When modernism in poetry shocked its way through Europe in the beginning of the last century, people’s main concern was how the hell to understand it. The modernists would often build image upon image in ways that many readers found antagonizing – like oh so much posturing – and it was made new rather than simple, the emphasis being on visual (mostly metaphorical) complexity as the number one tool of the trade. “The tower like a one-eyed great goose / cranes up out of the olive grove,” to quote Pound (Canto II).
When, eventually and at long last, modernism reached Iceland in the mid-fifties understandability wasn’t anybody’s main concern, but lack of rhyme, alliteration – that is to say, traditionality, singalongevity and rememberability. People asked, how am I supposed to remember this drivel if it doesn’t drive on alliteration? Where is the song in irregular metre? Why are you disregarding the Icelandic heritage?
As interesting as these questions are, I’ll leave them be for now, and ask instead (I already have an answer – it may be right, it may be crazy, but it just might be a lunatic we’re … wait, back to the text at hand): why didn’t the readers criticize the difficult visuals of the poetry? Why weren’t they pissed off at Steinn Steinarr’s “Sun-winged circle-waters / equipped with hollow-mirrors / of four-dimensional dreams”? (The Time and the Water).
The answer is to be found in the crossword-puzzly nature of ye olde Icelandic metaphors: the kennings of skaldic poetry. A kenning is (I’m copypasting from Wikipedia) a circumlocution used instead of an ordinary noun […] For example [you] might replace sverð, the regular word for “sword”, with a compound such as ben-grefill “wound-hoe”.
Kennings can be rather complicated, and Icelanders not having anything simpler to be proud of (this is way before the rise and fall of Merzedes Club), had to make do with being proud of ye olde Icelandic poetry (and ye olde Icelandic Sagas, bien sûr). This meant at least reading it and perhaps, occasionally and with some luck and a scholarly background, understanding bits of it.
But, you ask, enraged: what’s so difficult about a metaphor? You don’t need to have a doctorate in literature to get that “wound-hoe” might mean sword?
Well, no, I answer, blushing yet happy to have this opportunity to expound: wound-hoe ain’t that hard – but I’m a fairly literate person, and I had to look up both ben and grefill. I’ve heard the latter, and I might’ve guessed correctly (we’ll never know), but that doesn’t make it part of my active vocabulary, snoozing on the outskirts of my passive vocabulary. And ben? I thought that was Michael Jackson’s rat (the two of us need look no more!)
But wait! It still gets more complicated. You can replace one part of the metaphor with another metaphor. That is to say, instead of just simply saying “ship of the desert” (camel), you can replace either ship or desert with yet another metaphor, making, for example “sea-steed of the desert”. “Steed of whale roads of the sand-sea”. or “Hay-grinder of the greenpeace-kitten earth-channels of the desert-asphalt sugar-free beach-found transparent salt-Coke.”
And all it “really” means is camel, in a more fun and interesting way. According to Snorri Sturluson, you can have up to six metaphors in a kenning, and although more are to be found in some poetry, they’re considered useless (Snorri is too dead for us to ask why). Add to this allusions to Nordic mythology, the gods etc. – Sif’s hair is gold, for example – and other particulars which you can’t really know without being well versed and read in this particular form, most of it is completely unreadable to a layman reader, and even a scholar must delve into it to solve these puzzlified mysteries. A lot of it’s actually easier for me to understand in English translations, having been modernized and interpreted, than it is in the original – although I was taught in elementary school that I could read it, and made to read it in high school (with thorough notes explaining every step, and it still was hard to get).
Oh, and yes, the word order could be totally messed up as well, making the piecing-together of base-word and determinants quite a challenge.
So when modernism finally, finally (hurrah! hurrah!) made it to Iceland, it’s no surprise that the people, so used to reading poetry they couldn’t understand, didn’t really react much to it as being difficult. Because when it comes to being hard to decipher, Ezra Pound and Steinn Steinarr can’t hold a candle to Snorri Sturluson.
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