Obituary: Ivar Ivask

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The Independent Online
Ivar Ivask, poet, artist, critic, born Riga Latvia 17 December 1927, married 1949 Astrid Hartmanis, died Fountainstown Co Cork Ireland 23 September 1992.

IVAR IVASK's life reminded one of the wandering Humanists of the Renaissance. Born of Estonian parents in the Latvian city of Riga, he went to school and later studied art history and comparative literature in Germany (at the University of Marburg). In 1949 he left for the United States, where he completed his higher studies at the University of Minnesota. After teaching from 1952 to 1967 at St Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, he became editor of the international literary quarterly Books Abroad, later renamed World Literature Today, at the University of Oklahoma. On retiring in 1991, Ivask settled down in Ireland, where he began to work on his memoirs.

Editing the only English-language literary review entirely devoted to world literature was a very demanding task, but one which suited Ivask admirably. While he specialised in German and Hispanic literatures, he knew the work of Scandinavian writers as well and had a more than cursory interest in French, Russian, and other lesser-known European literatures. From 1971 World Literature Today had a number of excellent thematic issues, featuring the theatre of the absurd, structuralism, the literature of exile, contemporary Baltic, German and Japanese literatures, the work of Mario Vargas Llosa, Yves Bonnefoy and Max Frisch.

As editor of WLT Ivask was also co-ordinator of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. This prestigious prize (awarded every two years by an international jury of critics and writers) is little known in the UK, although in the past 20 years no fewer than 15 Neustadt laureates, candidates or jurors have received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

As Neustadt Prize co-ordinator Ivask hosted writers from all over the world; in 1990 I was member of the Neustadt jury in Norman, Oklahoma, and enjoyed the hospitality of the university and of the Ivasks (Ivar's wife Astrid is a fellow-Latvian poet). During the deliberations of the jury Ivar displayed not only his good sense of humour but also much patience, kindness and tact which soothed the participants; he was the ideal chairman. He was visibly moved when the prize went to the Swedish poet Tomasz Transtromer, the candidate of Ivask's Estonian fellow-countryman Jaan Keplinski. Ivask also founded and co-ordinated the Puterbaugh Conferences on writers of the French-speaking and Hispanic world.

Although best known in his capacity as editor and literary organiser, Ivask was also a fine poet. Poetry he wrote mostly in Estonian, making his debut in 1964 and bringing out his collected poems, Verandaraamat ja teisi luuletusi ('The Veranda Book and other poems') in 1990, with his own illustrations. An English selection of his verse was published in 1984 under the title Oklahoma October (translated by the author and Astrid Ivask). In the 1980s, however, Ivask began to write poems in English as well; the collection Snow Lessons (1986) was followed by the two series of Baltic Elegies published in a slim volume in 1990. The latter were translated into a number of languages, including Swedish (by Lasse Soderberg), Polish (by Czeslaw Milosz) and Estonian (by Paul-Eerik Rummo). Incidentally, although Ivask briefly visited Estonia in 1974, he had to wait for official recognition of his work until 1988 when, as guests of the then Soviet Writers Union, he and his wife could once again visit their native parts. In Tallin he gave his first poetry reading on Estonian soil, an emotional event for a poet who wrote: 'This is the language / of my verse . . . / in which winter is truly winter, / spring, summer, fall possess me. / I have learned other languages along the way. / It is in Estonian I still count my annual rings.'

Ivask was the recipient of numerous literary awards, including the award of the Foundation for Estonian Arts and Letters (1975) and the Governor's Arts Award in 1985. He held the title of the Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland and was a corresponding member of the Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki.

The University of Oklahoma honoured him with the Regents' Award for Superior Accomplishment in 1981. He was naturalised as a citizen of the United States in 1955.