Ain Kaalep was a poet, playwright, critic and translator, a cultural mediator – a classic in every respect. Kaalep stood up first for modernising the form of poetry, for the free verse which was not favoured in the Soviet Union, and when it broke through in the nineteen-sixties and found its way again into the Estonian poetry, he turned himself to more strict, exotic and intricate forms of verse: he defined himself as Neo-Classicist with aesthetic, precise experiences in a strict form, like Paul Valéry. He was one of the most interesting and most original poets in Estonia, at the same time modern and classic, and the last academic one, close to Borges, to bind the history of the world literature into his verses. He said once that poetry is more an art than a sudden reflection of a feeling or impression, but still close to emotions.

Kaalep was born in 1926 in Tartu as a son of a scientist, went to the famous Hugo Treffner Gymnasium and was in 1943 enrolled in the University of Tartu. The recent student went then as a very young soldier to Finland and took part in the Continuation War in the Infantry Regiment 200. Together with two other young writers, he belonged to the literary group Quasimodo there. Back in Estonia, he fought against the Red Army here as well, was because of that arrested when the war was over, spent a year in prison and was expelled from the university in 1949. He was allowed to graduate in 1956 in the Finno-Ugric Studies. Kaalep actually wanted to become a scholar, but it was not possible then.

Also the poetry of the young talented author was not published because of the troubles it caused to the publishing houses, so he began translating, a long and fruitful career, preferring often the writers of the antique and the poetry classics. Kaalep translated Goethe and Schiller, Charles Baudelaire, Bertolt Brecht, Victor Hugo, Fernando Pessoa, recently Jacques Prévert, and as special favourites Octavio Paz, Federico García Lorca, César Vallejo.

But as a poet he was not forgotten then: some of his humorous poems became even popular songs. Finally, he made his late debut: in 1962 Kaalep´s first collections, Samarkandi vihik (Notebook of Samarkand) and long before composed, a very beautiful book Aomaastikud (Dawn Landscapes) appeared. The first one mentioned consisted of travel impressions and some translations from Tajik and Uzbek, written in Samarkand in 1962.

The word landscape – maastik – came to the Estonian language as a word in the nineteen-twenties, and it had a special meaning for the poet: he said that it is a word with a very broad meaning, a complex of every element to be sensed and seen, and sometimes a landscape of the soul. Several of his collections are entitled as books of landscapes as Järvemaastikud (Lake Landscapes, 1968), Klaasmaastikud (Glass Landscapes, 1971), and  Peegelmaastikud I –II (Mirror Landscapes, 1976 and 1980) – some of them like fascinating dialogues between different cultural texts, many of his poems as new interpretations of classical texts or motifs. Mirror Landscapes are collections of translated poetry. Paani surm ja teisi luuletusi (The Death of Pan and Other Poems, 1976) was the first collection of long tragic poems. Kaalep has written poetry in the South Estonian Võru dialect, and humorous short pieces and plays, put together as a collection called Jumalatosin (God´s Dozen, 2008).

A deep thinker and versatile philologist, in 1989–2001 Kaalep was the chief editor of the magazine Akadeemia (Academy), which has an important place in the cultural context of Estonia. He was one of the re-establishers of the Estonian Literary Society in 1992. Kaalep was said to be a mentor and a teacher, praeceptor Estoniae: a schoolteacher in his home town school for literature-biased classes, and with his brilliant lectures and articles for many generations of the Estonian humanities scholars.

The monumental collection of Kaalep´s collected works, Muusad ja maastikud. Luuletusi aastaist 1945-2008 (Muses and Landscapes: Poems from 1945-2008) was published in 2008 and soon honoured with the prestigious Wiedemann language award and the very first Jaan Kross literary award. Kaalep has mentioned Goethe and his ideas of world literature, and his works are as borderless, also in metrics. One of Kaalep´s favourite literatures was the one of Senegal, and the Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor´s very African poetry in French.

Ain Kaalep passed away in June 2020.


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