From Iceland — Cannon Fodder

Cannon Fodder

Published April 16, 2010

I regularly read poetry to Aram, my infant son. He doesn’t “get it,” of course—no matter how I try to explain that he’s really not supposed to understand it but rather “sense it.” But he seems to like the rhythms of it anyways (and/or his father’s theatrical performance), so I keep at it. I mostly read from this famous little blue book called Skólaljóð (School Poetry), which contains all the national classics from Hallgrímur Pétursson to Steinn Steinarr—the Icelandic poetry canon as it was compiled in the middle of the last century. And as I find myself skipping more or less every poem that deals with God, Christ or Country (about two thirds of the book), in an attempt not to inadvertently indoctrinate my boy as a Christian nationalist, I become strangely aware of how Icelanders have really never taken the trouble to properly reevaluate their canon. There are a couple of newer books, where some oldies have been skipped, and a few newbies have been granted access—but mostly it’s the same ol’ same ol’. The same sombre tones, the same sombre attitudes (and when I say newbies, I mean mostly very old newbies, most of whom are dead already).

Some things are probably too sacrosanct. It’d be hard, for instance, to rouse support for changing the national anthem to something more up-to-date (I’d vote for Haukur Már Helgason’s Matarsiðir Sýslumannsins í Kópavogi (The Dining Habits of the District Magistrate in Kópavogur) or Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir’s Klof vega menn (Crotches Kill Men)). So we might have to keep Matthías Jochumsson’s Song of Praise—“Oh, God of our Country, Country of our God”—despite the fact that I wouldn’t read the horrendous thing to my son if it’d spawn peace on earth (well, okay, maybe then, but I want it in writing!).

But how about Bjarni Thorarensen? Hannes Hafstein? Do we really need this? How about just cutting the nationalism and the godliness in its entirety? I, for one, believe in the power of poetry, the power of words, of language—and I don’t think this drivel is doing us any good, nor has it ever. It rots your mind.

If one were to actually reduce Skólaljóð in this manner, what you’d be left with is nature and a few verses of Steinarr’s “The Time and the Water”. Now, nature is fine and all (and knocking Steinarr is a veritable crime), but nature and more nature might eventually get a little monotonous, believe it or not. So how about instead of us just picking out what isn’t popular anymore and inserting a few innocent examples from newer poets (which seems to have been the method of composition for anthologies thus far), we enter the archives and start picking out new interesting examples from the history of Icelandic poetry? Why, for instance, is there so little of Æri-Tobbi to be found? He’s hardly even mentioned in the five volume Bókmenntasaga Íslands (Iceland’s Literary History). This is a serious canonical mistake—“agara gagara” etcetera!

In this process we might also see about finding some more female poets. Reading anthologies one might think that women hardly ever wrote poetry back in the days—but to the contrary, poetry was very much a feminine sport and indeed most poets were women. Granted, not all of it got written down, and collecting the poetry of Icelandic women throughout the centuries is hardly unproblematic. But it is, truly and utterly, a cultural heritage (mostly) ignored (while we spend years debating whether or not sacrosanct male poet Jónas Hallgrímsson had syphilis, and whether saying so aloud is decent or not). And if there’s anything that gives Icelandic authorities a hardon, it’s the words “cultural heritage” (attention, scholars: free grant money!)
A cultural heritage is not an impermeable fact and it has never been. What we consider important to our “national image” (a dubious and difficult concept in and of itself), or to ourselves privately—what we make available so that I can read it to Aram—isn’t etched in stone. It’s written on paper and it can and should be reevaluated every other year or so. A cultural heritage is a construction like any other, we define it—it is not an otherwordly, uncontrollable entity which controls us—we control it. And so we should if, at all, we give a damn.

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