Juhan Viiding (Jüri Üdi)

Sometimes the impact of a single poet can be so powerful and overwhelming that his influence will dominate the poetic mainstream for more than a decade. This was certainly the case with Juhan Viiding, who published his most important works under the pen-name Jüri Üdi (not a simple pseudonym, but a consciously developed and portrayed alter ego). His strongly decentred, allegorical and polylogical writing, with puzzling ambiguities and rapid changes of perspective, became a universal point of reference for the majority of young poets in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. No other Estonian poet has generated such a flow of imitations, emulations, allusions and remodellings: one might say that Jüri Üdi was the principal mould for poetic language for a whole generation.

Born in 1948, the poetry of Viiding under the pseudonym Jüri Üdi became widely acknowledged in 1971, after his appearance in a volume with three previously unpublished poets, called Närvitrükk (Nerve Print, 1971). Soon more books followed, and in 1978 Juhan Viiding could publish a comprehensive selection, Ma olin Jüri Üdi (I Was Jüri Üdi), thus concluding his most creative phase with an autonomous gesture of self-abolition. This book also included a short final sequence called “Poems by Juhan Viiding”; however, the difference between the two poetical personalities had not yet become clearly visible. His new poetry still carried a resemblance with the poetry of Jüri Üdi; it was not until 1983 that readers became convinced of his new, more confessional orientation. After that, Juhan Viiding seems to have written but rarely. In 1995 Juhan Viiding committed suicide.

The writings of Jüri Üdi and Juhan Viiding are so dense and concentrated that any thematic description would be irrelevant. Being a literary perfectionist, he never dropped a phrase that would reduce the text to commonplaces of style and poetic tradition. He revolutionised the language of Estonian poetry. His work has often been characterized with paradoxical formulations (“anti-poetry”, “sacred irony” etc), but all critics have agreed that it focuses on the incessant shifting of masks and roles. Here, language is never a transparent medium, although the expressions are often direct and colloquial. However, the poetic indeterminacy does not exclude sincerity - the elusive and multiple speech only stresses an unconditional openness.
Juhan Viiding was a professional actor in the Estonian Drama Theatre, acting in several important roles (Peer Gynt, Hamlet etc), wrote film scripts, staged and played in films as well. His expressive manner of reading and singing his poetry made him a living legend. Several performances were recorded (either live or in the studio), and every good reader of his poetry can also recall the highly personal timbre of his voice, that seems to be part of his artistic singularity. In his lines – as well as on the stage - he was light, with lambent wit, radiant, at the same time painfully serious and tense, fighting for the personal freedom of everybody.
In 1998 the Collected Poems of Jüri Üdi and Juhan Viiding were published: this volume has been reprinted several times. His poetry has probably influenced Estonian readers more than anybody after Gustav Suits, the initiator of modern Estonian poetry. And he is the father of Elo Viiding, one of the most interesting poets of contemporary Estonia.


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