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Jaan Kaplinski | Bloodaxe Books

Jaan Kaplinski (1941-2021) was one of Estonia's best-known writers and cultural figures. He was born in Tartu shortly after the Soviet annexation of Estonia. His mother was Estonian, and his Polish Jewish father, Jerzy Kaplinski, a professor of philology at Tartu University, died from starvation in a Soviet labour camp when Jaan was still a child. ‘My childhood,’ he has said, ‘passed in Tartu, a war-devastated university town. It was a time of repression, fear and poverty.

Jaan Kaplinski studied Romance Language and Linguistics at Tartu University and worked as a researcher in linguistics, as a sociologist, ecologist and translator. He lectured on the History of Western Civilisation at Tartu University and was a student of Mahayana Buddhism and philosophies of the Far East. He wrote and published several books of poetry and essays in Estonian, Finnish and English, starting to write also in Russian in recent years. His first original collection of poems written in Russian, “Белые бабочки ночи” (White Butterflies of Night), was published in 2014, receiving a “Russian Award” in Moscow celebrating the best works written in Russian by foreign authors. His work has been translated many languages, including English, Finnish, French, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Icelandic, Hungarian, Japanese, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian, Hebrew, Bulgarian and Czech. He had much in common with Gary Snyder, who wrote of Kaplinski and his work that 'he is re-thinking Europe, revisioning history, in these poems of our times. Elegant, musing, relentless, inward, fresh. Poems of gentle politics and love that sometimes scare you.'

After publishing English translations of three collections with Harvill in Britain, one of these from Breitenbush and one from Copper Canyon in the US, Kaplinski published Evening Brings Everything Back with Bloodaxe Books in 2004, a book combining work from three earlier titles published in Estonia, Evening brings everything back (1984), Ice and Heather (1989) and Summers and Springs (1995). His semi-autobiographical, mystical novel, The Same River, translated by Susan Wilson, was published by Peter Owen in 2009. His other English translators and co-translators have included Hildi Hawkins, Sam Hamill, Fiona Sampson and Riina Tamm.

His Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2011) includes work previously unpublished in English as well as poems drawn from all four of his previous UK collections: The Same Sea in Us All (1985/1990), The Wandering Border (1987/1992), Through the Forest (1991/1996) and Evening Brings Everything Back (2004). He was awarded the European Prize for Literature (Prix Européen de Littérature) in 2016, and in the same year was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

He translated literature from French, English, Spanish, Chinese (including the Tao Te Ching) and Swedish (a book of poems by Tomas Tranströmer), and travelled widely. Awarded many prizes and honours, he was a member of several learned societies including the Universal Academy of Cultures. Jaan Kaplinski was a member of the new post-Revolution Estonian parliament (Riigikogu) in 1992-95 and his essays on cultural transition and the challenges of globalisation are published across the Baltic region. Further details and texts are on his website

In 1980 Kaplinski was one of the authors and initiators of the so-called Letter of 40 intellectuals (Neljakümne kiri) action, a letter signed by well-known Estonian intellectuals protesting against the behaviour of the authorities in Soviet-annexed Estonia sent to the main newspapers of the time. He was later involved in an Irish-Estonian initiative predating Estonian independence, appearing on the Ulster TV talk show Kelly’s People. He gave lectures, readings and talks in Vancouver and Calgary, Ljubljana and Trieste, Taipei and Stockholm, Bologna and Cologne, London and Edinburgh, and at festivals in Ireland, including Cúirt in Galway and at Poetry Now in Dún Laoghaire where he launched his Selected Poems in 2011. He was also writer-in-residence at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales.

A virtual conference marking Kaplinski’s 80th birthday was held in January 2021 organised by the city of Tartu, the Writer’s Union and the Estonian Literary Museum covering the wide range of his work, including his contributions to ecological thinking, global issues, linguistics, literature and the study of Eastern philosophies. Arne Merilai, the main organiser of Luuletused on elanud maakeral juba eotseenist saadik, said that the conference offered new insights into Jaan Kaplinski as “a great Estonian poet, essayist and thinker. His writings have been translated into many different languages and his world view has affected us and the world.”

Other writers have streets named after them. Kaplinski went one better with celestial recognition in main-belt asteroid 29528 Kaplinski.


Books by Jaan Kaplinski






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