From Iceland — What’s The Deal With Icelandic Poetry?

What’s The Deal With Icelandic Poetry?

Published October 2, 2023

What’s The Deal With Icelandic Poetry?

We turned to a literature professor for answers

Icelandic poetry is alive and well – as a quick glance at the current cultural scene will tell you – and frankly, it is rather impressive how it has remained so vibrant and culturally relevant over the centuries. But how did poetry become such a leading art in Iceland and how has it stayed that way? What makes it so significant? We went to Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson, a professor of Icelandic literature at the University of Iceland, for some insight.

“We can trace the beginnings to the Eddic poems, of course,” Sveinn says. “It’s not that far removed from today’s verse, really. The Eddic poems are quite simple, their diction is simple, they’re image rich, they don’t have complicated poetic forms. We’re not in the same spot, historically or culturally speaking, but if you think of poetry as an expression of feeling, I think that the Eddic poems are certainly like some of the things done today. You get a kind of prolonged echo of the Eddic poems nowadays, I think, whether or not the young poets are reading Eddic poetry or not, it’s not so dissimilar.”

Learning and reciting poetry has been a very long and well established custom in Iceland even before people were able to record much of anything in written form. Sveinn points out that, “Eddic poetry was definitely an oral tradition, it was not written down until approximately the 13th century. We don’t know exactly how old the oldest Eddic poems are, but they might precede the 13th century by a few hundred years. People had been memorizing these poems and reciting them, regardless of literacy.” And even when reading and writing began to establish itself, first among chieftains and clerics (aka those who had the means), the oral tradition continued on in the meantime, aiding the resilience of the art form.

Apart from expressing oneself emotionally in verse, another strand of Icelandic poetry also served as public proclamation in ye olden days via so called dróttkvæði (skaldic “court poetry” for a basic translation). “An Icelandic poet at a Norwegian king’s court praises the king in poetry,” Sveinn explains. “It’s kind of like a eulogy. It’s not so private and has more to do with prestige and what the king did and things like that.”

One of the key aspects of Icelandic poetry is thus connection on both personal and functional levels. Not to mention the role it played in reaffirming a cultural identity when it became time to declare independence.

“Poetry is a vehicle for many things,” Sveinn explains. “In the 19th century you get very patriotic poems where the country is described in certain terms, so it’s almost like an official declaration instead of a personal one. You get: Okay, this is what Iceland is like, this is what we should feel as Icelanders when we go around the country, so you have this other aspect where the poem is almost like a news hour.” Or perhaps the rhyming TedTalks of the time, combining social movements with personal impressions. And that aspect is still going strong today, taking in worldly and linguistic developments.

“I’m just so happy that young people are writing poetry in their mother tongue,” Sveinn says. “They are very adept at writing verses and lyrics, both in Icelandic and English, of course. I think it’s important not only to look upon poetry itself as this great vehicle but also on the creative use of words in various other forms, say in popular music or something like that. Obviously it’s not only the outpouring of emotions but they’re also very much concerned with environmental matters and the state of the world. Icelandic poetry is alive and kicking.”

Catch up with our ongoing Ask An Expert series. We’ve covered a lot of ground to help you better understand Iceland from all sides.

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