From Iceland — The Icelandic Poetry Community

The Icelandic Poetry Community

Published June 9, 2010

A reader recently asked, by way of my editor, that I share a few words on the Icelandic poetry community. My first response was a long-winded, athletic “boooooooring” while I rolled my eyes and pretended to gag. 

For a while I was very outspoken in my criticism of Icelandic poetry. I found it self-centred, heavily established, living in isolation from foreign poetry (as well as younger poetry), over-emphasizing metaphor, homogenous, amazingly critical of variation (or fun) and having a snotty superiority complex justified that it justified with its so-called “modesty”.

“The sheer power of my quietude will crush the world”, the poets seemed to say, while reciting their poetry to nearly no one in a suburban library somewhere off the map. “That’ll show’em!”

But eventually I more or less gave up on commenting on Icelandic poetry. It didn’t seem to be doing anyone any good. They got mad (in their own quiet way) and I got madder (in my a little less quiet way) and we all would give each other the evil eye when passing on Laugavegur. I didn’t learn, they didn’t learn and almost everything remained the same. So I started focusing on things that did interest me rather than trying to play a draconian pedagogue to the Icelandic poetry community.

The fact is most Icelandic poetry doesn’t interest me. But then most Danish poetry doesn’t interest me either. What I’ve read of contemporary Arab poetry I find horribly sentimental. Most American poetry (that I’ve read) is emotional drivel. Come to think of it I like “scenes of poetries” much more than I like “nationalities of poetries”. I like language-inspired poetry—from Gertrude Stein and Kurt Schwitters to illuminated manuscripts, flarf, langpo, cut-ups, sound poetry, visual poetry, generative poetry. I like poetry that’s simultaneously intelligent, amusing and athletic. And I like poetry communities that feel like communities and not sectarian dogmas—be it the dogma of one ruling class (as in Iceland) or the multiple dogmas in a dog-eat-dog world of a thousand genres (as in the USA).

Of course there’s loads of interesting poetry happening in Iceland—though it doesn’t surface much or generate interest with the bigger publishing houses who only publish poetry written by people who have already made a name for themselves, either as poets publishing with smaller publishing houses or as something else entirely.

Take Jón Örn Loðmfjörð, for instance, who’s been writing poetry machines on the internet for some years now. He’s publishing his first book in a few days—Gengismunur—a generated mash-up of the infamous nine volume Report (on the crisis/collapse). Or Ragnhildur Jóhanns, who recently published one of the most beautiful books of visual poetry to be published in Iceland, ever—called Semsé. This year the Nýhil International Poetry Festival will be held for the sixth consecutive year. Anton Helgi Jónsson has started publishing again, after a lengthy break. Ísak Harðarson’s last book was wonderful. And so on and so forth.

But none of this changes the fact that a good poem—let alone a good book of poems—is still an exception in Iceland. As it is in all the other countries of the world.

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