Betti Alver

PoemsBetti Alver


About Betti Alver

Betti (Elisabet) Alver, a translator, prosaist, and one of the most renowned Estonian poets of the twentieth century, was born November 23, 1906 in Jõgeva. As the youngest child of a railway master, she lived in a house next to the train station with her father, mother, and older brother, Martin. Sources have characterized her family life as a happy event - one that inspired many of her poems, including Rumalad sõnad and Minu ema.

In 1914, Alver moved to Tartu with her brother and mother to attend primary school. Since her family couldn’t afford to send her to a boarding house, they rented a room, and her father would visit on weekends. Later, Alver made the commute herself from Jõgeva to Tartu, graduating from secondary school in 1924. That same year, she began attending the University of Tartu to study Estonian language and literature.

Alver’s literary debut arrived in 1927 with the publication of her short story Vaene väike ('Poor Little Thing') and Tuulearmuke ('The Wind’s Paramour'), a novel she wrote in high school, which won second place in the publishing company Loodus’ novel competition. With the success of her novel, she left the university in order to pursue literature. Though a couple other prose pieces followed Tuulearmuke, including the story Invaliidid ('The Invalids') in 1930 and later the prose poem Viletsuse komöödia ('The Comedy of Misery') in 1935, Alver made the shift from prose to poetry in 1931, debuting with her lyrical epic Lugu valgest varesest ('The Tale of a White Crow'). However, it was the 1936 publication of her first collection of highly acclaimed lyric poems, Tolm ja tuli ('Dust and Fire') - an accumulation of nearly five years of work - that firmly established her as a poet.

Interactions with other poets and intellectuals of the time defined much of Alver’s early poetic life. She stood out as a masterful manipulator of language, capable of writing with formal simplicity while still maintaining the depth of her ideas as well as the playfulness and irony of her voice. In 1934, she became a member of the Estonian Writers’ Union. She was also one of eight poets in the symbolically significant group Arbujad (Soothsayers), and was greatly influenced by the lyrical poet Heiti Talvik, whom she eventually married in 1937.

During much of World War II, Alver lived in the southern Estonian village of Pühaste, which retained many Estonian rural traditions. The folkloristic influence undoubtedly inspired her work, and she began putting together a second poetry collection, Elupuu ('Tree of Life'); because of German Occupation, however, the collection remained unpublished. These poems were printed eventually in her later works. In 1945, Heiti Talvik was arrested and deported to Siberia, where he died two years later—an event that arguably started a new era for Alver’s poetry.

After the war, Alver disappeared from the literary scene, refusing to publish poetry acceptable to Soviet authorities, and instead focused primarily on translations. Her translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (translated from 1956–63, published first by the chapter in the journal Looming and then in its entirety in 1964) received much critical praise. Alver also translated other writers, including Baudelaire, Gorki, Goethe, and Heine. In 1956, she married the literary historian Mart Lepik.

The 60s were a period of renewed vitality for Alver. Before and during the war, she had taken an interest in Estonian language forms, dialects, and folk traditions. Now, she returned to her study of Estonian vocabulary, compiling notes from Andrus Saareste’s dictionary with the goal of applying it to her own poetry. The publication of the poems Tähetund ('Stellar Hour') and Läbi lillede ('Through the Flowers') in Looming that same year marked her return as a poet. Her newest collection, Tähetund, followed in 1966. Having been silent for almost twenty years, Alver was met with earnest enthusiasm from the Estonian people. All 10,000 copies of the first edition sold out in a few hours. The poem Tähetund won the Juhan Liiv Poetry Award in 1967.

Alver went on to publish three more collections of poetry: Eluhelbed ('Flakes of Life') in 1971, consisting of poems written from 1932–40 and 1966–70, Lendav Linn ('The Flying City') in 1980, and the philosophical, more experimental Korallid Emajões ('Corals in the Emajõgi') in 1986, which conceptualized life and its dangers and stressed the importance of the independent individual. The latter two collections both won the Smuul Literary Award (Estonian Annual Prize for Literature). In 1987, Alver won the Juhan Liiv Poetry Award for the second time in recognition of her poem Elul on väikene hingemaa. She also won the Friedebert Tuglas Short Story Award in 1977 for Kõmpa (1976), a story based on childhood memories.

Betti Alver died June 19, 1989 in Tartu and was buried in the Raadi Vana-Jaani graveyard. In 1996, a symbolic monument and a memorial park were erected in her honor in Jõgeva. For her 100th birthday in 2006, her childhood home was made into a museum.

M. M.

Homepage of the Betti Alver Museum in Jõgeva (in Estonian).

Books in Estonian

Lugu valgest varasest: poeem. Tartu: Noor-Eesti, 1931, 66 lk. [E-raamat: Tallinn: Digira, 2014.]
Viletsuse komöödia. Tartu: Eesti Kirjastuse Kooperatiiv, 1935, 125 lk. [Poeemid ja proosaluuletused. 2. trükk: Tallinn: (s.n.), 1990, 125 lk.]
Tolm ja tuli. Tartu: Eesti Kirjastuse Kooperatiiv, 1936, 95 lk. [E-raamat: Tallinn: Digira, 2014.]
Luuletused ja poeemid. Stockholm: Vaba Eesti, 1956, 248 lk.
Mõrane peegel: kuus poeemi. Tallinn: Ajalehtede-Ajakirjade Kirjastus (Loomingu Raamatukogu), 1962, 56 lk. [E-raamat: Tallinn: Digira, 2015.]
Tähetund: valik luuletusi ja poeeme. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1966, 232 lk. [E-raamat: Tallinn: Digira, 2014.]
Uued luuletused ja poeemid. Toronto: Mana, 1968, 56 lk.
Eluhelbed. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1971, 103 lk.
Lendav Linn. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1979, 412 lk.
Korallid Emajões.Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1986, 92 lk.
Üle sõnade serva: valik luulet. Koostanud Karl Muru. Tallinn: K. Muru; Tänapäev, 2004, 97 lk.
Koguja: suur luuleraamat. Koostanud Ele Süvalep. Tartu: Ilmamaa, 2005, 559 lk.
Kotuse lill: viis poeemi. Koostanud Karl Muru. Tallinn: Tänapäev, 2006, 61 lk.
Tulipunane vihmavari: valik luulet. Koostanud Mall Jõgi. Tallinn: Tammerraamat, 2012, 175 lk.
Omajuur. Koostanud Kristi Metste; toimetanud Elo Rohult. Tallinn: Tänapäev, 2017, 321 lk.

Tuulearmuke. Tartu: Loodus, 1927, 255 lk. [E-raamat: Tallinn: Digira, 2014.]
Invaliidid. Tartu: Loodus, 1930, 204 lk. [E-raamat: Tallinn: Digira, 2014.]

Short stories
Kõmpa. Jõgeva: Betti Alveri Muuseum, 2011, 123 lk.

Minu lamp põleb: Betti Alveri ja Mart Lepiku kirjavahetus 1947-1970. Koostanud Kristi Metste ja Eve Annuk. Tallinn: Varrak, 2015, 301 lk.

Collected works
Teosed, 1. köide: Üle aegade Assamalla. Luuletusi ja poeeme. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1989, 542 lk.
Teosed, 2. köide: Tuulearmuke; Invaliidid; Viletsuse komöödia; Kõmpa; Proosa 1927-1976. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1992, 525 lk.