of the hugely popular The Train Ride, which has been read by Estonian children for more than sixty years, she has written a large number of easily memorable poems and prose works for children. Niit has also written outstanding poetry for adults, and was one of the three writers who at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s caused radical changes in Soviet Estonian literature and re-introduced poetic and aesthetic values into poetry which had been neglected during the Stalinist years. Ellen Niit’s work forms a significant, even central part of what we in hindsight can call Estonian literature in Soviet Estonia.

“Disrupted human relations, forbidden contacts, ridiculed convictions, derided ethical values, destroyed continuity and torn roots – all this has been inescapable part of everyday reality for my generation. In such a situation, everyone had to find his own balance; in order to survive, we had to pull ourselves together and try to remain true to ourselves. To me, poetry has always provided balance and strength.” With these words, Ellen Niit begins her introduction to her poetry collection in Finnish, Maailman pysyvyys (Continuity of the World), published in Helsinki in 1994. It was a selected collection of her work. The title is significant: having lived through the destruction of the Republic of Estonia as a teenager, and the subsequent years of Stalinist persecution, the continuity of the world and her life were crucial. In the reality of that era, young people could get a sense of continuity and constancy via the simplest and most human things: home, love, children and creative work.

Ellen Hiob (Niit in her first marriage, and since 1958 Kross) was born in 1928 in Tallinn and graduated from secondary school in 1947. She started writing poetry at an early age and, thanks to encouragement from teachers, her first poems were published when she was still a schoolgirl. She was thus already a poet when she became a student at the University of Tartu during the darkest years of Stalinism, in 1947-1952. Her specialty was Estonian language and literature and she decided to continue with a degree course after graduation. Her research topic was Estonian children’s literature. Ideological pressure at the time, however, was so strong that her initial plan to write about the development of Estonian children’s literature was rejected and another theme was suggested, “The development of Soviet Estonian children’s literature” (at that time, Soviet Estonian children’s literature hardly existed!). Ellen Niit thus left Tartu in 1956 without her degree and got a job as a poetry consultant at the Writer’s Union in Tallinn. This experience was not totally negative: during her Tartu years she had thoroughly researched children’s literature and also how to write it. It is quite ironic that, according to Niit, her first highly popular verse tales were in fact written following the theoretical instructions to think rationally. She had just got married and had had her first child. The children’s writer Ellen Niit grew out of the practical experimenting of a young scholar researching children’s literature theory and the experiences of a young mother. The ease of writing poetry, inventive rhymes and memorable images could only have happened to a truly gifted person. The ideologically unsuitable time disrupted the natural poet’s path of the young Ellen Niit, which had started with such promise. Already in her school days she had published the optimistic and beautiful poem Õnn (Happiness), where she wrote that “happiness is up to you...”, which became a song for mixed choirs at the first Stalinistera song festival. During this harsh time, Ellen Hiob was a Wunderkind in Estonian poetry, a young and promising talent, and by 1950 she already had enough poems for a collection. She could not, alas, get it published then and looking back many years later she thinks it was just as well. This was the time when many Estonian writers were expelled from the Writers’ Union for being “bourgeois nationalists” and those who wanted to publish their work had to produce ideologically “correct” literature. Niit remembers how naïve she was and that she might easily have written ideologically correct and hollow poetry and been ashamed of it afterwards. Instead, she stopped writing poetry. However, as she already had the reputation of being a young talented poet, the youth communist faction (to which Ellen Hiob did not belong) at the university department decided that she had a duty to write poems, i.e. correct poems, and if she failed to do so, she would be expelled from university. Today such an approach seems totally absurd, but during the last years of Stalin, ideology was heavy-handed in the Soviet Union. The experienced and trustworthy lecturer of literature and university dean Karl Taev saved his student. He said she would not be expelled for not writing poetry, but she would be carefully watched so she had better not do anything silly. In her later interviews, Ellen Niit often recalled this incident, which hindered her development as a “real” poet, but it did lead her to children’s poetry. Thus was born what the poet Veronika Kivisilla calls “the long and happy union between Ellen Niit and Estonian children’s poetry”.

Ellen Niit has been writing for children for over sixty years and has published over forty books of poetry and prose. Characters created by her, especially Pille-Riin and Krõll, are familiar to several generations of children, who grew up with the characters and later, as parents themselves, read the same books to their own children. The style of Ellen Niit’s children’s poetry is, according to Kivisilla, “genuine, cosy, sweet and compact”. Her verse tale Suur maalritöö (The Great Painter) is a wonderfully bubbly story of creation; her magical Midrimaa (Midriland) opens up a miraculous new world for children, and her poems for toddlers, with their natural plots and memorable rhymes will last forever. Ellen Niit has four children herself and, living with another writer, she consciously pushed her literary ambitions into the background, so that her second husband, Jaan Kross, who had spent eight wasted years in a Siberian prison camp, could fully make up for lost time. Thus children’s poetry, which was obviously easier and quicker to write, was the simplest way to realise her own potential. Her own children helped a great deal, according to Niit. “I have such poor ability in the abstract that I need a specific addressee. When I write for children, I write for a specific person, either a child of my own or someone else’s nearby whom I know. This provides me with a vital structure. In this way, I can get things right, which may not happen if I write for huge abstract child-people”.

The talented poet Ellen Niit primarily found acclaim in Estonian literature as a children’s writer. The skill of producing poems and a need to use the skill were also realised in translation work. In Tartu, Ellen Niit studied both Finnish and Hungarian and thus has translated extensively from these two languages. At the turn of the 1950s-1960s, Finnish contemporary poetry was mainly free verse, and Ellen Niit, always seeking new images and forms, found free verse conducive to refreshing and expanding Estonian poetry. A large number of poems were written in the late 1950s with rhymes and free verse. Stalin was dead, the new Party leader condemned the Stalinist cult in 1956, people were returning from Siberian prison camps to Estonia, and the limited and strict Estonian literature began to change as well. The changes were initiated mainly by three poets: Ain Kaalep, Jaan Kross and Ellen Niit. The men had been in prison, and Kross had spent years in exile in distant Siberia. Acknowledging them in Estonian literature as permitted and valued authors did not happen easily. Kross and Kaalep first caught the public eye as translators, initially working with such progressive classics as Heinrich Heine and Johannes Becher. After a while they were allowed to publish their own original poems, in periodical publications and then finally in the Writers’ Union’s own publications. They compiled their collections of poetry and submitted them to publishers as early as 1955-1956, but nothing happened for quite some time. After lengthy discussion at the Writers’ Union and negotiations with publishers, Jaan Kross was able to publish Söerikastaja (The Coal Enricher, 1958), Ellen Niit Maa on täis leidmist (The Land is Full of Finding, 1960) and Ain Kaalep’s Aomaastikud (Dawn Landscapes, 1962). The titles refer to a new, more optimistic era. The humane, simple poems tackling perfectly straightforward themes suddenly and unexpectedly caused quite a stir. The core of the controversy was an essentially absurd question: did free verse suit Soviet literature? Articles were written, meetings were held, the eminent literary historian and critic Endel Nirk wrote a vicious parody aimed at the three poets, and a literary war was in full swing. Reading these disputes fifty years later, it is obvious that the whole absurd situation derived from political circumstances. Estonian Soviet literature was swarming with mediocre, Party-faithful writers and thus the emergence of new talent endangered their position. Twenty years of ideological pressure had made the literary guardians so cautious that any more liberal idea, along with the freeverse form (which was, after all, nothing new in Estonian-language poetry) made them wonder: was this allowed? What would they say in Moscow? (In Russian, free verse had traditionally been a marginal phenomenon.) Recalling that time in a later interview, Ellen Niit said: “Kaalep, Jaan Kross and I were pilloried as revolting formalists. At least I found myself in good company. I was quite spoilt and took it too much to heart. Jaan Kross, hardened in Siberia, took up translating again and kept his new poems in his desk drawers. I focused on children’s poetry, as I already had children of my own then. /---/ I am sure my development would have been much quicker and I could have written much more if I hadn’t been trampled on again in 1960.”

The thaw of the 1960s made life somewhat more normal and thus innovators got a new lease on life, at least for a decade. After Kross, Kaalep and Niit, the generation of young poets born during and after the war entered Estonian literature, and their work became the core of the canon of Estonian poetry in the second half of the 20th century: Paul-Eerik Rummo, Jaan Kaplinski and Hando Runnel. Still, they were shown the way by the Kross-Kaalep-Niit trio, who were quietly repressed until the end of the Soviet period (for example, Ain Kaalep, who spoke several languages and translated poetry from many parts of the world, was not allowed to travel outside the Soviet Union until 1984, when he was permitted to visit East-Germany as a writer). Ellen Niit had worked as a poetry consultant at the Writers’ Union, but left of her own will under the shadow of being ideologically suspect before being actually sacked. The forceful Jaan Kross was better able to assert himself, amongst other things because after years in Siberia he spoke fluent Russian and performed very well at the festival of Estonian art in Moscow.

Ellen Niit married Jaan Kross in 1958 and from that time onwards they formed such a strong tandem in the Estonian literary world that it was next to impossible to ignore them. Jaan Kross developed into a prose-writer whose historical novels were translated with increasing enthusiasm. While their children were growing up, Ellen Niit decided to devote herself to the home. The life of two freelance writers was not easy during the Soviet era; although the fees were bigger, you had to write on “suitable” topics in order to get published, aiming at a large print run: the bigger the print run, the bigger the fee. Children’s literature was a fairly safe bet. Jaan Kross had begun as an innovative poet eager to break traditions, but focused on prose in his middle age. His role in the development of Estonian historical prose cannot be overestimated. At that time, Ellen Niit’s role was that of a loving wife who carried the bulk of the family’s practical burden and thus allowed her husband to pursue his literary ambitions.

She has claimed to be primarily a lyricist in her creative work. In order to write lyrical poems a person needs the right mood and inspiration, and doesn’t require long uninterrupted periods. Ellen Niit’s poetry for grown-ups is very Estonian: reservedly passionate love poetry, brief but precise verses about nature and unexpectedly realistic and lengthy poems about family and the daily life of a wife and mother. Her mother’s family came from Harju County, near Tallinn, and Niit has said that these quite barren and harsh landscapes became dear to her. A talent for singing and a belief in Christian love, which she received from her mother’s side of the family, influenced young Ellen as well: as a child she could recite by heart numerous religious songs and songs performed at song festivals. Subconsciously, this seemed to influence her own work, as many of her poems have become well-known songs. All Estonian children know Gustav Ernesaks’s song about a train with a duck driver. Beautiful choir songs have been written using her words by such composers as Veljo Tormis, Eino Tamberg, Alo Ritsing, Aarne Oit and Valter Ojakäär. Her poems quite obviously had something that inspired both composers and singers...

Ellen Niit’s most prolific poetry period was in the 1960s and 1970s; later she published only a few dedicated poems. The most touching of these was the poem for her husband To Jaan, written in autumn 2006, where she claims that “love is nothing else but God.”

Ellen Niit is now elderly and her health is poor. Her life companion, Jaan Kross, died at the end of 2007. Ellen Niit has not written her memoirs, but there have been many interviews and she took part in long conversations between Jaan Kross and his biographer Juhani Salokannel.

Although Ellen Niit’s children’s poetry has been published since Estonia regained its independence, and there have been numerous reprints of her earlier work, the bulk of her work was done between the 1950s and 1980s. Now that Estonia has been free for over twenty years, we can look back more calmly at occupation-period literature. To what extent was this Estonian literature? I am quite convinced that after the big struggle at the turn of the 1950s-1960s, Estonian writers were able to express their ideas more or less freely, if of course they avoided the known ideological taboos (e.g. what happened in 1940, the existence of a huge diaspora of Estonians abroad, strict censorship etc.). More distant history, contemporary life, lyricism and children were allowed. Ellen Niit naturally had her own experience of censorship (in her very first poem, the concept of a Christmas tree was forbidden, as the Soviet Union was an atheist country and Christmas was not officially celebrated). Jaan Kross wrote two volumes of memoirs which offer a lot of interesting information about the life of two writers under the Soviet regime. Published writers were not in fact badly off. Still, besides the general hypocrisy of society, they were tormented by its closed nature. In her youth, Ellen Niit had started a correspondence with Raili Kilp in Finland, who became a lifelong family friend and translator and promoter of Estonian literature. The couple had decided that they would only go on foreign trips together (this perfectly normal arrangement was a great exception and privilege in the Soviet empire). True, they had children who constituted a guarantee for the authorities: it was less likely that they would seek political asylum abroad. They were both invited by friends to Finland and Hungary and were able to travel there together; later, when Jaan Kross had become a major writer in Soviet Estonia, they could go to the USA and Canada as well, where they mainly read for Estonian exiles, introducing Estonian literature and contemporary Estonian writers. How limited such opportunities were is revealed in the bibliography of Ellen Niit (and Jaan Kross). Their work was translated quite a lot until 1991, but chiefly into Russian and other languages of the Soviet Union countries. The rest of the world had no interest in a small nation concealed in the vast Soviet empire. And even if it did, translating was an ideological undertaking. When an anthology of Estonian poetry was compiled and published in Finland in 1969 which included work by contemporary exile writers, a huge scandal erupted and the book was included in the list of banned literature.

This was the reality in which Estonian writers lived during the years of Soviet thaw and stagnation. Nobody starved and probably the worst was over, but absurd restrictions and human stupidity caused a great deal of revulsion. Among other things, this was alleviated by literature (and music even more so), for both creators and readers-listeners. Fascinating and human literature, including literature for children, was therefore so much more significant back then than it is today. Still, much of what was written then has survived, and Ellen Niit’s poetry certainly has a permanent place amongst our cultural treasures.

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