Bergur Ebbi is a writer and comedian. He is the author of stage plays and poetry and his latest book, ‘Stofuhiti’, out in April, is an aesthetic essay about personal identity in the age of social media and hyperconnectivity.
I only chose poetry. I am of the opinion that Icelandic serves well for poetry. Some of the works I mention have been translated but most have not. It truly makes for a justification of a language if it has produced good poetry and I believe Icelandic poets have done just that, and that’s what I want to emphasise with this short selection. A list of honourable mentions would also be very long. All the books are from the 20th century except one from 2010 and it can also be mentioned that ‘Hafblik’ (by Einar Benediktsson) has one foot in the 19th century—it is a turn-of-the-century piece of literature.
1. Svartálfadans – Stefán Hörður Grímsson
This short book of poetry represents the best of the “atom era,” when people had such great interest in literature that they would go into cold-war trenches over a dispute rooted only in aesthetics. It was published in 1951, which is truly a sweet spot for literature. The conventional forms had been broken down in the years prior but this is still before meaning got drowned in the experiments of postmodernism. ‘Svartálfadans’ is poetry at its best. It is full of meaning but all of it is unworldly. It represents pure madness but in a very disciplined form.
2. Laufið á trjánum – Vilborg Dagbjartsdóttir
Even though this book is mostly about love it is also Cold War gourmet. A little baby in a crib, shadowed by doomsday imperialism. Vilborg was one of Icelandic’s few early modernist women poets and went to become one of the nation’s most cherished.
3. Hafblik – Einar Benediktsson
Some say that the poetry of Einar Benediktsson is dwarfed by the author’s stark and egocentric nature. But even though his use of words was sometimes crude and over the top, his main strength, his use of symbolism to create highly conceptual sentiments, is always intact. No Icelandic poet is as conceptual as him, and in ‘Hafblik’, from 1906 (his second book), he pretty much does not touch the ground. It’s all about stars, electricity, tension in the air, moods and mysticism. A true testament of the wicked blend of science and religion that people were up to at the turn of the century.
4. Þorpið – Jón úr Vör
You have to like this one. Forget Halldór Laxness and Þórbergur Þórðarson, just for a little while, and get the social realistic toil of 20th century Iceland delivered through the jugular vein. This book is the rock that all other modern Icelandic poetry sprung from.
5. Kopar – Magnea Matthíasdóttir
This is Icelandic 70s realism at its best. Thoughts about concrete and the social welfare system. It feels like the 70s was a very grey time in Iceland and that young people were frustrated, but Magnea finds beauty in the frustration.
6. Malbikuð hjörtu – Jóhann Hjálmarsson
1961 is peak time for modernist poetry. Jóhann Hjálmarsson, in his early 20s at the time, is like a tap. Everything in this book feels like a steady stream of consciousness, delivered without hesitation. In the next years it was more cool to be a poet than a rock star.
7. Blóðhófnir – Gerður Kristný
This is a recent book, published in 2010. It is a good representation of what poetry can achieve in modern times. If you like the aesthetics of ‘Game of Thrones’ but you want it darker (like Leonard Cohen would put it), check out ‘Blóðhófnir’ (‘Bloodhoof’ in English).
8. Þriggja orða nafn – Ísak Harðarson
Ísak Harðarson’s first book of poems, from 1982, is the work of a person who is born to write poetry. It feels like no other medium would justify the thoughts in this book. Every sentiment is delivered with pure honesty.